Can electric eels power my car?


Eel power! Dorling Kindersley/Getty

Imagine yourself blazing down the highway in an aquarium-powered dragster sloshing and sparking with electrically-charged fish. We've all dreamed of the electric eel automobile, but is it possible?

Just to refresh, the South American Electrophoruses can dish out electric bursts to the tune of 600-650 volts - roughly five times the shock you'd get from a wall socket. As you can see in the video at the bottom of this page, that's enough to light up a Christmas tree -- but only in the short bursts required to stun prey. It's not the sort of output capable of charging a car, house or a mechanized battle suit for world-conquering fish warriors.

And yet... the dream of the electric eel racer is not all that crazy.

The fish generates a current by pumping charged potassium and sodium ions out of its special muscle cells. The negatively charged ions inside the cells increase until it opens just the right channels to cause electrons to flood out of the cell. Quite a shock ensues.

And how might we manipulate this reaction? Well, researchers from Yale University and the National Institute of Standards and Technology envision synthetic eel cells with improved energy efficiency bundled together in a bio-battery. We're not quite to the point where we can build artificial versions of complex cells, but the researchers have created a simplified battery based on the principles of the electric eel: two artificial cells, each containing a salt solution within a lipid wall. If the salt concentrations are different, then poking the cells produces a slight charge.

One day this technology may power implanted medical devices or even wearable, near-organic electronics -- maybe even your car. But for now, however, you'll have to make due with a boring, everyday electric car.


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.