Scientists at MIT have used viruses to assemble part of nano-sized batteries. (link) In the past I have written about nano-scale items that are engineered to self-assemble, that is, their molecules automatically hook together in useful ways, and how that would enable production of useful objects at a scale where few existing tools (and only extremely specialized and expensive ones, at that) can work. Now it appears that MIT researchers have successfully built most of the parts for nano-scale batteries using genetically-engineered viruses to do part of the work. Such batteries would be manufactured in extremely thin sheets, and it remains to be seen if they can be interconnected in layers or otherwise made into larger-capacity, higher efficiency packages. No data was given on the power density (power per unit volume or weight) for the batteries, but it suggests the ability to make a self-contained power source for nanobots, tiny working machines smaller than most cells and microorganisms, which many expect to be available to us in the future. This development is another key step in the development of nanotechnology, as self-contained power sources and radio communications (see my previous entries) will be essential to someday having sophisticated nano-scale robotic technology for use in medical and other industries.
Note that the funding for this research came from the U.S. Army, which suggests that military applications will come first. Some new developments will certainly have peaceful applications, but it can be expected that many will be cited as providing military advantage, and will be held back from application that would benefit the general public.
Using viruses to assemble materials has some interesting side benefits. The MIT process occurs at room temperature, indicating that energy input to the process (at least that part of it) is very low. One of the biggest costs of manufacturing is often in the energy required for the maintenance of temperatures far from the ambient. Chemical and other materials production and refinement industries, such as metals, use enormous amounts of energy to produce the extreme temperatures frequently required, and produce high volumes of waste products and a wider variety of byproducts, many highly toxic, as a result. Room-temperature processes avoid not only the energy cost, but may also have a reduced complexity to the byproducts. An additional saving to room temperature processes is in all of the energy and materials required to produce special tools and insulation used to cope with and maintain the needed temperatures.
It will be interesting to see how this most exciting and radical of new technologies develops. As always, I welcome your comments. – Tim