Just like the navigation systems, nanotechnologists are considering both external and internal power sources. Some designs rely on the nanorobot using the patient's own body as a way of generating power. Other designs include a small power source on board the robot itself. Finally, some designs use forces outside the patient's body to power the robot.
Nanorobots could get power directly from the bloodstream. A nanorobot with mounted electrodes could form a battery using the electrolytes found in blood. Another option is to create chemical reactions with blood to burn it for energy. The nanorobot would hold a small supply of chemicals that would become a fuel source when combined with blood.
A nanorobot could use the patient's body heat to create power, but there would need to be a gradient of temperatures to manage it. Power generation would be a result of the Seebeck effect. The Seebeck effect occurs when two conductors made of different metals are joined at two points that are kept at two different temperatures. The metal conductors become a thermocouple, meaning that they generate voltage when the junctures are at different temperatures. Since it's difficult to rely on temperature gradients within the body, it's unlikely we'll see many nanorobots use body heat for power.
While it might be possible to create batteries small enough to fit inside a nanorobot, they aren't generally seen as a viable power source. The problem is that batteries supply a relatively small amount of power related to their size and weight, so a very small battery would only provide a fraction of the power a nanorobot would need. A more likely candidate is a capacitor, which has a slightly better power-to-weight ratio.
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Engineers are working on building smaller capacitors that will power technology like nanorobots.
External power sources include systems where the nanorobot is either tethered to the outside world or is controlled without a physical tether. Tethered systems would need a wire between the nanorobot and the power source. The wire would need to be strong, but it would also need to move effortlessly through the human body without causing damage. A physical tether could supply power either by electricity or optically. Optical systems use light through fiber optics, which would then need to be converted into electricity on board the robot.
Some crystals gain an electrical charge if you apply force to them. Conversely, if you apply an electric charge to one of these crystals, it will vibrate as a result, giving off ultrasonic signals. Quartz is probably the most familiar crystal with piezoelectric effects.
External systems that don't use tethers could rely on microwaves, ultrasonic signals or magnetic fields. Microwaves are the least likely, since beaming them into a patient would result in damaged tissue, since the patient's body would absorb most of the microwaves and heat up as a result. A nanorobot with a piezoelectric membrane could pick up ultrasonic signals and convert them into electricity. Systems using magnetic fields, like the one doctors are experimenting with in Montreal, can either manipulate the nanorobot directly or induce an electrical current in a closed conducting loop in the robot.
In the next section, we'll look at nanorobot propulsion systems.