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Angela Belcher: Building Tiny Living Batteries

A mollusk shines light on how to create a viral battery for the 2006 Scientific American 50 research leader of the year



ANGELA BELCHER/MIT

Editor’s Note: In mid-May, Scientific American will announce the winners of this year’s Scientific American 10. Every Monday we will profile a previous Scientific American 50 winner.

Year in Scientific American 50: 2006

Recognized for: Her work on self-assembling viruses for electronic nanotechnology applications. Angela Belcher, a professor of materials science and engineering and of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was inspired by how abalone control calcium carbonate to make their hard shells. She began by coaxing a tiny virus (the M13 bacteriophage) to evolve to assemble and coat itself with bits of semiconductor. The result was a nanowire-filled electrode, which was on its way to becoming a bio-battery.

What has happened to her work: But the electrode—the anode pole—was only half the battle. "Then we focused on the other half of the battery, which was the cathode," she says. Belcher and her team have since developed several different materials with which to make battery components. In 2008 Belcher and her team developed full mini batteries that could be stamped onto surfaces.

What she is doing now:
Belcher is still plugging away on viral battery work. "Before, we showed proof of concept," she says, "now we're showing materials where the properties are very, very good." She and her team are expanding into new fields, developing modified proteins and enzymes to control materials on the nanoscale for solar, fuel cells, medicine, catalysis and even carbon capture and storage.

Challenges—such as how to replicate the technology on a scale large enough to be used for something like powering electric cars—remain. Still, she says: "We wouldn't be going down this path if we didn't think it would be possible. We like to work on problems that are very hard—but not impossible."

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