Katja Kress, University of Sheffield
Katja Kress, PhD Researcher, University of Sheffield, working on the FutureCat project to help reduce the battery industry’s reliance on cobalt
Tell us about your research
I’m working towards my PhD at the University of Sheffield in an area that is at the intersection of chemical engineering and materials science. I’m developing new battery materials for different applications including a layered lithium nickel oxide. It shows promise in increasing capacity but does come with its challenges. For example, during synthesis nickel moves into the lithium layers leading to structural changes during charge and discharge that lead to capacity loss. We’re looking to dope certain elements into the structure to try to overcome some of these flaws. The material I synthesise, Ni(OH)2 is used as a precursor material for further materials synthesis throughout the Faraday Institution’s FutureCAT project – I regularly send samples to other researchers at the Universities of Sheffield, Cambridge, Warwick, and Lancaster.
How do you describe why your work is important to non-specialists?
I describe how current phone and EV batteries are heavily reliant on cobalt, which is largely sourced in the Congo, and where there are ethical concerns around mining practices. The work we are doing to develop nickel-rich cathode materials aims to reduce the battery industry’s dependence on cobalt. Increased use of energy storage technologies in general will make transport more environmentally friendly and sustainable. It feels good to be working in such an important area.
How did you get into battery research?
Kind of by accident! I moved from Germany, where I’m from, to the UK with my ex-partner who wanted to do his post doc here. He put feelers out to people he knew to see if there were opportunities for me to move with him. As a result of that process, I gained my PhD position in battery materials with Dr Sam Booth and Professor Serena Cussen in Sheffield.
I gained my Bachelors in Materials Engineering from the University of Applied Science at Nürnberg and my Masters in Materials Science from the University of Augsburg (which was taught in English). When I knew I was moving to the UK I actually translated my Masters thesis into English to help further develop my technical English. I also previously worked in industry for 7 years before moving to the UK in a variety of fields and materials systems – materials testing, carbon composites, failure analysis, power electronics, at the Fraunhofer Institute and elsewhere. It’s exciting to always be investigating new things.
What is a highlight of your career to date or the aspect that gives you greatest job satisfaction?
My PhD studies are my career highlight to date. It’s so much fun to be working with such interesting colleagues and I like Sheffield and the people here. I’ve found what I want to do with the rest of my life – which is a great feeling. And not only are the materials I work on environmentally green, they’re green in colour – my favourite!
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Securing my PhD and overcoming my fear of moving to a country that is foreign to me to do it. It was tough though. My interview was at the start of the pandemic when people hadn’t sorted out microphones yet, and it was really hard to communicate. And we moved into a house that we had only seen online.
What opportunities has being part of the Faraday Institution opened up for you?
We’re all encouraged to develop personal and professional skills. In my first year this was around learning about data management and around learning my way around how the UK university system works, which is quite different to Germany. In the last few months I’ve got involved with STEM outreach activities, going into schools and an event at the Royal Institution engaging with children and young people inspiring them about our work. It’s really cool and interesting, and not something that is given such prominence in Germany I feel.
I also joined the Faraday Institution’s Empower Women positive action career programme. It was an amazing experience, not only for professional growth, but personal growth too. I’m still in contact with our group of women, who are a great network to have.
What are the biggest challenges you have overcome in your career and how have you gone about doing so?
Starting new jobs. It’s always a time where there are lots of new things to learn and new people to get used to. It’s a bit scary but also exciting. I’m eager to learn and develop myself and face my fears full on. For example, I previously had a fear of deep water, so I learned to scuba dive! I used to be apprehensive about speaking to large audiences, so I actively sought to overcome that by choosing a Masters supervisor who I knew was keen to get his students presenting.
What advice would you have liked to have given to your younger self starting out on your career?
Face your fears. There are always people around you who will help. You’re never alone.
What are your career aspirations?
I’d like to stay in academia and also stay as a lab-based researcher as I enjoy doing things with my hands. I’d like to apply for post doc positions at Sheffield when I finish by PhD. There’s a great team and research culture here and we regularly meet socially outside work.
If people want to find out more about your research, where would you point them to?
FutureCat website. I hope to publish my first scientific paper in this field soon.
Published August 2022.
About the author: Cara Burke is the Faraday Institution’s Science Communications Intern in the summer of 2022. She has just completed her BSc Biological Sciences degree at Imperial College London and is pursuing a career in science communications.