Inspired by an abalone shell, MIT scientists have found a way to program viruses to construct powerful new batteries, clean hydrogen fuels and record-breaking solar cells.
By harnessing and directing the power of natural organisms, MIT’s Biomolecular Materials Group, led by Angela Belcher, Paula Hammond and Yet-Ming Chiang, have developed potentially cheap and environmentally benign processes for the production of high-tech materials.
In order to achieve exactly the right blend of properties, man-made materials with very specific requirements (e.g. those used for batteries) often rely on rare, expensive or harmful ingredients (like lithium or cobalt) or expensive manufacturing processes (such as those to produce many specialist nanomaterials).
Nature, however, frequently constructs elegant and highly effective materials (like sea-shells) from common ingredients at low temperatures and energies. The core idea of the MIT group’s research is to program (or really – “evolve”) nature (viruses) to construct materials we want, rather than sea-shells.
By super-accelerating the evolution of very specialized viruses, they have caused natural agents to produce materials the like of which have never been seen in nature. They can get viruses to coat themselves with one useful material, then grab hold of another – “wiring themselves in” to a giant network to make part of a highly effective battery.
Carbon emissions from fossil-fuel powered vehicles are a major contributor to global warming. Electric vehicles are not yet a viable mainstream alternative as they are too expensive. The main component of the cost is the battery. Lithium ion batteries are generally accepted as the best available technology, but the expensive materials involved in their manufacture puts a limit on how cheap they can be.
The technology being developed by the MIT group can reduce that cost, increase the capacity, reduce the energy required to produce them and eliminate their toxic components. This could not only bring about the tipping point of mainstream vehicles going electric but could also make the vehicles themselves considerably less toxic.
Read more or watch Angela Belcher’s TED talk below.