Lithium battery technology has been evolving quickly and promises to become the de facto means for storing energy in everything from consumer electronics to plug-in cars and even solar and wind power plants.
But lithium batteries have some serious drawbacks -- both environmental and economic. Current lithium batteries are expensive to produce, requiring high temperatures and toxic organic solvents.
So, what if you could make a water-based lithium battery?
This was the question that MIT biology researcher Angela Belcher asked. In order to make a nontoxic water-based battery, you would have to replace common electrode elements with something more organic - a virus.
Belcher's team was able to engineer a virus that self-assembles anode and cathode ends of the battery (the electrodes which move electricity in and out of the battery). The virus acts like a miniature machine, bringing together commonly available iron and phosphate molecules into a stiff lattice structure. The virus is attached to a carbon nanotube which then conducts electrons into the battery.
These new batteries have the same energy storage capacity as regular lithium batteries, but would be much less energy-intensive to produce and almost totally nontoxic, solving one of the greatest problems lithium batteries now face -- safe disposal.
The next step is scaling the technology. Right now, their prototype battery is only able to power a single LED light bulb, but given time and funding, the technology could become competitive with currently available commercial batteries.
You can listen to an interview with Belcher on her viral batteries at NPR.