A group of scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have developed a way to generate power using harmless viruses that convert mechanical energy into electricity. Basically, it works by tapping a finger on a postage stamp-sized electrode coated with a virus. The virus converts the force of the tap into an electric charge. They did it by creating a generator that produces enough current to operate a small liquid-crystal display. This generator is the first to produce electricity by harnessing the piezoelectric properties of a biological material. Piezoelectric materials are powered by electricity generated by exerting pressure on crystals. These materials build up charge when squeezed. Check out the video after the break.


“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. The scientists used the M13 bacteriophage, a rod-shaped virus that only infects bacteria. M13 can can produce one million copies of the virus within four hours and it neatly arranges itself in stacked rows when spread on a surface. Lee and his team found the virus to be piezoelectric.

They applied an electrical field to a film of M13 viruses and watched what happened using a special microscope. Helical proteins that coat the viruses twisted and turned in response – a sure sign of the piezoelectric effect at work. The scientists also used genetic engineering to add four negatively charged amino acid residues to one end of the helical proteins that coat the virus. According to the scientists, these residues increase the charge difference between the positive and negative ends of the protein, which boosts the voltage of the virus.

When pressure is applied to the generator, it produces up to six nanoamperes of current and 400 millivolts of potential. The scientists claim that the current is enough to flash a number “1” on the display, about a quarter the voltage of a triple A battery. “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,” Lee concluded.

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