Heart of Iron

Artificial hearts are a literal lifesaver to people with cardiac conditions. However, current models are inefficient, with mechanical moving parts that are subject to wear and tear in the rough environment that is the human body. The machines available can’t quite exactly replace the complex mechanisms of the human heart. In addition, manufactured pumps can damage the blood cells, increasing the risk of stroke.

Fortunately, a new type of artificial heart may offer a solution. In fact, it is a solution, or rather a suspension. specifically a suspension of iron particles called ferrofluid. A New Hampshire engineer has created a ferrofluid pump that replicates the action of the heart without rotors that can fracture blood cells.

The inventor is Chris Suprock, a mechanical engineer in Exeter, New Hampshire. Suprock, who has run Suprock Technologies since 2007 and who campaigned unsuccessfully for the New Hampshire legislature this year, was inspired by a conversation with some cardiologist friends, who told him about the problems with artificial hearts.

The physical properties of iron allow it to be broken down into very fine, but still visible, particles. When these particles are evenly dispersed throughout a liquid in what’s called a colloidal suspension, the resultant substance is known as a ferrofluid. This ferrofluid has all the normal properties of fluids, and also responds to magnetic fields. Currently, these substances are used for several applications, including cooling systems for audio amplification equipment.

The idea of using ferrofluids to regulate artificial hearts was floated as far back as 1992, when Japanese scientists determined “a ferrofluidic actuator is promising for use with an implantable artificial heart,” but it wasn’t until this past summer that a prototype was developed.

The pump—which is still in its early stages of development—takes advantage of the magnetic response of ferrofluid by encasing it in an elastic membrane. Electromagnets can then be used to cause this membrane to mimic the actions of the heart muscle. In addition to being more like the actual heart than current models, a ferrofluid-based artificial heart may have a longer useful life.

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