Photo: Donna Coveney
Any reader of these pages knows that batteries are key to the future of alternative energies. Light, high energy batteries to power electric cars. Cost effective batteries to store solar power at night or wind power when the air is still. So it is an exciting step that MIT has announced a success which could result in the development of batteries with 3 or more times the energy density of current batteries. But their method involves genetically modified viruses. Can an electric car catch a cold?MIT researchers have persuaded a construction team of viruses to build a super-small battery anode. The researchers altered the genetic instructions of the viruses so that they pick up cobalt oxide and gold when growing their protein coats. This results, effectively, in nanowires which can be aligned on a polymer film to form an anode with extremely high energy density potential.
Is this where luddite and high-tech TreeHugger minds meet in battle? Conservation is needed, but so is science. Genetic engineering raises fears. But using viruses brings advantages which cannot be achieved by physical-chemical methods alone. In this case, the virus controls the build-up of the cobalt oxide and gold molecules very precisely, which is difficult to achieve by other methods. Perhaps even more importantly, the process proceeds at room temperature and ambient conditions. No high energy pressure-cooker chemistry is required. Learning to harness the power of biology, and manage the risks of this new technology, is the exciting challenge for the TreeHuggers of the future.
Professors Angela Belcher, Yet-Ming Chiang, and Paula Hammond (all three pictured) led a team of five additional researchers on this work: MSE graduate students Ki Tae Nam (the lead author), Dong-Wan Kim, Chung-Yi Chiang and Nonglak Meethong, and ChE postdoctoral associate Pil. J. Yoo. A report on the work will appear in the April 7 issue of Science.