Crying for Power? Your Tears Could Generate Electricity

man, crying, tears
(Image credit: aastock/Shutterstock)

What do egg whites and human tears have in common? According to a new study from Ireland, both materials can generate electricity, thanks to an enzyme they contain.

The enzyme, called lysozyme, is also found in saliva and mammalian milk, according to the study, which was published Oct. 2 in the Journal of Applied Physics. The enzyme is anti-bacterial; it attacks the cell walls of bacteria, weakening them.

When lysozyme is in a crystalized form, it also appears to have a property called piezoelectricity, meaning the enzyme can convert mechanical energy (when pressure is applied to it) into electrical energy, the researchers wrote. [7 Biggest Mysteries of the Human Body]

Though the name may sound foreign, "piezoelectricity is used all around us," lead study author Aimee Stapleton, a postgraduate fellow studying physics at the University of Limerick in Ireland, said in statement. For example, piezoelectric materials such as quartz crystals are used in mobile phones (as the vibrating component) and deep-ocean sonar, according to the statement.

But "the capacity to generate electricity from this particular protein [lysozyme] has not been explored," Stapleton said.

To study the piezoelectric properties of lysozymes, the scientists applied a crystalized form of the enzyme to films. Researchers then applied mechanical force to these films and recorded the amount of electricity generated.

The scientists found that lysozyme could generate electricity just as well as quartz could. But lysozyme is a biological material, so it could have medical applications. Lysozymes are "nontoxic, so [they] could have many innovative applications, such as electroactive, anti-microbial coatings for medical implants," Stapleton said.

The researchers think that, in the future, lysozymes could be used to power biomedical devices that are used in people's bodies, the scientists wrote in the study. The enzymes could also be used to power and control the release of drugs in the body, the study said.

More research is needed, however, before the enzyme can be used for these purposes, the researchers said.

Originally published on Live Science.

Sara G. Miller
Staff Writer
Sara is a staff writer for Live Science, covering health. She grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York. When she's not writing, she can be found at the library, checking out a big stack of books.