Professor Maria Skyllas-Kazacos was one of Australia's first female professors in chemical engineering and the pioneer of the Vanadium Redox Battery which was developed at the University of New South Wales during the late 1980s and 1990s and is now being commercialised around the world in a wide range of energy storage applications. Maria has a great passion for her research work, and has always felt a strong commitment to the environment. She comes from a closely knit Greek Australian family background which helped to instill in her the importance of education and family. She has three sons with husband Michael whom she regards as her most important achievement and top priority.
Interviewed by Ms Claire Hooker in 2000.
Professor Maria Skyllas-Kazacos was born in Kalimnos, Greece, in 1951 and emigrated to Australia in 1954. She attended Fort Street Girls High School in Sydney, before beginning a degree in industrial chemistry at the University of New South Wales. She graduated with first class honours and the University Medal in 1974 and began work for E R Squibb Pharmaceuticals in Greece, but found the work dissatisfying and commenced a PhD in electrochemical studies of molten salts with Professor Barry Welch at the University of New South Wales. In 1976 she married, and the first of her three sons was born in 1977. Following her doctoral research, she spent a year at the Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, working on solar energy and battery research.
Returning to Australia to take a position as a Queen Elizabeth II Fellow in the School of Physics at the University of New South Wales, she was then appointed as lecturer in chemical engineering and industrial chemistry in 1982. Her research team invented the vanadium redox battery, which holds revolutionary possibilities for energy storage and energy policy. Her research has gained her many honours, and in 1999 she was made a Member of the Order of Australia.
Maria, you were born in Greece in 1951. Would you tell us a little bit about your parents?
My parents' names are George and Kalliopi Skyllas. My dad was born in Athens, but when he was a young child his family moved to Egypt and he grew up in Suez. His father worked for the Suez Canal Company and he himself worked for the Shell Company – in Egypt before the Second World War there were a lot of French and British companies, and people from Europe. It was very cosmopolitan; the towns were very European. Dad grew up learning several languages. He could speak Greek, of course (he went to Greek school and also to French school) and he could speak Arabic and Italian, with a little bit of English.
His family wanted the children to go to university and get educated, but unfortunately the Depression and other such circumstances made it just too difficult and he had to leave school when he was about 15. That was very disappointing for him, because he was always at the top of his class. He had wanted to become an engineer but because he couldn't fulfil that ambition he got an apprenticeship and learnt a trade, becoming a mechanic and a toolmaker. During the war my father served in the British merchant navy, going to India, Ceylon and Burma.
Why the British navy?
The British and the French had such a significant presence in Egypt, I suppose, that it was the natural way to go. After the war he came back to Egypt but at that time it was very uncomfortable for Europeans to stay there, so his family started thinking about returning to Greece or going elsewhere. He decided to move back first, on his own, to see if he could settle and find a job, and what the circumstances would be like. He stayed for a while with an aunty on the island of Kalimnos and got a job, but he didn't like it because Greece, after the war, went through a civil war during which even more people were killed than during the Second World War. He wanted to leave but his passport was taken from him and he was stuck there for several years. So he had to make the most of his situation, I suppose. He met my mother and they got married.
My mother's maiden name was Mamakas. Her family were of Greek origin but for generations they had lived in Asia Minor (now Turkey). Greece had come out of the Ottoman occupation, but many Greeks were still living in Asia Minor. In the early 1920s they were forced to flee from Asia Minor and became refugees in Greece. My mother's family came across from Bodrum in Turkey and settled on one of the nearby islands, Kalimnos, where she was born.
Why did your parents emigrate to Australia?
My dad had never lived in Greece, and he wasn't happy there after the war. The situation was very difficult: salaries were quite low and he couldn't see a very good future for his family. I was the first to be born. In Greece, the first thing parents think of when they have daughters is the dowry. Most Greek parents want to have a son first – it's cheaper, they don't have to worry about the dowry, and they also have the son to help to earn the money they will need to give to the daughters. To start off a family with a daughter wasn't very good.
So when my mother was due to have her second child, dad said to her, 'If you have another daughter, that's it, we're leaving. We're going to Australia.' She was praying of course for a son, but a second daughter (Tina) came along. And my father was jumping for joy, because that was his opportunity to leave. My father's family at that time were still in Egypt. They realised that Greece didn't have much future for them, but they were waiting to see where my father would settle before they would decide where to go. So in early 1954 he came first, to join an uncle in Sydney who could help him settle and get established. Dad rented a house for everyone to stay, got a job, and a few months later sent for mum, my sister and me.
My mother didn't really want to come. All her family were in Greece and she didn't want to leave them to go off to the other side of the world. But I suppose she had no choice back then but to pack up and say goodbye – forever, it must have seemed. In those days the only way you could go all that way to Australia was by boat, taking about six weeks. It was very expensive and difficult for people to travel to Australia and back. To bring two young children to Australia (I was about 2½, my sister was 1½, not much more than babies) was a real struggle for my mother. I've heard many stories of the experience: a young woman on her own, trying to get on and off the boat with all the bags and two little ones, and no-one to help.
Did your parents find it easy to settle in Australia?
My father found work relatively quickly. He was a very skilled tradesman, and because he knew French and Italian it wasn't all that difficult for him to teach himself English. But my poor mum spoke no English at all. She came to Australia unable to communicate at all, so she was stuck at home looking after the kids, without many opportunities to mix with Australian people. She had a very hard time trying to learn English and even after all these years she still struggles with the language.
Shortly after my parents arrived, when I was about four, they had a third child – a son, of course (Michael). And the fourth child a few years later was also a son (John). My mother always used to say she wished it had been the other way round. But I think that having gone through and raised her children here in Sydney she now blesses the day that she did bring us to Australia, because that actually provided us with the best opportunity for the future.
Do you remember coming to Australia?
No. I've got a very vague memory of a couple of incidents that I think happened in Kalimnos when I was little, but perhaps they're just memories of stories that I heard. I suppose my first recollections are of being in Sydney, probably 3½ or 4 years old. Some friends of dad's had a couple of houses at Bronte, so we moved there. It was a beautiful location, right near the beach – really lovely. I went to Bronte Public School for a year and after that we moved to Earlwood, where my dad had bought a house.
I suppose you spent not only your family life but your wider social life in the Egyptian–Greek community. How did that work for you? Were there both pluses and minuses?
For sure. Because it was a very cohesive community, you didn't feel alienated at all by being a migrant family in a strange country. But I suppose the bigotry was obvious anyway; you could see it around you. It used to hurt me to hear other people talking in terrible, derogatory terms about people they didn't really know. Probably from the middle of primary school I remember hearing people talk about 'Wogs' and things like that. It was never directed at me personally, but you'd hear them talking about other people and I could relate to that because I knew I was Greek as well. That did upset me.
I had some close friends who lived in the neighbourhood, and they used to come and visit all the time and vice versa. That was okay. But as a young child I used to get embarrassed if my mother would speak to us in Greek in front of friends, if they couldn't understand what she was saying. Young children tend to go through that. When you grow up you don't care, and in fact you're proud of speaking your native tongue. But when you're little you don't want to be different. I don't recall anyone else at school not being able to speak English at the time.
I remember that if mum had to go for a doctor's appointment or something, because she couldn't speak very well, one of us would always have to go along as a translator. I found it difficult to translate for her, but I suppose it was something good. I think it taught us maturity.
Which values from your Greek family background have been most important in the way you've structured your life?
The importance of family. Nothing else matters. The most important thing in my life was to have a family. But I knew that women by then were going to work, and I didn't want to be stuck at home like my mother and her generation, with just a very mundane existence. I wanted to have a good, interesting job that I could enjoy, but I never sat down to plot out my life – what sort of career I wanted and how I would go about doing it. Things simply happened. Some sort of path seemed to be there, and whenever I had to make a decision, something would come up to direct me in a certain way. So I just went with the flow and followed things as they came up.
I presume your family placed a high value on education.
Definitely. That was most important. Both my parents had a very strong desire to go to university – my mother was always the top in her class, and my father would have studied engineering if he had had the opportunity – but they didn't push me to become an engineer. Dad always had a workshop at home (he was very hands-on: he used to fix things like cars and machines) and he would always have my two brothers by his side, teaching them and showing them things. I never showed any interest, though. I'm sure he would have encouraged me to come along, but I didn't want to get my hands dirty. I liked the normal girlie things like sewing, drawing, crocheting. I wanted to leave school when I was 15 and become a hairdresser or a fashion designer or something like that.
I seriously considered leaving in year 10 to do art, which I had chosen as one of my school subjects. I really enjoyed it, and I wanted to be an artist, perhaps a commercial artist. But my father pointed out that artists do not make any money. He said, 'There are a lot of poor artists about. Don't think it can be a career. If you still want to draw, that's fine, but finish school first and then make up your mind.' So I decided I had to go on and finish school. But by the time I got to year 11 and 12, I loved all the subjects I was doing – French and geography and maths and English and science as well – and it was hard to decide what I wanted to do.
You went to Fort Street Girls High School, a selective public school. Did you sit for a test to go there?
I didn't have to go somewhere to sit for a special test, but maybe we were given a test at school without realising what it was for. All I know is that at the end of the year, when the students were told which high school they would go to, just four girls out of our whole class were sent to Fort Street. In those days the top boys were sent to Canterbury Boys High School and then the others to either Marrickville or Tempe.
I didn't really know much about Fort Street Girls at the time. My parents certainly didn't know the difference; they were merely told it was a selective school, so they said okay – and the next year my sister followed me. The school was in the city in those days, off Bradfield Highway, just at the entrance to the Harbour Bridge. It was a very spectacular location, and also getting there was an adventure for us: all of a sudden we had to get onto buses and trains and make our own way into the city.
At school did you think of yourself as a very academic person?
Well, I knew that if I studied I could usually come top in my class, but I didn't think of myself as bright. In fact, when I was sent to a selective high school I thought I'd be the dumbest person in the whole year. I was really terrified and I decided I would have to work hard, otherwise I would fail everything. And I knew that my parents expected us to be top – got to be first, or it's not good enough. Thinking everyone else at school was so bright, I started making plans to take the lower levels of all the subjects – in those days you could do maths, English and science, I think, at advanced level or intermediate and so on. Then I could be top without having to push myself too hard.
I enrolled for these subjects at credit level, but after about a month the maths teacher would call me into her office all the time and say, 'Maria, you should be doing advanced maths.' I said, 'Oh no, I can't. It's too hard. I'm going to fail!' But she forced me, and when we had our first test a week or so later I came top in the class. She called me to her office and said, 'You see?' I was relieved but I still thought it was a bit of a fluke, and I still worried until I found by experience that I could do it.
I always wanted to please people, that's the thing. Knowing the expectations of my parents and teachers, I felt I had to work hard so as not to disappoint anyone. The same thing happened when I got to university, in fact: I thought, 'Everyone else is smarter than me. Being at university is too hard,' but knowing everyone was expecting me to do well, I worked really hard. Then, when I ended up doing well in first year – distinctions and high distinctions – I felt I had to keep my results up so I wouldn't let anyone down.
Perhaps after a while, too, you built up a picture of yourself that you had to maintain. Did you come to feel you had an aptitude for science and maths subjects?
I think I had a natural aptitude. I was very good in maths. Probably, because of that, anything that was mathematical – in science you have to do a lot of calculations – just came naturally. Although I still had to study a lot in order to do well, I didn't have to worry too much about it.
