Electric Eel in a fishtank

Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

Recently, we got a question from one of our listeners. Matt from Providence wants to know – can we harness electricity from electric eels? We were intrigued! So we had Possibly reporters Iman Khanbhai and Janek Schaller look into this question. 

Janek Schaller: Hi Megan! 

Iman Khanbhai: Hello! 

Megan Hall: So, electric eels? Tell me about them. 

Janek Schaller: Electric eels are a type of freshwater fish. They have bad eyesight and can be as long as 8 feet! 

Megan Hall: Ok, but what about the electric part? How does that work?

Iman Khanbhai: Right. Inside an eel’s body are a series of cells that generate electricity. Alone, those cells don’t create much of a charge, but when they’re stacked in a row, like batteries, they’re pretty powerful. 

Megan Hall: How much electricity are we talking about?

Janek Schaller: It depends, but scientists have found eels that can generate up to 860 volts.

Megan Hall: 860 volts. Is that a lot? 

Iman Khanbhai: Hang on – to answer that we need a quick high school physics refresher.  

Janek Schaller: Voltage is basically pressure in an electrical current. A good way to think about it is to picture electricity kind of like a waterfall. 

Iman Khanbhai: If the waterfall is high, the water falling over it has a lot of energy, and can do a lot of work. 

Janek Schaller: Your home outlets are 120V, so electric eels can be several times higher voltage than those outlets.  They can definitely give you quite a shock.  

Megan Hall: Oh cool! So can humans use this electricity?

Janek Schaller: Well, that gets to the next part of the electricity refresher. To learn more, we talked to Professor Sean Sun. 

Sean Sun: I’m a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. I’m also part of the Center for Cell Dynamics and Institute of Nanobiotechnology here.

Iman Khanbhai: Sean has actually done research into this exact question- can we harness electricity from eels?  

Sean Sun: I think the short answer to your listener’s question is yes…There’s really quite a number of challenges, some of those logistic, some of it is scientific, they’re things that we just don’t know… it is definitely possible.

Megan Hall: What are the challenges Sean is talking about?

Janek Schaller: Well, eels can create electricity, but not for very long. They only give off those high-voltage shocks when they’re defending themselves or trying to stun their prey. Even then, their current only flows for about 2 milliseconds. 

Iman Khanbhai: Remember the waterfall analogy? The high waterfall means the water will have a lot of energy by the time it hits the bottom, but there just isn’t much water- it runs out in 2 milliseconds.  

Megan Hall: I see. So an electric eel isn’t going to power my electric car? 

Janek Schaller: Not anytime soon. But Sean’s team wondered if they could get around this problem by making artificial eel cells. 

Sean Sun: All you need is a small piece of tissue from a native eel, preferably young eel that you can then use to derive into stem cells. And then because they will self renewal if you can keep them alive, you essentially can have an indefinite number of cells, right? 

Iman Khanbhai: Sean hoped to take those electric cells out of an eel’s body, and put them in the ideal environment. He thought you could get them to fire that electricity more often. And maybe, with genetic engineering, you could make those cells more powerful.

Sean Sun: This is, of course, this is what evolution does, right? You’re always looking for the next better thing.  

Megan Hall: Interesting. So, how soon will these artificial eels start creating some serious electricity? 

Janek Schaller: Unfortunately, not anytime soon. Sean’s project ended early because it ran out of funding. But he’s still excited about pursuing these questions. 

Megan Hall: Got it. Thanks Iman and Janek. 

That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way your choices affect our planet, go to thepublicsradio.org/possibly. Or subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. 

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Possibly is a co-production of The Public’s Radio, Brown University’s Institute for Environment and Society and Brown’s Climate Solutions Initiative.