Thursday, April 13, 2006

Practical Nano-Biotech

Better batteries remain an important, but thus far elusive, component of the future energy mix. And for years, nanotechnology has been held up as a sort of modern Philosopher's Stone, holding the promise of building self-replicating devices that can assemble almost anything we'd want, virtually atom by atom. This article from Technology Review brings both of these threads together in a remarkable development, in which advanced batteries have been built by a trained virus. The result, if it can be repeated on a larger scale, could revolutionize both energy and manufacturing.

Even on a more focused level, this is a truly fascinating process. It harnesses a different, possibly more practical and achievable variety of nanotechnology, grounded in DNA, rather than atoms and bits. That has far-reaching implications for a host of other device types, including computer chips, solar cells, and bio-medical hardware. It could change the cost basis and even the structure of entire industries, within our lifetimes.

At the same time, it is noteworthy that this viral process has not just built a battery, but it has apparently built one that can only be built in this way, improving its efficiency and power density through a radical redesign of the electrodes. Although the most interesting early applications seem to be in cases where the battery can be conformed to the shape of a device, providing both small size and high usability, as in a cellphone or remote sensor, the same approach might be applicable on a much larger scale to turn a car's entire body into a battery. That could dramatically improve the performance of of all types of hybrid cars, and at the same time lower the performance threshold required for economical fuel cell vehicles. The possibilities are truly mind-blowing.

Thanks to one of my former Texaco colleagues for bringing this item to my attention.

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