Tech Tuesday: Dr. Angela Belcher Named Lemelson-MIT Prize Winner For Engineering Miracles From Nature

June 4, 2013 by
Dr. Angela Belcher
InnovationNewsScienceSTEMTech Tuesday

Dr. Angela Belcher, a materials chemist and one of the world’s leading scientists in nanotechnology, was announced today as the recipient of the “Oscar For Inventors”, the 2013 $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. Recognized for her inventions in biological engineering, this brain-crush worthy Woman You Should Know, who grew up captivated by science and technology, disassembling clocks and electric can openers as early as age five, looks to the natural world for clues and inspiration to create extraordinary, environmentally-safe materials for humans to use.

Currently a W.M. Keck Professor of Energy in Materials Science and Biological Engineering at MIT and a faculty member at the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, Dr. Belcher is continuously excited by nature’s possibilities to help create technologies that will benefit society. Her initial motivation to pursue this complex field of study and make altruistic science her life’s work was of all things… the abalone shell.

abalone in shellSo how could a simple sea shell cause such intrigue? Because the abalone shell is anything but simple. It was created by the abalone sea snail, a soft-bodied organism that over 50 million years managed to perfect its ability to construct its own exquisite hard shell using minerals from its natural environment. This evolutionary miracle shows that nature, if given the proper set of ingredients and building conditions, can create an infinite number of materials at the DNA level. Taking mother nature’s lead, Dr. Belcher started to explore how biology could be engineered in a lab to make novel, hybrid organic-inorganic materials for human use.

Today, her groundbreaking work is based on that very premise and involves her convincing biology to work with inorganic elements in the periodic table to create new, advanced and environmentally-safe materials with both commercial and social value. To accomplish this, Dr. Belcher invented a process in which she genetically engineers or alters the DNA in bacterial viruses, which are benign to humans, by exposing them to a wide variety of these elements.

Using this process, Dr. Belcher has rendered “self-assembled” materials that may be used as components in electronic devices such as touch screens and LCDs, as well as new energy sources like high efficiency solar cells, and clean transportation fuel.

But one of her most encouraging inventions to date is the high-powered, biologically-based battery. Her battery is inexpensive to produce, nontoxic and biodegradable. It can currently power small electronic devices like a laser pointer or an LED light, but Dr. Belcher’s goal is to scale the battery to run a hybrid car.

Dr. Belcher_Biologically Based Battery

“The full implications of Angela Belcher’s work are only beginning to be realized and yet the applications already appear to be far-reaching,” said Evelyn Hu, co-founder of Belcher’s two companies – Cambrios Technologies and Siluria Technologies – and the Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics and Electrical Engineering at Harvard University. “Her inventions are always linked back to her profound passion and compassion for society, and her desire to improve the quality of life for others.”

Next Dr. Belcher will continue to focus on some of the biggest global challenges including water, and how she can develop materials to purify water for the agricultural, pharmaceutical and energy industries. She is also currently researching ways to use her technology in medical imaging devices to detect ovarian cancer in its earliest stages.

Dr. Belcher will accept the 2013 Lemelson-MIT Award and present her accomplishments at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) during the Program’s seventh-annual EurekaFest, a multi-day celebration of the inventive spirit, June 20 – 22.

She plans to allocate a portion of her award money to the development of outreach programming focused on getting others, especially young women and girls, excited about science – a cause she has invested in all her life.