Talking to Jennifer Rupp you immediately feel her power and her passion for research. She seems to draw from an inexhaustible source of ideas – and consequently she and her team pursue a large variety of projects. The focus lies on a type of battery that might revolutionize e-mobility: Solid-state batteries. However, it is not only science itself that Jennifer Rupp is passionate about. It is her heartfelt wish to contribute in the shift of statistics towards more diversity in academia and industry.
For a material scientist your field of research is very broad: energy storage, data storage, even sensors for chemicals. Is there a kind of umbrella?
Yes. An example is our research on lithium solid state materials and functions. We are fascinated with the question, what else can a simple ion like Lithium do to serve beyond energy storage. Lithium ions can move in selected solids on the one hand very fast and on the other they can alter an electronic state by structural changes upon lithiation and delithiation. As an outcome one can either use these classically for energy storage but also to switch a resistive state for neuromorphic computing chips operating faster than transistors.
Is there an application where you could combine both functions?
Today, the battery, processor and sensors of one device are often made by a high number of various materials. The question is if future electronics can operate on a smaller common share of Li-materials in their storage, sensing and processing functions. Also in terms of recycling and reducing materials, that makes a lot of sense. And we were happy to see that the company Ericsson decided to support this new research direction on “Lithionics” with me in the lead and colleagues at MIT.
But do we have enough lithium?
We have much more sodium and its derived chemistries have come along in a remarkable way. But I think that lithium currently outperforms, and so far it looks like we have enough reserve. What is more concerning in terms of resources are elements like cobalt that is in the battery’s cathode. Congo keeps 80 percent of the world reserves and often child labor is at works when mining. If everybody would like to drive tomorrow an electric vehicle – and the projection is that until 2030, it should be 30 percent in Germany – we have to mitigate socio-economic risks and consider alternative resources. Early on in my career at MIT, I decided to no longer accept industry projects that work on these type of chemistries related to cobalt. To make a change I believe that the brightest people should tackle the toughest problems and that is to find and invent alternative chemistries.
What is your latest project?
Last spring my team and me gathered data for a rather eye-opening plot concerning Li-battery solid state materials: it takes on average 8-15 years from the prediction of a new solid electrolyte battery material to its synthesis in correct fast conducting Li-phase. This is pretty shocking, as this is with climate change and need for storage of renewables a devastating news. So, our team decided we can no longer continue as we progress right now, the chemistry we do is simply too slow to help. In bio-pharmaceutical development this problem was recognized much earlier. In an analogy, we are kind of motivated to transfer these tools to battery ceramic manufacture and to shorten these time spans and human-labor years. For this, we are researching in our new cyber physical production lab which ceramic routes are best suited for high throughput design of battery materials. And we try whether machine learning algorithms used in pharmaceutical for structure recognition can be transferred or differ in their use for Li-materials. Collectively, we see prospect that you can strongly shorten the time from 15 years from prediction to ideal making of a battery component in the future.
How close are you working together with industry?
I love to hear about the real problems of companies and to consult and work with them to tackle the real society challenges. Sometimes we have to write a paper less as academics a year, but consider what has the most impact for our community and society. In the energy field, clearly it is shortening the translation times from discovery to battery integration of materials and cell prototypes.
At MIT you established a special mentoring program for females, LGBTIQ and scientists of color. Why did you decide to do so?
If I look around me then it is obvious that we have to bridge the ever-present gender gaps and bring in more scientist and engineers of color to our material science and chemistry communities. Looking back, my mentors were essential in shaping my own biography. I think I had the same potential as today when I was 30, but I did not always receive the mentoring that I could have had before I came to MIT. I am really thankful to have had very few but strong and achieving female and minority role models in my international field that took the time to listen and support me.
Looking back it was not always easy and I sometimes had to fight for having even equal rights or opportunities as a scientist. So I decided to not be sad about it, but rather transfer the energy from these moments felt into mentoring and supporting current underrepresented groups to change the landscape. Forming the LILA-mentoring program is only a small contribution, but I truly believe if every accomplished scientist writes one paper less a year and considers how to invest in activism towards statistical balance in color and gender in academia and industry, the world in terms of leadership will look VERY different. So, folks no time to loose, let’s do it and change the looks of our leadership!
How do you charge your own battery?
Firstly, having the best assistant and the most fantastic and trusting team in the world. The other thing is to be very well planned, work hard, but also permit yourself to hang loose. I love my children and I do spend a lot of time with them, and you will find me in summer most of the time on the water standup paddling. To innovate one needs to be able to truly relax your mind. Over the years I am very selective in what I do, which scientific problems to work on, and write only very few but hopefully recognized quality papers.
Thank you very much for this interview and we wish you all the best for your time at e-conversion and the TU Munich!
Website Prof. Rupp (TUM)
“Energieforschung – Starke Akkus für die Energiewende” (Podcast “Exzellent erklärt“, Episode by e-conversion with focus on solid state batteries)