Is it too soon to talk about a virus-based battery?

Futurist writer Leon Okwatch, poses an interesting idea in his latest Medium post. He suggests that viruses could be used to manufacture batteries in the future. This may not be quite the right time for any positive mentions of what Okwatch calls, “nature’s microscopic zombies,” but then again, perhaps it is the perfect time to understand how they can be harnessed for a good use.

Okwatch also points out something that many of us may not have thought about: the global reliance on batteries has increased at speed. Not only are they required for basic electronic devices (my Apple mouse uses them at an alarming rate), but the advent of electric cars also ups demand for batteries. As a result there is a need for better, more reliable and higher energy batteries, and viruses might be the solution.

How would viruses be used in batteries?

According to Okwatch, back in 2009, Angela Belcher, a professor of bioengineering at MIT, demonstrated a lithium-ion battery that used viruses to assemble its electrodes. The inspiration for her experiment came from “studying organisms that can grow incredibly strong structures by using chemicals found in nature.”

Citing the example of the way in which an abalone snail builds a strong shell by gathering calcium molecules, a process that is encoded in the snail’s DNA, Belcher worked on the basis that an organism’s DNA could be tweaked “so that it can attract conductive materials such as gold or copper.” She then looked at viruses because it’s easy to alter their DNA.

Belcher experimented with M13 bacteriophage, a virus that only infects bacteria and is therefore harmless to us humans. It had a further advantage: its genome is quite easy to manipulate.

Through genetic engineering, Belcher created a virus that encodes proteins that can latch onto metals that act as semiconductors.

Another upside to working with a virus in this way is that whilst billions of virus copies are need to make a battery, it’s relatively easy to produce at this quantity, because they multiply rapidly in the bacterial host. Furthermore, she “proved that her genetically modified viruses can be used to make batteries that are thin, flexible, and able to fit into non-standard shapes,” Okwatch says. And she has a US patent to prove it!

Why do we want virus-based batteries?

In brief, because we want more powerful batteries that are able to be recharged faster.

A battery created with a virus shortens the path of the electrons moving through it. This results in increasing the battery’s charge and discharge rate, giving it additional energy capacity and a longer cycle life, as well as a faster charge rate. That’s very important for electric car owners.

A virus-based battery is also more environmentally friendly, because the conventional battery uses toxic chemicals, whereas with belcher’s method all that is needed is the electrode’s metal, water, and genetically modified viruses.

Why don’t we have these batteries?

If Belcher first demonstrated this in 2009, what’s the hold up in producing these more eco-friendly batteries? As with many discoveries like this, scalability is the issue when it comes to launching a commercial product.

As Okwatch points out, “The goal is to find a sweet spot where we can achieve economies of scale without compromising on the quality, efficiency, and reliability of the product.”

Viruses have for centuries been feared as the agents of death and disease, with 2020 being the perfect illustration of our sentiment about them. However, they also have unique properties that can be utilised for good, and batteries may not be the only product where viruses play a leading role in the future. As Okwatch says, “nature offers a new frontier to solve problems that haven’t been solved so far.”

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