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John Alper - Increasing the Energy Density of Lithium Batteries

​Dr. John Alper is an American researcher, currently holding a postdoc position at CEA with a three-year contract. His research is focused on the synthesis and performance characterization of new materials for lithium ion batteries, and he is sharing his time between CEA-Saclay and CEA-Grenoble.

Published on 2 May 2017
  • What is your academic and professional background?

I earned my PhD in chemical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. Afterwards I taught chemistry at a local college for one year. I left teaching after I was offered this postdoctoral position at CEA/IRAMIS. I arrived in September 2015 for a three-year contract.

  • What is your research project about? Are you happy with the progress you have made so far?

My research project is entitled: "Core@shell Silicon-carbon nanoparticles for high energy density Li-Ion Batteries". I am working on the development of silicon-carbon composite nanomaterials to be used as anode materials for lithium ion batteries in order to improve their energy density. In addition to inorganic materials synthesis, I am working on the development of the synthesis reactor and performance testing of the materials. In Saclay, we are synthesising materials and in Grenoble we build and test batteries which utilize the materials. At first I was residing near Saclay and working in IRAMIS, Saclay Institute of Matter and Radiation, and taking multi-week trips to Grenoble in order to work in LITEN, Laboratory for Innovation in New Energy Technologies and Nanomaterials. Progressively, I began have more work in Grenoble than in Saclay so I decided to settle there, even if I am still making regular long trips to Saclay. In Saclay, we use a laser shared between several laboratories and only have access to it for around 30 days every few months. The commuting aspect of the project can be challenging for my personal life sometimes, but it is nice to be able to have two new cities to explore at the same time.

As with all research, it is never going as fast as you may want, but we're moving forward and I'm learning a lot which positive. We've made improvements, overcome challenges, and are progressing. In terms of publications, I have been the 4th author on one publication so far and I am in the process of writing a second one. With our current work in progress, we have plans for one patent and three other papers.  

In Saclay, we are a team of four people: one engineer, one PhD student, the supervisor and myself. In Grenoble, I'm working with a senior scientist and another postdoc.

  • What are you passionate about in your field?

Working on energy storage, I feel like I am producing things that are readily applicable to help combat climate change by enabling sustainable energy. This is the background driving force of all my efforts and what I am passionate about. It keeps me going when I face challenges in lab.

In addition to this, it's fun to experiment, to make things and to work with all the equipment. I enjoy the hands-on part of my work. I also have the opportunity to exercise my brain by reading the literature and being creative in solving problems; it's very stimulating to look into the latest progress made.

  • How do you enjoy living in France?

I enjoy the food a lot and have been making an effort to try the local foods, and of course, lots of cheese. I really enjoy living in Grenoble because I can live close to the city and also have easy access to the surrounding mountains and nature. Also, living in France provides me with the opportunity to visit other European countries easily. 

It's my first time living in France. Upon my arrival, I spoke no French so I have been taking language classes so as to fully experience life here and be able to communicate in the local tongue.

  • Do you like the work atmosphere here in your laboratories?

Yes, I enjoy the work atmosphere, it's very friendly. It's not the case in every laboratory, so I'm lucky. Everybody else is French in my laboratory so sometimes I am pretty much there listening, without talking – but this is something you have to expect when you go to a foreign country for work and don't speak the language. My colleagues are however also fluent in English, and so work discussions are in English. It would be very challenging otherwise.

About life out of work, I have made friends with PhD students and post-docs through the CEA Saclay language course and from time to time will go out with other researchers in my lab. There is also a young researcher organization in both Grenoble and Saclay, although the one in Grenoble is more active with organizing events. That may be a function of geography as the researchers in Saclay live over a much larger area which provides a barrier to getting together after work. Whereas the researchers in Grenoble are much more central in the city, making it easier to meet in one place.  

  • What are the strengths of your stay at CEA?

First of all, working in a renowned research organization such as CEA is very positive for my career: the institute is internationally recognized as a leader in science and technology. Moreover, there are many facilities and I can have access to all of the apparatus and tools I need within CEA or through its many collaborators. Perhaps though not with as much frequency as I would like because other people also need the equipment, of course! All in all, there are definitely many benefits to my stay at CEA.

The Enhanced Eurotalents programme in particular gave me the opportunity to stay longer which is very useful for my research.

  • Do you perceive any difference in the way Americans and French people work?

In the USA, research work culture often encourages being the lab nights and weekends. In France, researchers have fixed work-hours. I am under the impression that there is a more balanced approach to life and work, and this was actually an appealing prospect to coming to France. Free-time is deemed more necessary in France in my opinion, and I tend to agree with the importance of a balance between work and personal time. 

  • Do you have any specific plans after the end of your contract at CEA?

I don't have one yet as I still have two more years to think about it. I could potentially teach or stay in research depending on the country where I have the opportunity. There are still a lot of question marks.