From Viral Electric Car Batteries to Creating More Durable Everyday Materials –Welcome to the World of Angela Belcher
If researcher Angela Belcher has her way, electric cars of the future will be equipped with lightweight, inexpensive batteries that can store enough electricity to make driving such vehicles even more practical. Also on her laboratory "to do" list: developing tougher electronic material so that you'll never lose your computer again to an errant glass of water spilled on your keyboard.
Skillfully combining the disciplines of materials science, engineering and bioengineering, Angela is focused on developing tougher and more effective materials and devices for clean energy, electronics, the environment and medicine. What's even more interesting are the research methods she uses in developing such materials. These range from actually "growing" the materials from genetically-modified microscopic organisms (such as harmless bacterial viruses) to creating more highly durable material compounds based on studying how abalone shellfish manufacture their tough, water-sealed outer covering.
Angela is Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Biological Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she and her closely-knit research team use nanotechnology (a growing area of science that focuses on manipulating matter at the atomic and molecular level) to produce their advanced materials.
Says Angela: " We like to work on problems that are very hard—but not impossible."
Angela's prolific achievements in her field have not gone unnoticed. Time magazine in 2007 featured one of her most promising projects – research to create a new kind of lithium-ion battery (for possible use in electric cars) which she and her colleagues developed from a genetically-modified virus known as M13 bacteriophage. In addition, she was named Research Leader of the Year by Scientific American and a member of the "Scientific American 50" (the magazine's annual listing of top innovators), as well as winning a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Fellowship in 2004, and receiving Popular Science's Brilliant 10 Award.
Angela is also noted for her groundbreaking work in nanotechnology to develop tough, complex materials (based on her study of abalone) that may one day enable gadgets to mend their cracks when dropped on the floor, and that won't die if exposed to water, such as computer keyboards.
Last year she and her team received national attention for another milestone: creating a virus-templated catalyst solution that could one day allow scientists to harness energy from water, The catalyst solution taps the power of sunlight (similar to the process that plants use to fuel their growth) in splitting the hydrogen and oxygen atoms of a water molecule, with the potential of turning water into hydrogen fuel.
"Splitting water is one way to solve the basic problem of solar energy," says Angela, who earned her Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California, Santa Barbara where she also received her Bachelor's degree from the College of Creative Studies."By using sunlight to make hydrogen from water, the hydrogen can then be stored and used at any time to generate electricity using a fuel cell, or to make liquid fuels (or be used directly) for cars and trucks."
In the meantime, work continues on her other projects, including the viral lithium battery. "Besides viral batteries being more compact, powerful and energy efficient," she adds, "they have other 'green' advantages over conventional batteries," including being mostly biodegradable, causing less environmental problems when disposed of.
Her work is also expanding into new fields, such as developing modified proteins and enzymes to control materials on the nanoscale for solar, fuel cells, medicine, and carbon capture and storage. "These are certainly exciting times in science and engineering," she says.
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