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MIT Secretly Built Mega-Efficient Nano Batteries 195

Posted by timothy
from the used-to-power-the-black-helicopter dept.
mattnyc99 writes "There was plenty of chatter last week about an MIT announcement that researcher Angela Belcher had developed a way to create virus-based nanoscale batteries to power mini gadgets of the future. In a fascinating followup at Popular Mechanics, Belcher now says that her unpublished work includes full-scale models of the batteries themselves, and that they could power everything from cars and laptops to medical devices and wearable armor. Quoting: 'We haven't ruled out cars. That's a lot of amplification. But right now the thing is trying to make the best material possible, and if we get a really great material, then we have to think about how do you scale it.'"
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MIT Secretly Built Mega-Efficient Nano Batteries

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  • Pfff (Score:2, Funny)

    by SRA8 (859587)
    And Obama thinks it will take 10 whole years!
  • Efficiency? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Reality Master 101 (179095) <`RealityMaster101' `at' `gmail.com'> on Friday August 29, 2008 @01:22AM (#24790455) Homepage Journal
    I see nothing in those articles about these batteries being "mega efficient", as the title of this Slashdot post screams. The novelty seems to be the fact that they're grown using viruses and can be applied in thin films.
    • Re:Efficiency? (Score:4, Informative)

      by clarkkent09 (1104833) on Friday August 29, 2008 @01:26AM (#24790487)
      It doesn't say anything about any secrecy either, and they haven't actually built anything yet, except full scale models (whatever that means). I guess the only accurate part of the title is that it's something to do with MIT and batteries.
      • Re:Efficiency? (Score:4, Insightful)

        by dafrazzman (1246706) on Friday August 29, 2008 @01:32AM (#24790511)
        When you discover something, typical procedure is to make a paper on it. Instead, MIT went ahead and worked on development before announcing the fundamental concept discovered. Maybe not "secret," but highly unusual.
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by QuantumG (50515) *

          Bahahaha.. ya kidding right? Maybe that's what is "usual" in academia but everyone else in the world gets down to the business of tinkering and seeing what the discovery is worth long before they even think about telling the world, let alone writing a non-opaque scientific paper about it.

        • Re:Efficiency? (Score:5, Informative)

          by ceoyoyo (59147) on Friday August 29, 2008 @03:12AM (#24791059)

          Uh, they did? The article says they wrote a paper about their anodes and electrolytes (I expect the electrolyte isn't such a big deal).

          So they made some viruses that are supposed to make little wires. Then they used the viruses to make some little wires. Then they wrote a paper. Then they worked on some more viruses to make some other wires that could be used as the other necessary component of a battery. And they're writing another paper.

          That really sounds like pretty much how it's supposed to happen.

          • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

            by Gryphoenix (1052272)
            Brawndo - the Thirst Mutilator - it's got electrolytes!
          • by Colonel Korn (1258968) on Friday August 29, 2008 @09:53AM (#24793821)

            Uh, they did? The article says they wrote a paper about their anodes and electrolytes (I expect the electrolyte isn't such a big deal).

            So they made some viruses that are supposed to make little wires. Then they used the viruses to make some little wires. Then they wrote a paper. Then they worked on some more viruses to make some other wires that could be used as the other necessary component of a battery. And they're writing another paper.

            That really sounds like pretty much how it's supposed to happen.

            I think the poster was using a definition of secrecy along the lines of "not yet in Popular Mechanics." Now where did I park my secret car?

      • by Waffle Iron (339739) on Friday August 29, 2008 @01:53AM (#24790619)

        and they haven't actually built anything yet, except full scale models (whatever that means).

        Creating 1:1 scale battery models is one of my hobbies. I find that tubes from toilet paper rolls work well as a base for models of D cells. Large drinking straws are a good starting point for AAA cells. Old laundry detergent boxes are great when you want to move to more advanced projects like automobile batteries.

