Electronic Design

Viruses: The Virtuous And The Vicious

Software viruses always seem to generate plenty of headline-grabbing media stories. Two in particular have recently driven that point home.

First, we have that well-known troublemaker called the Conficker bug, which successfully attacked the British Government’s computer system. Second, in direct contrast, scientists now believe that computer viruses will help build the batteries to power future electronic vehicles.

Let’s deal with the comedy first. How did a well-recognised computer virus that has been around for a year or so manage to worm its way into the UK Government’s computer system? Especially since there are at least six softwareprotection programmes capable of eradicating it on arrival.

I can only assume the answer is two-fold. First, the Government wasn’t up to speed when it came to having the right security firewalls to fend off Conficker. Or maybe I’m being a little bit unfair there. Perhaps software security was in place but had not been regularly upgraded to deal with the new bugs-on-the-block.

Second, insufficient IT security procedures allowed unauthorised computers to find their way into the system. The result is that Government computers were enslaved by the virus, which spreads itself through the system.

OK, enough negativity. Now for the positive-spin virus story on employing viruses to build batteries that could ultimately find their way into electric cars.

Research scientists at MIT in the USA have managed to build a Li-ion battery using viruses to create the negatively charged anode and positively charged cathode sections of a battery. The virus is a harmless bacteriophage and during their work the MIT scientists made genes inside a virus create particles that grow and self-assemble to form a nanowire anode. Inherent microbes collect material such as cobalt oxide and gold. As the particles are negatively charged, they can be used to create a material that acts as an anode.

Creating the cathode was a little trickier because the material had to be highly conductive to be effective and most materials for cathodes are insulated. However, the researchers managed to create a nanotube from conductive material, so that problem was resolved. Very clever stuff, but where will all this research lead?

One thing is clear, these batteries have the same energy and power capabilities as rechargeable batteries used to power hybrid technology- based vehicles. Also, tiny batteries that are flexible could be produced for use in small electronic consumer devices.

One problem with this technology must be solved, though. Right now, it can only be charged and discharged about 100 times, but scientists are confident this performance can be improved. Let’s hope that the performance of the computer consultants advising the UK Government can do the same.

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