Powering the bionic eye

A researcher is working with a variety of electronic instruments on a table.
Harnessing photonics to energize a bionic eye

PhD physics student Ross Cheriton is designing a nanochip that converts laser light to electricity, which will power a wireless retinal implant to restore lost vision.

Imagine a solar panel small enough to fit inside a person’s eye.

Instead of drawing power from the sun, the tiny photovoltaic chip absorbs light from a miniature laser, and converts it into electricity to power a bionic retinal implant.

This technology is being developed by Ross Cheriton, a PhD student at the University of Ottawa’s Centre for Research in Photonics, as part of a collaboration with the Ottawa-Gatineau-based startup company iBIONICS.

“Our aim is for people to be able to recognize the faces of their loved ones. That’s what people who’ve lost their sight miss the most,” says iBIONICS co-founder and CEO Suzanne Grant.

Cheriton says the project incorporates all the knowledge that he has gained at the University of Ottawa. “I can really see the difference it’s going to make.”

His role in the project is to design a tiny photovoltaic chip — no bigger than a baby’s fingernail — that will be incorporated into the retinal implant.

Existing retinal implant technology involves using a camera, mounted on a pair of eyeglasses, to feed a visual signal to a computer chip. The chip is implanted at the back of the eye and takes the signal from the camera and stimulates the optic nerve. This allows the brain’s visual cortex to conjure up a blurry image of the outside scene.

But the implanted chip relies on wires that must go through the wall of the eye to deliver both the signal from the camera and the electrical power it needs to operate.

Cheriton’s research will make the retinal implant wireless and allow for higher resolution implants, a big step forward.

Instead of being transmitted via wires, the signal from the camera will be sent directly though the eye using a minuscule laser mounted on the person’s eyeglasses. The laser beam transmits the signal to the implant inside the diamond crystal.

The chip will also transform the laser light into electricity, providing a power source for the entire implant.

“My responsibility is actually understanding how this type of chip is going to respond under the parameters of the eye and, really, how this chip will optimally convert all that laser light into electricity,” Cheriton says. “We also want to know if we can send the signal very clearly.”

If all goes well, Grant believes the wireless retinal implant may be ready for small-scale trials in human volunteers within two years.

“It’s amazing technology. It’s very smart,” she says. “And it happened in part because we’re in Ottawa and we have access to great people and some of the best photonics technology in the world.”

Graduate students like Ross Cheriton are the professors, inventors and science entrepreneurs of the future.

“I really like the University of Ottawa’s large focus on graduate students and research,” Cheriton says. “When grad students make the decision where to study, they really want to know that they’re going to be secure financially and have access to professors and equipment that are really world class.”

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A nanochip is manipulated with tweezers.

 

Photo of a woman wearing a leather jacket and a scarf.

Suzanne Grant, co-founder of the Ottawa-Gatineau-based startup iBIONICS.

 

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