Generating Electricity From Viruses


Researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have come up with a way to use non-human viruses to create electricity from movement.

The researchers were able to create enough electrical current to power a small liquid-crystal display, just by tapping a finger on a small electrode coated with the engineered viruses. The viruses then convert the mechanical energy into an electric charge.

It’s the first generator to create electricity using the piezoelectric properties of something biological. Piezoelectric means that something accumulates an electric charge in response to mechanical energy.

This could lead to electronics, such as phones, music players, GPS, etc, that could charge simply by you walking around with them in a pocket.


“The M13 bacteriophage has a length of 880 nanometers and a diameter of 6.6 nanometers. It’s coated with approximately 2700 charged proteins that enable scientists to use the virus as a piezoelectric nanofiber.”

“More research is needed, but our work is a promising first step toward the development of personal power generators, actuators for use in nano-devices, and other devices based on viral electronics,” says Seung-Wuk Lee, a faculty scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division and a UC Berkeley associate professor of bioengineering.

Piezoelectricity is present in many materials, and has been known of by science since 1880. But most of the materials used to make piezoelectric devices are toxic, greatly limiting their use.

So the researchers asked, ‘What if they could use a virus, one that is benign to people, easily replicated, easily engineered, and organizes themselves into thin films?’

After first confirming that the chosen bacteria M13 is piezoelectric, they genetically engineered it to raise the voltage higher than it naturally was. And then stacked the thin self-organized films on top of each other to a height of 20 layers.


“The bottom 3-D atomic force microscopy image shows how the viruses align themselves side-by-side in a film. The top image maps the film’s structure-dependent piezoelectric properties, with higher voltages a lighter color.”

After creating a film of the viruses measuring one square centimeter, they placed it between two gold-plated electrodes connected to a liquid-crystal display.

When pressure is applied, it produces about a fourth the voltage of a triple A battery.

“We’re now working on ways to improve on this proof-of-principle demonstration,” says 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.”

Source and Images: Berkeley Lab

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