MIT Materials Scientist Angela Belcher has been doing amazing things for a while now. She was winner of a McArthur fellowship (2004), Time Magazine Climate Hero Award (2007), Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award (2006), Scientific American’s Research Leader of the Year (2006), Fortune Magazine’s Top 10 Innovators Under 40 (2002), and she was listed on Rolling Stones list of “100 People Who Are Changing America,” just to name a few. Today, she is the 2013 Winner of the $500,000 MIT Lemelson Prize.
The prize, which will celebrate its 20th year in 2014, honors an outstanding mid-career inventor who is dedicated to improving our world through technological invention.
Belcher’s work uniquely combines biotechnology and nanotechnology. She has produced solutions to numerous critical problems in the clean energy field including solar PV, battery technology and biofuels by developing viruses that will bind together and grow materials in ways that were previously not possible, or else highly energy-intensive, dirty, or wasteful.
Her original inspiration for this work comes from her PhD work on abalone, whose shell contains only 2 percent of a protein which makes the shell 3,000 times tougher than it would be without the protein. Once she saw this, she recognized that there were relatively few examples in nature that combined organic and inorganic materials, but that there was no reason not to apply this approach across a wider portion of the periodic table in order to produce various new and useful materials. She calls it, “using the biological toolkit to make new materials and devices.”
She differentiates herself from those practicing biomimicry in that unlike being biologically inspired, as biomimicry-based designers are, her materials are actually biologically produced.
In this TED video, she described how she developed unique strains of M13 bacteriophage (bacteria-eating) virus that could bind materials for useful purposes. “Nature already produces exquisite structures on the nano-scale,” she says. “What if we could harness them, and convince them to build a solar cell for us?” This apparently can be done by coding protein sequences specific to the materials in question. Of course, in nature, it takes millions of years for tiny organisms to learn how to build materials, but using modern technology, this process can be sped up enormously.
So, in essence, Angela is teaching materials to behave like seashells, except, not ordinary seashells, but rather smart seashells that are capable of incorporating multiple materials in a specific way.
So now, she has taught them to build better batteries and solar cells with efficiencies that jumped from 11 percent to 13 percent. What she did was to evolve a benign virus to pick up single wall carbon nanotubes, arrange them in a certain way and then grow titanium into that to produce a new solar cell that was better at both transporting electrons and collecting light than previous examples. Likewise, the battery material that she grows is produced at lower temperatures, and in more energy efficient conditions.
One of her proudest achievements, she said, is what she and her company, Siluria, have done in developing a process to convert methane from abundant sources such as landfills and farms, into drop-in replacements for all manner of traditional petro-fuels. Siluria’s process is far cleaner and less energy-intensive than steam-cracking processes performed by refineries today. It’s also more compatible with existing processes than enzymatic approaches.
The MIT-Lemelson Prize was initiated by the Lemelson Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that celebrates and encourages invention and innovation, particularly among young people. It was established by the prolific inventor Jerome Lemelson, who died in 1997. Lemelson was controversial because of the way he aggressively pursued the rights to his inventions, sometimes winning large settlements. While seen as a hero to small independent inventors, he was, at times, considered a threat by the corporate establishment.
His widow, Dorothy Lemelson, Foundation Chair, had the following comment about this year’s prize. “We applaud Dr. Belcher for her progressive, yet environmentally-sensitive, inventions, which are based on the miracles of the natural world. However, it is her commitment to teaching and supporting our next generation of American students in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math that deserves our deepest thanks.”
Dr. Belcher said she now intends to take a sabbatical, during which time she will think more about two new problems, water and cancer. While water conservation and purification are new problems to her, she has already made inroads in the battle against cancer, developing new, less expensive and more effective detection methods. Again, working with viruses bonded to nanotubes, she has developed new contrast probes that can work in what is called the “second window near-infrared range,” allowing doctors to dig more deeply and clearly into tissues, detecting tiny tumors that would not otherwise be visible to the naked eye.
It does raise the question; is there anything this lady can’t do?
Image courtesy of the Lemelson-MIT program
RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.
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