Battery expert, and woman with most U.S. patents, on her next innovation

The prolific energy storage expert, who holds more than 140 U.S. patents, is known for developing the battery that made implantable cardiac defibrillators possible. Now, she’s tackling transport and the power grid.

Esther Takeuchi, a prolific energy storage expert, holds more than 140 U.S. patents. She's known for developing the battery that made implantable cardiac defibrillators possible.

Now a professor at SUNY's University at Buffalo, Takeuchi is using her battery knowledge to tackle transport and the power grid. I spoke with Takeuchi recently about her career, her next innovation and the increasing importance of batteries.

What makes you so passionate about this field?

I started out working in industry. The projects I first started working on, and continued to work on for many years, were the development of batteries for implantable biomedical devices. That field continues to be very exciting because the devices constantly need better energy storage. The battery will determine the functional limits of the device, as well as the lifetime and size of the device. That area was very exciting because it had a very tangible impact on human health. As I continued to work in energy storage it became apparent that some of the thought processes, techniques and ideas we were using for solving the issues with bio-medically related batteries could be applied toward other types of energy storage.

I moved to the university in the fall of 2007 and continued to work in the biomedical battery arena, but also broadened to contemplate batteries for other applications. [For example, we'd expect] a typical battery for a consumer application [such as] cell phones and laptop computers to last maybe three to four years. By that time our cell phone is obsolete. We're not going to get a new battery. We're just going to get a whole new phone. Critically on the minds of everybody are energy storage related to transportation, when we think of going to hybrid electric vehicles or plug-in hybrids or full electric cars. The battery really needs to last more like 10 years. We want them to last the life of the car. In biomedical batteries, we've been thinking about long lifetimes for many years. Maybe some of the issues could be used for other applications like transportation or even localized grid storage.

Are you using specific techniques from biomedical batteries in these other types of batteries?

Similar thought processes. When we think about batteries, we think, 'Maybe the battery wears out because it ran out of active material.' That can happen. But oftentimes there are other reactions taking place inside the cell. We call those parasitic reactions. Those reactions are either causing damage or increasing resistance, creating other conditions inside the cell on top of just wearing out the active materials. The lessons learned from the biomedical arena -- that those parasitic reactions can be critical in determining battery lifetime -- can be applied to other types of batteries.

What are you working on now?

One project is focused on biomedical applications. The goal is to increase longevity, decrease size -- hopefully make a device that would only have to be very rarely re-implanted. In other words, with the longevity of the battery, some applications might be useful through the lifetime of the patient.

I have another program that is more exploratory. We're looking at new materials and new material concepts. These are more aimed at rechargeable batteries. It could be transportation. It could be aerospace. We're looking at fundamental materials, property structure, composition relationships. What happens as we discharge those materials? Can we fine tune the nature of the material and then relate that to its electric chemical behavior as a battery cathode material?

In another broad project, again focused on rechargeable batteries, we're trying to maximize cycle life and make lightweight batteries. Oftentimes anytime you use materials that add weight, it's undesirable. We're looking at exploiting nanostructures to see if we use very small materials [whether] we can get unique performance that with larger particle size materials would be inaccessible to us.

In your time working on energy storage, how have you seen the importance of batteries change?

I've seen tremendous change. A few years ago, batteries were typically an afterthought. It's like, 'Let's design a device and we have this space left. Let's get a battery that fits in that space.' Over the past few years, it's been recognized that batteries oftentimes are the enabling technology. If you don't have a good battery for a medical device, you don't have a medical device. Batteries really become more than just the afterthought. They become the enabling technology to allow the device to really do what you want it to do. If you don't have the right battery, it's not viable either on an economic level or a consumer acceptance level. That recognition has come through loud and clear in the last few years. Increased recognition of that and increased funding with federal agencies is so important because, I would argue, prior to the last few years the amount of attention paid to batteries in the United States was far behind where it was in the international arena. The United States has some catching up to do. I think it's possible. I think the time is right. It would be awful to solve the problem of dependence on foreign oil only to lapse into dependence on foreign batteries.

Which of the batteries you created are you most proud of?

I think the battery that has had the most profound impact -- this was recognized by President Obama with the awarding of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation -- was the battery for the implantable cardiac defibrillator. There are approximately 300,000 implantable cardiac defibrillators put in patients every year. While there are some new technologies that have cropped up for the batteries, the system that we developed is still a very dominant technology more than 20 years after the original implant. I think it's a real testimony to how significant the work was. I do remember, we had been working on that battery and we finally got news of the first human implant. We were just so excited. The battery that we made has now gone inside a person and is keeping somebody alive. That thrill never diminishes. The importance of that work never diminishes because you realize just how profound the impact is not only at a societal level, but at the individual level. A person who gets an implant is alive today because that battery did its job.

Do you have anything else to add?

I would like to add a word of encouragement to up and coming students and scientists. Science in general and batteries in particular, it's a fun place to be. It's an exciting way to make a contribution. It gets more interesting all the time. Every day is something new. We make a new finding, a new discovery or come up against a roadblock that we have to figure a way around. Every day is just a profound intellectual challenge that I still find rewarding. I would encourage more people to think about careers in science. The more people who enter the field, the better the field will be. We need new perspectives, new ways of thinking that will enhance our ability to address problems that maybe today people don't know how to solve.

Watch a video about Takeuchi's work.

Image: Esther Takeuchi / Douglas Levere, University at Buffalo

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