Bad Virus Put to Good Use: Breakthrough Batteries

Productive properties of viruses harnessed to build a new generation of batteries and fuel cells.

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COLLEGE PARK, Md.—viruses have a bad rep—and rightly so. The ability of a virus to quickly and precisely replicate itself makes it a destructive scourge to animals and plants alike. Now an interdisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Maryland's A. James Clark School of Engineering and College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, brought together by Professor Reza Ghodssi, is turning the tables, harnessing and exploiting the "self-renewing" and "self-assembling" properties of viruses for a higher purpose: to build a new generation of small, powerful and highly efficient batteries and fuel cells.

The rigid, rod-shaped Tobacco mosaic virus (TMV), which under an electron microscope looks like uncooked spaghetti, is a well-known and widespread plant virus that devastates tobacco, tomatoes, peppers, and other vegetation. But in the lab, engineers have discovered that they can harness the characteristics of TMV to build tiny components for the lithium ion batteries of the future. They can modify the TMV rods to bind perpendicularly to the metallic surface of a battery electrode and arrange the rods in intricate and orderly patterns on the electrode. Then, they coat the rods with a conductive thin film that acts as a current collector and finally the battery's active material that participates in the electrochemical reactions.

As a result, the researchers can greatly increase the electrode surface area and its capacity to store energy and enable fast charge/discharge times. TMV becomes inert during the manufacturing process; the resulting batteries do not transmit the virus. The new batteries, however, have up to a 10-fold increase in energy capacity over a standard lithium ion battery.

"The resulting batteries are a leap forward in many ways and will be ideal for use not only in small electronic devices but in novel applications that have been limited so far by the size of the required battery," said Ghodssi, director of the Institute for Systems Research and Herbert Rabin Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Clark School. "The technology that we have developed can be used to produce energy storage devices for integrated microsystems such as wireless sensors networks. These systems have to be really small in size—millimeter or sub-millimeter—so that they can be deployed in large numbers in remote environments for applications like homeland security, agriculture, environmental monitoring and more; to power these devices, equally small batteries are required, without compromising in performance."

TMV's nanostructure is the ideal size and shape to use as a template for building battery electrodes. Its self-replicating and self-assembling biological properties produce structures that are both intricate and orderly, which increases the power and storage capacity of the batteries that incorporate them. Because TMV can be programmed to bind directly to metal, the resulting components are lighter, stronger and less expensive than conventional parts.

Three distinct steps are involved in producing a TMV-based battery: modifying, propagating and preparing the TMV; processing the TMV to grow nanorods on a metal plate; and incorporating the nanorod-coated plates into finished batteries. It takes an interdisciplinary team of UM scientists and their students to make each step possible.

James Culver, a member of the Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology and a professor in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, and researcher Adam Brown had already developed genetic modifications to the TMV that enable it to be chemically coated with conductive metals. For this project they extract enough of the customized virus from just a few tobacco plants grown in the lab to synthesize hundreds of battery electrodes. The extracted TMV is then ready for the next step.

Scientists produce a forest of vertically aligned virus rods using a process developed by Culver's former Ph.D. student, Elizabeth Royston. A solution of TMV is applied to a metal electrode plate. The genetic modifications program one end of the rod shaped virus to attach to the plate. Next these viral forests are chemically coated with a conductive metal, mainly nickel. Other than its structure, no trace of the virus is present in the finished product, which cannot transmit a virus to either plants or animals. This process is patent-pending.