Biofuel cells provide long-lasting power, potential military
Biofuel cells, using enzymes to trigger chemical reactions
to produce electricity for long periods, might soon power
remote sensors for the United States military.
Akermin Inc., a biocatalyst technologies company, has
developed a biofuel cell in the lab that has generated
power continuously for more than three years. This new
technology lasts two to four times longer than high-performance
The biofuel cell technology, first invented at Saint
Louis University, uses enzymes that replace the metal
catalyst in conventional cathodes to create electricity.
“We employ naturally occurring enzymes that we immobilize
in our proprietary polymer that stabilizes them for the
reaction condition of the fuel cell,” says Nick Akers,
founder and director of business development of the Creve
Coeur, Missouri-based firm.
“Other biofuel cell work has demonstrated enzyme operating
times of days to weeks, whereas our unique immobilization
technology has demonstrated over three years, and counting,
enzyme stability for the reaction to generate electricity
Enzymes, which have been used as catalysts for years
in a variety of industrial processes, react with the
fuel at the electrode’s surface to generate electricity.
However, enzymes usually exhibit a short life span when
exposed to harsh chemical environments and high temperatures.
Akermin’s stabilization technology solves this problem.
Akermin developed an enzyme stabilization technology
using a protective polymer structure to extend the operating
life of the biofuel cell. The technology immobilizes
the enzyme so it can be attached to a support structure
that does not inhibit enzyme contact with the substrate,
yet protects the enzyme from harsh elements.
“The key barrier to commercial viability has been the
instability of enzymes in a fuel cell,” says Akers, co-inventor
of the stabilized enzyme biocatalyst system.
By immobilizing the enzyme at an electrode surface with
Akermin’s polymer, the enzyme activity has been retained
to continuously oxidize the fuel for over three years.
Without the stabilizing technology the enzyme remained
active for only hours to days.
Biofuel cells differ from traditional fuel cells. With
biofuel cells, the catalyst uses enzymes to directly
react with the fuel, rather than using precious metals.
The enzymes are naturally occurring and are renewable.
Enzymes are also less expensive than metals.
Akermin is targeting the wireless sensor market for both
industrial and military uses, where customers seek a
low-wattage, long-lasting energy source for unattended
devices. Examples include sensor devices for perimeter
and border security. Akermin also hopes to enhance the
value of food, pharmaceutical and chemical production.
The company is in the process of sampling an advanced
prototype with qualified customers. Akermin also received
an $860,000 contract in June from the U.S. Army’s Communications-Electronics
Research Development and Engineering Center in Aberdeen
Proving Ground, Maryland. The award is for the development
of a stabilized enzyme biofuel cell for use in unattended
ground sensor applications for the military.
“Biofuel cell technology has several advantages for unattended
ground sensor applications,” says Elizabeth Ferry, fuel
cell team leader at CERDEC. In addition to the long run-time
and using enzyme catalysts rather than precious metals,
the technology is non-toxic, which allows the sensor
to be disposable and left in place without recovery.
“The use of unattended sensor technologies for remote
battlefield applications has greatly increased,” Ferry
says. “Unattended ground sensors provide valuable information
to the soldier and an increased level of situational
awareness on the battlefield.”
The unattended sensors can exist in various sizes and
forms, contain several sensor technologies and can report
information on or about different types of targets, Ferry
says. Plus, the longer these devices can be powered without
the need to return to change the battery or power source,
the lower the risk is to military personnel.
Akermin is hoping for further military contracts to produce
more stabilized enzyme biofuel cells. CERDEC will consider
more contracts once the first 12-month process is completed.
“If Akermin is successful, we hope to complete a significant
amount of government testing and identify a suitable
path forward,” Ferry says.
Akermin has raised almost $9 million since its start
in 2004. Barry Blackwell, one of the first investors
in the firm as part of the St. Louis Arch Angels Network,
has been on the firm’s board since inception. Members
of the Arch Angels provide financing for early-stage
companies based in the St. Louis region with high growth
Blackwell, who is now Akermin’s president and chief executive
officer, says further financing is needed to commercialize
the company’s technology. He hopes to have commercial
products available for the sensor market by late next
“We are able to differentiate ourselves for the product
runtime versus alternative power sources, whether it
is incumbent batteries or other fuel cells,” Blackwell
says. “We continue to expand our development opportunities
with our mobilization technology.“
Blackwell says that Akermin plans to build upon its mobilization
technology, expanding beyond biofuel cells in the future.
He says he hopes to make more announcements about further
opportunities in the fourth quarter of this year.
Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital, a venture capital firm
in Vancouver that focuses on clean-energy technology,
invested in Akermin in 2005. “We felt Akermin had a very
interesting platform technology,” says Mike Walkinshaw,
“Our experience in clean energy technologies indicated
that the enzyme encapsulation technology will dramatically
improve the performance of enzymes in a variety of functions.
Lifetime of the enzyme in the application is the key
variable and it is where Akermin has shown a significant
advantage over comparable technologies.”