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UVA team discovers squid power

Doctoral students Thomas Pfeifer and Emma Tiernan investigate with Hopkins in the lab.
Tom Cogill
Doctoral students Thomas Pfeifer and Emma Tiernan investigate with Hopkins in the lab.

Five years ago, engineering professor Patrick Hopkins was listening to a talk by a colleague who’s now at Penn State. Melik Demirel claimed he could make fabrics that – when torn – would repair themselves.

"You can take a piece of cloth. You could cut it. And then when you submerge it in water it becomes whole again," Hopkins says.

This fabric, he learned, was made from a protein found in squid.

"When a squid ends up chipping what’s called its ring tooth, which is the nail underneath its tentacle, it needs to regrow that tooth very rapidly, otherwise it can’t claw its prey," he explains.

This was intriguing news – and it sparked an idea in Hopkins lab where he’d been trying to figure out how to store and transmit heat.

"It diffuses in all directions. There’s no way to capture the heat and move it the way that you would electricity. It’s just not a fundamental law of physics."

That'’s a problem, because much of the energy people create takes the form of heat.

"It’s the law of physics that whenever you do anything heat is a by-product. Drive a car, heat is generated. Walk up the stairs, heat is generated," Hopkins says. "Sixty to 65% of the energy that we consume as a society is wasted as heat. What we’re trying to do is take that rejected heat and store it – recycle it – and then put it back into the grid."

Which brings us back to the humble squid and its amazing ability to break and repair proteins. When its fingernail-like ring teeth are dry, they store heat, but sprinkle them with water and they can transmit it.

Hopkins’ research partner, Emma Tiernan, is a PhD candidate who’s thrilled to be working on something so new and promising.

"It could be pretty revolutionary!" she says.

But Tieman concedes there is one small problem in working with squid cells. After a while, they stink.

"At first it didn’t have a smell, but now – after a few years with the samples it’s decomposing, and I can confidently say that."

Fortunately for the world’s squid population, the UVA team is not working with animals. Instead, they use squid cells cultivated in the lab.

"So no squid were harmed in the thermal batteries that you see here," Hopkins jokes.

The tiny brown batteries he mentions are about the size of a chiclet, and Hopkins says it will take a decade or more to create larger batteries that could have commercial value. For now, he’s satisfied that they hold promise and are produced without releasing carbon or toxic materials into the environment. The U.s. Department of Energy is also hopeful, having funded this research for nearly two years.

Meanwhile, Hopkin’s colleague at Penn State is taking his squid in a different direction – making T-shirts that could store and transmit energy.

"You could start to power your cell phone. You start to power your Apple watch, right? You can start to charge your Apple watch while you’re running."

Also available through the squid product start-up called Tandem Repeat – wallets, boots and trench coats.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Updated: March 17, 2023 at 8:35 AM EDT
Editor's Note: The University of Virginia is a financial supporter of Radio IQ.
Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief