When we think of viruses, we associate them with the words bad, harmful, destructive and perhaps even evil. Viruses have been the cause of some the worst human illnesses such as Polio, Smallpox, Ebola, and of course HIV. In their less potent form, they are an annual nuisance in the form of influenza, giving people worldwide symptoms of a pesky “cold” or “flu”. Can we not try to rid the world of these bad guys? Not only is this no simple task, but a research team at the University of California, Berkley, may have actually found a very useful purpose for them.
The team has developed a way to generate electricity using viruses. The researchers built a generator with a postage stamp-sized electrode, utilizing a small film of specially engineered viruses. When a researcher tapped the electrode with a finger, the viruses converted the mechanical energy into electricity.
Materials which convert mechanical energy into electricity are called “piezoelectric”. This is normally difficult to achieve, as orderly structures of this material are not easily produced. Viruses are advantageous to use for such as a task because they automatically arrange themselves into an orderly film that enables the generator to work.
The virus used in the research was an M13 bacteriophage, which focuses its attacks on bacteria and is benign to humans. The team genetically engineered four negatively charged molecules to one end of the corkscrew-shaped proteins that coat the virus. These molecules boosted the voltage of the virus by increasing the charge difference between the protein’s positive and negative ends. The scientists enhanced the system by stacking 20 layers of the virus-infused films on top of each other, increasing the piezoelectric effect.
In order to demonstrate their experiment, the researchers placed the film of viruses between two gold-plated electrodes which they connected to a liquid crystal display. They then applied pressure to the generator, which was able to produce a quarter of the voltage of a common battery.
Dr. Seung Wuk Lee, a member of the research team indicated that while more research is needed, this is the first step toward the development of personal power generators and other devices based on viral electronics.
The researchers hope that one day these tiny devices could harvest electrical energy from the vibrations of everyday movements such as shutting a door or climbing stairs. Perhaps one day this technology could be used to power larger products from televisions to laser printers.