      • by Chris Burke (6130) on Friday August 29, 2008 @02:22AM (#24790815) Homepage

        "A much-buzzed-about paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this month details the team's success in creating two of the three parts of a working battery--the positively charged anode and the electrolyte. But team leader Angela Belcher told PM Wednesday that the team has been seriously working on cathode technology for the past year, creating several complete prototypes. "

        "The cathode material has been a little more difficult, but we have several different candidates, and we have made full, working batteries."

        They've actually built things, that work, though the 3rd component the cathode is still apparently a work in progress. The summary says "models", which of course means something specific to /.ers, but that isn't the reality reflected in the articles.

        • by QuantumG (50515) *

          "Prototypes" mean something specific to us too.. and it isn't "2 out of 3 critical components, not even integrated yet".

          • by eggnoglatte (1047660) on Friday August 29, 2008 @06:17AM (#24791983)

            There is just no pleasing some people. These guys have been consistently working away on a hard problem, making progress along the way, published their work, so others can run their own experiments, and worked towards a product.

            Meanwhile, what exactly have you been doing?

            Like somebody else said, if you only want final products, go to Best Buy.

          • by Chris Burke (6130) on Friday August 29, 2008 @09:43AM (#24793665) Homepage

            "Prototypes" mean something specific to us too.. and it isn't "2 out of 3 critical components, not even integrated yet".

            Actually, it can, because they can be prototypes of the components. Two of which have been integrated. And they've made full, working batteries, just not using their cathode technology yet.

            Why don't you just RTFA instead of continuing to poo-poo their accomplishment based on a single word taken out of context, the first one you latched onto not even existing in the article? Right, right, I must be new here.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Yeah, it would be a miracle if they were even hepto-efficient. Mega-efficient is right out! The best we can hope for is deca-efficient.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by matt_martin (159394)

      There is no mention that the batteries are even functional.
      Just stated that they made "parts of batteries" : stacked some layers, patterened them, used a virus to help deposit another layer, stacked more layers and issued a press release! Phase 3, profit (from renewed grant).

      Hard for the casual observer to see how this improves on the usual film deposition methods, other than not requiring vacuum chambers, pumps, etc.

      And while we're at it, mega-efficient isn't very meaningful when describing batteries - hig

    • Re:Efficiency? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by salec (791463) on Friday August 29, 2008 @04:43AM (#24791495)

      I see nothing in those articles about these batteries being "mega efficient", as the title of this Slashdot post screams. The novelty seems to be the fact that they're grown using viruses and can be applied in thin films.

      Oh, no, that is not complete story of what this bugs could do. Think about it for a moment:

      1. those are big-molecule-sized particle batteries.
      2. You can construct them in such a matter that their terminals can be accessed only trough specific shape of (molecular, e.g. an enzyme) connectors.
      3. You can make each terminal incompatible with opposite polarity terminal, allowing for suspending those batteries in a liquid, or, if the batteries can bond with each other through (weak) hydrogen bonds, a large mass of them might already be in liquid form.

      Now, what is that all together? An "electric fuel", something that might power electric cars, but refuel on pump stations in same time ICE cars refuel. Car would have nanobatteries' processing unit, which would allow parallel connection of great many such batteries, pumped from the "fresh" tank. Once discharged in processor, batteries would be would be pumped into "used" tank.

      Bonus points for hypothetical clever battery design that would spoil terminals' shape if battery is empty as it would allow processor to be installed in "fresh" tank and just keep the tank stirred enough. Once processor squeezes out all the "juice", battery should fall off it, allowing connection with another, fresh battery to commence.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by tlhIngan (30335)

        3. You can make each terminal incompatible with opposite polarity terminal, allowing for suspending those batteries in a liquid, or, if the batteries can bond with each other through (weak) hydrogen bonds, a large mass of them might already be in liquid form.

