Pacemakers may be getting a power makeover.

The implantable pacemaker, which has helped extend millions of lives since its invention nearly 60 years ago, may be getting a new makeover. First came smaller and smaller units, longer battery life units, then came a wireless version. These small pacemakers are placed inside the heart via a catheter through the leg. But a team of engineers at the University of Buffalo, say that their version of the pacemaker may be the best advance yet.

Fig. 1 – A heart monitor measures simulated heartbeats created by the shake table the piezoelectric device is being tested on.
They are developing technology to make these devices battery-free, powered by the heart itself. The team’s advancement is based upon a piezoelectric system that converts vibrational energy—created inside the chest by each heartbeat—into electricity to power the pacemaker. (See Figure 1)

How It Works

“Essentially, we’re creating technology that will allow pacemakers to be powered by the very heart that they are regulating,” said M. Amin Karami, PhD, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, who is leading the research.

The technology may eliminate the medical risks, costs, and inconvenience of having a battery replacement every 5 to 12 years for millions of people worldwide.

The idea of heart-powered pacemakers came to Karami after doing PhD work on piezoelectric applications for unmanned aerial vehicles and bridges. He wanted to apply that knowledge to the human body. The heart was an obvious choice because of its relative strength and constant motion.

Karami initially designed a flat piezoelectric structure for a conventional pacemaker. A prototype generated enough power to keep the pacemaker running at a range of 7 to 700 beats per minute. With the development of wireless pacemakers, however, he has revamped the design to accommodate the smaller, tube-shaped device.

Karami, who is already talking to device-makers, is building the new prototype and expects to have animal tests done within two years. From there, it should be ready for human trials and, eventually, approval from the FDA.

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