How to power all your devices – using your own body

Research Lives: Dr Xinxin Xiao, post-doctoral researcher at Technical University of Denmark

Congratulations on winning the Royal Irish Academy’s Kathleen Lonsdale Chemistry Prize for your PhD – what was that project about?

Thank you. My PhD thesis entitled "Development of nanoporous gold based bioelectrodes" was conducted in the University of Limerick (UL), under the supervision of Prof Edmond Magner. My project focused on the use of nanoporous gold-based biofuel cells to generate electricity from body fluids. Such cells are of interest in the development of implantable and wearable power sources for bioelectronic devices.

So this would mean our own bodies could power wearable devices?

Yes, I have successfully demonstrated several prototype cells, including self-powered pulse generators mimicking those used in pacemakers, contact lens-supported flexible biofuel cells which can generate power from lactate present in tears, and a self-powered drug release system that can enable controllable and on-demand drug delivery.


I like the idea of harnessing power from tears. How did you get interested in the area of nanotechnology and health?

Health is an eternal theme of mankind. In the small village where I am originally from in China, the most respected person is the country doctor who takes care of people's health. Although I didn't get the chance to train to be a doctor, I chose to do health-related research during my Masters study, typically a three-year course in China. When my senior colleagues demonstrated to me the preparation and testing of nanomaterials, I was fascinated by the extraordinary properties of these materials and I learned to prepare nanoporous gold and tried to fix glucose oxidase on it. This allowed me to fabricate a glucose biosensor for blood glucose monitoring, which is very important for diabetics.

Why did you choose to go to the University of Limerick?

I read a very inspiring research paper on nanoporous gold from Edmond's group. I wrote to Edmond and expressed my will to do PhD study in his group. Thanks to the Irish Research Council Postgraduate Scholarship, I became a PhD student in UL, and, as a fan of The Cranberries, I felt grateful and delighted when I realised that the band originated from Limerick.

You are in Denmark now. What are you working on?

I am currently a postdoc funded by a HC Ørsted/ Marie Sklodowska-Curie COFUND fellowship. I will continue working on wearable biofuel cells.

Is there anything about nanoscience that you would like more people to understand?

People may think nanomaterial fabrication is very difficult – in fact, it may be the opposite. For example, the corrosion of brass, which is an alloy of copper and zinc, can lead to porous copper with nanoscale pores. We use a similar corrosion process when we fabricate nanoporous gold.

What are the challenges and rewards of being a researcher?

The biggest challenge for myself is to find a permanent position to continuously conduct the research I like. I think most early-stage researchers encounter the same issue.

The rewards, though, are that a researcher typically has flexible working time, and research is mostly interest-driven. I greatly enjoy the sense of achievement, and by attending conferences and workshops I have visited many European cities and made a lot of friends.

How do you take a break from work?

As a Chinese person, I like to cook a nice dinner. Irish whiskey makes it even better!

The RIA's Kathleen Lonsdale Chemistry Prize, sponsored by Henkel, is granted to the most outstanding Irish PhD thesis in chemical sciences

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation