If you own a cell phone, chances are you charge it up at least once a day from the mains—but research from a team at the University of California could present us with a bizarre, green alternative. The scientists have discovered how to generate power from one of the smallest things on earth: bacteria. More specifically, bacteria-eating viruses, which could provide consistent power to our cell phones without the need for fossil fuels or heavy metals.

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The Californian team have found out that they can generate electricity using the M13 bacteriophage, a virus that infects bacteria. Currently the team’s prototype only produces a tiny bit of energy, but they believe that the technology could be used to your power cell phone while you walk.

The concept revolves around the idea known as piezoelectricity, which translates mechanical energy into electrical energy. Most people already have piezoelectric systems on their phone – the cell-phone microphones converts sound waves into electrical output that is transmitted and translated back into sound waves in the recipient’s phone – but the Californian team are looking to expand upon the idea.

The main problem is that most piezoelectric devices are made out of heavy metals such as lead and cadmium, but Berkeley bioengineerSeung-Wuk Lee believes their bacteria-powered alternatives would lack the toxicity of traditional devices. Lee and his colleagues noted that the pencil-shaped M13 phage fits all their requirements, as the virus infects only bacteria and is therefore safe for humans.

It is also cheap and easy to create as scientists can get trillions of viruses from a single flask of infected bacteria. The team were also able to improve the electricity-generating power of M13, by tweaking the amino acid content of the virus’s outer protein coat and adding four negatively charged glutamate molecules. Once attached to one-square-centimeter virus film and a pair of gold electrodes, enough energy was generated to light up a liquid-crystal display of the numeral 1. Granted this was only a mere 400 millivolts, but it shows the experiment has merit.

If the team can perfect the technology, that means our phones could theoretically be infinitely powered!

+ U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

via Daily Bhaskar

Images: ElvertBarnes