June 14, 2011 at 7:41 PM ET
The man behind a stretchy heart monitor, an electronic eye camera, and a solar energy technology that is potentially price-competitive with coal has bagged a $500,000 prize for his creative, inventive mind.
John Rogers credits a fortunate upbringing by a physicist dad and poet mom, as well as a team of talented colleagues, for making him one of the most successful midcareer scientists in the country and recipient of this year's Lemelson-MIT Prize.
The blend, he says, has allowed him to think imaginatively — and then leverage his creative ideas within the constraints of practical utility. The result is a string of inventions with applications from life-saving heart surgeries to producing clean, green energy at an industrial scale.
The common thread is his focus on materials. "That is core to everything we do — new materials or new geometries for materials that open up new engineering opportunities," the professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Illinois told me today.
Much of what Rogers does is come up with ways to allow electronics to mimic nature, and use nature as the inspiration for new product designs. The first category is realized in his so-called biointegrated electronics, which are flexible bits of circuitry that mold to body tissue.
Most of the electronic devices available today are built on rigid, flat surfaces of brittle semiconductor wafers — a platform that's not well-suited for integration with the human body.
"The human body doesn't look like a silicon wafer. It is curvilinear. It is soft. It is elastic. It is moist," he said.
His team bridges the gaps between mechanics and form, between conventional electronics and the human body, by redesigning the electronics to look like the body.
This has led to soft, flexible devices that can be integrated into tools used for medical diagnosis. For example, human trials will soon start on a device that integrated electronics with an inflatable balloon that is threaded into a heart, pumped up and then used to measure the electrical properties of cardiac tissue.
Another concept is to mount the electronics onto the surface of the brain in such a way that the circuitry gets inside the folds and crevices to locate specific regions associated with epileptic seizures, for example.
"You can also imagine all kinds of physiological status monitors, monitoring brain waves, or EKG, muscle activity, and so on, and in that realm I think that there are real opportunities in health and fitness," he added.
In fact, Rogers' company, mc10, has partnered with Reebok to produce a line of wearable monitoring equipment, though he wouldn't spare any more details on the specifics.
Nature — specifically, the mammalian eye — is the inspiration for his electric-eye camera. Our eyes, he said, are "spectacularly sophisticated" imaging devices, but are relatively simple compared to the camera equipment used to make professional-quality photographs.
For the camera, he put photoreceptors on a hemispherical surface similar in size and shape to the human eye. The result is a wide-angle view in a compact package that gives the same sharpness and resolution as studio-quality photographs.
For now, the technology is being used primarily for night-vision cameras, a niche market where his lenses should trim weight and bulk from the devices currently on the market. The future, though, is likely in your pocket: "Imagine a cell phone camera that takes studio-quality pictures," he said. "That's the vision."
Cheap, green electricity
The work on stretchable electronics has also led Rogers in the direction of producing clean, green electricity with a photovoltaic module based on teeny, tiny solar cells that, when wired up together, have the potential to compete with coal on price.
Each cell is the size of grain of sand that is wired with others into an array. On top of each cell is a tiny glass lens that focuses the sunlight on the cell.
"In this way you can build a very lo- cost and highly efficient module that can efficiently convert sunlight into electrical power," said Rogers, who co-founded another company, Semprius, to market the technology.
Tucson Electric Power Company is trying out an array in the Arizona desert. According to Rogers, an independent consultant has concluded that within five years the technology can be scaled up and compete with coal on price.
All this creative work earned Rogers the $500,000 prize today. He will accept it and speak about his accomplishments at EurekaFest at MIT from June 15 to 18.
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