chris wise engineer

A Moving Experience with Angel Belcher’s genetic batteries

A Moving Experience….a little more after my encounter with the human genome.

Sometimes the world shifts on its axis, and it did for me at the Royal Academy of Engineering Global Grand Challenges Summit this spring. I was invited to meet the press beforehand, with a quiet American called Craig something-or-other. I spoke valiantly for a moment or two about my hopes for the education of the next generation of engineers, and why design is the stuff of life. Then came the first question for Craig….. “Dr Venter, is it true that you have now made fully artificial life in your laboratory?”. Great big blistering barnacles….did they really ask him that? Who is this bloke? And lo, my world tilted, whoosh. “Not yet”, said Craig quietly, “but you’ll be the first to know when we do”. Craig Venter, only the sequencer of the first human genome (his own), and I hadn’t even realised I was sitting next to him. What an ignoramus!

We traipsed out of the press room, into the conference hall, and I walk next to a large American man in a very sharp suit. “And are you one of Craig’s genetic engineers?”, I said, in my best small-talk. No answer came the buzz-cut reply. “Project management, PR, make-up?”, I blather on. “Not really. More…personal security”.  Ah.

Down in the conference, I originally plan to leave after Venter’s keynote address…but up steps Professor Angela Belcher, Professor of Energy in Materials Science and Engineering and Biological Engineering, MIT. I find I’m glued to my seat…(someone else will have to go to my end-of-year accounts meeting). I hang on Belcher’s every word, beginning with: “How do you go from a DNA sequence to a self-assembling battery…to get past a 50 million year evolution problem by doing a billion experiments in the lab at a time.”

She goes on to say “It’s pretty simple genetic engineering where you go in and cut and paste DNA sequences”…to be honest Angela, that doesn’t sound quite as simple as you make it sound….then you ”do a billion experiments and then search through and find the one that can build a better solar cell or build a better battery…take the one out of a billion that works, then amplify it to make a billion copies…you go through this process about 5 times looking for the one that can grow a better battery. http://mitei.mit.edu/news/new-virus-built-battery-could-power-cars-electronic-devices

Belcher battery

Built biologically, built at room temperature, built non-toxically, and assembles itself….making Lithium Air batteries at least 3 times more efficient than Lithium ion….”.  My goodness…did she really just say that her lab has “simply” bred a creature that can not only generate electricity but can also manufacture itself to work 300% better than the competition? Well yes, she did, but Belcher then moves closer to buildings as she explains how to get a genetically engineered 33% improvement in solar cells, by (simply?) evolving a virus to pick up carbon nanotubes to smooth the otherwise random path of the electrical current through the solar film. If you want to try the whole world-tilting experience for yourself, I recommend you look at Belcher’s 15minute talk on the RAEng website here: http://raeng.tv/default.aspx?item=91

All the speaker’s achievements are transfixing, and I stay for the whole 2 days of the conference. Themes are sustainability, health, education, enriching life, technology and growth and resilience. Topped off by Bill Gates playing the satellite who reminds everyone that the money spent in the US on curing male-pattern-baldness is “an order of magnitude” more than that spent on a globally effective cure for malaria. And as I sit there, I am struck repeatedly that, in an audience of 400, our industry isn’t speaking. None of the big global consultancies are on the stage, apart from Arup on resilience as disaster prophylaxis. Architects, city planners, infrastructure engineers all absent. Energy, substantially missing. Concrete and steel, missing. I’m not going to speculate, but simply ask….where were you? If the building industry doesn’t have a part to play in these issues, what exactly do we think we are doing?

If we can grow a battery, and grow a better solar cell, is it really the case that we can’t grow better, less toxic, building components if we put our collective minds to it? If we can wise-up to learn that investment in vanity products like baldness cures may not be quite as important as delivery infrastructure to cure life-ripping disease like malaria, why not re-engineer the supply chain that still only produces I beams, take them or leave them?

Asked for the one thing he’d really like to have designed, Gates thought for a moment, and as one of the world’s richest men said, “I’d like someone to engineer a better vacuum flask to stop vaccines being destroyed in the African heat.” He used the word Engineer. It was profound, moving. Why not us?

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