Tiny Turbine Inside Arteries Could Power Pacemakers—and Cause Blood Clots

By Valerie Ross | May 17, 2011 4:10 pm

What’s the News: Tiny turbines that fit inside human arteries could produce enough energy to power pacemakers and other implantable devices, according to preliminary tests by Swiss researchers presented at a conference earlier this month. The turbine would essentially serve as a tiny generator, gathering power from blood rushing by after it’s been pumped by the heart. This power source could be a boon for medical devices that currently require batteries or cables for power. Unfortunately, the turbulence these turbines create would likely cause blood clots, which could lead to heart attack or stroke—an extremely dangerous side effect that makes having to replace a battery not seem so bad.

How the Heck:

  • The idea is to harvest a part of the energy the heart is already putting out. “The heart produces around 1 or 1.5 watts of hydraulic power,” mechanical engineer Alois Pfenniger, one of the researchers, told IEEE Spectrum. “A pacemaker only needs around 10 microwatts.”The researchers tested three pre-made mini-turbines in a thin tube about the size of the internal thoracic artery, which doctors often use in coronary bypasses and other surgeries.
  • The most efficient turbine they tested produced about 800 microwatts, or 80 times what an average pacemaker needs to run.

Uh Oh:

  • As the turbines spin, they create turbulence. This can cause blood to coagulate, which could trigger potentially life-threatening blood clots. If these turbines are going to power medical devices, the benefits (not having to change a battery or connect a cable to another power source) have to outweigh the risks (dangerous blood clots). This side effect is a serious hurdle to any clinical use.
  • The researchers may come up with a new design or improve on an entirely new one to cut down on turbulence, running computer simulations to test out different models.
  • Once the turbulence issue is addressed, there may be other challenges to putting turbines into real arteries, including long-term stability and reliability.

What’s the Context:

  • If they make it to the clinic, these turbines could be used to power pacemakers, drug delivery pumps, electrodes, and medical monitoring devices.
  • Other researcher groups are testing out different ways to glean power from the circulatory system, with mixed results. One approach gets energy from changes in blood pressure generated by the heartbeat, but doesn’t yet produce enough power to run a pacemaker;  another converts mechanical to electrical energy with a transducer placed next to a moving organ.

Reference: “Human Energy Harvesting by Intravascular Turbine Generators” (pdf of conference program). Presented at the 6th International Conference on Microtechnologies in Medicine and Biology, May 4, 2011.

Image: Alois Pfenniger, ARTORG Cardiovascular Engineering, University of Bern

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Technology
  • Brian Too

    I’ve heard that many implantable mechanical devices are very rough on the cells floating in the blood. Lots of designs can’t get the necessary approvals for just this reason.

    When I hear “turbine”, I think “turbine blades” and I mentally see all kinds of red & white blood cells, platelets and all the rest getting chopped up as they go through the device.

    Perhaps if they put a filter on the intake for the device so only plasma was going through the turbine?

  • Kyle

    I can see this being a very important new field emerging in the next few decades, the whole harnassing the energy of our bodies. Very interesting and exciting, sadly very dangerous (at least as of now) as well. On a side note, apparently the Discover forums have become a public forum for advertising products as well?

  • Kin

    Uhm, seems like we have less important places in our body that we can stick some random piezo element that gathers energy from some flexing motion. I admit, the micro turbines still sound epically cool.

  • Rich Langsford

    It might require slightly longer leads from the turbine to the device, but why not mount it in the urinary canal? If it can generate 800 microwatts at bloodstream flow rates, I’d think it would do even better at bladder pressures. Sure it’s not a 24/7 source (hopefully), but if one of these generates 80 times more power than a pacemaker needs, the extra energy could be stored in a battery or capacitor and then meted out as needed. I imagine a bank of these turbines could be implanted if more energy was required, and no problem with clotting.

  • Deacon.James

    Human Energy Harvesting by Intravascular Turbine Generators

    Sounds like we are talking about the Matrix movies :)

  • Keith

    We know waves can generate electricity. Could there not be, instead of an inside turbo machine, a pressure tube is implanted. Smooth insides filled with a fluid connected to an isolated turbo . The heart pressures the isolated implant fluid in waves and the waves drive the turbo for power outside of the circulatory system?

  • Jay Fox

    Hey moderator: BAN BRAINETICS from this site!

  • Lars A.

    Right. So a Pacemaker will pump blood that will power a turbine that will power the Pacemaker?
    Quick, to the Perpetuum-mobile!
    Why has nobody thought about this before, it’s pure genius!

  • Eric

    the pacemaker doesn’t pump the blood, the heart does. The pacemaker only tells the heart when to contract.

    I just want to know where I plug in my iPhone.

  • azbearhuntr

    Brian Too…You wouldnt be able to put a cell filter in front of the device to only allow plasma to pass as it would quickly clog causing more problems than a random clot, in fact if you pile up blood cells in a filter you are actually making a clot.

  • Stuartg

    @9. Lars A.

    The pacemaker gives a tiny electrical shock to the myocardium that initiates the contraction of the heart.

    The energy required for contraction of the myocardium is derived from ATP and the normal biochemical processes of the body.

    No need to consider breaking the laws of physics!

  • Brian Too

    @11. azbearhuntr,

    You know, I wondered about that too.

  • AEHall

    I viewed the comments intending to add a suggestion, then saw Rich Langsford had already posted a very similar idea. I agree that an alternative body fluid system could power an internal vessel turbine, and also thought of urinary tract, as fluid having left kidney undergone the filtration process would not matter if it underwent unavoidable consistency alteration as much as blood which would be circulated in an altered state due to possible turbine injury. I do have other plausible suggestions, but in view of the fact I would prefer to hold the patents on any resultant product I suggest any persons interested contact my email, halann4@aol.com
    (Incidently, am a graduate lawyer, with knowledge of human genetics, medicine, and psychobiology, who has previously worked in research.)

  • http://www.eklines.com N T Nair

    Unless the person is dead, there are umpteen body movements which can be harnessed to produce energy to power pacemekers, pumping devices etc. In the place of 800 microwatts possible from the turbine proposed, much more could be tapped from body movements, without side effects, the bane of medicines or medical devices.

  • Gridlock

    So… the question on everyone’s mind…

  • Mac McFarland

    Since the heart contracts and expands quite a lot, wrapping a liquid-filled tube around it to cause these pulsations to be transferred to the contained fluid would certainly provide enough energy pickup to drive a small turbine or (better and more reliable) piezoelectric transducer to provide a few tens of microwatts. In fact, I suspect that such a tube wrapped around the aorta would suffice to power a pacemaker. This would be far less intrusive than anything involving the penetration of an artery, to say nothing of the disturbance to the blood stream itself.

  • Matt B.

    “The researchers tested three pre-made mini-turbines”
    As opposed to … ?

    Anyway, if it’s producing 80 times as much energy as needed, angle the blades so it doesn’t spin as fast, and there would be a lot less turbulence.

  • geeta

    Matt B in #17 has a good point (and a good catch as well – scientific terms, paistakingly thought of to clarify some point, can overlook a completely misleading meaning of the term sometimes).
    However, depending on the heart-beat-dependent power supply to a device that is meant to regularize heart beat sounds a bit risky. How would putting in accessories to re-charge the batteries (either by direct leads or by some kind of induction process, given that the power requirement is very small) measure up? Not quite the same, but perhaps less risky and more reliable.

  • geeta

    Clearly, Jay Fox of #7, who has the same comment on seemingly all Discover article pages that he is on, needs to google up some entertainment sites instead, to get over his complex

  • Dave in Calif

    Harness the normal expansion of the chest during breathing.




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