Viruses, though commonly associated with infectious disease, have been increasingly used therapeutically in medicine over the last few years. Now, thanks to researchers at UC Berkeley, viruses might see an even greater rehabilitation of their reputation.
After discovering that the commonly studied M13 bacteriophage is piezoelectric, the Berkeley team developed a device that turns mechanical energy into electricity thanks to their genetically engineered version of the virus. The discovery has consequences for nanotechnology, portable devices, and of course for energy hungry medical implants.
And large numbers of the rod-shaped [M13] viruses naturally orient themselves into well-ordered films, much the way that chopsticks align themselves in a box.
These are the traits that scientists look for in a nano building block. But the Berkeley Lab researchers first had to determine if the M13 virus is piezoelectric. Lee turned to Ramesh, an expert in studying the electrical properties of thin films at the nanoscale. They applied an electrical field to a film of M13 viruses and watched what happened using a special microscope. Helical proteins that coat the viruses twisted and turned in response—a sure sign of the piezoelectric effect at work.
Next, the scientists increased the virus’s piezoelectric strength. They used genetic engineering to add four negatively charged amino acid residues to one end of the helical proteins that coat the virus. These residues increase the charge difference between the proteins’ positive and negative ends, which boosts the voltage of the virus.
The scientists further enhanced the system by stacking films composed of single layers of the virus on top of each other. They found that a stack about 20 layers thick exhibited the strongest piezoelectric effect.
The only thing remaining to do was a demonstration test, so the scientists fabricated a virus-based piezoelectric energy generator. They created the conditions for genetically engineered viruses to spontaneously organize into a multilayered film that measures about one square centimeter. This film was then sandwiched between two gold-plated electrodes, which were connected by wires to a liquid-crystal display.
When pressure is applied to the generator, it produces up to six nanoamperes of current and 400 millivolts of potential. That’s enough current to flash the number “1” on the display, and about a quarter the voltage of a triple A battery.
Press release: Berkeley Lab Scientists Generate Electricity From Viruses
Nature Nanotechnology: Virus-based piezoelectric energy generation