Bioenzymatic Fuel Cells Turn Natural Substrates into Electricity

Article By : Anne-Françoise Pelé

France-based BeFC has developed a paper-based, ultra-thin, and portable biofuel cell system that uses biological catalysts instead of chemical or expensive metal catalysts to convert natural substrates (such as glucose and oxygen) into electricity...

The reduced weight, size, and power consumption of lithium-ion batteries have made portable electronics ubiquitous, but the efficiency gains are tempered by safety risks and environmental concerns. Those issues are driving companies to search for cost-effective and sustainable alternatives.

France-based BeFC (Bio-enzymatic Fuel Cells) has developed a paper-based, ultra-thin, and portable biofuel cell system that uses biological catalysts instead of chemical or expensive metal catalysts to convert natural substrates (such as glucose and oxygen) into electricity. The startup’s solution, which unanimously won the Leyton Sustainable Startup Challenge at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, exploits enzymes, carbon electrodes, and paper microfluidics to provide a more sustainable way of powering portable and disposable electronic devices.

In an interview with EE Times Europe, Jules Hammond, CEO and co-founder, and Andrew Gross, senior scientist and co-founder, described BeFC’s genesis, mission, and ambitions.

What is the story behind the creation of BeFC? Was it time to find a serious alternative to lithium-ion batteries?

Jules Hammond

Jules Hammond: BeFC is a spin-out of SATT Linksium, based in Grenoble, at the heart of the Alps. We were founded at the start of 2020. Our vision is to generate electricity using papers and enzymes to create a sustainable and eco-friendly energy solution for low-power electronics. The founders identified a growing trend toward point-of-care and wearable medical devices.

Examples include digital pregnancy/ovulation tests and continuous glucose monitors for the management of diabetes. The problem: These devices are typically powered by lithium coin- or button-cell batteries, with an average of 97% of all miniature battery chemistries ending up in landfills.

The company’s bio-inspired, paper-based bio-enzymatic fuel cells use enzymes to convert glucose and oxygen into energy. They use natural materials and contain no metal. Being paper-based, they are ultra-thin and flexible — perfect for wearable electronics.

Leaders in biofuel cell technology, the Biosystèmes Electrochimiques et Analytiques (BEA) team at Université Grenoble Alpes had originally worked on implanted devices with the intention of powering pacemakers and other biomimetic electronics. In fact, the team of Dr. Serge Cosnier was the first to implant a biofuel cell into an animal back in 2010. However, with the extreme costs and long timescales associated with implantable medical device regulation, under the guidance of Dr. Michael Holzinger, the team decided to pivot toward powering more conventional electronic devices.

Can you explain what makes your technology unique and disruptive? What are the benefits of exploiting bio-enzymes?

Andrew Gross

Andrew Gross: Our core technology uses biological catalysts to generate electricity from the electro-enzymatic oxidation of sugars and the reduction of oxygen. Unlike conventional batteries and fuel cells, which use rare or toxic metal catalysts, our devices use enzymes for sustainable and efficient electricity generation. Enzymes are entirely natural and abundant, but they also offer remarkable selectivity and high catalytic activity under mild conditions, without the need for toxic solvents or additives.

BeFC’s battery is claimed to convert every fluid without exception or limitation?

Gross: Biofuel cells generate energy by conversion of a fuel and oxidant. This is very different from a battery, which delivers energy that has been stored in the device. Owing to the exquisite properties of enzymes, and our proprietary paper filtration technology, our devices can operate in practically any type of water and even in biological fluids such as serum and urine. The latter [capability] is a unique feature that will allow us to release entirely new products in the health-care market that were not possible before with traditional batteries.

How about energy storage?

Gross: We often get asked about energy storage. Our biofuel cells do also benefit from an electrochemical pseudo-capacitance phenomenon. This feature allows us to deliver high bursts of power over short, millisecond time periods with rapid recovery times, assisted by the electro-enzymatic conversion process.

A bio-enzymatic fuel cell (Image: BeFC)

The fuel cell is “miniature.”To what extent?

Gross: In recent years, we have made significant breakthroughs in device miniaturization. We have transitioned from rather bulky benchtop prototypes1,2 to ultra-thin biofuel cells. We can now produce 1 cm2 devices that are only a few hundred microns and deliver several milliwatts. And thanks to our flexible paper-based technology, we can produce biofuel cells in a wide range of sizes and formats to meet customer needs. Scaling up represents one of our big challenges. We are now working with strategic partners and have a specialist in paper industrialization looking to join the BeFC team in the coming months.BeFC has identified the growth potential of the internet of things. Which markets are you more specifically targeting?

Hammond: Medical applications are particularly interesting because conventional batteries complicate disposal and increase cost, with incineration being the preferred method. Another interesting market is in packaging and logistics, where manufacturers are looking to integrate a power source to produce an IoT/connected solution.

These biofuel cells could potentially be used in sensors and microprocessors for disposable devices, but not onlyfor those. Right?

Hammond: Regardless of the market, BeFC offers a sustainable and environmentally friendly energy solution for any low-power application. Capable of producing several milliwatts per square centimeter, they can power microcontrollers, flash memory,and sensors, periodically transmitting the data via low-power wireless communication protocols (for example, BLE, ANT, LoRa, and Sigfox).

When can we expect to see the first end products implementing your batteries available in the market?

Hammond: The company is working with several high-profile companies looking to reduce their environmental impact and simplify their disposal and recycling processes. Products containing BeFC technology are expected to hit the market by Q1 2022.

“The goal is for bio-enzymatic fuel cells to become the default choice for disposable and low-power electronics,” said Hammond. (Image: BeFC)

What are the company’s short-term plans? Will you need funds to make them happen?

Hammond: BeFC is in the process of closing a VC seed round, required to scale up production toward 50,000 units per day and instate quality assurance processes. By the end of 2020, the team expects to complete the design of the production facility ready for pilot production trials. The company currently consists of six core team members, with four highly experienced advisers, but looks to grow to around 20 in the next few years before commissioning a second production facility in the U.S. for 2024.

How does BeFC see the future unfolding?

Hammond: The company’s long-term goal is for its bio-enzymatic fuel cells to become the default choice for disposable and low-power electronics. However, this will only be possible with the continued support of forward-thinking companies, electronic-device designers, and end users, summarized by the company’s tagline: “Together, help us power the future with nature.”

This article was first published on EETimes Europe


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