Researchers Use Virus To Generate Electricity

By Amir Khan on May 16, 2012 9:10 AM EDT

Virus
In the future, you may be able to charge your phone using a virus, according to a new study. (Photo: LBL.gov)

In the future, you may be able to charge your phone simply by walking. Researchers developed a way to use viruses to turn mechanical forces, such as walking, shaking or pressing, into electricity. The team published their results in the journal Nature Nanotechnology on Sunday.

 "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," Seung-Wuk Lee, study author and professor of biotechnology at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a statement.

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The researchers created a stamp-sized electrode coated with an engineered strain of the M13 virus, a virus that infects bacteria and is a common research tool. When pressed, the virus on the electrode convers the mechanical energy from the press into electricity, a process called piezoelectricity.

Piezoelectricity is a necessity to make in everyday objects such as electric cigarette lighters and scanning microscopes work, according to the study. However, many of the materials needed to make piezoelectric devices are toxic, and researchers hope a virus can work instead.

Using a virus has its benefits, according to the study. It multiplies constantly, so there's always a steady supply, and it orients itself into a film naturally, meaning it's easy to coat an electrode with it and stackable. Researchers stacked the film 20 high and generated current equal to a quarter of the voltage of an AAA battery.

Researchers envision a device that could be embedded in your shoe that converts the mechanical energy of walking into electricity and charge your phone.  They also said that tiny devices could one day take advantage of the vibrations that come from shutting a door or climbing stairs.

 While any practical application of this technology is still a way off, Lee said it's a promising start.

"We're now working on ways to improve on this proof-of-principle demonstration," Lee said. "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."

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