Charge! Outfitting the military with clothing that serves as a battery pack

MIT researchers enlist a common virus to help recharge soldiers' gadgetry, through their uniforms. For the rest of the citizenry, could the tiny lithium-ion batteries give new meaning to the power tie?
Written by Melissa Mahony, Contributor on

Camouflage attire disguises itself as something else. But combat uniforms might actually be something else to the troops wearing them someday: sources of battery power.

In April, I discussed how bioengineers were looking to produce hydrogen fuel from a virus by mimicking photosynthesis. Taking that same virus—M13  bacteriophage—the same research group out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) now hopes to develop rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that can be woven into clothing.

Flexible and lightweight, the future batteries could serve soldiers and civilians alike. Mark Allen, a postdoc within Angela Belcher's Biomolecular Materials Group, outlined potential applications at an American Chemical Society meeting yesterday in Boston. According to Allen, the  virus-enabled batteries would have the ability to conform to almost any shape or size. The batteries might even be poured into containers. No doubt the technology would be a handy accoutrement to a military-issue cloth uniform a ballistic vest, or my handbag for that matter.

Allen says in a statement:

Typical soldiers have to carry several pounds of batteries. But if you could turn their clothing into a battery pack, they could drop a lot of weight. The same could be true for frequent business travelers ― the road warriors ― who lug around batteries and separate rechargers for laptop computers, cell phones, and other devices. They could shed some weight.

Road warrior, nice touch.

The effort stems from previous research of Belcher's group. Publishing last year in Science, they were the first to genetically engineer viruses for use as templates for the electrodes of lithium-ion batteries (shown right).  M13 is a common virus that infects bacteria. Coated with a protein (pVIII) that is easy to genetically and chemically manipulate, the viruses bind to carbon nanotubes and assemble into a network through which electrons can pass.

The material scientists have just begun testing and attempting to scale up the batteries to power bigger devices. For instance, unmanned flying vehicles.

An iron-fluoride material comprises the cathode that Allen is developing. He hopes the work might soon result in light, pliable batteries, competitive in regard to their power and number of times they can be charged.

And would adorning fabric batteries become unfashionably hot, or perhaps flammable? According to Allen, not likely, or at least, less likely than current lithium-ion batteries, which produce more heat.

Images: Craig DeBourbon and Donna Coveney

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