Image courtesy of scragz via flickr
Abalone shells and batteries would seem to share little in common; indeed, the former is the type of item you'd expect to find on the seafloor or in a marine biologist's lab while the latter is an essential component you'd find in most gadgets. And, were it not for the groundbreaking work of MIT materials scientist Angela Belcher, that distinction would likely have remained in place.Her work as a graduate student studying the shell-making process in the abalone led her to pose a simple, though no less insightful, question: "What if we could assemble materials like the abalone does?" That epiphany, prompted by the realization that, as she put it, "abalones make this amazing material out of a common mineral" (the shell is 98% calcium carbonate), has led to her current work developing smart nano-materials that could provide a huge boost to the next generation of electronics.
Working with several colleagues, Belcher "grew" the first biologically based rechargeable battery - consisting solely of a virus engineered to bind to cobalt oxide. The idea is to place the viral film on whatever gadget you want to power. Belcher believes that these films, when perfected and made commercially viable, could end the era of short-lived batteries by creating novel electronic, optic and magnetic materials. Even better fuel cells and ultra-tiny nano-computer chips may not be out of reach.
"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," Belcher mused.
Now there's a thought.