A lot of the other subjects required a lot of memorising, and I didn't like to have to memorise things too much. But I still loved English; I still loved poetry and Shakespeare, and the ancient Greek theatre and tragedies. I didn't want to lose that. When I finally chose to go into science I didn't want to have to isolate myself from these other areas of study, but luckily at New South Wales University we had – and continue to have – the general studies subjects. I was able to choose one of them every year (things I craved, like drama, history of architecture, and sociology) while I was studying industrial chemistry and engineering subjects.
Education shouldn't be narrow and focused, it has to be broad and general. Most of my friends and other people doing industrial chemistry and chemical engineering chose economics and very practical things, but I liked the creative subjects.
Why then did you decide to enter a degree in industrial chemistry specifically?
It wasn't easy. I enjoyed every subject that I did at school, but I tried to think about what sort of work doing a particular degree would involve. I wanted something interesting and intellectually challenging, with a bit of variety. In fact, at first I enrolled to do law – I don't remember why – but I changed that after the Higher School Certificate (HSC) results came out.
In those days we weren't told our individual marks for any subject; we didn't know our HSC aggregate, our university entry aggregate or the moderated marks. We just got our passes or failures in the subjects we had done or in, say, level 1 or 2 of a subject. Basically, you didn't choose your course according to how many marks you had but according to what you thought you might enjoy. That is good, I think. One of the bad things of today's system is that students choose their degrees on the basis of the marks, not on what they think they might enjoy. I've been arguing to try to change it, but no-one listens.
I can't say I really enjoyed all my first-year courses, which I found very challenging. It was a real shock to me when I actually did well despite my phobia that I was going to fail. Second year was harder than first year, and probably third year was the hardest. But from second year I started feeling a lot more relaxed: by then I knew the system, I knew how to get around and I had got to know a lot of people. I started having a lot of fun on campus and I started enjoying what I was doing.
Did you choose your fourth-year project?
Yes. I did a built-in honours degree – all engineering and applied science courses are four years, and at the end of the fourth year, depending on your aggregate mark, you will come out with first class or second class honours, or a pass if your marks aren't up to honours level. A research project takes up about 50% of your time in fourth year, and you get to choose the project that you want to work in. Again it's a difficult choice, because you don't know too much about the different topic areas and there are so many to choose from. In the end, it's almost like a stab in the dark.
The project that I did was to take polymers and to modify them so as to make them into surfactants. They are things you add to water to combine with oils and form an emulsion, to be able to lift them away and remove them, or to be used in flotation, for separation of different components in a mixture. I just chose that project, I think, because the supervisor, Professor Ayscough, who was the head of the School of Chemical Technology, was a very friendly and sympathetic person. I thought that he would give a lot of assistance and help.
That reminds me of a funny incident. One of the choices in the industrial chemistry degree, I think when you got to third year, was whether to do the mainstream industrial chemistry subjects or to do polymer science. A friend a year above me said, 'Oh, you should do the polymers. Polymers is a really big, important industry.' So I decided to try polymers. I went along to the first class – only five or six of us had chosen this, and I was the one girl – in a polymer engineering laboratory. The lecturer started to talk about grinding and milling and adding carbon black to rubbers, and he said, 'When you come in the lab, you've got to wear dirty clothes because we use a lot of carbon black in here and you're going to get covered in it. And tie your hair all the way back and make sure it's all covered, because any loose hair can get jammed in the machine and you'll be scalped.' I had very long hair! A friend told me later that this lecturer did not want girls in the lab and deliberately went out of his way to scare me off doing polymer engineering – and he succeeded – I dropped polymer engineering immediately and took up the industrial chemistry option instead.
What did you like and dislike about being in laboratories and doing bench work?
The undergraduate laboratories I used to find a bit hard – just all these machines and equipment that I wasn't very familiar with. It took me quite a bit of effort and time to understand and feel comfortable with machines; I'd had no experience with them beforehand, maybe because as a female I never really had an interest in them.
From the outside they look like black boxes?
