From nature to new materials: this MIT professor’s inventions are rooted in the biology of the Lemelson Foundation | Inventory booklet | March 2021
An abalone shell inspired Angela Belcher to pursue a career in engineering and cancer research.
The idea that nature is full of inspiration is at the heart of Angela Belcher’s work – and she has started her own career. Belcher is an award-winning inventor, which includes the 2013 Lemelson MIT Prize, and James Mason Crafts Professor of Biotechnology and Materials Science and Technology at MIT. He looks for ancient organisms to inspire new technologies.
Nature has its own design processes and the materials it makes are not only environmentally friendly but also durable and exquisite, says Belcher. What if, she wondered, there was a way to take DNA sequences that code for proteins, but instead use them to make better, more efficient materials that would then become the building blocks of our modern technologies ?
Learn more about the social and economic impact of inventions in the RAND report “Measuring the Value of Invention” and in the 25th anniversary of the Lemelson-MIT (LMIT) Prize.
Belcher encourages her students to ask and answer these kinds of questions in her lab. Her work focuses in particular on the use of bacterial viruses, which are not harmful to humans and which can bind to inorganic materials and assemble into non-toxic components that are required for a wide variety of products.
She has already used these techniques to grow batteries that are soft, flexible and have better conductivity, as well as solar cells that increase energy efficiency. This is also what drives her work in cancer research, including the development of new materials that will aid in the early detection of ovarian cancer.
Belcher has successfully commercialized her inventions and founded two companies, Cambrios Advanced Materials and Siluria Technologies. The former, whose name is derived from the Cambrian geological time – “when there was an explosion of new life forms,” she says – makes transparent conductors for touchscreen displays on portable electronics and smartphones. The latter is named after the Silurian Era, another significant period for the growth of life on earth, and pioneered the manufacture of fuels and chemicals from natural gas.
We spoke to Belcher about her work, her inspirations and her thoughts on inventing in the classroom.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In short, what do you focus on in your work?
During my career it has been of interest to me to understand how biology makes materials – because it does so in a way that is very compatible with the environment. When making materials, biology is not using anything toxic or adding anything toxic back to the environment. Throughout my career, we’ve tried to understand the fundamentals of how it works and develop new technologies based on this idea of environmentally friendly construction of materials that are important to the world.
What was your inspiration
The ideas came from the abalone shell, a biocomposite material. It is 98 percent by mass calcium carbonate and two percent by mass protein. So it’s basically chalk. The proteins are made up of amino acids that are not that different from materials like your hair.
The abalone shell is a really strong, tough structure made of very earthy materials. To me this is fascinating – it’s a template, it has a DNA sequence that codes for its protein and instructs it to build an exquisite material in an environmentally friendly way.
But over time, organisms learn to change what they use their proteins for. Instead of using them for certain functions in the cells, they use them to pick up elements from their environment and build exquisite nanostructured materials. Wouldn’t it be great if everything could be made this way? What if we could make solar cells like this? What if you could make batteries this way – can you find a DNA sequence that codes for a protein, but instead of building an abalone shell, it builds a battery?
Can you talk about the health applications of your job?
We have really tried in the last few years to develop new materials for the early detection of ovarian cancer. I work with other scientists and engineers and we are all dedicated to making progress in treatment. Our approach is essentially to develop new nanomaterials that could actually look for cancer cells and help us identify them much earlier.
I like doing things, especially by taking atoms and designing the way they are put together. Because if you take a few atoms and arrange them in different ways and pack them in different ways and make them into different shapes, their property changes. The properties can be better solar cells, and they can be better materials for batteries and energy storage, but they can also be better materials for cancer diagnosis and imaging. For me, it’s all about atoms and how to arrange them.
How do you use your platform to inspire the next generation of inventors?
I like to find new ways to encourage children to be inventors and to encourage children to use science and technology, especially for applications and inventions that can change the world. This has been interesting to me since I was a student, but it’s even more interesting to me now because we are in a place on the planet where we really need new ideas and new inventions – especially in nutrition, water and energy and health. My generation is doing a pretty good job, but we really need the next generation because it will be the one that will be affected the most. We need the best and brightest children and we need their ideas, excitement and enthusiasm.
How can Invention education arouse this interest?
It’s about capturing the imagination and helping create that first spark. We may have been taught that inventors are those brilliant people who lived fifty years ago. But I think it’s important for children to realize that they have the same skills. You can make the world a better place and then learn how to respond to it. Your ideas and creations won’t be perfect the first time, and that doesn’t matter. It is important to give children the opportunity to recognize that they too can be inventors.
I’ve been working in K-12 classrooms since I was undergraduate. It’s something I’ve always been very passionate about and it would be fantastic for me to have more invention education opportunities in schools.
If you’re in a classroom and see that spark, how do you feel?
Well, it’s definitely fun. It’s very stimulating and gives me a lot of hope for the future. We have come to a point where there are so many urgent problems around the world that need to be resolved. I think a lot of these solutions can be technological, and showing the next generation that they are capable of creating them is very rewarding.
Seldom do children get bored if you give them interesting experiments and interesting design parameters. I just never see that. I see them jump off their chairs, excited to be part of it. And I think that’s the part that we need to promote. Basically, it’s about bringing them to the table and showing them that they don’t have to be a genius. It’s about playing around. It’s about thinking, dreaming and brainstorming. And to realize that these ideas can come together to develop technological solutions. You don’t have to know everything when you enter the room. You just have to be ready to show yourself.