Scientists experiment with gene-modded viruses to power tech

It's common for high-end watchmakers to include piezoelectric elements in watches, using your swinging wrist, rather than a battery, to keep it powered. New research hints that future gadgets could include something similar by way of genetically engineered viruses.

This new piezoelectric method uses "harmless viruses that convert mechanical energy into electricity," according to a statement released by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a lab commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy. Right now, the technique isn't being used to power anything as big as a watch. Up above you can see a device built to demo the approach: press that button and the display shows the number one — which verifies that it's being powered by said viruses.

While the power represented in the demo is small, Berkeley scientists are still playing with the unique benefits piezoelectric viruses offer. From the Berkeley release:

Lee and colleagues wondered if a virus studied in labs 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…

"We're now working on ways to improve on this proof-of-principle demonstration," says [Berkeley faculty scientist Seung-Wuk] 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 future."

It sounds like this research won't find its way beyond a rather small scale for a while. Still, the "steady supply" and idea of, as Lee puts it, "a simple route to novel microelectronics in the future," makes this an exciting prospect waiting for the spirit of innovation to sweep it along, especially since the virus is harmless and responds to genetic tinkering (which hopefully won't jeopardize that former quality).

The Berkeley team is publishing their work in Nature Nanotechnology, which is linked directly below.

Nature, via Berkeley, via CNET

For the latest tech stories, follow DVICE on Twitter
at @dvice or find us on Facebook