One problem with smartphones is their short battery life. Who hasn't been stuck with a dead phone just when it's needed most? And once you finally access a charging station, hours may pass from plugging in the beast until the battery is charged.
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How about getting it done in 30 seconds? The Israeli startup StoreDot says it's found a way to do just that, through bio-organics – specifically, using short protein chains, called peptides, as biological semiconductors.
Not only did the peptides have optical and electronic characteristics of inorganic semiconductor nanocrystals: under the right conditions, they conveniently self-assemble into nano-tubes. This serendipitous discovery was made through the meeting of disciplines.
The story begins with research on Alzheimer's Disease, conducted by Prof. Ehud Gazit of Tel Aviv University.
Gazit was studying peptides, which are amino acid chains that form proteins. Among his findings was a diphenylalanine peptide (nicknamed PHE-PHE), which is associated with a build-up of goo in the brains of Alzheimer's sufferers – and which was shown "to form well-ordered nanotubular assemblies by itself" when placed in an appropriate organic solvent (at the right temperature, acidity and other physical conditions).
Why did they work with that specific protein, not another one? "We realized it had optic elements," says StoreDot CEO Dr. Doron Myersdorf.
Gazit postulated that these protein nanocrystals could be extremely useful in advanced electronics. And thus, biology married cutting-edge technology for the greater good of advanced communications, such as calling loved ones, constantly, spying on the kids, keeping track of your pet ferret in surgery, and so on.
"The discovery could change the way all kinds of devices are manufactured," says Myersdorf, one of the three founders of StoreDot, formerly of SanDisk.
Bio-organics to the rescue of the planet
Prof. Gil Rosenman, who participated in the study in which the peptide nanocrystals were discovered about 15 years ago, is another founder.
Myersdorf and the third founder, Prof. Simon Litsyn – who was the chief scientist at SanDisk – realized the potential of the nanocrystals after reading "Peptides as biological semiconductors" in Nature (2010). Litsyn and Rosenman are professors in the School of Electrical Engineering at Tel Aviv University.
In batteries and screens, a key goal is to get rid of the heavy metal cadmium, a toxic horror and an expensive one to boot.
StoreDot developed a proprietary solvent for the di-peptides, and found a way to control the naturally occurring process of nanocrystal formation. It can therefore stop the process when the proteinaceous nanocrystals reach the right size. In this case, that's 2.1 nanometers in diameter, explains Myersdorf.
These nanocrystals are just the start. StoreDot can build all sorts of characteristics into them: for instance, optical ones, he explains. (The protein chains are adapted chemically, by adding functional chemical groups, such as amino and carboxylic groups.)
The company makes the peptides itself in an assembly process of biochemical synthesis, which Myersdorf claims is relatively inexpensive.
"We still have to prove its scalability," he says. The company is building an R&D pilot line in order to prove that very thing. "According to our analyses, it will be much cheaper than any other nonorganic process, such as gold nanotechnology," says the CEO.
So far the company has reached prototype stage in two products – a battery and a display for phones, he says.
In screens, the company means to collaborate with big-scale manufacturers, and in fast-charging batteries, it means to manufacture independently. Working prototypes should be finished by the end of 2015 and production should be running by year-end 2016, says Myersdorf.
"We formed a team that can imitate natural processes. Our slogan is to follow nature. In order to do what nature does, you can't deal only with chemistry or biology or physics – you have to understand everything and do everything simultaneously. That's why we started with the biology and chemistry of the peptides, continued with chemistry by synthesizing the molecules and with physics to analyze the quantum effects that take place in the nanocrystals," says Myersdorf. Q.E.D.
Of the firm's 18 employees, 15 have doctorates. With fresh money in hand, the company plans to double the staff, this time not with doctorate holders. To date, StoreDot, founded in 2012, has raised $6.25 million. Among its investors are Singulariteam. StoreDot is in the midst of a $40 million fund-raising drive.