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How the Future of Big Tobacco Could Be Tiny Lithium Batteries

TMV batteries

The tobacco mosaic virus is a destructive beast infecting over a hundred different species of plants, including tomatoes. But it may have a weird eco benefit: Incorporated into lithium batteries, it can increase storage capacity ten times.

Scientists in the U.S. had already worked out how to coat the tiny rod-like cells of the virus with conductive materials. But the recent breakthrough has seen the nanorods incorporated into battery technology, with astonishingly beneficial results. The tobacco mosaic virus is a perfect candidate because it's the right size and shape to aid construction of battery electrodes, and it's self-replicating and self-assembling and can bind to metal.

The idea is that TMV nanorods are bound to the electrodes in a lithium cell—without the need for any bonding agent—and automagically increase the surface area of the electrode. This is a critical matter in battery design, since it affects how much electrical energy the battery can hold, and TMV's benefits mean a similar cell can hold up to ten times more charge than a more conventional one.

This has all sorts of implications for mobile technology. Imagine every lithium battery in every mobile device you own lasting up to ten times longer. That would mean Apple's new MacBook Airs could hang on in standby mode for 10 months, and Amazon's Kindles may only require charging once every year. Smartphones could have useful call times extending up to a week, and as well as changing how we think about our tech this could have an eco upshot—you'd probably not leave your charger plugged in, sucking down vampire power as much as it does right now.

Alternatively, batteries could be made with the same capacity that they have now, only ten times smaller—freeing up designers to create all sorts of practically useful gadgets that would be impossible at the moment. Micro-batteries are also possible, meaning rechargeable batteries could replace disposable ones in devices like hearing aids.

If the scientists at the University of Maryland driving this research find a way to scale up the invention to a commercial scale, then tobacco growers around the world may find themselves contributing something more positive to society, and the way we think about mobile technology may change radically.

To read more news on this, and similar stuff, keep up with my updates by following me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.

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  • Sean Black

    Anastasia, thank you for clearing up the mechanics of viral propagation.  I hope we all would agree that the big news here is a hope for improving the environment and the health of people.  Great publication guys, keep it up!  I just read the recent Tesla story. 

  • Anastasia Potts

    It is obvious upon reading this article that the author has no understanding of the topic and did not take the time to check their facts.

    First of all, the phrase "tiny rod-like cells of the virus" is nonsensical. Viruses are not made of cells, and what the author calls "cells" are in fact capsids made up of protein. In addition, viruses are not "self-replicating"; they require the aid of cells to replicate. I believe the author is confusing the TMV's ability to self-assemble its capsid proteins into their final structure as replication, but that is not the case. These proteins cannot replicate themselves without the aid of cells that provide the environment that make production of new proteins from the TMV genetic material possible.

    I am disappointed in Fast Company for publishing such a sloppy article full of inaccuracies.