Viruses, even if they have a bad reputation as the most versatile and destructive forces for anything alive, have their good parts, too. Now, for instance, an interdisciplinary team of scientists from the University of Maryland have a clue on how to use a virus called TMV (Tobacco Mosaic Virus) to enhance lithium ion batteries’ capacity tenfold. And they’re not joking.
Normally, the TMV does its job in plants like tobacco, tomatoes, peppers and others. Genetically-engineered, though, the TMV can be made to bind perpendicularly to the metallic surface of a battery electrode in various but ordered patterns. These patterns are then coated with conductive thin films (of nickel, for example), and can successfully act as the battery’s active material that collects lithium ions.
The researchers say it’s 100% safe to use these viruses in batteries, since besides using their skeletons to make the nanorods, which are covered in nickel, you won’t find them anywhere else, and even if you found them, say, after a battery’s explosion, they wouldn’t do any harm, as they would have been inactivated since their linkage with the metal electrode plate.
“The resulting batteries are a leap forward in many ways and will be ideal for use not only in small electronic devices but in novel applications that have been limited so far by the size of the required battery,” said professor Reza Ghodssi, director of the Institute for Systems Research.
“The technology that we have developed can be used to produce energy storage devices for integrated microsystems such as wireless sensors networks. These systems have to be really small in size–millimeter or sub-millimeter–so that they can be deployed in large numbers in remote environments for applications like homeland security, agriculture, environmental monitoring and more; to power these devices, equally small batteries are required, without compromising in performance.”
The batteries that the TMV will “infect” will also be cheaper, too, because simpler technological processes would then be used and the nanorods would be self-assembled and would need no binding or conducting agents.
The use of the TMV virus in fabricating batteries can be scaled up to meet industrial production needs. “The process is simple, inexpensive, and renewable. On average, one acre of tobacco can produce approximately 2,100 pounds of leaf tissue, yielding approximately one pound of TMV per pound of infected leaves,” says James Culver, a member of the Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology and a professor in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture.