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February 17th, 2007
The goal of nanofabrication is to make tiny machines build themselves using molecules they grab from their surroundings. It's easy to dismiss the concept as science fiction — or hype. Until you hear what's been going on in the lab of MIT materials scientist Angela Belcher, a star in nanotechnology circles.
Working with colleagues Paula Hammond and Yet-Ming Chiang, Belcher genetically altered a virus, the M-13 bacteriophage, inducing it to grab a pair of conductive metals — cobalt oxide and gold — from a solution. As the viruses rearrange themselves, they form highly aligned organic nanowires that can be used as a lithium-ion battery electrode — one so densely packed it can store two or three times the energy of conventional electrodes of the same size and weight. So far, the team has grown an anode. The next steps-which could be completed in two years-will be to grow a cathode, and to perfect the Saran Wrap-thin polymer electrolyte that separates the electrodes.
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