Using the LEGO-method to design batteries

Jonathan Højbjerg work at Haldor Topsøe A/S, which is a company that has specialized in heterogeneous catalysis. One of the core competences in the company is to design and scale up synthesis methods based on fundamental understanding of reaction and degradation mechanisms. Six years ago, it was decided to use this knowledge to develop materials for the next generation of rechargeable batteries and Jonathan is part of this process.

I am project manager in R&D and responsible for the development of one of our battery materials; A spinel material with manganese and nickel, that, among others, is attractive compared to the materials used in current Li-ion batteries, because the material does not contain cobalt.

Because the material is not commercialized yet, R&D is very involved in all activities ranging from fundamental understanding, collaboration with partners, upscaling of production, patents, commercialization strategies, customer interaction and marketing. This means that my job has many different and very exciting challenges. As a kid, I always dreamt about inventing new castles and police stations in a creative environment at LEGO. In my current position, I have actually achieved the essence of that job. Together with my team in R&D, we are screened from short-term expectations of value generation, which creates a space for creativity and the building blocks are made of competences, people, customers and thermodynamics instead of plastic. As with LEGO, the building blocks that can be put together in an infinite number of ways, and together with the team, I just have to find the best way to do this.

How do you (if at all) use your competences obtained at DTU in your current position/projects?

I did my PhD on batteries and, obviously, I use a lot of the competences that I obtained at DTU, because I am still working within the same field of technology. During my PhD, I did an extensive amount of electrochemical characterization and these methods are essential to evaluate our battery materials.

At DTU Energy I was one of the first PhD students working with batteries and therefore, I spent a lot of time building test setups, setting up procedures and coordinating work between the PhD students working with batteries. When I started at Haldor Topsøe A/S, I got exactly this role and even now, where I am only working in the lab a couple of times per month, I use my experience from DTU Energy in the role of project manager, where I need to coordinate a lot of people and ensure that we are all moving in the same direction.

Challenges in the transition from life as a PhD student to the corporate world

The transition from university to Haldor Topsøe A/S has been quite smooth. Haldor Topsøe A/S has always focused on science and fundamental understanding as the way to sustainable business, and so the scientific challenge is the same. In the process, I have of course encountered many new tasks, but I would rather describe these as exciting rather than challenging.

What are the important differences between working at DTU and in industry?

I think the main difference is the mindset related to the outcome of the work that you do. The initial work is the same, namely to develop understanding and propose new solutions and improvements, but at universities, publications are very important, whereas in industry it is important to be able to deliver to the customer. To publish, you spent a lot of time adjusting the presentation of your results and complimentary measurements to fit certain journals, whereas in industry you spend this extra time understanding the processes even further so that it is possible to determine how robust a given synthesis or solution is. The latter work brings me much more energy and fun.

The two best experiences from DTU Energy

The first thing to mention is the many great and extremely competent colleagues that I have had at DTU Energy. This, of course, include my great fellow PhD students that I have spent so much great time with. Equally important, it was invaluable, that everyone from laboratory technicians to professors have always been ready to spent hours helping to solve a problem whether related to safety, setup modifications or fundamental understanding. Even today, my former DTU colleagues are always kind to help, when I need it. That is simply amazing and I strive to live up to this myself every day.

The second experience is the confidence my supervisors and many other people at DTU Energy have shown me. I have been allowed to work very independently and through the support of my supervisors, I have been allowed to present at many different internal and external conferences and symposia, I got a unique research stay at the IBM research lab in California and I have always received support in my different initiatives like founding the Danish Battery Society. This has helped building a strong belief in what I am able to achieve and this is something I use every day.