Scientists at the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkely Lab have demonstrated that not only algae and bacteria can be genetically engineered to generate electricity, but so can viruses. The demonstration opens new doors for incredibly small and cheap electric power generators. If the idea is further developed, it could mean a whole new generation of electric generators from man-modified viruses. Is this a form of “common cold fusion?”
The paper, which was published in Nature Nanotechnology, demonstrated that a specially designed virus could be made to give off electricity by infusing it with a modified M13 virus. The virus, while sounding dubious to a public used to the word being compared to illness, is really a bacteriophage meaning it “eats” bacteria to allow it to reproduce. Additionally, this particular virus is not harmful to humans. It works on a simple principle that requires stress and impact in order to generate its electricity. The compression of the virus produces a weak electric charge that then can be passed on to the device being powered.
In the case of the latest study, the device being powered was a simple LCD display, chosen because of its low electrical output requirement. The LCD display successfully ran on the energy provided by the virus.
So how does it work? Scientists have used microbial fuel cells in bacteria and algae to produce electricity in the past. Additionally, the navy has pursued algae based combustible fuels to power boats in a way very similar to corn ethanol. But the combustible algae-based fuel draws power from a much different method than the subtler virus based electricity from this simple bacteriophage. The secret is a process known as piezoelectricity. After that they merge the virus with modified amino acids, allowing them to designate different parts of it as positively and negatively aligned – like a battery.
So what could this mean for the future? While the risk of the virus mutating and turning a whole generation of appliance users into electric superheroes is fairly low, it may provide the power of mobility for a number of small devices and materials that would ordinarily require limited charge batteries in locations where solar panels are impractical and other methods are too expensive. Because the virus reproduces very readily, the cost of producing it is very low.
And it’s difficult to determine just how far reaching the potential applications will eventually be for engineers. Shoes, clothes, stairs, light switches, even the keys of your keyboard might one day use piezoelectric virus based electricity to ensure every bit of pressure is eventually converted into useful electrical energy. There may even be applications for medical devices and research materials that require only a little energy.
Science as a whole is on the lookout for new sources of energy to supplement declining oil reserves and an increased sensitivity for a clean Earth. And while this viral energy won’t likely be powering vehicles any time soon, in the frontier of microscopic electronics, it could make a big difference for scientists.