What is a Respirocyte?

In the future, a respirocyte may allow the athlete to run for 15 minutes without needing to breathe.

A respirocyte is an engineering blueprint for a machine that cannot be built with current technology: an artificial red blood cell one micron in diameter. If nanotechnology progress continues as fast as it did in the first decade of the 21st century, we could see respirocytes used in medicine or even recreationally in 2020 or 2030.

The most interesting thing about a respirocyte is its internal pressure: about 1000 atmospheres. The respirocyte would be spherical, the ideal shape for high pressure vessels, and made of pure diamond or sapphire, engineering materials ideal for durable nanosystems. The high pressure is allowed by the strength of these materials.

A respirocyte is an artificial red blood cell that has not yet been created due to the limitations of current technology.

At 1000 atmospheres of pressure, respirocytes can hold 200 times more oxygen and carbon dioxide than our natural red blood cells. This can allow a person to hold their breath at the bottom of a swimming pool for four hours or someone to run at high speed for at least 15 minutes without stopping for breath. Such feats are impossible today.

Powered by blood glucose, a respirocyte has an extremely simple design. All that is needed for its eventual realization is the continued advance of miniaturization in manufacturing, a trend that has held steady for decades and is approaching the atomic scale. What is needed is 3D nanoscale fabrication, a capability foreshadowed by the use of scanning tunneling microscopes to manipulate individual atoms on a surface.

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The respirocyte consists of three main design components: rotors to take oxygen from the lungs and release it into the bloodstream; rotors to collect carbon dioxide from the bloodstream and release it into the lungs; and rotors to take glucose from the bloodstream to generate energy in a process similar to cellular respiration. Preliminary studies found that extremely smooth diamondoid surfaces would be virtually invisible to white blood cells, making the devices biocompatible.

Respirocytes were designed and analyzed in detail by Robert Freitas, a nanotechnology researcher at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing. The paper describing the concept is titled “An artificial and mechanical red cell: Exploratory project in medical nanotechnology”. Nanomedical applications, such as those envisioned by Freitas, may become commonplace in the medium to long-term future for many of those living today.

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