        While that seems like a great idea, I don't see how it can prevent loops from happening - while it keeps the + and - terminals of each battery connected in series properly, it doesn't keep it from eventually forming a huge loop and shorting itself out..

  • by able1234au (995975) on Friday August 29, 2008 @01:29AM (#24790499)
    I'm not sick. Just recharging my battery.
    • by TubeSteak (669689)

      I'm not sick. Just recharging my battery.

      The bad news is, once you're feeling better, we have to plug you back into The Matrix

  • by fahrbot-bot (874524) on Friday August 29, 2008 @01:34AM (#24790519)

    ... researchers genetically engineer viruses to attract individual molecules of materials they're interested in ... The M13 viruses used by the team can't reproduce by themselves and are only capable of infecting bacteria.

    Good thing bacteria can't infect anything...

    Of course, now I'll have to worry about my batteries getting a Staph infection:
    "Doctor, I need some Vancomycin for my laptop."

    • by DeadDecoy (877617) on Friday August 29, 2008 @01:47AM (#24790579)
      This will be perfect for running my Vista laptop as it already runs on viruses!
    • by incognito84 (903401) on Friday August 29, 2008 @02:10AM (#24790747)
      Biological viruses in the batteries and Vista on the hard drive... That cocktail can only mean... Good god man! What have you done?
    • by Ace905 (163071) on Friday August 29, 2008 @04:31AM (#24791423) Homepage

      You make an interesting point about Bacteria infecting things ; Maybe an offshoot of this research could be a medical-process for removing heavy metals from the human body. A method of completely counteracting Lead or Mercury poisoning. I wants to eats Salmon all the time darnit! I just don't want the brain tumours that go with it.

      I imagine though, that would involve creating a much more sophisticated virus that itself attracts the metals, rather than using the bacteria they've already created. Unless you could get it up your nose and leave it there so you can blow mercury snot out of your nose. That would be kind of cool, in a 'My snots toxic' kind of way.

      Man.... i'm tired.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by WindBourne (631190)
        Not a problem; Push for nukes and AE, and the lead will go away. China now emits about 1/2 of the world's lead and America still emits about 1/3 (cleaner coal; some minor scrubbers). If these 2 countries move away from coal, you would see a major drop in lead in our fish within 5 years.
      • Maybe an offshoot of this research could be a medical-process for removing heavy metals from the human body ... I imagine though, that would involve creating a much more sophisticated virus that itself attracts the metals, rather than using the bacteria they've already created.

        Ya I thought of that, but I was really thinking about mutation and wide-spread infection. Ever read the book, Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters [fantasticfiction.co.uk] (written in 1971)? It's about rare bacteria found in nature that apparently consume plasti

  • by LM741N (258038) on Friday August 29, 2008 @02:22AM (#24790813)

    Wasn't it Popular Mechanics that predicted in the 1970's that by the year 2000, robots would be doing all of the work, and we could all be sitting by the pool, sipping on Daiquiris? Unfortunately, they forgot about how people were going to get a paycheck. I can't believe even Slashdot would mention anything from Popular Mechanics.

    • by TapeCutter (624760) * on Friday August 29, 2008 @02:52AM (#24790975) Journal
      Huh? - You must have missed the death of western manufacturing in the 80's-90's.

      Robotic factories, robotic warehouses and Chinese peasants ARE doing all the work! The rest of us are sitting around in office blocks posting to slashdot.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by UpUpDownDown (972439)

      Isn't Popular Mechanics the rag where half-baked technologies go to die? Right after the part where they will revolutionize All Life As We Know It? And right before the part where The Idea is killed by an Evil Conspiracy?

      They are usually late with the important news and way too early with stuff that will eventually crash and burn. Not that they can't build a raging headline and a totally misleading cover out of it.

