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December 7 SciCafe: Q and A with Angela Belcher

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MIT Professor Angela Belcher, December's SciCafe speaker, designs smarter technologies using biological materials and processes. 

© Angela Belcher


What if materials in nature could be harnessed to design smarter technologies? Join MIT Professor Angela Belcher at the December 7 SciCafe, Material World: How Bioengineering and Nanotechnology Could Save the Planet, to learn how she creates more efficient technologies in clean energy, electronics, and medical research using materials from nature. Applying biology, engineering, nanotechnology, and materials science to her work, Dr. Belcher has created virus-enabled batteries and more efficient solar cells. Belcher will bring examples of her research to Wednesday’s event, including the first biological battery her team produced as well as a shell of an abalone, a relative of the oyster and the inspiration for many of her projects.

How does your research bridge various disciplines?

My team draws from chemistry, electrical engineering, biological engineering, and materials science, among other disciplines. What we care about is clean manufacturing and engineering efficient devices. To me, everything is a material. Proteins, DNA, conducting materials, parts of solar cells—all are materials, and we put those components together to try to self-assemble more efficient devices. We don’t stop and say we will look at as these as strictly materials scientists or biologists. We ask: what is the overall performance we are looking for? And can we apply some of biology’s expertise from billions of years of evolution to create an electronic device?

You were named “Research Leader of the Year” byScientific American in 2006. What was the research that led to this honor?

That was based on my work genetically engineering organisms, mostly viruses and other simple structures, to be able to grow materials for electronics such as batteries. Though it seems like a bit of a strange connection, our group focuses on using biological mechanisms to grow inorganic material structures that could be made into important devices for use in everyday life. By looking to biology, we are able to create a more environmentally friendly, non-toxic design.

What’s the latest new material you’re developing?

We work on about 40 different projects at any given time. At Wednesday’s SciCafe, I will talk about our solar cells, batteries, and new methods of cancer detection. Other current projects include a company that I founded, which is working on converting natural gas into liquid fuels and materials for plastics that affect our everyday life and have a greatly reduced carbon footprint.

SciCafe is proudly sponsored by Judy and Josh Weston.

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