In what could herald a new age of assistive technology for those with hearing impairments, a team of engineers and scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a prototype mechanical device that uses a natural power source located inside the ear.
According to an MIT press release, the group, led by Konstantina Stankovic, a surgeon from the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, built a computer chip that is just over a third the area of an American penny. It draws its energy from electricity created by the ear from the vibrations in the eardrum. Once this natural charge is made, the brain takes this power and uses it to send signals throughout the body. Realizing the potential opportunities that could be derived from this source, Stankovic and her team sought to harvest it in a safe and practical way.
"In the past, people have thought that the space where the high potential is located is inaccessible for implantable devices, because potentially it's very dangerous if you encroach on it,” she was quoted as saying. "We have known for 60 years that this battery exists and that it's really important for normal hearing, but nobody has attempted to use this battery to power useful electronics."
Guinea pigs were used to test the effectiveness of the system. Despite the harvesting of electricity to power the chip, the test animals suffered no hearing loss as a result of the implant.
Another intriguing aspect of the project was that because of the relatively low charge this "natural battery" creates, the team had to find a way to make their prototype operate more efficiently. The solution was to build a power conversion mechanism inside the chip that, over time, would build up a reserve that the device could use to operate. The device the team tested on the guinea pigs became self-sustaining once an initial jolt was applied to the device.
MIT's accomplishment could mean that one day, people who suffer from hearing loss can utilize an energy-efficient hearing device. While still in its infancy, this initiative could change the lives of many individuals for the better some day.