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Those portable electronic gadgets that many of us can't do without are getting more and more high tech. But they still run on old-fashioned batteries. As this ScienCentral News video reports, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are hoping to change that.
Power From Mother Nature
We need them to listen to music and make phone calls on the go, but batteries sure run out quickly. Scientists at MIT think they have a solution, using processes originally invented by Mother Nature.
Material scientist and engineer Angela Belcher's interest in nanotechnology came from studying how nature makes materials. "Abalone just happened to be a great example of a natural biomaterial, and one of the reasons that it is such a great material is that it's constructed on the nano-scale," she says. "So I approached the question, can you use the same principles that nature's evolved and apply it to other materials that nature hasn't had the opportunity to work with yet, like electronic materials and magnetic materials?" Since then, her goal has been to grow inexpensive nanomaterials in her lab at room temperature and pressure, that, among other qualities, self-assemble, self-correct and generate little waste, but offer the possibility of ever smaller and more powerful electronic devices.
Copying how red abalone build their shells, Belcher and her team are developing a way to actually "grow" rechargeable batteries with the help of viruses — tiny microbes that multiply by infecting living cells. Their technique would take a matter of weeks, rather than the 15 years the red abalone needs to assemble a full-sized shell.
Self-assembled viruses that will be part of a working battery. image: Ki Tae Nam, MIT
"We're forcing the viruses to interact with materials that they would never interact with, normally. So now the viruses are a template to actually grow that material… it incorporates these new materials into its coat surface," Belcher explains.
The team uses a type of virus that infect bacteria, called bacteriophages. When mixed together with a metal or other materials, millions of them can align and stack themselves into orderly layers, creating a new material.
As reported in Discover Magazine, Belcher and her team first find the best candidate for the job by scanning the DNA of millions of viruses to predict what materials they can interact with. "We screen through them in a couple-of-week period to find the one sequence that works the best," she says. At that point they multiply the chosen virus in non-toxic bacteria cells, then add the material such as a metal.
"We're using the same kinds of materials as building blocks of the materials that are currently used in typical electronic components. But we think by having the virus, that we can have some advantages, which are maybe to make them smaller," Belcher says, adding that, "self-assembly is very, very important in the idea of designing new materials, and it comes into play a lot in nanoscience or nanotechnology, because what we'd like to have are materials that can put themselves in the right architecture."
Because of their tiny size, Belcher's batteries would pack a lot of power, be light-weight, and even flexible, with more than a hint of Mother Nature's elegant touch.
Eventually these tiny microbes may be able to create all sorts of material, from solar cells to paints and even fabrics. "Right now," she says, "We're not ruling anything out."