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Strong Stuff (video)
February 18, 2003

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Interviewee: Angela Belcher, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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If you've been lucky enough to spend a day on the beach at this time of year, you probably came home with a few sea shells as souveniers.

Now, as this ScienCentral News video reports, an imaginative scientist has figured out how one shell is made.

Natural Nanotechnology

For the last 25 years, we’ve been able to keep shrinking computer chips to the point that we’ve doubled their power every 18 months. But we’re rapidly reaching the limits of today’s technology. At Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), nanotechnologist Angela M. Belcher, believes our answer begins with sea shells.

To understand how materials work at nanoscale (meaning the size of a few atoms), many scientists have been studying natural models. When Angela Belcher was in college and graduate school at the University of California, Santa Barbara, she frequently found red abalone shells washed up on beaches. Although abalone shells are made up of calcium carbonate, the same mineral that makes up chalk and limestone, the shells are many times stronger than their geological counterparts. Belcher decided to find out why.

Her answer: the abalone is a nanotechnologist. To build its shell, it creates a new material, combining calcium carbonate from the surrounding ocean with its own natural proteins. Then it creates miniscule plates of only a few hundred molecules, and stacks them like tiny rows of bricks. An abalone may take as long as 15 years to make a full-size, super-strong shell. Amazingly, Belcher points out, the abalone accomplishes this feat with natural materials at normal temperatures and pressures.

To transfer the abalone’s building skills to nanoscale electronics, Belcher took advantage of the similar abilities of viruses, called bacteriophages, that had been genetically engineered. When mixed together, millions of these viruses can align and stack themselves into orderly layers, creating a new material. Belcher and her colleagues decided to try linking semiconductor particles to these harmless, pattern-making viruses. The researchers discovered that they could employ the viruses as nanoscale construction workers, building new electronic and magnetic materials.

Because bacteriophages reproduce themselves so quickly, Belcher and her research group at MIT are able to create a new material every three weeks or so. They need more time to figure out the materials’ properties—what they can and cannot do. But Belcher is confident that her new materials will be useful in electronics, computing, and medicine.

“Right now,” she says, “I’m not ruling anything out.”

Her work was funded by the Army Research Office, National Science Foundation (NSF), Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Dupont, and IBM. It has been published in the journals Science (May 3, 2002), Nature (four articles, most recently in 2000), and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (March 5, 2000).

by Ann Marie Cunningham

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