The following is the article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal:
By WILLIAM M. BULKELEYApril 7, 2006; Page B2
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. --
Many researchers focus on stopping the replication of viruses that bring illness or death.
But Angela Belcher is excited about promoting the replication of viruses -- and harnessing them to create high-performance devices for practical applications. Dr. Belcher, a materials scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, heads a team that has successfully created a battery assembled by a benign biological virus that binds to gold and cobalt oxide.
Her invention is an advance in the emerging science of using biological methods to create new materials, and also falls within the field of nanotechnology -- the development of useful devices from bits of material so small they are measured in atoms.
The new battery material created by Dr. Belcher's team has three times the electricity-generating capacity of traditional battery materials of the same size. The team described its work in a paper in Science magazine this week.
Dr. Belcher says that based on the proof of concept described in the article, her team thinks it can make prototype batteries for specific applications within two years. Yet-Ming Chiang, an MIT materials scientist and battery expert who worked on the team, said he believes the size of the first batteries using the material will be "between a grain of rice and a hearing-aid battery."
Dr. Belcher declined to describe early applications, but she said they would probably be for the Defense Department since the work was funded by the Army Research Office. Besides high power, the technology promises batteries that are flexible and transparent. That raises the possibility that a small portable video screen -- such as the one on a cellphone -- could be coated with the viral-battery material instead of being attached to a separate battery. Other applications might involve medical use such as battery power for tiny devices threaded through arteries.
Dr. Belcher, a professor of materials science and engineering, and biological engineering, has been working on coding viruses to produce nano-scale materials. Nano-scale usually refers to particles that are less than a few hundred atoms in width. "As a material scientist, bacteria are just a factory to make viruses, and the viruses are just a tool to build electrodes," she said.
Two years ago in Science her team described coding viruses to grow semiconductor wires. "In this case we actually created viruses that self-assembled into this device," Dr. Belcher said in an interview.
According to the paper in Science, the researchers used a virus called M13, which is widely used in medical research, and engineered a specialized clone that would grow nanowires. The viruses were incubated for 30 minutes in a liquid bath of cobalt chloride after which they created cobalt-oxide nanowires.
Next the scientists further altered another part of the virus's protein coating to make it bind to gold particles. Using a small number of the gold viruses interspersed with a larger number of the cobalt viruses, the scientists created a cobalt-oxide and gold material that produced substantially higher power than the pure cobalt-oxide electrode did.
The paper says the bioengineered material contains precisely positioned nano materials and its crystalline structure helps make the batteries less prone to rapid fading than conventionally assembled batteries of the same materials.
Dr. Belcher said Cambrios Technologies Corp., a Mountain View, Calif., company that she founded and has the rights to her "directed evolution" virus technology, is looking at the developments. Cambrios is working on display and semiconductor manufacturing technology.
Write to William M. Bulkeley at firstname.lastname@example.org
I see a clear conflict of interest with respect to using public funds to develop technologies, only to be "licensed" to the companies founded by professors. I thought our professors' duty was first and foremost to educate our kids?! Also, it appears that our professors are busy feathering their nests! Have I the wrong expectation? What hath become of our great country - USA?