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ILP Institute Insider

July 28, 2014
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Following Biological Clues to Better Materials

In one project, Brad Olsen’s lab seeks to engineer soaps that can be sprayed onto a toxic chemical release and not only wash off the chemical but de-toxify it. In another, he is joining with numerous collaborators to lay the foundations for “sustainable biorefineries” that can turn solid waste or algae into a renewable feedstock for a wealth of new materials. A third effort aims to develop new kinds of injectable hydrogels that can stabilize a deep wound or carry treatments into diseased tissues.
Brad Olsen
Assistant Professor
Chemical Engineering
These are just a few of the Olsen Lab’s investigations, driven by new materials that are derived from or inspired by biology. “We focus on engineering new materials out of proteins, protein-polymer hybrids and different types of polymers with a particular focus on materials that can be processed in water,” says Olsen, an assistant professor of chemical engineering. “We apply these materials to a variety of applications, from biomaterials to new sustainable polymers to technologies that address concerns in national defense and in energy.”

The new materials “can act as interesting models for testing fundamental scientific questions,” he adds. “For example, we can build polymers with new shapes, or new sequences of monomers that endow them with specific properties. We try to understand how construction of these molecules leads to changes in the mechanics of the material, or the way in which material self-assembles, or aspects of how the material might undergo certain dynamic processes. And then by understanding these fundamental scientific questions, we can move the capabilities of the materials forward to address many different applications.”

Defending Against Toxic Threats
In several programs for MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, Olsen and colleagues are addressing chemical and biological threats with innovative biological materials, which potentially offer “a selectivity for compounds within diverse environments that is hard to get with other types of technologies,” he points out.

One initiative, in which his lab collaborates with the Army’s Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC), is developing soaps that can decontaminate large areas in an environmentally friendly manner.

“Many toxic chemicals are hydrophobic, so they don’t easily dissolve in water,” he explains. “One needs to use some kind of soap to get the chemical off the surface and into water. One would also like to be able to degrade this chemical, rather than having to recover the water, which can be very difficult if you’re trying to wash large areas or complex structures, and treat it as a toxic waste.”

Olsen’s lab and NSRDEC are pursuing a solution in which soap forms a “nanoreactor” whose outside is coated with enzymes that can actively degrade the toxic chemical. “In an ideal situation, the chemical becomes a harmless solution that won’t have to be recovered for wastewater treatment,” he says. “The great thing is that if you use both soaps and enzymes that are environmentally friendly, potentially you won’t have a toxic soap formulation either.”

With working prototypes in the lab, the researchers are now tuning the nanoreactor chemistry to be faster and more stable, and testing how well the approach functions against a broader set of toxins.

Two other security projects look at producing new protective barrier membranes that respond only to dangerous threats in the environment.

One effort “is to make smart membranes that will protect you when you are in the presence of a toxic chemical but be breathable and easy to wear in the absence of a toxic chemical,” he says. This effort is a partnership with researchers at MIT, NSRDEC, and the University of California at Santa Barbara.

A second study, with professor Katharina Ribbeck in the MIT Department of Biological Engineering, aims to understand the biology of certain biological barriers, and to find ways to copy them to keep people free of pathogens.

Building a Sustainable Biorefinery
Another major theme in Olsen’s research is tapping biological feedstocks to supplement petroleum feedstocks for the next generation of chemical processes. “As these new processes and products start to be identified, the chemical industry will see important near-term impact,” he predicts.

Olsen has joined in a major collaboration with Professor George Stephanopoulos, Associate Professor Kristala Prather and Assistant Professor Yuriy Román of the MIT Chemical Engineering department, partnered with researchers at the Masdar Institute in Abu Dhabi. The project will examine the use of biomass from Abu Dhabi municipal and agricultural waste and algae to explore chemical and biochemical pathways and processes that can help in producing biofuels and other advanced biomaterials.

“We’re hearing from many companies about the strong interest in exploring this wider variety of feedstocks in chemical processing,” Olsen says. “What really excites my group is looking at how these biological feedstocks can help us develop the next generation of materials, with more favorable lifecycle analysis, or less use of toxic monomers, or better combinations of properties than those of existing materials.”

Healing Wounds with Hydrogels
On the medical front, one leading project is to engineer different kinds of hydrogels with mechanical properties that haven’t previously been achievable in a biomaterial system, Olsen says.

“Hydrogels are traditionally quite brittle and quite fragile,” he points out. “If you want a hydrogel to be more like human tissue, there’s a long way to go between Jell-O and human tissue. So we work on targeting some of those technology gaps.”

In an Institute for Solider Nanotechnologies collaboration with Associate Professor Ali Khademhosseini of the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology and Professor Gareth McKinley from MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, Olsen’s team focuses on injectable hydrogels that are designed to stop bleeding in battlefield wounds. Their goal is to create a nanostructured protein hydrogel for an implant that can not only stop the flow of blood but aid in subsequent healing, and then be absorbed by the body.

Existing “shear-thinning” hydrogels have the ability to switch from solid-like to liquid-like states when under mechanical stress, Olsen notes. When injected in the body, they can switch from liquid-like form in the syringe into solid-like form for the implant. However, the hydrogels then must durably maintain that form despite any mechanical stresses they encounter.

Olsen and his colleagues are developing a hydrogel that reinforces a network of proteins with polymers that are soluble in water at lower tempers but are insoluble when heated to body temperature, so that they form a grid that makes the hydrogel much stiffer and slower to degrade. Additionally, the proteins in the hydrogel are chosen partly for their role in promoting wound healing.

Seeking Sustainability
Other work in the Olsen lab, funded by the Department of Energy’s Basic Energy Sciences program, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the National Science Foundation, focuses on advances in sustainability, with an emphasis on biocatalysis.

