Technology & Science·Audio

Viruses harnessed as nano-builders

Viruses are being employed as nanotechnology workers to assemble more efficient solar cells and batteries.

Viruses are being employed as nanotechnology workers to assemble more efficient solar cells and batteries.

"Through millions of years of evolution, biology has basically recruited proteins … to build really beautiful structures," said Angela Belcher, a materials science and biological engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She gave examples such as bone, abalone shells and sponges.

"We had the idea of, 'Wow, what if you could do that with non-biological materials?' "

Belcher and her colleagues have modified a virus called a M13 bacteriophage so that it will pick up carbon nanotubes and grow titanium dioxide — a material used in solar cells — around the nanotubes.

Carbon nanotubes are long, hollow structures about 1/50,000th the width of a human hair, making them tricky for big, clumsy humans to handle.

The final products assembled by the viruses are microscopic conduits for electrons that improve the efficiency of solar cells by 2.6 per cent.

In an interview with CBC's Quirks & Quarks, Belcher describes how and why she engineered viruses to do work in nanotechnology.