virusbatteryViruses seemed like a frightened enemy that kept standing in our way for the past… million years. Although they have their qualification and role in the ecosystem, we seem to hate viruses and only associate them will our colds, hepatitis, and other illnesses. Not for a moment we could think of them as of a power source.

Well, at least some of us don’t. At the beginning of last year, I presented an article that stated MIT scientists are on their way to discovering a virus-powered battery, with self-assembling structures. Today’s news brings us a kind of update to their work, as we find out they could make those batteries as efficient as Li-Ions and as cheap as a beer.

Here’s what MIT’s press release says: “In a traditional lithium-ion battery, lithium ions flow between a negatively charged anode, usually graphite, and the positively charged cathode, usually cobalt oxide or lithium iron phosphate. Three years ago, an MIT team led by Angela Belcher [n.a. the MIT materials scientist who led the team] reported that it had engineered viruses that could build an anode by coating themselves with cobalt oxide and gold and self-assembling to form a nanowire.

In the latest work, the team focused on building a highly powerful cathode to pair up with the anode, said Belcher, the Germeshausen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Biological Engineering. Cathodes are more difficult to build than anodes because they must be highly conducting to be a fast electrode, however, most candidate materials for cathodes are highly insulating (non-conductive).

To achieve that, the researchers, including MIT Professor Gerbrand Ceder of materials science and Associate Professor Michael Strano of chemical engineering, genetically engineered viruses that first coat themselves with iron phosphate, then grab hold of carbon nanotubes to create a network of highly conductive material.

Because the viruses recognize and bind specifically to certain materials (carbon nanotubes in this case), each iron phosphate nanowire can be electrically “wired” to conducting carbon nanotube networks. Electrons can travel along the carbon nanotube networks, percolating throughout the electrodes to the iron phosphate and transferring energy in a very short time.

The viruses are a common bacteriophage, which infect bacteria but are harmless to humans.

Ok, I agree we should have more efficient batteries and generally speaking, power sources, but should we play with viruses to do that? I also agree… they are bacteriophage, but there are mutations all over the place, and you don’t know what the nature comes up with when it comes to adapting to a host environment, and what strengths that mutated virus could have. I don’t want to create panic, but we really should be cautious with this type of technology.

Even Barack Obama saw this technology and was asked federal funding for developing it further. I say this very rarely, but I feel this technology shouldn’t reach the market. We have other powerful sources of energy and smart ways of storing it than these potentially bio-hazardous batteries.

In most of the cases, panics like me really don’t know anything about how the specific technology works in detail, and I don’t claim to know even 0.1% of how much these researchers know about viruses, but this time I just don’t feel it’s right. At all.

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