How Viruses Can Make Batteries, Instead of Colds and Flu

By Shlomo Maital


   Angela Belcher is an MIT professor of engineering and she has had an amazingly creative idea – and made it happen.  And she is young…she only completed her chemistry Ph.D. in 1997.  Also – she’s one of those genius MacArthur Fellows.   

   Here’s what she has done:   Created new virus-produced batteries that have the same energy capacity and power performance as state-of-the-art rechargeable batteries being considered to power plug-in hybrid cars, also usable to power a range of personal electronic devices –and, these batteries are manufactured by—viruses!

   After studying abalone shells, which know how to extract calcium from the sea, to build their shells,  she worked with several colleagues at MIT and engineered a virus, known as the M13 bacteriophage whose target is usually E-coli.  M13 can be made to latch onto and coat itself with inorganic materials including gold and cobalt oxide. The long tubular virus (coated in cobalt oxide) now acts as a minuscule length of wire called a nanowire. Belcher’s group coaxed many of these nanowires together and found that they resemble the basic components of a potentially very powerful and compact battery. Her startup,  Cambrios,  with Evelyn L. Hu of (at the time) University of California, Santa Barbara, now sells such batteries.   Their vision relied upon the use of nanostructured inorganic materials, fabricated and shaped by biological molecules to create novel materials and processes for a variety of industries.

  Her research breakthrough happened because she figured out how to harness Darwin – she manages, in her lab, to run a billion experiments, in which pieces of virus DNA are snipped away and replaced with something else, using genetic engineering and enzymes.  Then the results are tested in a chemical bath, to see if they work. Most don’t. A few do.  They are retested.  Out of the billion ‘enzyme snipping’ experiments, resembling Darwinian mutations in nature,  one works. And it becomes the battery factory. 

    This is one of those ideas that is easy to describe, but really murder to implement. Kudos to Angela. Her batteries are made by viruses without toxic chemicals.  At last – viruses that work FOR us, instead of giving us colds and flu.