Career profile: Working on next-generation batteries at Johnson Matthey

In our first of a series of monthly career profiles, we caught up with Dr Chris Zalitis, who is a former PhD student of Prof. Anthony Kucernak from the Department of Chemistry at Imperial College London. Chris now works as a Senior Scientist at Johnson Matthey (JM) working in fuel cells and batteries. Chris talks about his PhD, his role at JM, and provides some tips on how to survive a PhD in chemistry.

1. Did you always know you wanted to study chemistry and be a chemist?

Yes, in a way, I have always been curious and interested in science since I was given a weather kit at 9 years old and started doing experiments outdoor.

2. Could you describe very simply what your PhD was about? What did you work on?

The main outcome of my PhD, which I finished back in 2012, was developing a novel ex-situ technique, termed the floating electrode, for measuring fuel cell catalyst activity in idealised high mass transport conditions. In fact, this can be used in any electrocatalytic reaction where either a reagent or product is in the gas form. This was an improvement on the standard system known as rotating disk electrode (RDE) which was limited by low solubility constants and diffusion of gases in aqueous solutions. In this way, our technique helped bridge the gap between fuel cell testing and lab scale testing. I also got to test out our methodology as we worked alongside key industrial companies such as Johnson Matthey and Intelligent Energy through the H2FC Supergen Fuel Cell Programme.

3. What three pieces of advice would you give to someone doing a PhD?

For me, I think the following advice is important:

1.) Do not despair if you do not get good results in the first year. The first year is more about learning and reading the literature.

2.) Start writing early. This is important as you learn more about a topic when you write it down. Also, you notice where the gaps are and can then plan your future experiments accordingly.

3.) Remember, a thesis is a show of your time – don’t worry too much if it’s not ground-breaking research. Try to keep it within the scope.

4. What does your company, Johnson Matthey, work on?

Johnson Matthey is a world leader in sustainable technologies. We are most famous for our catalytic converter technologies in the automotive industry, with one in every third car using one of our catalytic convertors. The company is now making inroads into batteries and fuel cells, to deliver a cleaner and more sustainable solution for the transport sector. We also design and manufacture ingredients for pharmaceuticals, and develop efficient routes to make, use and recycle chemicals and precious materials as part of a sustainable future.

5. Tell us about your role at Johnson Matthey? How did you get into your current job?

I am an electrochemist working in the electrochemical transformation team where we investigate new electrochemical technologies which could be beneficial in our current market sectors. This involves doing some laboratory experiments at the proof of concept stage or examining the literature for possibilities. We also get to collaborate in external projects and work with PhD students around the country. I was working with Johnson Matthey during my PhD and postdoctoral research, so I have experienced this interaction from both sides.

6. How have you applied learning from your PhD into your job at Johnson Matthey?

I am fortunate to work in an area (electrochemistry) which is expanding into other areas and technologies. While doing the PhD and post-doctoral research position at Imperial College, I also learnt lots of valuable soft skills such as demonstrating, supervising and writing grant applications which has helped me a lot in my current job.

7. What are you currently working on?

One of the most exciting projects I am currently working on is an EU project LOTER.CO2M (https://www.loterco2m.eu/) looking at electro reduction of carbon dioxide to methanol, methanol being important to JM due to its KATALCO™ catalyst for traditional methanol synthesis routes. However, we are using this as an opportunity to gain insight in the whole CO2 value chain and the role JM can play.

8. What three words would you use to describe your role?

The work is firstly, fundamental as while it is business focussed we go into detail when trying to develop catalysts, it is also challenging (covering a wide area) and ‘educational’ would be my third word, as you do end up learning a lot.

9. What advice would you give to somebody considering a career as a chemist?

It is definitely a good place to be if you are a curious person. It’s important to look at the growth areas – that is where developments are happening and moving faster. I definitely feel electrochemistry is a field like that now, and another area I would say is biotechnology which seems to be expanding and changing rapidly.

Dr Zalitis is speaking at a conference next month at Imperial College – South-East England Electrochemistry Conference on 30th September.