The ultimate learning experience
What can a chemist learn from an electrical engineer? Or a gen X’er from a millennial? Putting ourselves out there, making new connections and gaining new perspectives is essential for the development of science, but also for the growth of ourselves as human beings. Just ask Damien Reardon and Judith van Gorp – two materials science experts currently visiting from DSM in the hallowed halls of MIT. Their quest: to bring society a new generation of energy solutions.
While you may have heard about nano technology, you almost certainly won’t have seen it. At 1,000th the size of a human hair, nano materials are invisible to all but the most powerful microscopes. At the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts however, nano technology - such as the ‘quantum dot’ - is increasingly seen as the key to all kinds of potential breakthroughs, not least in the field of solar energy.
“Nano particles are now enabling us to make super thin-film solar materials for use in photovoltaic modules, for example, that are lighter and more flexible than traditional materials like silicon. They are potentially higher in their energy efficiency, and deliver greater power output,” says Damien Reardon.
Before joining MIT.nano for a one-year secondment, Damien was (and indeed, still is) a key contributor to the DSM Advanced Solar team – where he not only helped develop new technologies like Anti-Reflective coated solar glass, but also participated in the groundbreaking Sunrise l and ll startup challenges, hosted by DSM at the Greentown Labs in Boston. Greentown labs is the largest clean-tech startup incubator in the United States.
But that’s only half the story: the nano length scale is also proving to be vital in the burgeoning science of battery technology. “In layman’s terms we’re starting to experiment with putting plastics into the active part of a battery to boost its safety and energy density,” explains Judith van Gorp, a chemist who has spent the last few years developing a new generation of performance materials at DSM.
Not only is Judith sharing her year at MIT with Damien. She also shares her life with him. Having met back in 2004 while both working for DuPont in Delaware, they married in 2009 and now have three potential little scientists of their own.
“In some respects, it was a tricky decision to take up this opportunity because of the obvious logistical challenges,” recalls Judith. “But on the other hand it was a no-brainer! To work at the highest ranked university in the world, surrounded by bright, optimistic young people from all corners of the globe; It’s a real inspiration to get out of bed every day. Even when we do have three young children to get washed, fed and clothed before work!”
Unsurprisingly, MIT is ‘all about the science’ says Judith. So introducing industrial scientists into the mix has been an intriguing…experiment. While the MIT community has gained an all-important perspective into how its science could be used in real-world situations and applications; DSM has gained hugely valuable knowledge and an expanded scientific network.
How so? “Judith and I are chemists by training, yet we find ourselves in electrical engineering research groups,” says Damien. “We don’t even speak the same scientific language. But once we found a way to communicate with each other, the richness of our discussion became amazing.”
Meanwhile, as mom and dad grapple with the language of electrical engineering, their kids are learning a new language of their own.
“The children have grown up speaking Dutch as their mother tongue, so living here in the States has been fantastic for them,” says Damien, a Canadian. “Now my parents can hold a proper conversation with their grandchildren; and that gives Judith and I as much satisfaction as anything we’re doing here at MIT.”