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M13 viruses emerging from an E. Coli bacteria.  (Source: Profimedia)
Viruses act as tiny piezoelectric generators

Viruses, tiny chunks of protein and nucleic acid, have long plagued mankind and its evolutionary ancestors before it.  But thanks to the wonders of modern genetic engineering, researchers believe they have finally been able to instill a beneficial purpose in these deadly pests.

I. From Pest to Power

A team of researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory -- one of 16 U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratories -- has created a special breed of virus that undergoes self-nanoassembly to form tiny piezoelectric generators -- machines which harvest mechanical energy (vibrations or pressure) to directly produce electricity.

The special "bug" is the M13 bacteriophage, a rod-shaped virus that only infects bacteria (such as E. coli bacteria) -- not humans.

Faculty researchers Seung-Wuk Lee, Ramamoorthy Ramesh, and Byung Yang Lee selected the virus due to its tendency to self-assemble into nanofilms, given its rod-like shape.  The viruses tightly pack "like chopsticks in a box" and are easy to grow by the millions given a small supply of host bacteria.

Bacteriophage research team
The team responsible for the virus generator includes Byung Yang Lee, Seung-Wuk Lee, and Ramamoorthy Ramesh (from left to right). [Image Source: Roy Kaltschmidt of Berkeley Lab]

Professor Ramesh, a professor of engineering and physics at the University of California Berkeley carried out tests on the virus films to see if the viruses' nanostructure was piezoelectric.  Sure enough, when exposed to an electric field, the helical proteins coating the virus's genetic material twisted and turned -- a sure sign that the film was piezoelectric.

II. Refining the Virus

But the effect was too weak to be of use.  So the researchers spliced a quadruplet of negatively charged amino acids into one of the coat proteins.  The results was a larger voltage gradient across the coat.  The researchers also tested stacking films of the modifed viruses to see how thick they could layer the viruses in order to get the maximum effect.

M13 Bacteriophage
A peek at the modified coat protein (left) and an atomic force microscopy image of the virus nanofilm (right). [Image Source: Roy Kaltschmidt of Berkeley Lab]

The best results were observed using 20 of the virus nanofilms.  Using spontaneous assembly, the researchers created a 1 cm2 multi-nanofilm with gold electrodes on either side.

When pressure was applied to the film a 400 millivolt, 6 nanoampere current was put off.  That's about a quarter of the voltage of an AAA battery, albeit at a far smaller current.  Still it was enough to power a '1' to show up on a low-power liquid crystal display.

Virus generator
Pressing the virus multifilm powers an LCD. [Image Source: Roy Kaltschmidt of Berkeley Lab]

III. Great Expectations

The development is an exciting one for the field of piezoelectrics, which relies on a phenomena first described a century and three decades ago.  While the piezoelectric effect is a crucial part of electric cigarette lighters and scanning probe microscopes, typical piezoelectrics rely on toxic materials.

By contrast, the virus piezoelectric films are nontoxic and nonreactive.  The researchers imagine the self-assembing nanofilms to one-day become an integral part of clothing, producing power to recharge mobile electronics from common activities such as walking, lifting objects, or typing.  The generator could also be used in medical nanobots.

In the meantime, the team is busy working to refine their proof of concept design, by further tweaking the viruses' genetics to produce more current and voltage.  Professor Lee comments, "We're now working on ways to improve on this proof-of-principle demonstration.  Because the tools of biotechnology enable large-scale production of genetically modified viruses, piezoelectric materials based on viruses could offer a simple route to novel microelectronics in the future."

The team's work has been published [abstract] in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Nature Nanotechnology.

The work was funded by the National Science Foundation and DOE funding.

Source: Lawrence Berkeley National Lab

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Thank God it only infects bacteria!
By Manch on 5/15/2012 12:13:54 PM , Rating: 2
I wonder what it would do if it could infect a human? Could you power your own devices? or would you self ignite your own farts when you tried to squeeze one out?

By Vorpaladin on 5/15/2012 1:04:11 PM , Rating: 2
You might be able to electrocute yourself.

RE: Thank God it only infects bacteria!
By MrBlastman on 5/15/2012 1:17:14 PM , Rating: 2
I think it is shocking to consider either option; however, consider this: piezoelectric gonorrhea, coming to an STD near you. It'll really give your sechs life a jolt!

