Over hundreds of millions of years, microorganisms have become efficient at building practical, durable structures and materials from available elements, working at nanoscale dimensions. A good example of this is shells, which protect a variety of sea creatures such as crabs and mollusks.
Inventor and biological engineer Angela Belcher began research in the 1990s with the aim of harnessing this incredible ability, and by providing microorganisms with the necessary materials, allowing them to create more futuristic materials for practical human use. Her groundbreaking work has resulted in so-called “self-assembled” materials that may be used as components in electronic devices such as batteries, display screens, and fuel cells.
A native of Houston, Texas, Belcher attended the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), where she graduated in 1991 with a BA from the College of Creative Studies, focusing on biology. She completed a PhD in inorganic chemistry at UCSB in 1997. Her doctoral work involved research on how abalones and other living organisms make shells and similar materials.
From 1997 to 1999, Belcher worked as a postdoctoral fellow at UCSB before moving to the University of Texas, Austin, in 1999, where she served as an assistant professor in the chemistry and biochemistry department. In 2001, she accepted a post at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was the John Chipman Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Biological Engineering until 2005, when she was named the Germeshausen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Biological Engineering. She is currently the James Mason Crafts Professor of biological engineering and materials science and engineering, as well as the head of the department of biological engineering, and a David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research intramural faculty member.
Belcher’s work is based on the idea that nature can create an infinite number of novel materials if given the proper set of "ingredients" and building conditions. While pursuing her doctoral degree, she realized that abalone shells are strong and durable because they are made with proteins using nanoscale structures. What if the organisms that build abalone shells had access to other materials from the periodic table, she wondered, that are necessary for making silicon and electronics? Could they use those elements to make silicon materials?
Through a series of experiments involving DNA manipulation, Belcher was able to identify a process for evolving a virus very quickly and exposing it to a wide variety of elements that the virus could use to create complex, novel materials. She was able to refine the process to the point where, within just a few weeks, viruses were able to produce new substances. One of her initial projects was a virally-created battery. The resulting product is packaged in a regular battery case and may be used to power small devices such as a laser pointer. Subsequent projects included virus-based electrochromic materials, that is, materials that change color; virus-based solar cells; and virus-based displays. Many of the products can work together in combination.
Belcher has plans to work through the entire periodic table, using not only viruses, but also yeast and other microorganisms, to synthesize a vast array of complex materials in an environmentally responsible way. Through biological synthesis, manufacturing of such materials produces much less waste than traditional manufacturing, and in many cases, the end products are biodegradable.
In 2003, with colleague Dr. Evelyn Hu, Belcher founded Cambrios Technologies in Mountain View, Calif., to commercialize biologically formed electronic materials. The firm makes low-cost solution-based indium tin oxide (ITO) replacements for transparent conductor materials for touch screen and display applications. In 2007, Belcher founded Siluria Technologies to bring additional new products to market.
Most recently, Belcher has been involved in cross-disciplinary innovations. She uses her knowledge of nanotechnologies to help develop imaging devices that can detect cancer and spot tumors as small as a half-milimeter. She has also been developing a way to diagnose ovarian cancer at an earlier stage. In May 2020, Blecher received funding from the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness for research into how to help combat the Covid-19 pandemic. Her idea included creating textiles that would protect people from dangerous virus using nanocarbon materials.
For her achievements, Belcher has been recognized with numerous awards and honors, including the 2001 Sloan Research Fellowship, the 2001 Packard Fellowship and a 2004 MacArthur Fellowship. Belcher was also named to Fortune Magazine's Top 10 Innovators Under 40 list in 2004, Technology Review Top 100 Inventors in 2002, and has been awarded the 2004 Four Star General Recognition Award from the U.S. Army. She has authored over 20 papers and holds some 20 patents or patents pending. In 2013, Belcher was awarded the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for her work.
Belcher is a mentor for young girls who are studying math and science, and she also co-chairs MIT’s pk-12 Action Group. The Action Group is meant to promote global education with research, design and outreach programs in STEM education, allowing children to solve real world global issues.
You can learn more about Belcher in this case study.