How Much Juice?

In our brains, electrical signals are propagated through neurons following action potentials—brief pulses in which the charge gradient across the cell membrane flips. Here’s what that looks like:


An action potential pulsing across a neuron leads to the flow of electric current. Image via Wikipedia

The average mammalian neuron has a ‘resting potential’ of about -65 millivolts (mV). After being stimulated, the cell membrane depolarizes (the charge difference becomes closer to zero.) If the stimulus raises the membrane potential above -55 mV (call the threshold potential), an action potential is triggered. The membrane potential shoots up to a peak of approximately 40 mV and quickly falls again. When this happens, electric current is propagated forward.

Image for article titled Could You Charge an iPhone with the Electricity in Your Brain?

So, every time one of our neurons fires, it produces a charge gradient of about 105 mV (the net change between resting potential and peak.) This tiny change in voltage causes an even tinier amount of current to flow — about 1 nanoamp, or 0.000000001 amps, according to biophysicist Bertil Hille of the University of Washington.


You may be thinking these numbers sound pretty puny. But lucky for us, the human brain contains roughly 80 billion neurons. Of course, not all of them are lighting up at once. In fact, recent research suggests that only about one percent of the neurons in our brains are active at any given moment. Still, 800 million neurons is nothing to sniff at — it might just be enough to produce a meaningful amount of power. Let’s do the math and see.

Given: 105 mV per action potential, 1 nanoamp of current per neuron, and 800 million neurons firing at once, how long would it take my brain’s electricity to charge an iPhone?

First, we’ll convert everything to fundamental units:

1 nanoamp / neuron = 1.0 x 10^-9 amperes / neuron

105 mV / action potential = 0.105 V / action potential

Next, we’ll calculate the amount of power generated when a single neuron fires:

0.105 V x (1.0 x 10^-9 A) = 1.05 x 10^-10 W / neuron

Scaling up to an entire human brain:

(1.05 x 10^-10 W / neuron) x (800 million neurons / brain) = 0.085 Watts / brain

Now we’re getting somewhere! On average, at any given moment, your brain’s electricity is outputting roughly 0.085 Watts of power. Your brain is basically an energy saving LED.


I have an iPhone 5C, whose battery claims to hold a charge of 5.74 Watt hours. So, how much time would it take my brain’s electricity to charge my phone?

5.74 Watt hours / 0.085 Watts = 68.33 hours

There you have it, folks: If you could somehow divert every single biological wire in your skull to your iPhone’s battery, you’d be fully charged in just under seventy hours! Huh! That doesn’t sound particularly efficient, especially when compared to a standard wall charger, which usually does the trick in under an seventy minutes.


And of course, diverting all of your brain’s electricity somewhere else would leave precious little juice other important stuff, to wit, breathing. If we want to be conservative, we could say it’s probably only safe to divert 1% of your brain’s electricity at a time, in which case it’d take 6,833 hours, or 285 days, to charge your phone.

I’m starting to think that this harebrained idea should probably be shelved, unless we face a cataclysmic energy apocalypse. In which case, charging your phone will probably rank lower on your list of worries than fending off hordes of anemic, cannibalistic, mace-toting road warriors.


Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve gotta figure out how to hook up my brain to the generator in my energy apocalypse bunker.

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Top illustration by Jim Cooke