At the forefront of this new era of advanced materials is Angela Belcher, W.M. Keck Professor of Energy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Belcher and her lab have been pioneering ways to harness nature’s own processes in order to design advanced materials and devices for energy, for the environment and for medicine. In 2004, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. She talks with Look ahead about why advanced materials are critical to industry, to the economy and to helping solve big problems.
What inspired you to explore and try to understand nature’s ability to craft unique materials with amazing capabilities and how they might be used to solve big problems for business and the planet?
I’ve been interested in genetics since I was probably in the third grade and I’m not sure why I got interested in it. But if you look at the world around you and think about how different organisms — the trees and plants and abalone shells and even bacteria — have evolved to solve their problems, you can’t help but feel amazed. Every single organism and every structure that the organism made just has this genetic programme and these modifications that allow them to survive and obtain new kinds of functions and live in their environment.
To me, it is a no-brainer that is what we need to do [to design new materials]. Abalone in the ocean is where I really made the connection. Because 500 million years ago, organisms didn’t make any hard materials. And then, all of a sudden there was this pressure on them in the ocean with increased calcium, iron and silicon and they learned how to deal with it by making shells and making structures that would not only protect them but also prevent them from being poisoned by extra changes in their environment. And I think — wow, we can learn how to do that with other kinds of structures and systems. We have 4 billion years, at least, of evolution that shows it is possible.
Why are advanced materials so important to the economy and what are some interesting developments that could transform the design of products?
If you look around at your desk and your car and what you’re using, a lot of those technologies have been possible thanks to advances in materials. In fact, many of the current challenges in the world — from energy to healthcare — will benefit from improvements and innovation in new materials and from our ability to control their size, their atomic structure and the production process. Advances in materials are not only about creating new materials, however. They are also about making existing ones smaller, putting them together in new ways, making them less expensive and changing their form factors. I think it’s a fantastic time to be a materials scientist.
What kinds of materials are you currently working on that have unique properties and capabilities to leverage and go beyond nature’s own designs?
We try to create materials with advanced properties for applications anywhere from energy to healthcare. We often rely on combinatorial chemistry and combinatorial biology as they enable us to test different — and multiple — combinations faster than you could otherwise do in traditional material synthesis. [Ed note: combinatorial chemistry and biology enable the preparation of multiple compounds in a single step.]
One area of our group’s most recent work has been in lithium oxygen, lithium ion and sodium air batteries. We’ve been developing both new kinds of cathodes and anode materials based on biological synthesis.
Working on growing materials on the surface of a bacteriaphage or protein structure, for example, we managed to grow a metal oxide and a metal at the same time in close proximity and get them to self-assemble into a higher three-dimensional structure that will also have either a mechanical property associated with it or a high porosity associated that gives it extra catalytic function. This enables us to make really small materials [nanoscale] of very high quality.
It sounds like you enjoy going after the very big problems.
We like problems that are very difficult, but not impossible. We have worked in CO2 sequestration and storage, which is a big, challenging area. We worked on taking yeast used for making beer or bread and engineered it to convert CO2 eventually into calcium carbonate and then used it to make building supplies for tiles. Then we got a little discouraged because we showed that we could do it and that it was reasonable if you could sell the product but the scale of it was not great. It was a way of making a material that was useful but we couldn’t remove enough, in our view, of the CO2 to make an impact on the environment. But now we are going back and looking at that problem again. We are also really interested in making a material for environmental clean-up as well.
The typical speed of adoption of new materials over the past 50 years has been painstakingly slow. What can we do to increase the speed?
I’m not sure I have the answer for that. I think the timeline for getting a new material, or a new material technology, into an industrial setting or product does have a long time horizon for many different reasons. A lot of times it’s making a new material and then there’s scale up and integration into already existing technologies.
That said, I think the timelines are definitely compressing. The kinds of things we do in our work, for example, look at nature and use nature’s trial-and-error method to try to work through the process in a more rapid way. People are also going to be able to do rapid prototyping in a much cheaper way than they could before. I’m a big fan of 3D printers — I actually have one in my living room.
You’ve spoken a great deal about the inherent power of nature’s own processes and that by harnessing them we’ll be able to design and have nature build new kinds of integrated technologies for addressing energy, medical and environmental challenges. Can you outline some of the technologies you expect to see harnessed over the next decade or two?
I would like to mention two examples of companies that have been spin-offs from my lab. One of them is Cambrios Technologies, which uses metal nanowires to create flexible and high-performance transparent conductors. [Ed note: an important technology in touchscreens]. The other company is Siluria Technologies, which uses combinatorial chemistry and combinatorial biology with rapid throughput screening to develop new catalysts that are used in energy — specifically for methane to ethylene. Both of those are materials companies that have their roots in this idea of learning from biology or using principles of biology to make new materials.
With respect to our battery technology, what we are currently working on includes batteries with different form factors that are bendable, integrateable, pourable and take the shape of their container. We are kind of prototyping or building battery technologies that could be integrated into sensors and used for UAV applications. Those could be possible in the next five years.
Another area that is going to be very interesting over the next decades is the use of synthetic biology for making materials. My colleague here, Chris Voight, is doing cutting-edge biology and genomics to try to get organisms to mass produce hard-to-make materials.
Top GIF: Video courtesy of MIT News.
Angela Belcher is the W.M. Keck Professor of Energy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She heads the Biomolecular Materials Group at MIT.
This piece first appeared in GE Look ahead.