Dr. Johannes Wandt has just received the German Study Prize for his doctoral thesis and research on lithium-ion batteries. He talked to Innovation Origins about what drove him and how he got into chemistry.
You have just been awarded the German Study Prize for your doctoral thesis. How did you come to investigate lithium-ion batteries?
I spent a semester abroad in Stockholm. One lecture was about electrochemistry and energy storage. That fascinated me very much. I was also looking for a topic for my master thesis. So I came across Professor Dr. Gasteiger from the Chair of Technical Electrochemistry at the TUM. Finally, I wrote my master thesis on lithium-air batteries.
What are the advantages of lithium-ion batteries?
You can imagine a lithium-ion battery like this: Put simply, the lithium ions move between the positive and negative poles, i.e. between cathode and anode. Like a rocking chair, actually. This creates the electricity with which an electric car, for example, can be driven. And it can be recharged, of course. The problem is that cobalt is needed to manufacture most lithium-ion batteries. However, since cobalt occurs almost exclusively in the Congo as a by-catch of copper and nickel, demand is high, but availability is not. The prices are correspondingly high. In addition, the Congo is a politically unstable country.
What are the differences to lithium air batteries?
In the lithium-air battery, the transition metals such as cobalt are replaced by oxygen. It serves as an oxidizing agent. You can imagine it a bit like an internal combustion engine. One problem is that singulett oxygen is produced when charging the battery, which destroys it. The challenge is to make it harmless. This has not yet been achieved. This means that lithium air batteries cannot yet be used.
A lot has to change because the fact is that 24 percent of CO2 emissions are caused by transport. Diesel and gasoline reach their limits as fuels. It will be very difficult to further optimize them. New concepts are needed, electric mobility is one of them.
What has changed for you now that you have won the German Study Prize?
It hasn’t changed that much. A lot of people have contacted me to congratulate me. But basically, it wasn’t just me who won the prize. Above all, it is the team that has worked with me on the research work. I hope that the success will also rub off on the other members. If you look at the TUM website, you will see that the group has already won many prizes and is really good. (Editorial note: Faculty of Chemistry, TUM)
How did you apply for the German Study Prize?
One day my professor approached me with a brochure and told me to apply for the German Study Prize. That’s exactly what I did. After the written application, a presentation of the ten nominees followed in Berlin.
Will you continue your research in the field of e-mobility? What are your plans for the future?
Absolutely. I’ve always enjoyed electrochemistry and I want to stay with the battery. Even before the award, it was clear that I would start research at BMW in September. There I will work with 200 to 300 researchers and will certainly learn a lot.
What drove you for your research?
The fascination with technology has always driven me. As a child, actually. Because I was lucky enough to have a really well-equipped chemistry laboratory in my parents’ basement. My parents let me do it, even though they had nothing to do with chemistry. Nothing bad happened – the house is still standing. When I was 18, I won the Jugend-forscht prize. From then on it was clear that I would study chemistry.
Did you ever think of throwing everything down and giving up during the research for your doctoral thesis?
No. But I think that as a researcher, you have to be persistent.
Well, nothing works in research at first. After one unsuccessful test series, the next one follows. And so it goes on. For example, if you need a particular chemical for a test and find that it is contaminated, you need to solve this problem first. So you start working on getting a grip on the contamination. This can easily take two months before you can return to the actual task. There are always unexpected, sometimes very bizarre problems.
How to deal with setbacks?
You have to be able to motivate yourself. The team plays a very important role in this because here you can exchange ideas and discuss problems. Or even build upon them. Because everyone is struggling with setbacks. One can’t do it without a team.
What do you do when you succeed?
Of course, I’m happy. But there won’t be a big party.
Photos: Christiane Manow-Le Ruyet
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