6 Jul 2009

Energy Nuggets: Engineering Viruses to Build a Better Battery

Literature Discussion

Submitted by Maggie Geselbracht, Reed College
This literature discussion activity is one of a series of “Energy Nuggets,” small curricular units designed to illustrate: The Role of Inorganic Chemistry in the Global Challenge for Clean Energy Production, Storage, and Use.

Renewable energy is great, but what do we do when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow?  This paper describes a novel approach to building a better battery by using viruses to self-assemble nanoscale battery materials.  Angela Belcher’s group at MIT focuses in this paper on self-assembly of the anode material for rechargeable lithium ion batteries, and the improvements that are possible with the nanoscale architecture.  In a very recent paper (citation below), Belcher’s group has used virus-enabled synthesis to also assemble the cathode material, although this recent work was not yet available at the time of our class discussion.  An excellent review paper on the challenges of building a better lithium ion battery by Jean-Marie Tarascon can also be provided to give students a broader overview of the field.

Microsoft Office document icon EnergyNugViralBattery.doc35.5 KB
Learning Goals: 

After reading these papers and working through the discussion questions, a student will be able to:

  • Describe the basic components of a rechargeable lithium ion battery and the redox reactions that occur at the anode and cathode upon cycling.
  • Discuss the motivation of Belcher’s group to use viruses and genetic engineering to build a better battery material and the variety of evidence that these scientists have achieved their goal.
  • Discuss the pros and cons of highly interdisciplinary work including bridging the challenges of language and jargon.

Implementation Notes: 
With a relatively weak background in molecular biology myself, I relied a lot on the knowledge of my students to help translate the “biospeak” in this paper.  Prior to our class discussion, a few students posted basic questions on our class discussion forum such as “what is a phage display library?” and others tried to answer them.  It was more effective to just spend a few minutes at the beginning of the class discussion defining terms.  I invited a biochemistry colleague to read the paper and sit in on the discussion also, and he was very helpful in clarifying many of the concepts.
Time Required: 
50 minutes
Evaluation Methods: 
At the end of the discussion, I collected the students’ written answers to the discussion questions and evaluated them mostly on effort.
Evaluation Results: 
This activity came at the very end of the semester, so the level of effort was somewhat sporadic.  However, most students seemed to really like reading this article, even if it was challenging to figure out the science.  None of the students could figure out all of the details of how to calculate the lithium ion capacity of the anode material, although many of them had correctly completed several of the steps along the way.  So, we went though the whole calculation on the board, obtaining slightly different results than what was in the paper (either a typo or unidentified calculation error on our part). 
Creative Commons License: 
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