IN THE NEWS
Executive Profile: Esther Takeuchi
We talked with Esther Takeuchi, after she won the 2018 European Inventor Award in
the non-EPO countries category. A Stony Brook University researcher, she talked about
science, women in STEM, developments in batteries and energy storage as well as what’s
new and what’s next.
|Esther Sans Takeuchi in her Stony Brook lab. (Photo courtesy of Stony Brook University)|
What is the significance of the award and what led up to it?
This is granted by the European Patent Office. There are 38 member countries with more than 4,000 patent examiners who handle more than 165,000 patent applications a year. The reason the EPO established the award was “innovation has become the key to wealth of nations,” according to the secretary general of the organization.
How is a winner decided and how many winners are there?
There are multiple categories. Only one category deals with people who are residents outside of the European Patent Office’s region. There were 530 nominations, 15 finalists and five who received awards altogether. The other winners were residents of Europe.
Why did you win?
They look for two things. They honor inventors for the “genius of their technological breakthrough” and “the impact of their invention on society and the economy.” It’s the idea, but also the impact of the invention on society and the economy.
Can you tell me about your invention and its use?
The battery for the implantable cardiac defibrillator was recognized. It is a lifesaving device. There are more than 300,000 implanted per year. This was research I did in industry, a demonstration of innovation that led to the development of a product.
How widely used is your battery?
It’s still the dominant battery used worldwide. It provides a combination of high power, small size and long life. This was my first project in industry. When we started, the implantable cardiac defibrillator had been demonstrated. But that battery at the time only lasted one year. The goal was to develop a battery that lasted long enough with a target of five years. It typically lasts around five years. That battery was first released into the marketplace in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
How many patents do you have?
I have more than 150 patents and many have to do with the cardiac defibrillator battery. The battery was invented once and reinvented over 100 times. I don’t own the patent. The company does. It was called Greatbatch. Now it’s called Integer Corp. When you join a company, you sign over your patent rights to the company.
How, why and when did you start to pursue science?
I pursued science, because I found it very interesting. I was curious at a young age and went in that direction from high school on. I wanted to know how things worked. Not far from us was a park where people used to practice golf. My brother and I would collect golf balls. If you’re patient, you could rub the white, plastic housing off and take it apart to find out how they’re assembled. My father was an electrical engineer. As he did projects around the house, I would always follow him around. He let me participate. He gave me the sense that my participation was critical to the success of the project.
Did you have role models and who were they?
I think my dad, really. When I think about my academic career through college, I think I had one female chemistry professor. My dad was a role model. The fact that neither he nor my mom tried to define careers in terms of boys do this and girls do this. It was you can do whatever you want. Whatever you find interesting, go for it.
Why do you think there aren’t as many female as male scientists?
I think the numbers are increasing. I think the more female scientist there are, the more there will be. When there are very few, it can feel uncomfortable in a cultural way. It’s like going to a party and finding out that it’s a costume party and nobody told you. You stand out. In the graduate students that I advise, at least half are female.
How would you describe your career in industry?
The first part of my career was focused on identifying battery solutions for market applications, then doing the research and development to introduce the battery as a product.
Why did you go into academics and how was it different from industry?
It was very exciting being in industry, because we could push toward product. Academics provided the opportunity to do basic research and probe many questions that, in industry, there is no opportunity to probe. It was an opportunity to not only benefit society in terms of batteries, but working with other students and researchers.
What other batteries have you worked on?
Batteries for neuro stimulators, drug delivery systems, pacemakers and also industrial batteries for demanding environments such as high temperature, high vibration and high reliability. Batteries for NASA. The batteries that would go up in the Space Shuttle and power items such as cameras, lights, hand warmers. Batteries for oil exploration.
What will be the next big breakthrough in batteries?
I think twofold. One is using lower cost material. One of the areas we’re very interested in is materials with lower environmental impact. They’re more earth abundant materials available in more locations. We’re looking at iron-based materials for batteries. Many batteries use precious metals mined in a few places on earth.
Are there any revolutions going on related to electric cars now?
It’s a huge focus. We have several projects funded by the Department of Energy. We’re also supported by Mercedes-Benz. We have one project focused on making the negative electrode higher energy content. A second program is focused on making the positive electrode higher energy content. We have a new program that’s going to start this summer, focused on enabling electric vehicle batteries to charge fast.
What would you like to see happen to advance research?
I’m convinced that energy and energy storage are one of the most critical issues globally that we need to address. My vision is we create an entity that brings together Stony Brook, Brookhaven National Lab, federal funding, state funding, industry and philanthropy. I’m talking about an institute that would focus on energy and the environment.
What’s coming up now and next?
Just today, we got some outstanding news. We were awarded a $12 million grant from the Department of Energy, a four-year, multi-institutional grant for fundamental research. We want to develop batteries that are high energy and high power, which has been elusive. It could be for vehicles or batteries that integrate with solar panels and wind farms.