RE: Thank God it only infects bacteria!
By Manch on 5/15/2012 2:53:13 PM , Rating: 2
LMFAO Receiving a BJ could get quite dangerous!

RE: Thank God it only infects bacteria!
By 91TTZ on 5/15/2012 4:08:16 PM , Rating: 2
And if you were already infected, you could shock her mouth as if she were trying to swallow an electric eel.

By MrBlastman on 5/15/2012 4:19:24 PM , Rating: 2
That would only enhance the up and down action... heck, it'd add a secondary sensation--vibration!

By bah12 on 5/15/2012 4:57:05 PM , Rating: 2's already hard enough to talk them into it.

RE: Thank God it only infects bacteria!
By Copaseticbob on 5/15/2012 1:17:21 PM , Rating: 2
It would probably be like getting a cold, but with muscle spasms.

RE: Thank God it only infects bacteria!
By TSS on 5/15/2012 5:14:54 PM , Rating: 2
Maybe human immune systems will create the x-gene as a reaction against a run-wild piezoelectric virus.

If my body generates electricity then it also generates an electric field. I say i got dibs on magneto :p

By Manch on 5/15/2012 5:37:55 PM , Rating: 2
I say i got dibs...

Great patent wars on

Using humans to generate electricity
By kitmaira on 5/15/2012 1:26:22 PM , Rating: 2
Isn't this the plot of The Matrix? Using humans to generate power to sustain the Matrix?

RE: Using humans to generate electricity
By AnnihilatorX on 5/16/2012 6:37:46 AM , Rating: 2
The Matrix can't be sustained by humans anyway. I remember my professor was teaching law of thermodynamics in my first year and he used the Matrix as an example and work out the theoretical maximum amount of energy you can extract from a human being. With Carnot heat engine, efficiency is only 4% assuming ambient temperature of 25 deg C.

If human is fully efficient in extracting energy from 2500 kcal of daily food intake (~=10000kJ) (no waste) and all power were output as heat not growth, one human being would only output 115Watts (Joule/second) of power.

Multiply that by the efficiency of a heat engine, you are optimistic to extract 4W of useful work from a single human. To power a 300W matrix desktop PC, you need 75 men's body heat :)

By AnnihilatorX on 5/16/2012 6:38:29 AM , Rating: 2
arg sorry, a desktop PC is 300kW lol

By aguilpa1 on 5/16/2012 11:03:03 AM , Rating: 2
(Flashback to 80's Living Color - Men on... skit)

..., you need 75 men's body heat

ummm, I'd pay top dollar to be in that heat pile...

By Austin814 on 5/21/2012 12:55:10 PM , Rating: 2
Your (the) theory is based on the Matrix using only the heat energy from a human body. Where if I remember correctly in the movie there were arcs of electricity between the towers of human pods. The human body is better at converting stored chemical energy into electrical energy than it is changing it into heat energy. Since you were taking thermodynamics I understand why the professor was using the heat conversion as the basis of the exercise but if a person really wanted to use a human body as an energy source it would better be used as a fuel cell for chemical to electrical energy conversion than a heat engine.

Maybe we shouldn't put this on the web, they will find it someday. ;-)

Other examples.
By drycrust3 on 5/15/2012 4:18:05 PM , Rating: 3
When pressure was applied to the film a 400 millivolt, 6 nanoampere current was put off.

This link shows a person using Rochelle salt (Potassium sodium tartrate) to produce 9 volts.

According to Wikipedia materials such as bone and wood are also known to have the piezoelectric effect, but I couldn't find any examples of working models when searching with Google.
Supposedly wintergreen candy, e.g. Wint-O-Green Lifesavers, uses triboluminescence, an effect similar to the piezoelectric effect, to produce a glowing effect when eaten in the dark.

Do these degrade?
By Doken44 on 5/20/2012 1:23:06 AM , Rating: 2
Since they're essentially made of bacteria corpses(?) How long would these films last?

If the films are resistant and non-degrading, it's not a stretch to see them used to power pacemakers and supplement artificial hearts (if they ever become reliable and common).

we are just beginning to understand
By sirah on 5/15/2012 2:16:16 PM , Rating: 1
ne way that gene expression is regulated is through the binding of gene regulators to DNA or RNA. This binding can block the transcription (DNA to RNA) or translation (RNA to protein) process. While the individual techniques vary between groups, the general principal behind controlling gene expression via light is similar -- researchers combine a light sensitive linker to the gene regulator, making the gene regulation light sensitive.

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