Battery researcher who will happily challenge fake news

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Patrik Johansson

Electric cars and other battery-powered vehicles are a red-hot topic in the current debate. How can we make the transition to a sustainable transport system and what is actually best for the environment? An expert who is often engaged in this connection is Chalmers professor Patrik Johansson, who a little reluctantly also goes under the name of the ‘battery doctor’. He will happily hit back in a vigorous debate against both fake news and wishful thinking. He will also happily hit a shuttlecock as well.

“Badminton and research have several elements which are reminiscent of one another. You have to be able to combine different things such as stamina, tactics and creativity. And sometimes you have to be able to play a little around the court,” says Johansson, after a brisk walk to one of his favourite places – the Fjäderborgen Badminton Centre in central Gothenburg. 

Given that he has been doing research for over twenty years and playing badminton for twice as long, he is on home territory. Today he heads up both a battery research initiative at Chalmers University of Technology and a European battery research network. In his leisure time he is on the board of “Göteborgs Badmintonklubb” (GBK), plays in GBK’s team in the national second division and has also played some international matches for Sweden at the senior level. 

He does not own a vehicle

It only takes a few minutes to walk from his workplace at Chalmers to Fjäderborgen, where the club has its home. From Fjäderborgen and then home he also has a walk of only a few minutes. Anyone who thinks that an internationally successful researcher into the batteries of the future has a flashy electric car is wrong. He does not even own a vehicle. Not even a bicycle. 

“Electric cars will not solve our environmental problems in general. We need to cut down on the use of cars, buy fewer new cars and join car pools instead. I think that you should walk, cycle or use public transport if you can, but I know that not everyone lives somewhere where it’s possible to do that. And I really do want the whole of Sweden to have the opportunity to live a decent life.” 

In recent years there has been much debate about the environmental impact of electric car batteries, both in relation to the raw materials and recycling. Johansson has spent many hours sorting out the concepts to determine what are verified facts and what are not. He often gives lectures at various public events, takes part in panel discussions and is interviewed in podcasts and in other media. 

Bringing a cold dash of realism

“When electric cars arrived they were not seen as a threat to normal fossil-fuel cars. The reporting was highly positive then. Now lobbyists are working hard against the media and reports are coming out containing really fake facts. Fossil-fuel cars will never be more environmentally friendly than electric cars. That’s not to say that batteries themselves are good for the environment. And we’re constantly working to make them less environmentally unfriendly.” 

As for electrically powered aircraft, the sound bites have been more positive in the debate. Many want to see electrified aircraft in their crystal ball – especially those who promise to supply the technology in the form of various products. Here again Johansson brings a cold dash of realism. 

“Everyone wants to believe in positive ideas, but unfortunately I’m a pessimist when it comes to electric flight. Some fairly small aircraft can certainly be powered with the aid of batteries, but some basic assumptions are based on false data and wishful thinking. For example, you may not understand that a battery cell is far from being a complete battery pack or you think that the next generation of batteries with absolutely stunning performance will be ready in five years’ time. It’s currently quite trendy to be working on batteries and electrification and many who are developing new technology don’t listen to those of us with long experience and expertise in the field.” 

A general ‘consumption shame’

Johansson flies a lot for his work. He is abroad more than 100 days a year and spends long periods working in France each year, where he has a post at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). So the question is then: is he ashamed of the flying he does?

“No... or perhaps a bit. I fly a great deal because I do a lot of work internationally. But if I had just stayed at home in Gothenburg, I wouldn’t have been able to head up activities that contribute to networking and to the exchange of knowledge that can lead to better energy solutions in the future. I contribute to a research community which provides a public benefit. You need to think in broader terms. I think you shouldn’t just look at flying but rather have a general ‘consumption shame’.” 

Sights are set on storing energy from solar and wind power 

For Johansson and his colleagues the current research is all about the next generation of batteries. More durable materials that produce a higher energy content for their weight and volume are a common denominator. They also conduct research into batteries with built-in sensors, without any solvent whatsoever, with mechanical strength, or based on graphene and sulfur. Good recycling strategies are a key factor. Their sights are mainly set on storing energy from solar and wind power. 

“We have to find new ways of storing energy. Today’s batteries are not good enough, even if they help to ensure that people don’t die from the particulates in the exhaust gases from fossil fuels. In order to find better solutions we have to ask the right research questions and work together to deliver a technology that functions. This involves fundamental research, but with a concrete goal. If you have the opportunity to engage in problem-solving as a profession, I think you should do it in a way that is of benefit to society.” 

