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April 2014

Empowering Human Innovation: From EFRC to Entrepreneurship

An interview with Cary Hayner from the Center for Electrical Energy Storage

Laila Jaber-Ansari

Cary Hayner inspects a coin cell prior to electrochemical testing.

Cary discussing electrode materials coated onto metal current collectors.

I met Cary Hayner for the first time when I joined one of the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs), the Center for Electrical Energy Storage (CEES), as a Ph.D. student. I was new to the field of electrical energy storage and lithium-ion batteries, and Cary, being one year my senior, was a tremendous help. He taught me how to build a lithium-ion battery. I often showed up at his office randomly to ask questions and sent him multiple e-mails a day. He answered my numerous questions with great patience and good humor. What I didn't know at the time was that the research he was showing me would be the foundation for SiNode Systems, a battery startup company based in Evanston, Illinois, with the goal of building the next generation of lithium-ion batteries.

Cary, who is currently a senior Ph.D. student at Northwestern University, is focused on using graphene, a single sheet of carbon atoms, for enabling new types of materials for lithium-ion batteries. His research at CEES involves developing silicon anodes and metal fluoride cathodes for lithium-ion batteries. Being the thinnest material ever discovered, graphene has unique physical and chemical properties that can improve the performance of these anodes and cathodes. This research has enabled better lithium-ion batteries for application in electrically powered vehicles, portable electronics, and medical devices. Cary believes that his research can improve energy sustainability and reduce our dependence on oil. Cary is also the Chief Technology Officer at SiNode Systems, helping to develop silicon/graphene anodes for lithium-ion batteries that provide higher energy densities and faster charge and discharge rates. I had a phone interview with him while he was on a business trip in California.

Q. How did your research at CEES translate to your work at SiNode Systems?

My Ph.D. advisor (Harold Kung) and I acted as technical advisors to NUvention, an energy and entrepreneurship course offered by Northwestern University. The team of students who participated in the silicon/graphene project succeeded in writing a business plan and participating in business competitions that raised more than $1 million in 2013—hence, the birth of SiNode Systems. Within CEES, the silicon/graphene project was a result of collaboration between computational research at Argonne National Laboratory and our experimental research at Northwestern University. The effect of defects in improving lithium ion diffusion through graphene was predicted theoretically by Larry Curtiss' group at Argonne and later was confirmed experimentally by us. It is a great example of how one approach feeds another.

Q. What do you like most about your Ph.D. experience so far?

Through my Ph.D., I have been fortunate enough to work on many projects that I am interested in. I got to work on all aspects of lithium-ion batteries, including anodes, cathodes, electrolytes, and separators. Also, being a part of CEES provided me with a great opportunity to work at state-of-the-art characterization facilities at Argonne National Laboratory. A great aspect about the EFRCs is that they pull together many young and talented scientists, match them up with experienced scientists in the field, and give them the opportunity to think creatively. In the end, they cultivate an ecosystem that allows researchers to do basic science with applied results. The diversity and growth kept me constantly motivated.

Q. How do you balance your Ph.D., company work, and personal life?

Balancing all of these can be quite difficult. Ultimately, I learned that a combination of productivity and periods of inactivity are necessary to recharge oneself. I have found it critical to periodically take a step back from projects to re-calibrate on the end goals, and to reconsider the most strategic path forward. Also, working on different projects allows me to park tough problems and stew them in my brain, while tackling simpler projects in the lab provides a good way to keep things fresh and interesting. It's never a dull day working on these amazing projects.

Q. What are your aspirations for SiNode Systems?

I see the SiNode technology as more than just a technology of convenience. Although it is a great goal to allow people to stay connected longer and in new ways not previously possible, I would like to see the SiNode technology enable applications that can improve global sustainability and overall welfare, ranging from electric vehicles to medical applications and beyond. We see ourselves as an advanced energy materials company that can power human innovation.

Q. What would define success for you?

I view every day that I am able to be a part of this project as a success. I have been incredibly fortunate to work on a topic that I adore, and to have been participating in this adventure—from its inception—and watching it grow over the past 5 years. It's a great achievement to have seen the project evolve from a lab experiment to a full-fledged company.

Q. Do you think that young scientists should take the entrepreneurial approach more often, so their work can have a larger impact on society? If so, what would you suggest they should do to prepare themselves?

I would like to see brilliant young scientists take more risks and unconventional paths in their careers, be it in entrepreneurship or in other directions. I feel there are many creative and intelligent young people who are pressured into closed, conventional approaches that don't allow them to access their imagination and strive to do something different. For the entrepreneurial approach, I suggest students reach out to their technology transfer departments to see if there are any entrepreneurial clubs or courses that they can participate in. Additionally, there are non-profit organizations such as VentureWell (formerly NCIIA) that are focused on bringing entrepreneurship to undergraduates, high schools, and even middle schools across the United States.

Q. Do you have any advice for other members of an EFRC?

Being a part of an EFRC gives you a great opportunity to meet people. Use this opportunity to broaden your network of students, postdocs, and scientists. A network of capable people is crucial for personal and professional development. Learn as much as you can in your EFRC. It is always easier to learn from experts and talented people than to try and figure things out on your own.

About the author(s):

  • Laila Jaber-Ansari is a Ph.D. candidate in Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University (Illinois), studying with Mark C. Hersam. She is a member of Center for Electrical Energy Storage, an Energy Frontier Research Center. She received her M. Eng. in Materials Science and Engineering from Northeastern University (Massachusetts) in 2009. Her research interests include application of carbon-based nanomaterials in advancing energy storage devices.

Disclaimer: The opinions in this newsletter are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views or position of the Department of Energy.