Technology

Researchers generate electricity with viruses

Monday, May 14, 2012

It's not often you hear something good about a virus. They can make you sick, or wreak havoc on your computer. But a special virus being studied at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory could one day add years to your life.

A little science experiment could be heralding big things to come. By pressing down on a thin rubbery film, Professor Seung-Wuk Lee is generating electricity -- enough to power a small digital circuit.

"And then as you can see that, it generates the number one," Lee said.

But what's more remarkable is what the film is made of.

"We use genetically engineered viruses," Lee said.

It's not as scary as it sounds; they aren't the type of virus that can make you sick.

"This is a totally not toxic and benign viruses," Lee said.

The viruses cost nothing because they manufacture themselves.

"We ended up with trillions or jillions of these virus particles, which can generate the electricities," Lee said.

At a microscopic level, Lee explained, the viruses are long and skinny like pencils. If you drop a bunch of pencils in a Petri dish and shake it, they line themselves up. The viruses line themselves up the same way until someone puts pressure on them, causing them to scatter and creating a spark, that for Lee, was like fireworks going off.

"I was very surprised and excited," he said.

The amount of power this prototype generates isn't very much -- it's only about one-quarter of what comes out of this AAA battery. But once scientists get it producing more power, the possibilities could be endless.

"Maybe 5 or 10 years later, we can begin to make very small, personalized electric generators," Lee said.

Generators that could charge your smartphone.

"By walking or jogging or typing, you can basically collect all your mechanical movement as electricities," Lee said.

Or use the movement of the human heart to power a life-saving device like a pacemaker.

"So we can implant in your body and then it's a self-sustainable electric source," Lee said.

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berkeley, technology, jonathan bloom
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