More about Patrik Johansson

Born: In Nybro on 11 November 1969. 

Lives: In an apartment in Landala/Vasastan where he has lived for the past twenty years – seven minutes’ walk from Chalmers.  

Family: Wife Helena Berg whom he met when he was a doctoral student in Uppsala. She also completed a doctorate in chemistry and today runs a consultancy company in the field of batteries. 

Job: Professor of Physics at Chalmers and along with two colleagues he heads up Europe’s largest battery research network: ALISTORE-European Research Institute. ALISTORE-ERI is a unit within the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). Johansson also has a key role in a new competence centre for Swedish batteries – SweBAL – funded by Vinnova.

Career in brief: Took the technical programme specialising in chemistry in Jönköping before he started his chemistry studies at Uppsala University. He defended his doctoral thesis in inorganic chemistry in 1998 and then worked for a while at Northwestern University in the USA. He was recruited to Chalmers in 1999, appointed Assistant Professor in 2005, Professor in 2012 and Full Professor in 2016. Johansson’s field of research is materials for next generation batteries. He has published more than 150 scientific articles and currently heads up a research team of around ten people. 

Leisure interests: “Plenty of badminton and a great deal of reading – mainly novels. It’s good to have as a safety valve. I’m also interested in food, wine and travel. Travel is also part of my job. Since both my wife and I can be flexible about where we work, we can accompany each other.”

Favourite places for inspiration: “I like sitting in an inspiring café.  It’s great to go to an environment where I can let my thoughts wander.”

Most proud about: “The fact that I’ve been able to help others in their careers – both students and other researchers. This is a competitive field of science, but if you go in with the attitude that it’s possible to cooperate, you get much further. In the activities I am responsible for we work on complex issues within targeted fundamental research. It would be far too restricted if we were not part of larger groupings and collaborations. It’s also fun to work together. Research is one of the few activities in the world that is extremely viable internationally. There’s rarely a problem with the fact that people come from different countries. Research is good at inclusive integration.”

Motivation: “I like solving problems and challenging myself. So working in targeted fundamental research is a good fit. By settling on the right level and focusing on something that benefits society, you can make optimum use of your capabilities. You also have to resist getting involved with things that you can see won’t ultimately work, or which at best only provide minor improvements, solely because there’s plenty of money in it at present. To achieve major changes, you have to do more in-depth work, slightly further away on the horizon. You always have to focus at least ten years ahead. That’s a motivation.”

First memory of physics:  “Difficult to say, but I had a really good chemistry teacher at high school (Per Lindgren). At the time biotechnology was an extremely hot topic. I was more interested in analysis and concretisation and later became interested in materials chemistry, which is based on causality rather than correlation, has a fair level of abstraction, and is suited to solving problems. Nor did the subject feel as strict as physics. I’m not interested in everything in physics and I’m not particularly good at maths. I chose what I felt suited me and actually there’s not that much difference between what I’ve done as a chemist and as a physicist.”

Best thing about being a researcher: “It’s the freedom, the creativity and the social community you have in a research team. It’s fun to see colleagues develop and work towards a concrete objective. But you can still allow yourself to be sidetracked now and then. In a way a professor is a bit like a self-employed person. You have to have objectives, you are limited by the funding, but there are plenty of opportunities for setting your own agenda. It was actually by coincidence that I ended up in the academic world, but I feel very privileged.”

Challenges of the job: “The hardest thing is finding enough time. One challenge is dealing with the recruitments that are so important in getting a good group together. You also have to resist spreading yourself too thinly over too many projects. There are so many opportunities, but you can’t do everything. You need to have a stimulating environment, strategy and money in order to choose your projects. Some think that it’s not necessary to spend much time on research applications, but I don’t agree. It’s a requirement from outside, but also an opportunity to really sharpen up your ideas, hone your arguments and organise your thoughts. I myself am involved in evaluating research in a number of countries and think that there should be strict entry requirements when it comes to research funding – but preferably more trust and less administration once you’ve been awarded the money.”

Dream for the future: “It would certainly be great if someone developed something from what we’ve worked on so that there was a concrete solution and we really got a better environment. But since we work on such a long-term basis, the reality is rather that of training and nurturing the next generation of researchers. I would like to contribute to something such as quality thinking, the way to define your research question and a good academic environment.” 


Mia Halleröd Palmgren