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iPods and Blackberrys could genetically mend their own cracks

How the Abalone Will Help Electronics

By --March 19, 2008

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“Abalone shells are self-assembling. What if we could make a material that is self-re-assembling? What if iPods and Blackberrys could genetically mend their own cracks? These devices get dropped; they break; what material can we make so they fix themselves?”

Those are the questions being asked by MIT’s Angela Belcher, Germeshausen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Biological Engineering.

The story goes that, 10 years ago, Belcher achieved a eureka moment where her lifelong interest in the abalone and a sudden insight came together to give her an extraordinary idea. The sudden insight was a question. “Suddenly, I wondered, what if we could assemble materials like the abalone does—but not be limited to one element? What if we could bond protein to other elements in the periodic table and grow new materials?” she says.

Thus, a line of research stretched out before her which has since led to her being granted her PhD in 1997, her position at MIT in 2002, the MacArthur “Genius” award in 2004 and the honor of being named Researcher of the Year by Scientific American in 2006.

Her research has covered a variety of fields, including inorganic chemistry, materials chemistry, biochemistry, molecular biology and electrical engineering. “It seemed so logical and easy. Shells had been self-assembling, manufacturing amazing materials for 500 million years,” she says.

Currently, Belcher is developing smart nano-materials – hybrids of organic and inorganic components. Her first task is developing a rechargeable, entirely biologically based battery that takes on the appearance of plastic food wrap.

In collaboration with MIT colleagues Paula Hammond, Bayer Professor of Chemical Engineering, and Yet-Ming Chiang, professor of materials science and engineering, Belcher was able to grow the first biologically based, nano-scale rechargeable battery. Comprised of a virus designed by the trio, it is designed to attach itself to cobalt oxide. One day it could be simply poured on to the object it is powering, like a film of chargeable paint.

And though she still sometimes attains the moments of scientific revelation, much of her time is now spent developing. “Back then, I asked, ‘What if? Wouldn’t it be interesting if?’” she says. “Now, the questions are more like, ‘What’s the most efficient, useful material we could make?’” She adds that ultra-tiny computer chips, fuel cells, “smart” nanocrystal sensors are all within the realm of possibility for her now.

Joshua Hill, a Geek’s-Geek from Melbourne, Australia, Josh is an aspiring author with dreams of publishing his epic fantasy, currently in the works, sometime in the next 5 years. A techie, nerd, sci-fi nut and bookworm.


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