Esther Takeuchi has over 150 patents. She’s actually not exactly sure how many there are (some have continued being issued while others have expired), but it’s somewhere between 150 and 160. Regardless of the exact number, Takeuchi currently holds the title of the American woman with the most patents, and in 2011 was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame. Most of her patents are for technologies that make our batteries better. In fact, Takeuchi’s first big breakthrough was in medical batteries—the kinds that go into heart defibrillators. More recently, Takeuchi’s lab at Stony Brook University was awarded a grant to do some fundamental research into how batteries work, in an effort to cut down the amount of heat they produce and, in turn, make them more efficient.
I spoke with Takeuchi about invention, being a woman in the lab, and how new technology has opened up a whole new world of batteries.
Rose Eveleth: Let’s start with the medical battery. How did you come up with that?
Esther Takeuchi: I was working in a company at the time, and the implantable cardiac defibrillator had been demonstrated, so it had actually been shown to be an effective concept, and a life-saving concept. And it did have a battery at the time. They were using a battery at the time to demonstrate that the concept would work. But it turned out that the battery that was initially used only lasted maybe a year or a year and a half, and the goal was to target approximately five years. Because in order to replace the battery you’d need to do surgery and replace the whole device, and surgery every year for someone who has heart disease to begin with is just not a good idea.
So it was very much a targeted, or goal-oriented undertaking, where we had an idea of what we were trying to accomplish and then worked towards that goal. I would say initially it was based on insight coupled with experimentation. There were ideas about what materials might be reasonable to try for this type of battery and then it was a question of demonstrating it and saying “yeah this really does look like it’s going to work.” Then can we take those initial observations and tests and push them towards a product that could actually be used in an implantable defibrillator. So I think it was a series of steps that led to the final outcome, but like I said there was a well-defined goal from the beginning. We knew what we were aiming for.
Eveleth: Does that experience with the medical battery inform your current work on battery technology?
Takeuchi: I think it really does in a sense. Every new idea can be built on previous things that we’ve seen, or remembered, or tried, or read. I’m not sure who said this quote, but there’s a quote that says, “It’s like seeing what everybody has seen before but thinking something different than what people have thought before.” That’s really kind of what invention is. The same information is out there for everybody, it’s a question of how do you combine the pieces together to lead to a new insight that will allow you to solve a problem or address and issue in a way that nobody has done before. That’s really what invention is.
I do think your prior experience, your knowledge base, your ability to take pieces of information, maybe even from different areas, and put them together in a new way.
The other thing I’ll add is that I think curiosity and passion for the field really help. You’ve got to be kind of excited or driven or want to do it. You can’t be lazy about it, you really have to be mentally active to make it all happen.
Eveleth: At what moment do you know when you’ve got something that’s patentable?
Takeuchi: It is really important to know the field that you’re working in, you have to know what you’re doing and what everybody else is doing. Being knowledgeable is a key step. But the next step is to look at the patent literature. What has been patented, what are the applications are out there now? That's all information that’s available on the patent office website. Then you have to verify that what you have is something different, unique, from what is out there. If you’re an expert in your own field, then you have a sense for what the state of the knowledge is, you have insight into whether what you’re working on is new or different. That would be certainly a requirement for being patentable. It has to be something different, something new.
Eveleth: Some people argue that the U.S. patent system is broken, and that it issues far too many patents for things that are too broad. Do you think that’s true?
Takeuchi: Patents really are very important, especially for small companies or inventors. They can make a difference in terms of economic feasibility and survivability, because it allows them to defend and practice their invention for a period of time, for some period of time, before everybody else starts practicing what their idea was. So I do think patents are really important. I will also say that it’s a tremendous challenge. The world is so complex these days, and to ensure that every patent that is filed is fully unique and yet sufficiently described to be practiced by practitioners in that field is really a difficult thing to do. I have to credit the people in that area. It’s a challenging thing to do well. Could it be made better? Possibly, but we shouldn’t back away from it, I think we should keep striving to improve it and make it sure it continues to be a functioning piece of our society.
Eveleth: Is there an “inventor community”?
Takeuchi: I think largely people work in silos. But there’s one exception. There’s the National Inventors Hall of Fame and it’s located across the street from the USPTO and they have a very active and dynamic group of folks who really do try to build community around that. There’s an annual event every year where the new inductees are inducted. They have active programs for students and young inventors. So I think they really are trying to build a community. At that annual event, where the new inductees are inducted into the hall of fame, they always invite back if not all, the majority of previous inductees to build this community among the people who are very active in the invention realm. So that’s the one example that I can think of where they’re really dynamic and active in terms of bringing people together. As well as trying to impart those ideas into up and coming inventors, the next generation of inventors.
Eveleth: Do you feel like female inventors face different challenges?
