Lifesaving invention can remove lithium button batteries swallowed by children

The indigestible origami robot.
The indigestible origami robot. Photo: Melanie Gonick/MIT

Each week in Australia, around 20 children present to emergency with a button battery related injury. The tiny batteries are found in remote controls, musical birthday cards, bathroom scales and other electronic devices - and they can be deadly.

In 2013, four-year-old Summer Steer, of the Sunshine Coast, became the first child to die in Australia after swallowing a button battery. It became lodged in her throat and caused her to have a heart attack.

Following the inquest into Summer's death, Kidsafe Queensland CEO, Susan Teerds, told ABC News "If you've got lithium button batteries, any of these small batteries in your home, it's like having a loaded gun, seriously that's how deadly they are."

Summer Steer, who died after swallowing a button battery.
Summer Steer, who died after swallowing a button battery. Photo: Kidsafe Qld

Issuing a warning to parents and manufacturers, Teerds noted that battery-related deaths "will exceed drowning in the number of children unfortunately dying."

According to "The Battery Controlled" a joint safety campaign between Energizer, Kidsafe and The Australia Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), the tiny batteries can get stuck in a child's throat and burn through the oesophagus in less than two hours. 

This is why new work, unveiled by researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), The University of Sheffield and the Tokyo Institute of Technology, has such important and potentially life-saving implications.

At the International Conference on Robotics and Automation last week, the research team presented the newest version of their tiny origami robots. The robot can "unfold itself from a swallowed capsule and, steered by external magnetic fields, crawl across the stomach wall to remove a swallowed button battery or patch a wound," according to a press release.  

Inside one of the robot's folds is a tiny magnet that allows it to be controlled using magnetic fields outside the body. And it's this magnet that also collects foreign objects like button batteries.

"Once inside the stomach, the robot could be directed to attach to the battery. It could lift the battery from the stomach coating and then eliminate it through the digestive system," explains researcher Daniela Rus. 


The pill-sized robot is made of the type of dried pig intestine used in sausage casings, and a biodegradable shrink-wrap called Biolefin that shrinks in response to heat. It also allows the robot to fold and contract like origami.

"It's really exciting to see our small origami robots doing something with potential important applications to health care," Rus says.

"This concept is both highly creative and highly practical, and it addresses a clinical need in an elegant way," adds Bradley Nelson, a professor of robotics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich. "It is one of the most convincing applications of origami robots that I have seen."

You can watch a demonstration of the robot in action here:

If you think you child has swallowed a lithium battery, call the Poison Information Centre on 13 11 26 or take them to emergency immediately.