A new type of virus-based battery is under development for the US army and could soon be woven into military uniforms.
The new power sources could be incorporated into fabrics such as uniforms or ballistic vests, and poured or sprayed into containers of any size and shape. They could power smart phones, GPS units and other portable electronic devices.
"We're talking about fabrics that also are batteries," MIT's Dr Mark Allen said. "The batteries, once woven into clothing, could provide power for a range of high-tech devices, including handheld radios, GPS devices and personal digital assistants. They could also be used in everyday cellphones and smartphones."
The batteries are based on new cathodes made from an iron-fluoride material that the team says could produce lightweight and flexible batteries with only a minimal loss of power, performance or chargeability compared to today's rechargeable power sources.
The development builds on previous work by MIT scientist Angela Belcher and her colleagues, who were the first to engineer a virus as a biotemplate for preparing lithium ion battery anodes and cathodes.
The virus, called M13 bacteriophage, consists of an outer coat of protein surrounding an inner core of genes. It infects bacteria and is harmless to people.
"Using M13 bacteriophage as a template is an example of green chemistry, an environmentally friendly method of producing the battery," Allen said. "It enables the processing of all materials at room temperature and in water."
And these materials, he said, should be less dangerous than those used in current lithium-ion batteries because they produce less heat, which reduces the risk of fire.
The Belcher Biomaterials group is in the beginning stages of testing and scaling up the virus-enabled battery materials, including powering unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance operations.
Making light-weight and long-lasting batteries that could result in rechargeable clothing would have several advantages for both military personnel and civilians, Allen added.
"Typical soldiers have to carry several pounds of batteries. But if you could turn their clothing into a battery pack, they could drop a lot of weight. The same could be true for frequent business travellers ― the road warriors ― who lug around batteries and separate rechargers for laptop computers, cell phones, and other devices. They could shed some weight."