Engineers invent a way to beam power to medical chips deep inside the body

May 19, 2014, Stanford University
A batteryless electrostimulator next to medicinal pills for size comparison. The new powering method allows the device to be wirelessly powered deep inside the body, in locations such as the heart or brain. Credit: Austin Yee.

A Stanford electrical engineer has invented a way to wirelessly transfer power deep inside the body, and then use this power to run tiny electronic medical devices such as pacemakers, nerve stimulators, or new sensors and gadgets yet to be developed.

The discoveries reported today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) culminate years of efforts by Ada Poon, an assistant professor of electrical engineering, to eliminate the bulky batteries and clumsy recharging systems that prevent from being more widely used.

The technology could provide a path toward a new type of medicine that allows physicians to treat diseases with electronics rather than drugs.

"We need to make these devices as small as possible to more easily implant them deep in the body and create new ways to treat illness and alleviate pain," said Poon.

The article describes how Poon's team built an electronic device smaller than a grain of rice that acts as a pacemaker. It can be powered or recharged wirelessly by holding a about the size of a credit card above the device, outside of the body.

The central discovery is an engineering breakthrough that creates a new type of transfer that can safely penetrate deep inside the body, using roughly the same power as a cell phone. As Poon writes in her article, an independent laboratory that tests cell phones found that her system fell well below the exposure levels for human safety.

Her lab has tested this wireless charging system in a pig and used it to power a tiny pacemaker in a rabbit. She is currently preparing the system for testing in humans. Should such tests be approved and prove successful, it would still take several years to satisfy the safety and efficacy requirements for using this wireless charging system in commercial medical devices.

Poon believes this discovery will spawn a new generation of programmable microimplants – sensors to monitor vital functions deep inside the body; electrostimulators to change neural signals in the brain; drug delivery systems to apply medicines directly to affected areas.

Subtitle: Alternatives to drug therapies

William Newsome, director of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute, said Poon's work created the potential to develop "electroceutical" treatments as alternatives to drug therapies.

A batteryless electrostimulator next to a US penny for size comparison. The new powering method allows the device to be wirelessly powered deep inside the body, in locations such as the heart or brain. Credit: Austin Yee.

Newsome, who was not involved in Poon's experiments but is familiar with her work, said such treatments could be more effective than drugs for some disorders because electroceutical approaches would implant devices near specific brain circuits to directly modulate their activity. Drugs, by comparison, act globally throughout the brain.

"To make electroceuticals practical, devices must be miniaturized, and ways must be found to power them wirelessly, deep in the brain, many centimeters from the surface," said Newsome, the Harman Family Provostial Professor of Neurobiology at Stanford, adding: "The Poon lab has solved a significant piece of the puzzle for safely powering implantable microdevices, paving the way for new innovation in this field."

Subtitle: How it works

The article describes the work of an interdisciplinary research team including John Ho and Alexander Yeh, graduate students in Poon's lab; Yuji Tanabe, a visiting scholar, and Ramin Beygui, M.D., an Associate Professor of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the Stanford University Medical Center.

The crux of the discovery involves a new way to control electromagnetic waves inside the body.

Electromagnetic waves pervade the universe. We use them every day when we broadcast signals from giant radio towers; cook in microwave ovens; or use an electric toothbrush that recharges wirelessly in a special cradle next to the bathroom sink.

Before Poon's discovery, there was a clear divide between the two main types of electromagnetic waves in everyday use, called far-field and near-field waves.

Far-field waves, like those broadcast from radio towers, can travel over long distances. But when they encounter biological tissue, they either reflect off the body harmlessly or get absorbed by the skin as heat. Either way, far-field have been ignored as a potential wireless power source for medical devices.

This animation shows the magnetic field used in the new midfield power transfer method. The source is located on the top above different layers of tissue. The white line separates air and tissue; blue lines separate different types of tissue (skin, fat, muscle, bone, and heart). Credit: John Ho.

Near-field waves can be safely used in wireless power systems. Some current medical devices like hearing implants use near-field technology. But their limitation is implied by the name: they can only transfer power over short distances, which tends to keep such devices close to the skin and limits their usefulness deep inside the body.

What Poon did was to blend the safety of near-field waves with the reach of far-field waves. She accomplished this by taking advantage of a simple fact – waves travel differently when they come into contact with different materials such as air, water or biological tissue.

For instance, when you put your ear on a railroad track, you can hear the vibration of the wheels long before the train itself because sound waves travel faster and further through metal than they do through air.

With this principle in mind, Poon designed a power source that generated a special type of near-field wave. When this special wave moved from air to skin, it changed its characteristics in a way that enabled it to propagate – just like the sound waves through the train track.

She called this new method mid-field wireless transfer.

In the PNAS experiment, Poon used her midfield transfer system to send power directly to tiny medical implants. But it is possible to build tiny batteries into microimplants, and then recharge these batteries wirelessly using the midfield system. This is not possible with today's technologies.

"With this method, we can safely transmit to tiny implants in organs like the heart or brain, well beyond the range of current near-field systems," says Ho, a graduate student in Poon's lab and co-author on the paper.

Explore further: A millimeter-scale, wirelessly powered cardiac device

More information: Wireless power transfer to deep-tissue microimplants, PNAS,

Related Stories

A millimeter-scale, wirelessly powered cardiac device

August 31, 2012

A team of engineers at Stanford has demonstrated the feasibility of a super-small, implantable cardiac device that gets its power not from batteries, but from radio waves transmitted from outside the body. The implanted device ...

Key factors for wireless power transfer

July 31, 2013

What happens to a resonant wireless power transfer system in the presence of complex electromagnetic environments, such as metal plates? A team of researchers explored the influences at play in this type of situation, and ...

Wireless power transfer achieved at five-meter distance

April 17, 2014

The way electronic devices receive their power has changed tremendously over the past few decades, from wired to non-wired. Users today enjoy all kinds of wireless electronic gadgets including cell phones, mobile displays, ...

Recommended for you

After a reset, Сuriosity is operating normally

February 23, 2019

NASA's Curiosity rover is busy making new discoveries on Mars. The rover has been climbing Mount Sharp since 2014 and recently reached a clay region that may offer new clues about the ancient Martian environment's potential ...

Study: With Twitter, race of the messenger matters

February 23, 2019

When NFL player Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice, the ensuing debate took traditional and social media by storm. University of Kansas researchers have ...

Solving the jet/cocoon riddle of a gravitational wave event

February 22, 2019

An international research team including astronomers from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has combined radio telescopes from five continents to prove the existence of a narrow stream of material, ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (1) May 19, 2014
Near field and far field are approximations used for estimating antenna patterns. The actual waves emitted from the antenna are nothing more or less than those governed by Maxwell's Laws. This article makes it sound as if these waves are different.

What these researchers have done is to arrive at estimates that determine how an EM wave of a given wavelength behaves in the human body. It is a useful achievement, but only if other people understand what is going on...
not rated yet May 19, 2014
Near field is significantly different than far field. I've seen quite a few different methods on how to characterize the near field. All have issues. The electric filed and magnetic field decouple in the near-field region as well as difficulty in separating the source from the sink. Power transfer is orders of magnitude higher in the near-field (reactive)region versus the farfield (radiative) region.

That all being said, I'm not sure what to make of "medium field" claims without reading the paper.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.