Class of ’75 | When people learn that the research of Esther S. Takeuchi C’75 WAM’98 focuses on batteries, they usually express a mix of surprise and disbelief.
“They say, ‘But batteries are so old. Is there anything left to discover about batteries?’” notes Takeuchi (who was known as Esther Sans during her undergraduate years at Penn). Her answer to those people is: “Absolutely. The field is as dynamic or more dynamic than ever.”
The National Inventors Hall of Fame agrees, and recently honored Takeuchi for her development of the lithium/silver vanadium oxide (Li/SVO) battery, which is used in lifesaving implantable cardiac defibrillators. She was one of nine new inductees honored for life-changing innovations (others included the digital camera and the first bar code).
The National Hall of Fame induction is the latest of myriad awards and honors for the energy-storage pioneer. Two years ago President Barack Obama awarded Takeuchi the National Medal of Technology and Innovation for her work on the Li/SVO battery, an experience she describes as the “thrill of a lifetime.” Obama, she adds, “has been and continues to be very supportive of science, technology, innovation, and research.”
Takeuchi holds upwards of 140 patents (she doesn’t know the exact number), more than any other woman in the United States. Almost all of them relate to batteries and energy sources, most of which power biomedical implantable devices, including tiny drug-delivery systems and neurostimulators as well as those life-saving cardiac defibrillators.
Those implantable biomedical devices are relatively recent developments, and they presented unique energy challenges.
“What was exciting was that many of the devices were being conceptualized or updated or modified, requiring new or different types of power in order to fully take advantage of the electronic functions that could be put into the device,” says Takeuchi. “So in many ways the batteries were enabling—in that, without having the power level that you need, the device really can’t do all that it can do, or it won’t last as long as you would like it to last.”
Takeuchi graduated from Penn with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and history—a somewhat unlikely combination, she acknowledges. “I started out as a chemistry major, and in order to get the necessary diversification requirements I started taking a lot of history courses,” focusing on the history of science and intellectual thought and 20th-century history.
After earning her PhD in organic chemistry from Ohio State University, Takeuchi spent 22 years working at Greatbatch Inc. in Clarence, New York in a variety of posts, including executive director of battery research and development and director of electrochemical research. (The company was founded by Wilson Greatbatch, co-inventor of the first successful implanted pacemaker and a fellow National Inventors Hall of Famer.) It was there that she developed the Li/SVO battery.
Though the Greatbatch name is still part of her title, Takeuchi has spent the last four years at the University of Buffalo, where she is the Greatbatch Professor of Advanced Power Sources and the SUNY Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering. The transition to academe “allowed me to move in directions that are high-risk scientifically and quite diverse,” she says. “A company really needs to be focused on driving the product in areas of interest that will provide profitability. I thought this would give me the opportunity to make contributions in a new way and pursue broader science.”
By broader Takeuchi means she wants to push batteries into the next level of performance on several fronts. She describes the scope of her current work as “big, small, in the body, and out of this world,” and explains:
“We are working on ways to make very small power sources for implantable medical devices, and we are also contemplating how to scale up batteries that could be used for large installed applications coupled with renewable energy generation. And ‘out of this world’ means that we have been working on very lightweight battery materials that could potentially be used for satellites and other aerospace applications. Every pound that needs to be lifted into orbit costs a lot of money, so if the batteries can be much, much lighter weight, money can be saved.”
One particular focus is extending the lifetime of batteries. Cell-phone batteries, for example, typically last just a few years, but batteries for electric vehicles need to last a lot longer.
“We can calculate the energy content of a battery, but that does not predict the amount of usable energy and the reactions that take place,” says Takeuchi. “We are studying this now to understand what limits a battery’s lifetime and its usable energy.”
Takeuchi currently has seven graduate students and one post-doctoral student doing research with her at the University of Buffalo.
“The nice part about academics is, as a professor you actually feel like you are running your own little company, because the buck stops with you,” she says. “You are responsible for getting funding, writing papers, running the lab, and operating the lab. It’s a lot of plates to keep spinning.”
Having a husband in the same field helps balance work and life, and in Kenneth J. Takeuchi, a chemistry professor at the University of Buffalo, she has not only a research collaborator but a life partner. He focuses on “materials control at the atomic level to try to design the next generation of energy storage,” which dovetails neatly with her research, Takeuchi says.
They both regularly bring their work home with them, “but in a really good way,” Takeuchi adds with a laugh. “For me it’s been such a positive thing to have someone so close that I can always turn to for discussion, advice, and to bounce ideas off of. It’s just been a wonderful thing.”
As a woman in a male-dominated field, Takeuchi understands how important a supportive environment is for female colleagues and students. She hopes to inspire students from diverse backgrounds and show them what they can achieve.
“There is no doubt that women are still underrepresented in science and engineering,” Takeuchi notes, “and it’s certainly not due to lack of ability.”
— Samantha Drake GGS’06