Apart from biology, our physical world is mostly either dumb, rock hard, or both. We use that hard, dumb stuff to make durable things like tools, vehicles and buildings. Biology, although soft, squishy and smart, somehow also manages to grow incredibly hard things, like shells and teeth. Maybe biology can teach us better ways to make hard stuff too
Ok, so you definitely need to watch this recent short TED video first. It’s extraordinarily inspiring and also funny, and her story about the day the president came to visit her in her lab is a classic.
Now that we’ve whetted your appetite, it’s time for a deeper dive. Don’t be put off by the distorted sound at the beginning of this next video, the distortion goes away as soon as the presenter hands over to Angela herself. Also, although she starts by giving some of the same explanatory introduction, she goes into much more detail about the subject matter in this longer video. The talk was given over a year earlier, but her views are all still well worth hearing.
Here’s her Wikipedia entry:
Angela M. Belcher is a material scientist, biological engineer, and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is director of the Biomolecular Materials Group at MIT and a 2004 MacArthur Fellow.
Belcher grew up in San Antonio, Texas. She attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she received her Bachelor’s degree from the College of Creative Studies in 1991 and her Ph.D. in chemistry in 1997.
After studying abalone shells, she worked with several colleagues at MIT and engineered a virus, known as the M13 bacteriophage whose target is usually Escherichia coli. M13 can be made to latch onto and coat itself with inorganic materials including gold and cobalt oxide. The long tubular virus (coated in cobalt oxide) now acts as a minuscule length of wire called a nanowire.
Belcher’s group coaxed many of these nanowires together and found that they resemble the basic components of a potentially very powerful and compact battery. In 2002 she founded Cambrios with Evelyn L. Hu of Harvard University. Their vision relied upon the use of nanostructured inorganic material, fabricated and shaped by biological molecules to create novel materials and processes for a variety of industries.
In 2009 Belcher and her team demonstrated the feasibility of using genetically-modified viruses to build both anode and cathode of a lithium-ion battery. These new batteries have the same energy capacity and power as cutting-edge rechargeable batteries earmarked for use in hybrid cars, as well as powering a range of electronic devices. The batteries could be manufactured using a cheap and environmentally friendly process, as the synthesis can be done near room temperature, using no harmful solvents or toxic materials.