It’s not the computer kind of virus – but a biological one. Scientists working at the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley California have developed a way to generate power using human viruses. In a recent breakthrough, the scientists powered a small LCD display screen using a specially engineered strain of the M13 virus.
Power through Pressure
The team’s virus generator is the first to produce electricity by exploiting the piezoelectric properties of a biological material. Piezoelectricity means “electricity resulting from pressure” and is the charge that accrues in a material in response to an applied mechanical stress.
Scientists tap their finger on a postage stamp sized electrode coated with the M13 viruses. The viruses then convert the pressure generated by the tapping finger into an electric charge. In this case, the charge produced by the viruses was sufficient to operate a small LCD display screen.
The piezoelectric effect was discovered in 1880 and has since been found in both organic (bone, DNA and some kinds of proteins) and inorganic (certain types of crystals and ceramics) materials. The individual M13 bacteriophages used in the experiment are coated with approximately 2700 charged proteins which enable scientists to use the virus as a piezoelectric nano-fiber.
While devices like electric cigarette lighters and scanning probe microscopes operate using piezoelectricity, widespread application of the technology has been limited because the materials used to make piezoelectric devices are toxic and very difficult to work with.
Voltage from a Virus
Lee and colleagues wondered if a virus could offer a better way of generating piezoelectric power. The M13 bacteriophage was a perfect choice: it’s easy to genetically engineer; the virus is benign to humans, only attacking bacteria; it can replicate itself by the millions within hours, so there’s always a steady supply; and best of all, the rod shaped viruses naturally orient themselves into well-ordered films. This “self-assembly” aspect is crucial in the development of practical nanotechnology.
To enhance M13’s piezoelectric capabilities, the Berkeley scientists used genetic engineering to add four negatively charged amino acid residues to one end of the helical proteins that coat the virus. These residues increase the charge difference between the proteins’ positive and negative ends, boosting the voltage of the virus.
This achievement could lead to simpler and more efficient ways to produce microelectronic devices that gather electrical energy from the vibrations generated by everyday activities like walking, shutting a door or climbing stairs.
“More research is needed, but our work is a promising first step toward the development of personal power generators, actuators for use in nano-devices, and other devices based on viral electronics,” says Seung-Wuk Lee, a faculty scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division and a UC Berkeley associate professor of bioengineering.
Up until now, viruses were generally considered to be bad things. The research being conducted at the University of California Berkeley may soon change this perception. The possibilities are staggering. Imagine charging your phones as you walk, thanks to a paper-thin virus coated generator embedded in the sole of your shoes, charging with each step you take – no more dead batteries!
Author: Jeff Vance is an internet content specialist working for LaptopScreenSource.com.au, an Australian based company providing OEM replacement laptop and iPad digitizer screens.
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