ECS Lecture | Adam Heller

228th ECS Meeting | Phoenix, AZ | Oct. 12, 2015

Wealth, Global Warming and Geoengineering

Adam HellerAdam Heller’s work in electrochemical engineering has touched the lives of people across the globe. As the inventor of the painless diabetes blood monitor, his developments in healthcare have had enormous societal and economic impact. Heller’s work spans a range of technologies, touching areas related to battery and energy—including solar cells, the lithium battery, and photoelectrocatalysis.

Heller’s journey though the sciences took flight in 1961, when he received his PhD from Ernest David Bergmann at the Hebrew University. From there, he had research related stints at such notable establishments as GTE Laboratories and Bell Laboratories, where he headed the Electronic Materials Research Department from 1977-1988.

His research soon transcended into teaching when he became a professor of engineering at the University of Texas in Austin. During this time, Heller co-invented what would be one of his most significant contributions to science—the painless blood glucose monitoring system.

It began in 1996 when Heller and his son Ephraim Heller founded TheraSense, which has transitioned to become a major part of Abbott Diabetes Care of Alameda, CA. Here, the FreeStyle™ system of TheraSense was developed, which made the monitoring of blood glucose painless by accurately monitoring the glucose concentration in just 300 nanoliters of blood.

Heller also established the field of the electrical wiring of enzymes (1988-2005), the electrical connection of their catalytic redox centers to electrodes and built with wired enzymes subcutaneously implanted miniature glucose sensors, which became the core technology of the 2008 FreeStyle Navigator™ and of the 2014 FreeStyle Libre™. This continuous glucose monitoring system of Abbott Diabetes Care intended to replace the 16 billion annually performed blood-requiring strip assays. Its disposable part is factory calibrated, requires no blood samples and operates for two weeks.

His study of the physical chemistry of inorganic oxyhalide solutions resulted in the first neodymium liquid lasers (1964-1967) and in the publication of the first paper on the lithium thionyl chloride battery with James J. Auborn in 1973, which would be used in implanted medical and defense systems that required a shelf life of greater than 20 years or a higher than average energy density.

Similarly, Heller continued his research in energy by exploring solar cells, which resulted in 11.5% efficient solar cells in 1980 and in 11 % efficient hydrogen evolving photoelectrodes in 1981. Along with Heinz Gerischer, Heller was able to show that the rate of photo-assisted oxidation of organic matter on photocatalytic titanium dioxide particles was controlled by the rate of reduction of adsorbed oxygen by trapped electrons.

Heller has been recognized for his scientific achievements by some of the top establishments in the world. Most notably, he received the United States National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2008—the top technology award in the U.S.

He has been awarded many times by The Electrochemical Society, including its David C. Grahame Award, its Vittorio de Nora Gold Medal, and the Heinz Gerischer Award of its European Section. He is an ECS Fellow.

Among Heller’s other awards and achievements are his induction to the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (2009) and the American Academy of Arts and Science (2009), Spiers Medal and Faraday Medal of the Royal Society of Chemistry UK, Fresenius Gold Medal of the Society of German Chemists, and the Torbern Bergman Medal of the Swedish Chemical Society—an award he shared with ECS Fellow Allen J. Bard.

Five Questions for Adam Heller

Tell us about the beginning of your interest in science.
I went to—like all the young Israelis—to serve in the Israeli army. And at that time I was interested in a medical career. When I was in boot camp and they learned that I wanted to be a physician, they sent me to the medical corps to work in the pathology institute of a military hospital. There I very quickly discovered at the time, medicine was not yet science. And I saw—being in the pathology institute—mistakes. I decided that I’d rather be a scientist working toward better medicine.

When did you become involved in solar technology?
At GTE Labs, my colleague Heinz Gerischer was interested in electroluminescence. He was teaching me the elements of semiconductor electrochemistry and telling me that we can me a semiconductor liquid junction solar cell. AT GTE, I couldn’t do much work on these—my responsibilities were totally different and mostly lighting product related. I returned to Bell Laboratories in 1975 and then I really started to work seriously on the semiconductor liquid junction solar cells. And over five years we published a series of papers on efficient, more than 10 percent efficient, electrochemical solar cells.

Tell us about the development of the painless diabetes blood monitor.
People were pricking their fingers, getting large blood drops. It was painful: get a strip, touch it, get a blood sample, measure the glycemia (the blood glucose concentration). Five percent of the people of the world are diabetic. One percent of the people need these measurements. If they don’t do it, they go blind, they lose their kidneys, they develop neuropathy, their legs are amputated. It can become a horrible disease, if they don’t monitor their blood sugar. [My son] observed that if he pricks his skin in the arm, he can painlessly get a much smaller sample of blood. By pricking his finger, he got, painfully, a large drop of blood. So he asked me, “Can we make a sensor for such a small sample of blood?” I knew that it could be done if I used a small enough electrode.

What does the future of electrochemistry look like?
You see wonderful things in electrochemistry: shrinking down power sources, making electrical car batteries. Sooner or later we will have a long-lived, moderate temperature, high-power-density fuel cell that uses methane instead of hydrogen, followed by one that uses higher boiling hydrocarbons. I think in electrochemistry, that’s the greatest challenge that I can imagine. I know that this will come. It’s up to the next generation. So pretty soon—on a historical scale of 100 years—there’s no question in my mind that we will drive liquid fuel-based fuel cell powered cars.

How was receiving the National Medal of Technology and Innovation?
It certainly was the highlight of my professional life—to be in the White House, to spend time with the president. And it’s indeed pretty rare for an individual to get that medal. I feel that it is absolutely wonderful, considering that I come from Cluj, Romania, and passed through a concentration camp. Now that I was allowed to survive, I was honored by the president of the United States. What can I do next to pay society for this? I am doing my best.

Reprinted with permission from the Annual Review of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Volume 6 © 2015 by Annual Reviews,