Scientists at the US  Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have developed a way to use benign viruses to convert pressure into electricity.

The researchers have been working with a virus called M13 bacteriophage to convert mechanical energy into electricity, which they say one day could power gadgets such as smartphones from everyday movements such as walking.

When a M13 bacteriophage, which only infects bacteria, is squished, an electric current flows along the virus in a process called piezoelectricity, or electricity due to pressure.


M13 bacteriophage 

The M13 bacteriophage has a length of 880 nanometers and a diameter of 6.6 nanometers. According to the scientists it is coated with approximately 2,700 charged proteins that enable them to use the virus as a piezoelectric nano fiber.

Piezoelectric materials can convert mechanical energy into electrical energy and piezoelectric devices made of a variety of inorganic materials and organic polymers have been demonstrated.

However, synthesizing such materials often requires toxic starting compounds, harsh conditions and/or complex procedures.

Previously, it was shown that hierarchically organized natural materials such as bones, collagen fibrils and peptide nanotubes can display piezoelectric properties.

Seung-Wuk Lee, a faculty scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division and a UC Berkeley associate professor of bioengineering, said in statement: “More research is needed, but our work is a promising first step toward the development of personal power generators, actuators for use in nano-devices, and other devices based on viral electronics”.


Genetically engineered virus has electrical poles at each end that generate a voltage potential when deformed

The piezoelectric and liquid-crystalline properties of M13 bacteriophage (phage) can be used to generate electrical energy.

The technology could be used to make tiny devices that generate power from mechanical forces, such as using the beating of a heart to power a pacemaker.


When the M13 Bacteriophage virus is squished, one side builds negative charges while the other side builds positive charges establishing a charge difference, makes electric current flow over the virus.

Being a virus, it replicates itself by the millions within hours, meaning that there would always be a steady supply.

To ascertain whether the M13 virus was piezoelectric, Lee and his team applied an electrical field to a film of M13 viruses and watched what happened using a special microscope.

Researchers added four negatively charged amino acid residues to one end of the helical proteins that coat the virus to increase the charge difference.They then stacked 20 films composing of single layers of the virus on top of each other to achieve the maximum effect.

Sheets of the M13 Virus were sandwiched between two gold plated electrodes to make a generator.

When pressed with the thumb, the generator produces upto 6 nA of current and 400 mV potential or about one quarter the energy of a AAA battery.


The virus could provide 25% of the power produced by a AAA battery

The researchers have been testing their work through a specially developed generator that produces enough current to operate a small liquid-crystal display.

It works by tapping a finger on a postage stamp-sized electrode coated with specially engineered viruses. The viruses convert the force of the tap into an electric charge.
Through these generators a small LCD screen is connected to display a number 1.


The virus-based electrode produced a small current – enough to flash “1” on a liquid-crystal display

Because biotechnology techniques enable large-scale production of genetically modified phages, phage-based piezoelectric materials potentially offer a simple and environmentally friendly approach to piezoelectric energy generation.


One day, the technology may be used to charge a phone while jogging or walking or to use the beating of the heart to power a pace maker.


Possible devices include a pacemaker powered by the beating of one’s heart

The following video clip would help you to get more idea on the topic.