Adenosine triphosphate: you might recognize this chemical compound from your high school or college biology class, or perhaps its acronym ATP will ring a bell. The bottom line is that you can’t live without it. This is the molecule that takes energy from where it is generated (by metabolizing food) and delivers it to the cells where it is needed. Researchers are looking for ways to harness energy harvesting to power wearable — and implantable — devices, but most of these are based on using mechanical or light energy. But what if we could use the chemical energy of ATP to power electronics?

That’s exactly what researchers at Columbia Engineering have done. According to a paper published in Nature Communications, they have come up with a hybrid device that couples an ion energy pump driven by ATP with a CMOS electronic integrated circuit (IC). The “biocell” takes ATP and produces an electrical current that can be used to power the IC. The researchers describe their project as a “macroscale version,” built in a scale of “several millimeters.” While this may seem small to start with, the idea is that devices could be made small enough to implant within individual cells.

One of the interesting sidelights of this project is that while the technology is designed to identify and use ATP, the same approach could be used to detect other complex molecules. This could lead to the development of a digital device that could “smell” or “taste” specific chemicals, which would be useful in identifying the presence of specific biomarkers in a patient’s body. The possible uses of self-powered devices of this sort are practically endless.