      I stopped going to Popular Mechanics for my cutting edge technology news when I was about ni

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by RAMMS+EIN (578166)

      Actually, I'm curious how this is supposed to work. Aside from people always finding something to do, I really can't see why we couldn't be sitting by the pool. I mean, obviously, work still needs to be done. But if we get more efficient at that (e.g. by building machines that then do the work with fewer human hours involved), we _should_, on average, have more free time for a given level of prosperity, right?

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Dunbal (464142)

        But if we get more efficient at that (e.g. by building machines that then do the work with fewer human hours involved), we _should_, on average, have more free time for a given level of prosperity, right?

        The Law of Diminishing Returns is universal. We can't ALL sit by the pool. Someone has to clean it.

        As you increase a "level of prosperity" the TYPE of work may change - from picking berries in a field 14 hours a day to analyzing power-point presentations in teleco

      • by Shotgun (30919) on Friday August 29, 2008 @08:45AM (#24793011)

        But if we get more efficient at that (e.g. by building machines that then do the work with fewer human hours involved), we _should_, on average, have more free time for a given level of prosperity, right?

        And you most certainly could RIGHT NOW. You would just have to scale back your standard of living to the time when humans were doing all the work. Back to a family of 4 in a 1000sq.ft. home, with no AC and a max of one car per family. Going to see a movie would be an event. Most people prefer their McMansion with constant entertainment. "Stuff" cost money, and the level of spending generally outpaces the increases in pay scales.

        • by steelfood (895457)

          We do anyway.

          When was the last time you went to see a movie? Ate at a restaurant? Walked the dog?

          In the not-so-distant past, these were pastimes of the wealthy, luxuries that most normal people couldn't afford. I'm not talking about the 70's, but more like the turn of the 20th century.

          But people are able to afford more luxuries today than they did in the 50's and 60's. Cellphones, cars, television, computer? Just because we choose to spend time sitting in front of a moving-picture screen instead of by a poo

        • Get rid of computers, mass electronics, wireless internet, and Slashdot while you're at it.

          Air conditioning I can live without. Wifi I can not.

      • Actually, I'm curious how this is supposed to work. Aside from people always finding something to do, I really can't see why we couldn't be sitting by the pool. I mean, obviously, work still needs to be done. But if we get more efficient at that (e.g. by building machines that then do the work with fewer human hours involved), we _should_, on average, have more free time for a given level of prosperity, right?

        Here's the reason you and I won't be sitting by the pool anytime soon: you won't get the money generated by automation. Businesses will, and the more profit is made and the more automation goes into it, the more businesses grow, and the more the people on the top will keep.

        A more likely scenario of automation: the rich get richer, and everyone else is marginalized. People with money invest in, and run businesses that automate everything. The rest of society does the tasks that humans still need to do, maki

    • by Surt (22457)

      I'm reading slashdot on my floaty chair in my pool with existing battery technology, while a robot is cleaning my pool and vacuuming my floor. Another robot washes and dries my laundry. With one more to cook my meals, and one to fold my laundry, I'll pretty much have all my common household tasks handled by robots.

  • by Ace905 (163071) on Friday August 29, 2008 @03:53AM (#24791217) Homepage

    It's obvious that weaving these batteries into fibre (for example) or just the fact that they can create such tiny batteries is hugely advantageous from an engineering perspective. Now clothes can be powered, etc.

    What isn't clear is why would you want these batteries to power your car? I don't really see any discussion on whether these pack more power than a 50lb car battery would. From the description it sounds like they're just regular batteries which expire, but are tiny. So by my no-math-involved logic, 50lbs of these nano-batteries should pack about the same punch as a regular 50lb car battery.

    Am I wrong about this? Do the infected bacteria constantly replenish the components of the battery making them more like a generator that runs on raw materials ? Because it doesn't look like that, it looks like they create the components, stop the process and put them together.

    Very very cool, but it sounds like the same technology we've always had is the end product. Please tell me I'm wrong, I want this to be the mini nuclear generator powering our cars we were all promised in the 1950's.

