This is the fourth of a series of conversations with Utah women building disruptive technologies. I’m Kimberly Zhang. I set out to speak to the women behind the business, research and ideas that are changing the world. They share their work, thoughts and advice. Note the opinions expressed by interviewees do not necessarily represent those of GOED, but they do promise to be interesting.
I sat down with Shelley Minteer, a Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) professor of chemistry and materials science and engineering at the University of Utah, to chat about the changing technology of batteries, as well as diversity and creativity.
What brought you to Utah and why did you stay?
I was a faculty member at Saint Louis University in Missouri for 11 years before coming to Utah. The University of Utah contacted me about heading the USTAR Alternative Energy Cluster. I’m from the Midwest, so the mountains and the scenery are amazingly beautiful to me. I love living here. Over the past five years, there’s been a lot of interest in alternative energy and renewable energy here in Utah, and that’s also a big part of why I stayed.
How would you describe the academic science community in Utah and what is your favorite part?
Previously, I was in a state with multiple research universities and they existed like sole entities that never collaborated or communicated. In Utah, research universities are more of a community. Whether you are at Brigham Young University or the University of Utah, there is a lot of room for collaboration and communication. For an example, one of my post-doctoral fellows was up at Utah State University recently helping out on a project and their researchers have been down here helping us with experiments, as well. These collaborative exchanges are really important in modern interdisciplinary science.
Tell me about your research and its applications in renewable energy. What inspired you to pursue this specific research?
I’m an electrochemist by training. Electrochemistry is the intersection between electricity and chemistry. The most common electrochemical devices are the batteries in your cell phone, tablet and laptop.
I spent my Ph.D. working with a type of battery called a fuel cell. Rather than your closed and self-contained battery, where the only way to recharge is to plug it into the wall and force the reaction to go into the reverse direction, fuel cells are a hybrid between a battery and a combustion engine. They generate electricity as long you are adding fuel. It’s similar to your car where the minute you run out of gasoline the car stops moving. Fuel cells will continue to produce electricity as long they have fuel, but as soon as the fuel runs out, they will stop. That’s the next generation of batteries.
Early in my career, I was teaching a large number of pre-med students, who had a lot of interest in biological examples. I started learning biology to get relevant examples they cared about. I realized that we could learn things from biological systems and how they metabolize food. These lessons could lead to more efficient fuel cell and battery systems. This really changed my research program toward focusing on bio-inspired renewable energy conversion.
McKinsey in 2013 described alternative energy as a “disruptive technology that will advance life, business and the global economy.” Can you tell us about the bio-battery’s role in the disruptive tech scene?
Those are hard questions, because as technology changes, our expectations do as well. If you look at the last decade, what we used batteries for and how we expect batteries to perform has changed drastically. A decade ago, there were still a lot of flip-phones with black and white screens and no camera. Today, you want a phone that can go on Facebook, Facetime and do all of these things, but you want the battery to last for 48 hours of almost continual use. As we go forward, my research group is interested in going from standard batteries to wearable batteries.
For an example, we are interested in smart contact lenses. You can’t put a lithium ion battery in a contact lens, so you have to think more about energy harvesting and wearable technology. So we’re researching how to develop fuel cells to run off of lactate in tears. They use tears as fuel and have wearable technology to display. In other words, to use the human body as an energy source.
What other types of alternative energy are you really excited about?
Solar. For us in Utah, solar is very important and we have seen dramatic improvements in technology in the last decade. We definitely need to make it more inexpensive and green to produce, such as using more earth-abundant materials.
Why do you think diversity is important in STEM?
Creativity is really important in the sciences, particularly in coming up with innovative new ideas to address the world’s grand challenges. Today, research is done in interdisciplinary teams, because each team member brings a different perspective to the table. If you bring a chemist, a biologist and an engineer together – if you have diversity – they will have different perspectives based on their different scientific backgrounds. A different approach to problem solving is really useful in terms of creating innovative science.
Similarly, in my lab, we have a lot of cultural diversity. We have post-doctoral fellows from France, the United Kingdom, China, Sweden, the United States and Italy. Right now, energy problems are tackled differently in all of those countries and so each person has a different perspective on the problem and the solutions. The lab diversity helps us innovate without having blinders on to the way that the United States or Utah is currently trying to solve the problem.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Be more patient. Everything worth doing takes time.