Human bodies and all other living things send signals and perform work using ions or protons. Applications in the next decade or so, Rolandi said, would likely be for direct sensing of cells in a laboratory. The current prototype has a silicon base and could not be used in a human body. Longer term, however, a biocompatible version could be implanted directly in living things to monitor, or even control, certain biological processes directly.
Devices that connect with the human body’s processes are being explored for biological sensing or for prosthetics, but they typically communicate using electrons, which are negatively charged particles, rather than protons, which are positively charged hydrogen atoms, or ions, which are atoms with positive or negative charge.
“So there’s always this issue, a challenge, at the interface – how does an electronic signal translate into an ionic signal, or vice versa?” said lead author Marco Rolandi, a UW assistant professor of materials science and engineering. “We found a biomaterial that is very good at conducting protons, and allows the potential to interface with living systems.”
On the left is a colored photo of the UW device overlaid on a graphic of the other components. On the right is a magnified image of the chitosan fibers. The white scale bar is 200 nanometers. Marco Rolandi UW.
In nature, electrical signalling occurs with ions and protons, rather than electrons. Artificial devices that can control and monitor ionic and protonic currents are thus an ideal means for interfacing with biological systems. Here we report the first demonstration of a biopolymer protonic field-effect transistor with proton-transparent PdHx contacts. In maleic-chitosan nanofibres, the flow of protonic current is turned on or off by an electrostatic potential applied to a gate electrode. The protons move along the hydrated maleic–chitosan hydrogen-bond network with a mobility of ~4.9×10^−3 cm2 V^−1 s^−1. This study introduces a new class of biocompatible solid-state devices, which can control and monitor the flow of protonic current. This represents a step towards bionanoprotonics.
In the body, protons activate “on” and “off” switches and are key players in biological energy transfer. Ions open and close channels in the cell membrane to pump things in and out of the cell. Animals including humans use ions to flex their muscles and transmit brain signals. A machine that was compatible with a living system in this way could, in the short term, monitor such processes. Someday it could generate proton currents to control certain functions directly.
A first step toward this type of control is a transistor that can send pulses of proton current. The prototype device is a field-effect transistor, a basic type of transistor that includes a gate, a drain and a source terminal for the current. The UW prototype is the first such device to use protons. It measures about 5 microns wide, roughly a twentieth the width of a human hair.
The device uses a modified form of the compound chitosan originally extracted from squid pen, a structure that survives from when squids had shells. The material is compatible with living things, is easily manufactured, and can be recycled from crab shells and squid pen discarded by the food industry.