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Bio-Battery Breakthrough

The journal Science last week published news of a cool breaththrough in bioengineering by a team at MIT headed by materials scientist and MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient Angela Belcher: a highly efficient virus-built battery.

Earlier, Belcher’s team had created an anode by genetically engineering the M13 virus, a common parasite of bacteria, to attract cobalt oxide and gold to its outer shell and then assemble into films and sheets. To complete the battery, they needed to create a positively charged cathode. For this, the team engineered the M13 viruses to accumulate ions of iron phosphate and to latch onto a highly conductive network of carbon nanotubes.

“[O]nce you have the right genetic sequence and have th right proteins then you just put them in solution with water and ions and they template the battery in the same way an abalone templates a shell. They build little shells around themselves,” says Belcher, quoted in a Reuters article.

Belcher’s battery has the same power performance as commercially available lithium ion batteries and can be charged and discharged at least 100 times without wearing out. The entire system, with the exception of the carbon nanotubes, is created at room temperature and uses only water as a solvent, and when the batteries die and degrade, they don’t leave behind toxic chemicals.

“We could run an iPod on it for about three times as long as current iPod batteries,” Belcher says. “If we really scale it, it would be used in a car.” That’s a ways off yet, but the team is now working on a second-generation battery using materials with higher voltage and electrical capacity, such as manganese phosphate and nickel phosphate.

Here is an article on the MIT team’s research, published last year in Popular Mechanics.

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