Dr. Laura Lander
Developing Efficient and Sustainable Cathode Materials for Batteries
JSPS Postdoctoral Fellow, The University of Tokyo, 2017-Present
Project Researcher, The University of Tokyo, 2016-2017
PhD (Materials Chemistry), Collège de France / Université Pierre et Marie Curie, 2016
Through research experiences in Switzerland and France, Dr. Laura Lander, originally from Germany, now works at The University of Tokyo under a JSPS Fellowship. She is resourceful and imaginative, bringing an international perspective, so we featured this promising researcher in this volume.
Q: You have been a JSPS fellow for about a year. What research do you currently do at the Graduate School of Engineering, The University of Tokyo?
I started my JSPS fellowship in October 2017, almost one year after joining Prof. Yamada’s lab. My research work focuses on the development of new cathode materials for Li- and Na-ion batteries. I am especially interested in materials that are environmentally benign, nontoxic, and have a low cost. I try to understand how the cathode material behaves upon charge/discharge, such as the structural changes, and how the electrochemical performance can be optimized.
Q: Why batteries and why did you choose to become a researcher?
My primary passion lies in the chemistry and the process of creating and exploring new materials. At the same time, I wanted to work in applied research rather than fundamental research. Therefore, I turned to materials science, and more specifically energy-related materials, which can be used in fuel cells, solar panels, and batteries. I found that working in the battery field perfectly combines chemistry and application. Moreover, I am doing research for a sustainable energy future, which motivates me a lot during my everyday research routine. I always want to explore, learn something new, and to be challenged – this is why I became a researcher.
Q: Why did you choose Japan and your current institution?
As I mentioned, I am open to and go for challenges. This does not count only for my research but also for my personal development. When it comes to new technologies, the Japanese have always been at the forefront, and their creativity and sense of innovation really amaze me. This definitely was a big incentive for me to come to Japan and to be part of the research world here. I was very lucky to be accepted to work in Prof. Yamada’s lab, since his group is internationally renowned and respected in the battery community. Actually, I visited Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto with a friend for sightseeing in 2015 for the first time and enjoyed each city’s distinctive feel and differences with European cities. This also made me put Japan on my wish list.
With Prof. Atsuo Yamada
Q: Getting back to your research, could you expand on what you are trying to find?
My research goal is to develop new high-voltage cathode materials for Li- and Na-ion batteries for a variety of applications, such as electric vehicles and grid storage. Generally speaking, the work has two phases: first, synthesizing a new material or modifying/optimizing existing materials, and second, evaluating the electrochemical properties and their applicability in batteries. The voltage of a cathode material depends on various parameters, among others these are the transition metal redox center and the nature of the structural framework, where Li/Na is located. I am trying, by varying both parameters, to increase the working potential of the cathode. However, a good battery material cannot only be measured on its potential; other factors need to be taken into account, including the high capacity, cycling stability, lifetime, and safety. Therefore, when I think about possible new materials, I try to consider all of these factors.
Q. What do you like best about developing new materials?
I really enjoy the creative process. Like an artist, I have a sketchbook, in which I note ideas for new compounds, what the starting materials could be, and possible synthesis conditions, of course always having in mind the battery application. The actual synthesis of a new material can, at times, be a very tedious and frustrating trial-and-error process. However, when the synthesis turns out successful, it gives me an amazing feeling. I also really like the large fraction of luck and coincidence. I often end up with an unpredicted material, which nevertheless shows interesting properties. My research is like baking a cake: though the ingredients are important, nevertheless the amount, the way of dealing with them, room temperature, containers, and other elements influence the outcome. This is an interesting, fascinating, and long journey.
Q: What do you plan to do after your JSPS fellowship?
I have not fixed my next steps yet, but I would like to continue as a researcher in the energy field.
Q: Please give some advice to young researchers who may be thinking about doing research in Japan.
Regarding joining a Japanese research team, I think it is important to get to know the members before coming to Japan in order to make the start easier. Many things work differently here – not only the language, but also work culture and manners – and it helped me a lot that I already knew a few people here. The best way is to ask other foreign students/researchers on the team for advice because they were in the same situation and they can help you avoid the pitfalls. For the private aspect, I feel it is very helpful to live in a shared apartment. It makes it much easier to connect with new people. Tokyo is a huge city – I think in the beginning one can easily feel a bit lonely and lost. Of course, everyday life here can be at times a bit overwhelming, but it is an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Q: What is your lab like?
Our lab is quite big and we have a lot of equipment, which is great because even though the number of people is rather large, we rarely have any waiting time. Moreover, for some of the more specialized instruments, we have the opportunity to learn how to use them ourselves. This is something I really appreciate. We also have a good mix of people in terms of nationality and gender, which gives a good ambiance to the work environment.
Q: How do you think you and your research will contribute to the world?
I hope that my results will help the battery research community to get a tiny bit closer to the “ideal” cathode material.
Q: How did you like visiting a high school in Tokyo for a lecture through a JSPS Science Dialogue last June?
It was a great experience to visit a Japanese high school and to get an impression of what their school life is like. Everyone was so kind, the students and teachers; I really enjoyed presenting my research and discussing this with everyone afterwards. I was amazed by their curiosity and engagement. Of course, preparing the presentation takes a bit of time, but I can only recommend this to other JSPS fellows. It is really a unique experience.
Host Professor’s thoughts:
Prof. Atsuo Yamada, who is well known for the development of electrochemical energy storage devices, welcomes researchers from various background to his lab. This is why there are more international and female members than average. He first met Dr. Lander at a conference in France and decided to offer her a position, as he had known her supervisor well and she was a promising researcher. He is delighted to have her as the fifth JSPS Fellow because she is well suited to research in his lab and Japan, inspiring other members with her international research experiences in different countries in Europe. For details on Prof. Yamada’s lab, please see: http://www.yamada-lab.t.u-tokyo.ac.jp/en/