Image: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Imagine charging your phone as you walk, thanks to
a paper-thin generator embedded in the sole of your shoe. This futuristic
scenario is now a little closer to reality. Scientists from the U.S. Department
of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have developed
a way to generate power using harmless viruses that convert mechanical energy
The scientists tested their approach by creating a
generator that produces enough current to operate a small liquid-crystal display.
It works by tapping a finger on a postage stamp-sized electrode coated with
specially engineered viruses. The viruses convert the force of the tap into an
Their generator is the first to produce electricity
by harnessing the piezoelectric properties of a biological material.
Piezoelectricity is the accumulation of a charge in a solid in response to
The milestone could lead to tiny devices that
harvest electrical energy from the vibrations of everyday tasks such as shutting
a door or climbing stairs.
It also points to a simpler way to make
microelectronic devices. That’s because the viruses arrange themselves into an
orderly film that enables the generator to work. Self-assembly is a much sought
after goal in the finicky world of nanotechnology.
The scientists describe their work in Nature
“More research is needed, but our work is a
promising first step toward the development of personal power generators,
actuators for use in nanodevices, and other devices based on viral
electronics,” says Seung-Wuk Lee, a faculty scientist in Berkeley Lab’s
Physical Biosciences Division and a UC Berkeley associate professor of
He conducted the research with a team that includes
Ramamoorthy Ramesh, a scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division
and a professor of materials sciences, engineering, and physics at University of California,
Byung Yang Lee of Berkeley Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division.
The piezoelectric effect was discovered in 1880 and
has since been found in crystals, ceramics, bone, proteins, and DNA. It’s also
been put to use. Electric cigarette lighters and scanning probe microscopes
couldn’t work without it, to name a few applications.
But the materials used to make piezoelectric
devices are toxic and very difficult to work with, which limits the widespread
use of the technology.
Lee and colleagues wondered if a virus studied in
laboratoriess worldwide offered a better way. The M13 bacteriophage only attacks
bacteria and is benign to people. Being a virus, it replicates itself by the
millions within hours, so there’s always a steady supply. It’s easy to
genetically engineer. And large numbers of the rod-shaped 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’
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
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.
“We’re now working on ways to improve on this proof-of-principle
demonstration,” says Lee. “Because the tools of biotechnology enable
large-scale production of genetically modified viruses, piezoelectric materials
based on viruses could offer a simple route to novel microelectronics in the