BY PATRICIA SARICA
Curiosity drives Esther Takeuchi.
It drove her as a child growing up in Akron, Ohio, to take a hammer and smash open some polished river stones in her family’s driveway, revealing the multitude of colors inside, and to rub off the outside of stray golf balls she collected from a practice field to find the yards and yards of rubber band at the centers.
Today it drives her as an electrochemist to push the boundaries of battery innovation.
“Curiosity is a major driver in science,” she said. “It creates boundless enthusiasm for seeking and expanding the next horizon.”
For Takeuchi, one of the world’s leading experts in energy storage technology, the next horizon involves batteries that will transform transportation and the power grid.
“Batteries are important today for portable electronic devices,” she explained. “But in the future, batteries may play a different role. For example, the more widespread use of electric vehicles is expected, so larger batteries used for transportation will be important.”
Also the generation of electricity will be increasingly from renewable sources such as wind and solar, she said. “These sources are intermittent by their nature, so a robust, reliable method of storing energy is critical.”
There is significant research under way to address new types of batteries, said Takeuchi. “This is an exciting time to be working in energy. I anticipate a series of significant advances will take place soon to make batteries both less expensive and better. The demand in the market is pushing forward the needed research.”
Takeuchi is leading the charge to develop better batteries at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) as Chief Scientist for the Global and Regional Solutions Directorate. “We are working to extend the life of implant able medical batteries [by looking into which mechanisms and processes limit their lifetime]. We are also investigating new types of materials for batteries that are based on earth-abundant, low-cost materials that could be suitable for large batteries,” she said.
In addition to her role at BNL, Takeuchi is a SUNY Distinguish ed Professor with appointments in the Departments of Materials Science and Engineering and Chemistry at Stony Brook.
She was drawn to Stony Brook and to BNL because of their commitment to energy related topics. “The building of the Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center at Stony Brook University and the Interdisciplinary Science Building at Brookhaven National Laboratory are examples of that commitment,” she said. “The environment here is great for those types of investigations. Further, the facilities at Stony Brook and BNL in terms of lab space and advanced instrumentation are world-class. And the students here are very bright and motivated. They make such a difference in our progress.”
Takeuchi is best known for developing the technology for the power source used in implantable cardiac defibrillators and for holding more patents — 150 and counting — than any other woman in the United States.
Her career has been marked by distinction. She is a member of the prestigious National Academy of Engineering, a Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, and an inductee of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, alongside members such as Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs.
In 2009 Takeuchi was awarded the highest honor possible for technological achievement in the United States. President Obama presented her with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation for her innovations in lithium battery technology for biomedical devices.
Takeuchi joined Stony Brook and BNL in 2012, from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Before that, she spent more than 20 years in industry at Greatbatch Inc., a company founded by the co-inventor of the first implanted pacemaker. Takeuchi grew up in Ohio, the daughter of Latvian immigrants. Her parents, Mary and Rudolf Sans, fled Latvia for Germany when the Soviets occupied the Baltic state toward the end of World War II and spent several years in a refugee camp before coming to America. Her father, an electrical engineer, eventually found a job in Akron, where the family settled.
Mary and Rudolf believed in education and passed that belief on to their three children. “My parents had gone through very difficult times,” Takeuchi recalls. “My father told me that the circumstances in one’s life are unpredictable. You can lose every thing you own; however, an education will stay with you forever. ”
Takeuchi met her husband while they were in graduate school at Ohio State University. Kenneth Takeuchi, an award winning SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor and a nationally recognized expert in synthesis and characterization of innovative new materials, is also on the faculty of Stony Brook, in the Department of Chemistry. Takeuchi calls him her “mentor.”
As a leader in her field, Takeuchi is often asked about the lack of women in science and engineering. She says this is changing.
“There are many more women attending conferences and presenting talks,” she said. “It’s great to see. People from different backgrounds and perspectives are the core of innovation. If we don’t involve huge segments of society, such as women, we lose out on potential progress.”
Takeuchi says the pursuit of science is a marathon, not a sprint. She views her own career as a series of steps that have led forward, and her more than 150 patents as pieces of a large puzzle in which each fills a unique space.
“I have this belief that what we are doing in the lab should have a direct impact on human lives,” she has said. “Fundamental research is the basis, but for me, thinking about the next step is also important.”