MIT Researchers Print Tiny Battery Using Viruses

Using nanorobots to build circuits is so last year’s fantasy. The latest technology of tomorrow uses viruses to construct everything from transistors to tiny batteries to solar cells. Researchers at MIT published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week describing how they’ve successfully created tiny batteries, just four- to eight-millionths of a meter in diameter, using specially designed viruses. The hope is that these tiny batteries — which could be used in embedded medical sensors — and eventually other electronics, could be printed easily and cheaply onto surfaces and woven into fabrics.

Viruses are very orderly little critters and in high concentrations organize themselves into patterns, without high heat, toxic solvents or expensive equipment. By tweaking their DNA, the viruses, called M13, can be programmed to bind to inorganic materials, like metals and semiconductors. So far, the researchers have been able to use viruses to assemble the anode and electrolyte, two of the three main components of a battery. Eventually the work could also be used to make tiny electronics made up of silicon-covered viruses. Gross and cool.

“It’s not really analogous to anything that’s done now,” lead researcher Angela Belcher told MIT Technology Review late last year when describing her work. “It’s about giving totally new kinds of functionalities to fibers.”

The idea of thread-like electronics has gotten the interest of the Army, which has been funding Belcher’s research through the Army Research Office Institute of Collaborative Biotechnologies and the Army Research Office Institute of Soldier Nanotechnologies. Theoretically, these fibers could be woven into soldiers’ uniforms allowing clothing to sense biological or chemical agents as well as collect and store energy from the sun to power any number of devices.

The team still has to create a cathode for the battery, but so far, so good; the researchers note that when a platinum cathode is attached, “the resulting electrode arrays exhibit full electrochemical functionality.” Belcher has also successfully created fibers that glow under UV light, tiny cobalt oxide wires and has even developed viruses that bind to gold. We’re still waiting to see some viral bling.


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