CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) — A Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemist who created hybrid organic-inorganic materials used to make environmentally friendly batteries and clean fuel was named winner Tuesday of the annual $500,000 Lemelson-MIT prize for mid-career inventors.
Angela Belcher, 45, a world leader in nanotechnology, was initially motivated by the abalone shell during her time spent by the ocean as an undergraduate at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The shell of the abalone sea snail is comprised of 98 percent calcium carbonate — an inorganic compound — and 2 percent organic protein. The combination makes the shell 3,000 times tougher.
Combining the organic with the inorganic has driven her life’s work.
‘‘My career has been based on helping organisms make materials they didn’t have the opportunity to make through evolution,’’ she said.
Belcher’s processes have been used to create eco-friendly batteries and high-efficiency solar cells. They are now being used to create clean fuel.
Her latest work is focused on methods to use nanotechnology to image early stage cancers and improve outcomes after surgery.
Winning the award was ‘‘a surprise and completely out of the blue,’’ said Belcher, who found out from a colleague during a casual stroll across campus several weeks ago.
‘‘It’s a great privilege for many reasons, first because it’s about innovation and invention and making technologies that make an impact in an environmentally safe way,’’ she said.
She has helped found two companies. Cambrios Technologies was founded in 2003 to commercialize biologically formed electronic materials, including transparent conductor materials for touchscreen and display applications. Siluria Technologies was founded in 2007 and uses the basic components of a virus to identify new materials to convert natural gas into liquid transportation fuel.
Belcher, a San Antonio native who developed an interest in science at age 5 when she started dismantling clocks and electric can openers, says she'll use a portion of the award for one of her passions: getting schoolchildren excited about science.
She'll also use some of the money to establish college funds for her own children.