Using Viruses to Create Electricity

By James Burgess | Tue, 15 May 2012 15:40 | 1

Objects with piezoelectric properties can convert mechanical energy into electrical energy, meaning that electricity can be cleanly produced just by thought movement. Scientists have been trying to find a way to use this phenomenon to create large amounts of electricity for decades, but most materials that can be used to create piezoelectric devices are highly toxic, somewhat limiting their widespread use.

Scientists at the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have developed a method to create electricity via a piezoelectric material that is not toxic. They have created a film of non-human viruses measuring one square centimeter, which have piezoelectric properties, and when placed between two gold plates and pressurized can create a charge equal to 25% of a standard AA battery.

Using viruses means that the desired properties can be easily engineered, the virus can then be easily replicated in large quantities, and simply applied onto thin films.

The scientists found that the harmless bacteria M13 had piezoelectric properties, but had to genetically engineer it to create a larger voltage than normal. Seung-Wuk Lee, a faculty scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division and a UC Berkeley associate professor of bioengineering, said that “the M13 bacteriophage has a length of 880 nanometers and a diameter of 6.6 nanometers. It’s coated with approximately 2700 charged proteins that enable scientists to use the virus as a piezoelectric nanofiber. More research is needed, but our work is a promising first step toward the development of personal power generators, actuators for use in nano-devices, and other devices based on viral electronics.”

It is the first example of a piezoelectric generator which uses a biological source. The team were able to create enough electricity to power a small liquid crystal display, just by tapping their fingers on the small generator. They suggest that it could lead to electronic devices, such as phones, music players, etc. that could charge as you walk around with them in a pocket

Lee hopes that “the tools of biotechnology will enable large-scale production of genetically modified viruses, piezoelectric materials based on viruses could offer a simple route to novel microelectronics in the future.”

By. James Burgess of