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Dr. Angela Belcher: Mimicking Nature for Sustainable Solutions

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Imagine taking a simple organism and designing materials and devices, much like nature would, to deliver innovative advancements in energy, the environment, and medicine, including cancer research. That is what Professor Angela Belcher not only dreamed up, but made a reality. The Bimolecular Materials Group at MIT, the Research Group of Professor Angela Belcher, uses directed evolution and engineered organisms to create hybrid organic-inorganic electronic, magnetic, and catalytic materials (MIT Bio). These non-toxic materials have been used in solar cells, batteries, medical diagnostics and for basic single molecule interactions related to disease, “I am a materials chemist and everything is a material to me. What my group is really good at is finding ways of utilizing biology to make nanomaterials or bring together a collection of materials at the nanoscale that could improve device performance,” stated Professor Belcher.

Belcher preferred pic.jpgThe Bimolecular Materials Group uses protein from abalone shells to build a strong structure that can be used to grow energy storage devices (batteries) and solar cells. They take an M13 Bacteriophage, whose job it is to infect bacteria, and force it to latch onto and coat itself with inorganic materials to create a nanowire. Belcher's group coaxed many of these nanowires together and found they resemble one of the basic components of a compact battery (Science Daily).

In an interview with Slate Magazine, Belcher stated, “by inserting a specific gene, we spurred the virus to produce a protein coat that binds with compounds such as cobalt oxides and iron phosphates. The virus is long and tubular, so we were able to grow nanowires with these compounds, which we used in an electrode for a prototype lithium-ion bio-battery.”

The green chemistry and engineering behind this method is rooted in life cycle thinking; i.e., discovering ways to produce a powerful structure and ensure it will have minimal impact. “We try to use low temperature processes, water as a solvent and non-toxic and earth abundant materials. We have spent years learning to scale both the inorganic materials and the biological materials for application of interest. We do not believe that our technologies are scalable for all problems, but we focus on problems that we can have an impact on.”

Belcher explained that currently, the Bimolecular Materials Group is working with energy storage and creating new catalytic materials for applications in energy and therapeutics, “finally, we have a major effort in designing new materials and instrumentation for both image guided surgery and non-invasive imaging in cancer.”

Professor Angela Belcher attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, for her undergraduate and graduate degrees. She received her B.S. in Creative Studies and her Ph.D. in Chemistry. Belcher joined the MIT faculty in 2001 as a professor in the Department of Biological Engineering and Materials Science & Engineering. Her research is focused on biomaterials, biomolecular engineering, energy, nanoscale engineering, and synthetic biology, “I have been inspired my whole career by how nature makes materials. In addition to being able to make materials on the nanoscale, biology makes materials in a way that is compatible with the environment. We are inspired by nature’s approach to manufacturing.”

Belcher will be one of four esteemed keynote speakers at the 19th Annual Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference, in Bethesda, MD., this July 14-16, “I am very excited and honored to present at this meeting. Green chemistry and green approaches to materials and technology is essential to maintain a sustainable society. In addition, I am excited about the level of interest in these fields from our youngest scientists.”

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