“We’re looking at ways to control the structure and self-assembly of proteins that allow you to put them together to make a biocatalyst that looks a lot like a traditional heterogeneous catalyst used in the chemical processing industry,” Olsen says. “But instead of using transition metals, we want to use proteins, and enable the very effective enzymatic properties of proteins to be leveraged in chemical conversions.”

“Biocatalysis is already a very active area in the pharmaceutical industry,” he notes. “People also have been investigating this for applications such as biofuel synthesis and biofuel cells. Additionally, there are many potential applications in biosensing — in medicine, industrial practice and detection of harmful compounds in the environment that are relevant to national security.”

Overall, “our group has many different efforts at the interface of natural and synthetic materials, trying to understand the fundamental science of bioinspired and biohybrid polymer systems and to bring these capabilities to bear on a wide variety of industrially and societally important challenges,” Olsen says. “We hope that these new materials will lead to a more secure, healthier and more sustainable world.”

Research News

July 28, 2014

Refrigerator magnets

The magnets cluttering the face of your refrigerator may one day be used as cooling agents, according to a new theory formulated by MIT researchers.

The theory describes the motion of magnons — quasi-particles in magnets that are collective rotations of magnetic moments, or “spins.” In addition to the magnetic moments, magnons also conduct heat; from their equations, the MIT researchers found that when exposed to a magnetic field gradient, magnons may be driven to move from one end of a magnet to another, carrying heat with them and producing a cooling effect.

“You can pump heat from one side to the other, so you can essentially use a magnet as a refrigerator,” says Bolin Liao, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. “You can envision wireless cooling where you apply a magnetic field to a magnet one or two meters away to, say, cool your laptop.”

Liao, along with graduate student Jiawei Zhou and Department of Mechanical Engineering head Gang Chen, have published a paper detailing the magnon cooling theory in Physical Review Letters.

MIT Sloan
Management Review

July 24, 2014

So Your Personal Tweet Accidently Went Out On Your Company Feed. Now What?

The American Red Cross, part of the world’s largest humanitarian operation, is a serious operation. It coordinates staff, volunteers, and other agencies and donors to help people in moments of deep crisis, such as after hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters.

Of course, the organization also has a sense of humor. Its Twitter feed, for instance, recently included a playlist of summer songs and a cute Vine video of people giving blood in beach gear.

Still, it took some nimble thinking in the middle of the night to turn what could have been a major media headache into a moment of levity that strengthened the brand.

Wendy Harman was the organization’s director of social engagement and social strategy when this particular social moment happened (her current title is director of Red Cross information management and situational awareness in disaster cycle services). In a recent Q&A with MIT Sloan Management Review, Harman describes the incident and how it played out:

“#Gettngslizzerd” happened pretty late at night when my colleague accidentally tweeted from the Red Cross Twitter handle when she meant to tweet from her personal account. She tweeted something about finding a four-pack of Midas Touch beer, which is a Dogfish Head brand, and she added, “when we drink we do it right #gettingslizzerd.”

She teaches Zumba, and she’d just made a routine to the song Like a G6 where the lyrics are, “When we drink, we do it right, we’re getting slizzered.” And so that was on her brain.

What happened after it went out was that there were thousands and thousands of tweets in response saying, “The Red Cross is drunk.” Lots of people loved it. On the other hand, it was kind of scary for some people, too.

I was in bed asleep when it happened and I was awakened by a colleague in Chicago who saw it — I’ve shared my real live phone number with a lot of my social media counterparts at other big nonprofit organizations, and we sort of pledged to take care of one another if something like this should ever happen.

I saw a lot of activity and I didn’t know what was going on. I was still a little groggy. I deleted the tweet, and then I woke up a little more and I remembered how a week earlier I was on a Facebook group for nonprofits talking about how much I love it when there are these mis-tweets. I thought they show a sort of window into the soul of an organization. I had never seen any institution that this has happened to where they just said, “Look, we did it, this was a mistake.” I figured we’d try that, and I thought that it would work with a little bit of humor.

I called my friend in Chicago back, because I knew she was watching it and was awake. And we brainstormed the tweet that we’d put out in response. I ended up writing, “We’ve deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.” And it hit the right note. It’s sort of that meme-ology thing. Everybody wants to pile on and be a part of this thing that’s bigger than themselves. I think that they were delighted that we could be in on it too, and they thought that that was really fun.


Harman says that the attention the mis-tweet got and the American Red Cross’ response was huge. “Our blog got crashed, and it didn’t even get crashed during Haiti or any of the other huge disasters that we’ve had. It was a higher-trafficked event than most anything we’ve ever done.”

The organization capitalized on the attention: people donated more than the usual amount of money that day, and Harman coordinated with the beer company, Dogfish Head, to set up a donation site. Restaurants across the country joined in, too, offering free pints of beer to anyone who could prove they had given blood that day.

The fact that the organization — and Harman, in particular — had thought in advance about potential problems meant that she, on behalf of the organization, was able to react quickly and gracefully. People who became aware of a company’s social media presence because of the embarrassing moment were brought into the audience fold. Today, the American Red Cross’ Twitter feed has over 1.3 million followers.

For more on how companies are using social media to enhance their businesses, take a look at the 2014 social business research report by MIT SMR and Deloitte, which was released earlier this month. It features facts and figures as well as comments from Harmon and other social business practitioners.

This article draws from “The American Red Cross: Adding Digital Volunteers to Its Ranks,” a Q&A of Wendy Harman (American Red Cross), by Gerald C. (Jerry) Kane (Boston College), posted online at sloanreview.mit.edu. It also draws on “How to Avoid a Social Media Fiasco,” a blog post by Kane.