Riding along a fine line between modern day technology and creepy science fiction, Department of Energy researchers unveiled a device which generates energy by harnessing the electro-mechanical properties of genetically-engineered viruses. The nanotechnology-based power generator leverages piezoelectric principles, an old concept used in everything from guitar pickups to automobiles. In short, when pressure is applied to the device, the genetically-altered viruses contained within the device produce an electric charge.

Piezoelectric devices work on the fact that physical stress can be converted into electricity, just like what happens when a person cranks a dynamo-powered emergency radio or when children hop around in their whimsical, LED-adorned shoes. Unfortunately, the substances used to enable this kind of reaction are typically hazardous and difficult to work with. This nudged researchers to investigate alternative ways of generating electro-mechanical current: viruses. What else?

Unlike some more menacing varieties, this genetically engineered virus is a bacteriophage, or "macrophage". That means the virus in question is benign to all but bacteria – that's a good thing for more complex organisms like you and me.

Virus-based piezoelectric energy generator

Lovingly labeled as "M13", scientists had modified the rod-shaped viruses, giving them a coating of roughly 2700 charged proteins. Next, the scientists increased M13's potential voltage by adding a handful of negatively and positively charged amino acids to the ends of each rod. Researchers then began stacking layers of the altered macrophage together until they discovered the ideal number of layers to sandwich together.

So far, researchers have shown a paper thin, 1cm square of the material can generate about 400 millivolts. That may not seem like a lot, but with a paper-thin form factor, such a power-generating invention could fit just about anywhere. Some suggested applications include keyboard membranes and skin-mounted devices.