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Lithium-air batteries go viral for greater durability and performance

The genetically modified M13 virus creates maganese oxide nanowires with spikes providing more surface area
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In recent years, lithium-air batteries that promise improved power density per pound over lithium-ion batteries have been the subject of much research in the quest to give electronic vehicles greater range. By enlisting the help of a genetically-modified virus, researchers at MIT have found a way to improve the performance and durability of lithium-air batteries, which offer the potential of two to three times the energy density of current lithium-ion batteries.

The main reason lithium-air batteries boast higher energy density than lithium-ion batteries is because, in place of the heavy conventional compounds used in lithium-ion batteries, they use oxygen from the air to react with a lithium anode through a carbon-based air cathode. Nanowires used as one of the electrodes for these batteries are typically created through a high-energy chemical process, which produces electrodes with a flat surface area.

By using a genetically modified version of the M13 virus, the MIT team was able to increase the surface area of a nanowire array, which is about 80 nm across. The virus has the ability to “capture molecules of metals from water and bind them into structural shapes,” says to Angela Belcher, the W.M. Keck Professor of Energy and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. “Similar to how an abalone grows its shell.”

The viruses built wires of manganese oxide, a material often used for the cathode of lithium-air batteries, that had a rough, spiked surface. Having spikes, rather than a flatter surface as results when wires are “grown” through conventional chemical methods, creates more surface area for the chemical reaction to occur. This process also creates a cross-linked 3D structure, rather than isolated wires, making for a more stable electrode. Adding to its advantages, the viral process is water-based and done at room temperature.


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