While most people see viruses as harmful, Angela Belcher at MIT sees the future of energy. Belcher uses viruses engineered in her laboratory to form nano-scale wires for tiny batteries that could eventually be used to produce a wide range of electronics at a lower cost. "Science of Innovation" is produced in partnership with the National Science Foundation and the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Science of Innovation -- Using Viruses to Make Batteries
KATE SNOW reporting:
From smallpox, to influenza, to HIV, viruses can often be harmful. But in a laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, new research is being done to turn these sometimes lethal agents into the energy cells of the future.
ANGELA BELCHER (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): I bet you, within these billion viruses within this little test tube, I bet you one of them is going to stick to a battery.
SNOW: Angela Belcher is a materials scientist at MIT who has been funded by the National Science Foundation. She's using viruses to turn new materials into batteries. Batteries store energy for later use in a wide variety of products, from flashlights to electric cars. But Belcher sees limitations with many of the batteries we use today.
BELCHER: Why don't we have better batteries? Why don't we have higher energy density batteries? Why don't we have less expensive batteries?
SNOW: To help solve this problem, Belcher turned to biochemistry. Her main inspiration, a key step in the process of innovation, came from studying organisms that have the ability to grow incredibly strong structures by gathering chemicals found in their natural environments, like the abalone, a snail that builds its own shell in the ocean. Belcher thought that by tweaking the DNA of a virus, she could create a virus that attracts conductive materials, like gold or copper, to build highly efficient miniature batteries.
BELCHER: When I first proposed this idea, the reviews came back that I was insane, that you cannot have a genetic link between a semiconductor, an electronic material, and a virus.
SNOW: Belcher started experimenting with a simple virus called the M13 bacteriophage, meaning “bacteria eater.” The M13 bacteriophage is harmless to humans, but thrives by infecting bacteria.
BELCHER: They're long and skinny. And the middle part of them, they're coded by almost three thousand proteins, they’re beautiful alpha helical proteins that self-assemble around the single strand of DNA inside of them.
SNOW: By swapping out bits of the M13 virus's DNA, Belcher created a virus that encodes proteins with the ability to latch onto metals that act as semiconductors, like cobalt oxide. To produce enough material for a battery, she had to make billions of copies of the modified
M13 bacteriophage virus. To do that, she needed to infect billions of its host organism-- bacteria.
BELCHER: We're saying, “Okay, we already know these viruses are good at infecting this particular bacteria. But let's put extra genes inside this virus so that this virus's job is not to just infect bacteria, but its job is to grow a battery.”
SNOW: In the lab, Belcher infects bacteria with her genetically-modified viruses, which replicate billions of times inside their bacterial hosts. The bacteria are then removed, leaving behind only pure, concentrated viruses.
BELCHER: And then we'll put it into a small little tube like this, and this is all purified, one particular kind of virus. And this particular virus we call “P8 number 9.” It's really, really good at binding gold ions out of solution and building beautiful gold wires.
SNOW: When Belcher's genetically-modified viruses are exposed to conductive material, whether it's gold or cobalt oxide - the metallic particles coat the entire length of the viruses, creating nano-scale wires. These nano-wires are then combined with other conductive materials used to make battery electrodes and then rolled out and put into a small coin cell battery.
Belcher proved that her genetically-modified viruses could be used to build batteries that are thin, flexible and able to fit into nonstandard shapes. A self-assembling battery built on a virus scaffold. Belcher was granted a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for the unique process she developed to build batteries using viruses. She's also received dozens of other patents for inventions that harness nature's own mechanisms to assemble new materials.
BELCHER: Nature is actually a really fantastic problem solver. And you can think of that problem-solving as innovation.
SNOW: Belcher's lab continues to develop new genetically-engineered viruses for new purposes, like solar cells, fuel cells, biofuels, even cancer therapies. By harnessing nature's own processes, Angela Belcher has been able to turn today's viruses into tomorrow's batteries.
Between the present and a low-carbon future lies a technically vexing gap — building a better battery. Solar and wind power are cheaper than ever, but the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. More powerful batteries could solve the problem of keeping the lights on, plus expand the market for electric cars by eliminating so-called range anxiety.
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