Alternative energy source: The electric eel

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Residents of The Living Planet Aquarium are earning their keep this holiday season, and an electric eel is doing its part providing the power to light up the Christmas tree display.

The eel lives in a tank nearby the Journey to South America gallery where the display is located.

To harness the eel’s energy, Terry Smith, Project Manager at Cache Valley Electric, said, “We took the voltage produced by the eel via stainless steel electrodes and used it to power a sequencer. The sequencer takes the voltage the eel produces and operates circuitry that flashes the lights, fast or slow, based on the level of voltage he puts out.”

According to scientificamerican.com, electric eels use their electric charges to stun prey and ward off predators. This electricity is produced by “way of a highly specialized nervous system that has the capacity to synchronize the activity of disc-shaped, electricity-producing cells packed into a specialized electric organ.”

To put it more simply, “Each cell behaves like a battery with the activated side carrying a negative charge and the opposite side a positive one and because the cells are oriented inside the electric organ like a series of batteries pulled into a flashlight, the current generated by an activated cell ‘shocks’ any inactive neighbor into action, setting off an avalanche of activation that runs its course in just two milliseconds or so,” the website said.

Consumerenergyreport.com states that the power of an electric eel can produce a charge of 600 volts and could even “be a good idea for an alternative and renewable energy.”

This is not the first time the idea of eel-powered products has come up for discussion and research.

Yale University’s news site reveals that the university has extensively researched the possible ways to harness and replicate an eel’s charge.

“The researchers at Yale University, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, are studying the cells of these unusual fish in an effort to create an artificial cell that replicates the electrical behavior of the electric eel cell to be used in small medical electrical devices like retinal implants or other prostheses.”

Discovery.com believes the power of an eel can be used in an even more common medium.

“Most electric vehicles on the road today use battery packs that store somewhere around 280 – 400 volts DC, so with a simple converter inline one could theoretically arrive home in one’s electric vehicle and plug into the ‘electric’ outlet and recharge without using anything from the grid.”

For the aquarium’s Christmas display, every time the eel moves, the four strands of lights on the tree flash intermittently. The idea of using the eel to power the holiday display comes from the aquarium’s desire to have guests interact with the animals.

“Visitors can visually and audibly experience the power of our electric eel and get a real sense of how amazing this creature is,” said Angie Hyde, Director of Public Relations and Marketing. “We thought we’d put a festive twist on it for the holidays, which has been a huge hit with our members and visitors.”

This particular electric eel holiday display will be up at The Living Planet Aquarium through Dec. 31, 2012.

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