We recently sat down with the University of Iowa’s Johna Leddy, an established researcher in electrochemical power sources and a highly respected mentor to the students of the Leddy Lab. Listen as we talk about the energy infrastructure, Dr. Leddy’s career in academia, how to make the world a better place, and more!
Five Questions for Johna Leddy
“I think the history of the world and all of its conflicts are all about energy.”
What was your academic journey through the sciences like?
I was an undergraduate at Rice, which was really nice because there was a lot of emphasis on making sure you had an equation to go with whatever it was you were trying to describe. I met some similarly minded people. I went to graduate school and the University of Texas—I was in Al Bard’s lab. That was an interesting experience because at that time there weren’t really a lot of females in graduate school. I was a postdoc at Los Alamos in the fuel cell program when fuel cells were beginning to get launched. Those were very different experiences, but all excellent parts of what it is I have turned into as a scientist.
Tell us a little about the students you’ve mentored though the years.
Some of my students have gone to work in academics, some have gone to national labs, some have gone to work for big companies, some have gone to work for start-ups. There’s a whole range of things. The ones who go to work with start-ups have usually had so experience with patents while they were in the group, and that has served them well in their next steps. Some have gone to work for big companies and they’re integral to the research teams. One of them recently joined a national lab in a permanent staff position at Argonne. I have students who have gone into academics. One is Luke Haverhals at Bradley and another is Shelley Minteer at Utah. Most of them are leading a life that they’re pleased with, so that’s a good thing.
How did you end up getting into academia?
When I was coming to the end of my postdoc period—which I enjoyed very much and it gave me a lot of opportunities, I went to my first ECS meeting then—I had to decide if I was going to try to stay at a national lab, go into industry, or go into academics. Academics always terrified me, mostly because I was morbidly afraid of speaking in public. When I was in graduate school we were having a meeting about polymer modified electrodes and how to characterize them. We’re sitting at a table and I had been working on a model for something, so lots of equations. There were two projection screens in front of the chalk board and I’m at the chalk board and I keep walking behind the projection screens so just my arm is sticking out and this voice is occurring, but I cannot be seen. Bard keeps jumping up and pulling me out from behind the projection screen. This happened two or three times in a twenty minute period. I didn’t mind being heard, I just didn’t want to be seen. I decided I would check out the academic branch because at that time if you were going to do it, at the end of your postdoc was the right time. It basically came down to I wanted to work on what I wanted to work on and I didn’t want anybody else to tell me what to do.
What are your thoughts on the energy infrastructure and where it could go in the future?
I think that the history of the world and all of its conflicts are all about energy. Going all the way back to trying to take over somebody’s farm because the farm was about generating energy, and I think that energy component has driven all the conflicts that we have. It drives the conflict that we have now because the energy is localized in certain places but it isn’t accessible uniformly everywhere. If you can figure out ways to distribute the energy and take advantage of renewable energy, I think those are our opportunities to not only give people a better life but also give them a more secure life where the conflict over energy is reduced. I like to explain it this way; it’s all about power. If you have power you can have water, if you have water you can have crops, if you have crops you can go to school, if you can go to school you can find out the guy next door isn’t so terrible after all. It’s all about power.
What are some of the biggest challenges we have when it comes to clean energy?
Thermodynamically, the first rule of power sources—as far as I can tell—is that if it makes a good bomb it makes a good power source, otherwise it’s not worth building the power source because you can’t get enough energy out of it. The trick becomes, how do you harness all of that energy; how do you allow it to be provided without actually blowing things up? Electrochemistry is actually a very good way to do that. You’re discharging the energy electrochemically as opposed to thermally. That will tend to minimize the number of runaway events and explosions. That’s a very nice advantage to electrochemistry. The challenges then become: how do you build such a system so you can harness the energy effectively in an electrochemical manner? That bring in challenges about catalysis and how to build a good system? How do you build a good catalyst? How do you build a system that’s simple so everyone can have one?