Scientists turn a virus into electricity

Scientists at the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have come up with a way to generate power using harmless everyday viruses.

The researchers have been working with a virus called M13 bacteriophage to convert mechanical energy into electricity, which they say one day could power gadgets such as smartphones from everyday movements such as walking.

They have been testing their work through a specially developed generator that produces enough current to operate a small liquid-crystal display.

It works by tapping a finger on a postage stamp-sized electrode coated with specially engineered viruses. The viruses convert the force of the tap into an electric charge.

Seung-Wuk Lee, a faculty scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division and a UC Berkeley associate professor of bioengineering, said in statement: “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”. 

The M13 bacteriophage has a length of 880 nanometers and a diameter of 6.6 nanometers. According to the scientists it is coated with approximately 2,700 charged proteins that enable them to use the virus as a piezoelectric nanofiber.

The piezoelectric effect, found in 1880, has since been identified in crystals, ceramics, bone, proteins, and DNA. It’s also already been put to use in electric cigarette lighters and scanning probe microscopes.

However, it’s not been a huge success with the materials used to make piezoelectric devices claimed as being toxic and very difficult to work with.

Lee and his team found that the M13 bacteriophage only attacks bacteria and is benign to people.

Being a virus, it replicates itself by the millions within hours, meaning that there would always be a steady supply. To ascertain whether the M13 virus was piezoelectric, Lee and his team applied an electrical field to a film of M13 viruses and watched what happened using a special microscope. Once they found a positive result they increased the virus’s piezoelectric strength through genetic engineering to add four negatively charged amino acid residues to one end of the helical proteins that coat the virus.

They then stacked 20 films composing of single layers of the virus on top of each other to achieve the maximum effect.

Finally, to test the multi-layered film, they sandwiched it between two gold-plated electrodes, which were connected by wires to a liquid-crystal display, and then tapped on it.

When this pressure was applied to the generator, it produced up to six nanoamperes of current and 400 millivolts of potential, which the scientists said was enough current to flash the number “1” on the display, and about a quarter the voltage of a triple A battery.

Scientists are now working on ways to improve this research and hope it could eventually be used.

Watch the video below to see how the idea works.