Takeuchi: I’ve been interviewed several times about the question of invention and it turns out that while there are other female inventors, the majority of them, at least from what I’ve been told, are often involved in softer things, things that have to do with the household or other things. At least historically the number of female inventors who worked in harder science or technology were limited. I think that’s changing, I think there are more and more female inventors involved in technology. I think that as women, or really people who view the world from a certain perspective, I think we have the opportunity to perhaps solve problems or look at problems in a new way because of our perspective, and maybe issues that weren’t addressed previously now can be just by looking at it from a different direction. So I do think having women participate in the invention process is very important, and I think the opportunities are more prevalent today than they were a few decades ago. So that’s a very positive sign.
Eveleth: Do you have any advice for a women who might want to be an inventor?
Takeuchi: I think that the overwhelming piece of advice is to do it. Don’t give up, just participate, be part of it, be persistent, retain that enthusiasm, retain that passion. Understand that you may kind of stick out in the crowd a little bit, and you may not be surrounded by your peers, but that’s okay. The story that I tell students is that they can think of it this way. Each one of us holds a puzzle piece, and when it comes to science and technology we’re trying to assemble this puzzle. We don’t know what the picture is, and if you don’t add your piece then the picture is incomplete.
The biggest thing is participate, don’t give up, be persistent, and understand that your contribution is valuable and important. I think sometimes there’s this perception that, well, you have to be a genius to do this, and I think that what you have to be is willing to contribute what you can contribute. Hang in there. Stick with it.
Eveleth: Your current work relates to battery efficiency, tell us about what you’re working on these days.
Takeuchi: Our interest really is on batteries, so the energy-related work we do is on electrochemical energy storage. The latest large award we were granted from the U.S. Department of Energy has to do with improving the efficiency of batteries and trying to minimize the amount of waste heat. A battery's main job is to deliver electricity, but if they end up generating a lot of heat, that’s electricity they could have generated. Instead of doing work they’re generating heat. Understanding things that control ion transport, things that control electron transport, and then trying to make scientific advances that facilitate that transport so we can create.
When we have large batteries like for a car or smart grid the amount of heat that’s generated actually becomes problematic. You have to cool the batteries sometimes. But having those cooling systems can be expensive and they take up space they weigh something, so a whole battery gets bigger and more expensive. So by trying to minimize the amount of heat we also can, in a sense, help make the batteries smaller and lighter weight and lower cost because there isn’t much heat to deal with as an outcome.
Imagine having all, a laptop has maybe four batteries, maybe six, multiply that by 1,000. That’s how many is in a Tesla. It’s hot.
This project is at the initial stages. It’s a four-year program, we certainly think that we will make some fundamental scientific insights over that time frame. Once you have the scientific insights then there’s the opportunity to implement them, but scientifically we think we’re going to find some important things over the years.
Eveleth: How do you actually scientifically study something like batteries?
Takeuchi: What’s really exciting now in terms of battery research and battery science, is that there are new measurement tools and investigation tools that are available or are just becoming available for the first time. If we think historically about batteries, they were developed more by optimization—an Edisonian approach. You tried things and tested them and if they worked you went that direction. But now there are tools that are being developed that can actually allow us to probe inside a working battery without disrupting it.
So we did some experiments using a synchrotron—a device that can generate very high energy X-rays—and what these X-rays allow us to do is look inside a working battery. This is a battery that’s still inside a steel can. And we can actually detect the products that are formed as the battery is working. And not only can we detect what’s formed, but we can detect where the products are being formed inside the battery. So what that allows us to do is deterring what’s limiting the function of the battery.
So every time an electron moves, an ion needs to move as well. So we can find out is the surface of the battery the closest to the electrons being utilized first? Is the surface closest to the ions being used first? That lets us know what’s limiting the function of the battery. And then we can redesign it by adjusting what’s limiting the behavior. If we make that part better, then what’s the next limitation. So we can do this now in a scientific way not just in a trial and error way. It’s a great time to in batteries. It’s like peering inside this working system.
Eveleth: Can inventors solve all our energy problems?
Takeuchi: So my view is that energy availability is really one of the key issues of the world, quite honestly. What is known, is that standard of living is pretty tightly linked to energy consumption. The higher the standard of living per capita the higher energy consumption. So the good news is that the standard of living in many places is increasing, but that also means the energy use is increasing dramatically. So the question is where is all of that going to come from? And I think a combination of energy efficiency, energy storage, all those things are going to be important in moving forward to address the energy needs of the world in the next 10 to 20 years. It’s a critical challenge that needs to be addressed.
It’s going to be a combination of many things. I think inventors and technologists play a key role, there’s no question in my mind they do. But I think policy, society’s willingness to adopt different ideas, different ways of doing things is also going to play a key role. It’s that old adage if you build a better mousetrap they’ll use it, but it will take a combination of everything. Invention is a key part of that, but adoption, policy, how we view these things as a society is also keenly important.