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Virus Battery  (Source: MIT)
Virus battery is expected to last longer than current lithium-ion batteries

The battery is one of those ubiquitous devices that most of us use in our everyday lives and never think much about. Everything from your car to your notebook to your cell phone uses a battery of some sort. With the need to move to greener methods to power vehicles, much research is being conducted on technologies that will make batteries better.

A group of researchers from MIT has announced that they were able to construct a battery using a common type of virus that is not harmful to humans called a bacteriophage. Angela Belcher, lead researcher on the team said that the new battery could one day be used to power electronics and even electric cars.

The battery was described in the April 2 online edition of Science. According to the researchers, the battery could be produced cheaply and would be environmentally benign thanks to the fact that the process can be produced at below room temperature and requires no harsh organic solvents and the materials used in the battery construction are non-toxic.

Materials used in traditional lithium-ion batteries can’t claim to be environmentally friendly. In a traditional battery, the negatively charged anode is typically made form graphite and the positively charged cathode is usually cobalt oxide or lithium-ion phosphate.

MIT reports that three years ago, Belcher led a team that was able to construct an anode from viruses. The viruses were coaxed into coating themselves with cobalt oxide and gold. After the coating process, the viruses assembled themselves into a nanowire.

The latest announcement comes after the team was able to complete what the researchers say is the more complicated process of building a powerful cathode to pair up with the anode. Cathodes are reportedly more difficult to build because they have to be highly conducting, but most materials appropriate for a cathode are highly insulating.

Members of the research team were able to create the cathode by genetically engineering viruses that coat themselves with iron phosphate and then grab carbon nanotubes to create a network of highly conductive material.

The viruses are engineered to bind to specific materials only. The carbon nanotubes in the team's cathode and each iron phosphate nanowire can be electrically connected to a conducting carbon nanotube network allowing electrons to travel through the nanotube networks and transfer energy in a short time.

The researchers say that adding the carbon nanotubes to the battery adds very little weight and increased the cathode’s conductivity. The researchers say that in experiments the cathode material could be charged and discharged at least 100 times before losing its capacity. The team points out that 100 cycles is less than current lithium-ion batteries, but the virus-powered batteries are expected to last longer between charges.

A prototype battery was packaged into a standard coin battery form factor and used to power an LED light. The prototype was shown to President Obama when MIT President Susan Hockfield talked to Obama about the need for funding to advance clean-energy technologies.

The team says their next plan is to create a battery with materials offering higher voltage and capacitance like manganese phosphate and nickel phosphate. Once the next generation of virus battery is ready, they could go into commercial production. Researchers at MIT working on another project announced last month that they created a battery that could recharge in seconds.

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RE: not dangerous to humans
By FITCamaro on 4/4/2009 7:05:48 PM , Rating: 2
Well that doesn't necessarily mean it isn't harmful to humans. And viruses can mutate. There are plenty of bacteria in the human body needed for us to stay alive. Those in our stomach and colon for example.

I'm all for advanced technology. But any time someone starts talking about using viruses for certain things, I get a little edgy.

RE: not dangerous to humans
By Cogman on 4/5/2009 8:28:33 AM , Rating: 2
Do you realize how many viruses you are exposed to anyways? (the non-human infecting type). For the virus to mutate to be able to infect humans the bacteria would either have to resemble a human cell, or it would have to slowly mutate until it does. The thing is, Bacteria have VERY different DNA structures compared to human cell (Their DNA forms loops instead of being long strands). So to say that any bacteria resembles a human cell would be a very large stretch of the imagination.

The chances of it happening for a regular bacteriaphage are basically non-existent. Couple that with the fact that these viruses have been encoded to pickup and drop off material that isn't readily available in the human body and you have a virus that is very harmless.

There are too many movies that depict the end of the world in ways that are unbelievable (virus mutations, robots killing us all, ect).

RE: not dangerous to humans
By James Wood Carter on 4/5/2009 8:48:35 PM , Rating: 2
Totally agree, it is highly unlikely for a bacteriophage to gain all the mutations it needs to infect a totally different type of cells. Viruses such as H5N1 is having difficulty causing pandemics because they are highly unlikely of obtaining the mutations required to be higly infectous let alone a bacteriophage that needs multiple unlikely mutations.

RE: not dangerous to humans
By tmouse on 4/6/2009 8:20:11 AM , Rating: 2
But it is possible for it to mutate its host specificity and affect beneficial bacteria. A release could have unforeseen consequences. Nature seems to have a strong desire to constantly redefine itself, most of the time the random events are too few and far between to "stick" and the mutant dies out. Massive production could alter this balance. This may be a moot issue since I'm not clear if the viri are "viable" once coated, but after disposal they could be freed and then I'm not sure what the potential for unforeseen consequences would be.

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