Over a decade ago, a bioengineering professor at MIT demonstrated an interesting piece of technology—a battery partially assembled by viruses.

Angela Belcher

Angela Belcher – one of the researchers behind the battery – was given the opportunity to present the new technology to then-president Barack Obama, who was planning on funding the research and development of new battery technology.

A specially modified virus was used to ‘assemble’ the electrodes of a battery through a complex process of replicating and latching onto particular materials.

In large part due to the strange nature of this development, the virus-built battery began attracting attention, and after a decade of work, Angela Belcher and her collegues begun to make significant breakthroughs with the viral technology.

Belcher claims that her team have developed viruses capable of assembling a wider variety of technologies, as the viruses can now work with more than 150 materials.

Using viruses as nano-engineering machines isn’t exactly simple, but according to the researchers at MIT, the process behind ‘assmebling’ things such as battery electrodes starts with exposing a virus to a particular material.

The virus will latch itself onto a particular material. The type of element it will latch onto is predetermined by the viruses DNA sequence, which can be coded to modify the targeted material.

Angela Belcher holds a display of the virus-built battery she helped engineer back in 2009. The battery—the silver-colored disc—is being used to power an LED. Photo / Donna Coveney

Once the virus has latched onto the material, they are then replicated through a process of infecting a bacterium. Particular proteins are then used to attract certain particles to the virus, which cover it.

The key is for the many millions of replicated viruses to continue until the assembly of one material is complete. The same procedure can then be used for other materials.

According to the researchers at MIT, the primary benefit of this technique is the environmental impact. Since the majority of the work is done by viruses, there is little to no environmental footprint once the electrode is built.

While the team still isn’t ready for such technology to be sold on the market, the creativity behind the project proves that unconventional, environmentally friendly methods of manufacturing are on the rise, and may eventually become the norm.




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