Virus Makes Producing Power A Walk In The Park

Government scientists say they have uncovered a way to produce electricity by harnessing the power from simple every day tasks, such as walking or shutting a door.

The scientists use a virus benign to humans to accomplish the ingenuous technology, which relies on the piezoelectric properties of a biological material.


image via Berkley Lab

Piezoelectricity works on the premise that electrical charge can accumulate in a solid in response to mechanical stress. To test their approach the researchers — all from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) — created a generator that is charged by tapping a finger on a postage stamp-sized electrode coated with specially engineered viruses. The researchers said that repetitive taps were converted by the viruses into an electric charge sufficient to operate a small liquid-crystal display.

The researchers said the viruses — M13 bacteriophages which only attack bacteria — could also be employed in the building of microelectronic devices since they have the capacity to self-organize, arranging themselves into an orderly film that enabled the generator to work.

The piezoelectric effect was first noticed in 1880 and has been observed since in crystals, ceramics, bone, proteins and DNA. Some modern applications like electric cigarette lighters and scanning probe microscopes take advantage of piezoelectricity, but it has mostly remained a niche technology in large part because many of the materials needed are toxic and difficult to work with.

In order to first establish if the M13 viruses were piezoelectric, the research team applied an electrical field to a film of the viruses. Under microscope they observed the helical proteins that coat the viruses twisting and turning under the effect of the field — a clear sign the viruses would work as a power source.

Next they attached genetically engineered, negatively charged amino acid residues to one end of the helical proteins to increase the positive/negative differential between the two ends of the protein, and therefore increase the electrical charge of the viruses.

Paul Willis has been journalist for a decade. Starting out in Northern England, from where he hails, he worked as a reporter on regional papers before graduating to the cut-throat world of London print media. On the way he spent a year as a correspondent in East Africa, writing about election fraud, drought and an Ethiopian version of American Idol. Since moving to America three years ago he has worked as a freelancer, working for and major newspapers in Britain, Australia and North America. He writes on subjects as diverse as travel, media ethics and human evolution. He lives in New York where, in spite of the car fumes and the sometimes eccentric driving habits of the yellow cabs, he rides his bike everywhere.

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