    "Can we stick it on the head of a pin? People love it when we do that"

    • by salec (791463)

      What isn't clear is why would you want these batteries to power your car? I don't really see any discussion on whether these pack more power than a 50lb car battery would. From the description it sounds like they're just regular batteries which expire, but are tiny. So by my no-math-involved logic, 50lbs of these nano-batteries should pack about the same punch as a regular 50lb car battery.

      It may be easier to unload and load 50lb of small batteries then single big one, provided you don't have to manually disconnect and connect all the little ones. The difference is like between stopping for gas and going to the repair shop.

    • I don't really see any discussion on whether these pack more power than a 50lb car battery would

      Well, assuming that power-per-mass ration is roughly equivalent, then these batteries have one big advantage: space

      A large collection of "brick" style batteries is somewhat restrictive due to the shapes and material of the batteries. For these, the same advantage is gained as it is for clothing, etc.

      For clothes, yes, you could have an LED shirt or whatever with a bunch of "aaa" batteries in a pack at your side,

  • by melted (227442) on Friday August 29, 2008 @04:09AM (#24791293) Homepage

    Publish it, get peer reviews and THEN post on Slashdot if reviewers don't tear it apart completely.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by allawalla (1030240)
      The key words are published earlier this month in PNAS. A working cathode prototype is the only unpublished news. Which isn't very exciting to someone that doesn't know anything about the mechanistic differences between an anode and a cathode anyway. Not compared to using bugs to build batteries.
  • I'm going to sound crazy here, but this is my question :

    Instead of creating conventional batteries (which is what I *think* is happening here) on a nano-scale ; wouldn't it be better to make bacteria to be used in ongoing reactions ?

    Create a battery we can feed sugar (or something) to continually separate or replenish the reacted electrolyte?

    I know that's a whole stupid theoretical idea on its own, but it seems like they would be so close to doing this instead with the virii / bacteria they are using right

  • Exactly how big IS a 'full-scale' model of a nano battery? Quite small I suspect and you would definitely require a steady hand. I look forward to the Airfix kit.
  • I just don't see the efficiency. But I do see a totally new way of thinking when it comes to battery packaging. Even if they don't better current state-of-the-art batteries in amps, this offers a bigger innovation:

    Imagine your laptop's case being the battery (better packing). Or you car's undercarriage (better weight distribution). Or your cellphone case being the battery (more packaging). This engineering innovation will change industrial design more than power-efficiency.

    • by Dunbal (464142)

      This engineering innovation will change industrial design more than power-efficiency.

            Not if my laptop costs $80,000, my car costs $1.7 million and my cell phone costs $5000...

  • Can't Reproduce? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by FlyingBishop (1293238) on Friday August 29, 2008 @08:29AM (#24792849)

    The M13 viruses used by the team can't reproduce by themselves and are only capable of infecting bacteria.

    How is the fact that they can only infect bacteria relevant? I have plenty of essential bacteria that I consider more or less my organs. That is not any better than saying it can only infect kidney cells.

    If they cannot reproduce (even after infecting a bacterium) it shouldn't matter, as there should not be a sufficient amount of these to stop anything.

    However, if these things are being mass produced, it seems to me the odds are that pretty soon at least one virus will show up that can reproduce itself. The question is: how many mistakes in transcribing the virus' genome in the lab would be required to allow it to reproduce?

    Copying errors are the heart of evolution, and they will happen even on the production line.

    • Hint:

      These guys are not trying to kill you, and are working with virii.

      Nature IS trying to kill you, and created these virii.

      If these viri could mutate into something that would kill everyone, they already would have. Humans survive only because they are hard to kill - nature wants us dead.

  • Oh man, my dreams of owning a Mospeada power armor is finally possible! I want a Cyclone!!!!!

  • Meh. They're still nearly useless: Mega-efficient * nano-battery = milli-power.

    Come back when you have something approaching unity.

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