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Multidisciplinary Team Worker

Making Fuel Cells Commercial

Multidisciplinary Team Worker

Dr Henrik Junicke, pictured below, has worked for 2 years in industrial catalyst research at the BASF Group's central research organisation in Ludwigshafen, Germany.


Henrik Junicke

Henrik Junicke earned his master's degree in chemistry at the Technical University Leuna-Merseburg, Germany, and a joint PhD in inorganic chemistry at Halle University in Germany and Notre Dame University in the United States. Afterwards he did postdoctoral research in Professor Jacqueline K. Barton's group at the California Institute of Technology. Barton's research centres on interactions between DNA and organometallic compounds.

BASF hired him immediately after his postdoc. Although that research had not been directly related to catalysis, his PhD work had been in a group where colleagues were working in that field, and like all chemists he had been exposed to the concepts of catalysts throughout his training.

Junicke has already worked on several different projects at BASF. Typically the work is done in interdisciplinary teams: "Usually we have a catalyst chemist, an engineer, somebody who's doing the work for the scale-up, and synthetic chemists. So we have teams of 4 to 5 people, each one of whom has a core competence. This is very exciting because we are all at the same place together and we can exchange knowledge fast. It moves the projects ahead way faster than if everyone works on his own".

In addition to this learning on the job, BASF provides specialist training in catalysis. As a chemist, Junicke attends seminars on chemical engineering, reactor design, and other specialist areas depending on the nature of the project in hand. These broad-based seminars "give you everything you need as a chemist to understand industrial chemistry and especially reaction engineering".

The department usually hires researchers at the PhD level, and they are given immediate responsibility for other staff. "I'm responsible for technicians in the laboratory and also shift workers on the pilot plant", Junicke says. It's too early to say what his next job in the company will be, but there are a number of possible career paths. "One of the things in BASF is that you can stay in research or move into other jobs. All these jobs are challenging, so it's hard to say what I will do in the future--you get different opportunities. But one good example would be if I go into marketing and provide the customer with the knowledge that I gained over the past couple of years. Usually when you sell a catalyst you need very detailed knowledge so that you can tell the customer how to use it".

Junicke finds that industrial research is completely different from academic research. "It's fast-paced, it's way more focused than academic research. It has more commercial aspects--for me it's very important that it is applicable in real life". There are downsides, of course. "I would like to spend more time in the lab than in front of a desk doing paperwork", he says, but acknowledges that if you're developing a new product from scratch you have to provide the documentation to go with it. In addition, the financial scale of these industrial programmes is larger than the average academic project. "These projects have many more digits in front of the decimal point so you have to do more paperwork. That's life!" he jokes.

Making Fuel Cells Commercial

Dr Sarah Ball, pictured below, is a senior scientist at Johnson Matthey's technology centre in Sonning Common near Reading, UK, where she is working on catalysts for fuel cells.


Sarah Ball

Sarah Ball was offered a job by Johnson Matthey when she completed her degree in natural sciences but she decided to stay at the University of Cambridge for her PhD before joining the company. As a synthetic inorganic chemist her research project under Ron Snaith was in lithiated organic molecules, working with very air-sensitive compounds, "trying to make difficult, highly reactive materials that nobody had made before", as she puts it. "I think a PhD should be done because of genuine interest in the research area, not for potential career benefits later on," she asserts.

Nonetheless, "one of the things I found frustrating about my PhD work was that, although you produced beautiful crystal structures, people would often ask what it was used for, and it was very difficult to explain. Whereas with the work I'm doing now there is a concrete final application for it".

Like many industry scientists working in catalysis R&D she did not have much experience in the area before joining the company. "I think most of what I've learnt about catalysis I've discovered whilst doing my job," she says. She has the opportunity to attend relevant courses in catalysis and electrochemistry, "and I've learnt an awful lot from the people I work with." Although she has seen others who developed relevant technical knowledge as part of their PhD training progress more rapidly in the company than herself, she still believes that her own doctorate was valuable. "I think it was useful for learning problem-solving skills, preparing for the set backs and pitfalls associated with research work, managing time, and working independently," she highlights.

Johnson Matthey is in the vanguard of development work on fuel cells, which have the potential to provide clean power. One of the things she likes most about the work is that the group works on all the different aspects of polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells. "We're supposed to come up with the things that the people in the fuel cells business will use in 5 years or so. We've got to come up with better catalysts, better membranes--really fundamental catalytic improvements".

The first-generation fuel cells will use hydrocarbon-derived fuels rather than pure hydrogen, explains Ball. However, that fuel will include carbon monoxide, which even at very low levels poisons the catalyst. "I work on testing and designing new catalysts that will be tolerant of CO and give improved performance over existing materials," she says. If we could crack it, that could make a big difference to how soon fuel cells can be commercialised."

Some researchers see such focus as inhibiting. "Obviously there are always occasions where if you had complete freedom to choose, you would spend as long as you like on a particular area that caught your fancy. But being in the research group we still have a lot of freedom to follow up some completely wacky things--there is quite a lot of flexibility".

The research group Ball works in is small--some 6 to 7 people--with a flat structure, so she doesn't have any staff who report to her. At the moment her career aspirations remain in research, "doing interesting things." Eventually she would like to have her own group, but she laughs that her ambitions do not extend to managing the whole technology centre.