Angela Belcher Programs a Virus To Grow A High Powered Battery


(Source: BBC )

Angela Belcher, Professor at the Department of Material Science and Engineering and Department of Biological Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is using nature to grow batteries!


(Source: Wikimedia, Abalone shell )

Belcher begins her TED Talk with an abalone shell. Naturally constructed from 98% Calcium Carbonate and 2% protein by mass this bio composite material is roughly 3000 times tougher than its geological counterpart and could be used like chalk.

The abalone shell creates structures which are macroscopic but they use a genetic-level coded protein which allows them to make these structures at the Nano-scale. Using this as inspiration Belcher posed some questions “What if you could grow a battery in a Petri dish? What if you could give genetic information to a battery so that it could become better as a function of time? And do so in an environmentally friendly way.” The other criteria were that it must be grown at room temperature and pressure.

Abalone shells are male and female and pass their genetic codes down to their offspring which means that the recipe for and instructions on how to build the structures are passed down and can be improved upon over time. Because of this, Belcher wondered if she could use biology to work with something else on the periodic table.

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(Source: TED Talk, screenshot)

Speaking of the periodic table if you watch her TED Talk she tells a charming little story involving President Obama at 4:45 .

OK, so nature can create these structures on the nano-scale already but it took millions of years to go from a soft structure to a hard one so Belcher needed to brainstorm on a way to speed up the process. The answer was a virus which is an easy biotechnology according to Belcher.

M13 is a non-toxic bacteriophage whose job it is to infect bacteria. It has a simple DNA structure so you can cut and paste additional DNA sequences into it and that allows the virus to express random protein sequences. This can be done a billion times with different tips (a single sequence that codes for one protein). Then the billions are placed into a single drop of liquid where an interaction is forced between them and an element from the periodic table. The process is called selective evolution. You just pull the one that you’d like to make a battery or solar cell from.


(Source: TED Talk, screenshot)

In her lab Belcher and her team successfully grew a high powered battery by engineering a virus to pick up carbon nano-tubes. One part of virus grabs the nano-tube and another part has a sequence that can grow an electrode material for a battery and then it wires itself to the current collector. At first the battery was not good, then it got better, and finally it’s evolved into a high powered battery. Belcher’s dream for this battery is to scale it for a Prius!


(Source: TED Talk, screenshot)

Also, in her lab the team successfully made a solar cell and clean fuel.