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Angela Belcher’s Virus-Powered Batteries

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Imagine a world where high tech generators do not contain toxic chemicals, solar cells are efficient and cheap, your electric car works extremely well, and typing on your computer helps recharge its battery. All this would be powered by— viruses!

Yes, and that is exactly what the nanotech scientist Angela Belcher works on at MIT: how to turn viruses into state of the art clean energy batteries. I’m sure virus-cyborgs seem to many like their worst nightmare. After all, we spend millions of dollars defending against flu epidemics. However, virus-profiling overlooks many benefits that these critters could offer.

Clean energy uses research from the broad field of nanotechnology, the ability to manipulate the position of atoms on the molecular scale, to control the properties of materials. Luckily, viruses are already on that level and their genetic code (RNA or DNA) can be doctored to churn out desired structures. Geometrically, they line up well into very thin films. Lastly, there’s no way they’ll ever be in limited supply. They clone themselves to vast numbers very quickly, if there’s an unlucky bacterium to infect.

Belcher speaks regularly about her work and inspirations. To her, evolution is a billion year nanotech experiment. The physical features of every living thing on earth are built from the bottom up by our genetic code. Viruses are the simplest living things to work with. Belcher has three main viral-battery innovations to her name: the lithium battery with virus electrodes, the water-splitting virus fuel cells, and the virus-nanotube solar cell. They all use the same type of virus, called M13, which is harmless to humans and mostly kills E. Coli. In all three devices, the virus carries out multiple functions within the electronic appliance simultaneously. Examples include, clamping onto metallic components, growing molecules for energy harvesting and reactions, and structuring everything to make the appliance extremely energy efficient.

This type of virus also played a role in a different project by another research group. They discovered that the organism has piezoelectric properties: when you squeeze, bend, or poke it, it creates electricity. When untouched, the charges on the surface of the virus balance each other out, but when bent, the difference in charges creates a current. They fashioned the viruses into a wafer, put it between two electrodes, and used it to power an LCD screen.

Angela Belcher will be speaking at the Kavli awards on Thursday, May 31st, at 8AM. Be sure to check out our webcast, or peruse through our tweets, quips, and science facts at #WSF12 #Kavli

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