She’s building the factories of tomorrow, one cell at a time


Imagine factories, crowded with not thousands but millions of unpaid laborers that often work until they drop dead on the assembly line, only to be replaced by others given no choice but to finish the task. That’s the utopian future Dr. Angela Belcher has been working to build, and now she has been awarded the prestigious $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for her efforts.

Her laborers, however, are unlikely to take notice: Belcher’s work primarily employs viruses, carefully selected and deployed to help rework and rewire a range of materials, crafting everything from batteries and solar cells to industrial pollution.

“I have a collaboration where we’ve been using yeast, not viruses, as a way to convert waste CO2 from a powerplant,” she told me. “On a small scale, we’ve shown that’s possible, and it’s all about doing it at a larger scale.”

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To Belcher, no matter which of the weighty world problems she is tackling that day, the fundamental approach is the same.

“I’ve never been accused focusing,” she said. “Whether it’s cancer cells or solar cells or batteries, it’s the same materials processing to me.”

That “unfocused” approach has already lead to advances: Belcher co-founded Siluria Technologies in 2007 to convert methane gas into fuel fit for transportation, and Cambrios Technologies, which develops touch- and LCD-screen coatings for phones and monitors.

And that’s all moonlighting from a job as a materials science and biological engineering professorship at MIT.

“Angela Belcher is an extraordinary inventor,” said Joshua Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, in a statement announcing Belcher’s award. “She has taken a single idea and applied it to develop a remarkable portfolio of inventions that span a multitude of industries and will ultimately benefit business, society, and the environment.”

The $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize is one of a number of awards the foundation gives out each year, honoring achievements that apply scientific progress to economic and social well-being.

Understandably, this is not Belcher’s first national recognition: In 2004, she was honored with a MacArthur Fellowship. In 2009, the Globe profiled her work as part of a larger look at the emerging field of nanotechnology.

But just like her millions of laborers, her main source of inspiration also worked unpaid.

Rather than seeing biologic engineering as a Frankensteinian mashup of man and machine, Belcher said she was continuing on nature’s own traditions that predate human meddling by millions of year; specifically, she often cites the abalone mollusk shell, which builds upon a small organic material with calcium carbonate, create a hardier shell than the mollusk could grow alone.

The only difference is humanity does not have the luxury of time that evolution has.

“We don’t have 50 million years,” she told me, saying that water, energy, and healthcare were some of her driving interests now. “It’s about learning from natural processes and evolution, and taking advantage of billions of years of evolution, and trying to apply that to other processes now.”