Friday, April 3, 2009

MIT Scientists Build Virus-Powered Batteries for Your Next Electric Car

BY Ariel Schwartz

We've heard a lot of creative ideas for powering rechargeable batteries, but this one from MIT takes the cake. Researchers at the university have genetically engineered viruses to build the positively and negatively charged ends of a lithium ion battery. Work on anodes for the virus-powered batteries began three years ago, but MIT scientists have just now figured out a way to engineer cathodes. The research team claims that its virus-powered batteries have as much power and energy capacity as rechargeable batteries currently being considered for plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) like the Tesla Model S and the Chevy Volt.

The team built the battery cathode by genetically engineering viruses to coat themselves with iron phosphate and grab on to carbon nanotubes to make a network of conductive material. Each iron phosphate nanowire is "wired" to conducting carbon nanotube networks. Electrons travel along the networks until they reach the iron phosphate, where they transfer energy.

Lab tests show that the virus-powered batteries can be charged and discharged 100 times without losing capacitance, but researchers working on the project eventually expect the batteries to last much longer.

MIT's scientists say that the viruses are common bacteriophages that are harmless to humans, but we're a bit wary of anything that works in tandem with infectious agents. Still, the batteries are cheap to manufacture, don't require harmful solvents, and contain non-toxic materials. And while the prototype looks like a typical coin cell battery, the technology allows for lightweight, flexible batteries that take the shape of their container. With the likely explosion of PHEVs in the next few years, we'll need all the long-lasting batteries we can get--virus-powered or not.

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