Start-up BeFC has developed a lightweight and flexible enzymatic biofuel cell made up of a set of paper layers. Completely biodegradable, it can be used to supply electricity to low-power disposable electronic devices. Meeting with the company’s product manager.
Created in 2020, the start-up BeFC (Bioenzymatic Fuel Cells) is a spin-off of CNRS. It is developing a technology for which academic research began some forty years ago. Originally, scientists wanted to design a biofuel cell capable of transforming the blood and oxygen present in the human body into energy to power pacemakers. Today, the company manufactures biobatteries or enzymatic biocells for the IoT (Internet of Things) market. They are light and flexible and, above all, completely biodegradable and do not contain harmful chemicals for the environment. Interview with Dr. Marie Berthuel, the company’s product manager.
Engineering Techniques: Tell us about the technology developed by BeFC?
Maria Bertuel: Our biocells are formed by a set of layers of paper, more specifically cellulose and carbon paper. Two electrodes – the bioanode and the biocathode – are supported by these carbon papers, on which enzymes are also immobilized. Its role is to transform substrates such as sugar and oxygen into electricity. Glucose is a compound that is added to paper, while oxygen comes from the air. Specifically, in the bioanode, the enzymes will oxidize glucose into gluconolactone and this oxidation will create electrons. On the other side of the circuit, at the biocathode, enzymes will claim those electrons to reduce oxygen to water. This movement of electrons has the effect of creating an electric current.
What types of enzymes do you use and what energy does your biofuel cells provide, as well as their lifespan?
I cannot accurately describe our enzymes to you because they are at the heart of our trade secret. There have been, for several decades now, enzymes capable of oxidizing glucose on the one hand and reducing oxygen on the other. All of our know-how is having developed particular enzymes and specific methods to make them work in our device. We do not produce these enzymes, but we contact producers who have the expertise to produce them.
As for the power, it is of the order of a milliwatt per cm², that is, the more the surface is increased, the greater the energy delivered. Our biofuel cells are activated using environmental or biological fluids and their lifetime ranges from several hours to several weeks. It depends on the application and energy consumption. We are working to increase its shelf life and hope to reach a lifespan of several months in the future.
What are the applications of your technology?
It is aimed at the IoT market, smart packaging and all disposable and low-power electronic devices, replacing button batteries. Our main selling point is in the logistics sector in order to track parcels. In addition to manufacturing biocells, we also design electronic cards capable of monitoring various parameters such as temperature, humidity, pressure, shocks, pH, etc. These cards are equipped with a microcontroller, a memory to store data and a communication module to transfer them. We develop them in an eco-responsible way, printing most of the electronic components, in order to reduce their impact on the environment.
What stage is your project at?
Our company manufactures 1,000 units a day using a robotic arm that assembles the biopiles layer by layer. We have entered a phase of industrialization and are currently optimizing our production lines. In 2024, our goal is to produce one million units per day. In the meantime, co-development contracts have been signed with our customers to test our process. These customers want to digitize their products but no longer want to use traditional miniature lithium or alkaline batteries. They are present in the sectors of logistics, waste treatment, luxury packaging, health and industry 4.0. We have a client in the medical field who needs our technology to monitor urological exams. This customer is listed on Nasdaq, and when we start mass production, they will need over 100 million units a year.
We are pioneers in the world of enzyme biocells, including in academic research.