Exactly. By the time I'd got to fourth year I started being more comfortable working in the laboratory and I enjoyed it, but I hadn't yet decided that it was what I'd really love to do or that I wanted to stay on and do a PhD. That was the furthest thing from my mind. I had done the degree because I wanted to go out and apply science to industry and work on real problems, so I was just keen to get out of university and go and get a job.
Where did your perception of chemical engineering as dirty and uncomfortable come from? Did you have an image in your mind of people wearing hard hats and so on?
Of course. That's the image most people have of the chemical engineer. The shame is that it is so far from the truth. These days my mission is to educate as many young people about it as possible, so apart from teaching and research I spend a lot of time marketing for the school. I like to go out and talk to students and also invite high school students into the school so that we can give them a true picture of what chemical engineering is actually about.
What did you do after your degree?
While I was at university my parents sent me on a holiday during one summer vacation to see my grandparents in Greece. I really loved it and when I returned I managed to talk my family into moving back to Greece after graduation – we packed up house and everything in 1974 and simply went. My brothers didn't want to go. One had just finished high school but the younger one was still in the middle of high school, and they went under protest. My sister had just finished her three-year degree in marketing – she and I finished university together. It seemed like a good opportunity to go, probably the only time that the move would be made. So we all went to Athens.
I was lucky, without any experience I got a job in a British pharmaceutical company in Athens. I just came off the street and left my CV at reception. They rang me next day, interviewed me, and gave me a management job in the production department.
My sister couldn't get a job in marketing, though. She tried lots of different things but in Greece marketing hadn't yet been invented. All the marketing jobs were just door-to-door sales type jobs. My brother wanted to go to university, but his Greek was very poor, so he had to learn the language at a special Greek school for university entrance and he was really struggling with it. My other brother, again because he couldn't speak Greek well, was sent to the American College (it is for the children of diplomats and company executives from America) and he had a good time. But my parents just couldn't see a very good future for my brother, in going to university, or for my sister, with no job.
When we went back to Greece the military regime was still in power. For the average person life was still the same as always: as long as you weren't too political, you didn't disappear one night. But then the conflict between Greece and Turkey, and the invasion of Cyprus, happened. Suddenly one day we woke up to the sound of war music on the radio and the call for all the men to pack their things and report for military duty. Out on the street, army trucks were going up and down the streets picking up all of the young men. The men were just leaving their homes with one bag and being mounted onto trucks and taken off, disappearing to Cyprus or the northern borders of Greece. For weeks there was a terrible, terrible fear, of not knowing what was going to happen, whether there was going to be all-out war with Turkey, whether my older brother would be taken into national service – and who knows what would have followed. At that point my father said, 'That's it, we're going back to Australia!' He had realised that back here in Australia we might be isolated but at least we didn't have these daily fears of conflicts flaring up at any moment. That's when he decided we would leave and return to Australia.
How did you determine what to do next?
When we came back to Australia I thought I'd pop in to the department to say hello, find out how everything was going and see a few of the lecturers. They included Professor Welch, one of our fourth-year lecturers. During my honours project I had needed his assistance with certain tests within his area of expertise that I had to do and he was very helpful to me. So, even though he wasn't my supervisor, I got to know him quite well. I went to say hello and he said, 'Maria! Come in. You've got to do a PhD.' I hadn't really thought about that, but I decided why not.
Did you have any anxiety about embarking on a PhD without the material security of a job in industry with regular income?
No. By then it was around March, past the deadline for submitting applications for scholarships, but Professor Welch offered to organise something for me until I could apply. With a few phone calls to companies which he had contacts with, he managed to get some funding for me to get started, and at the end of the year I applied successfully for a Commonwealth scholarship. So the funding was not a problem.
In any case, we are a close family and my parents always would make you feel quite secure and comfortable about financial issues. When I came back my father said to take my time and work out what I wanted to do. The scholarship was of course important for a little bit of independence, but I didn't feel pressured to get something. Because I was living at home, all my expenses were covered by my parents.
Professor Welch asked me what topic I wanted to do for my PhD but I had no idea, even when he offered me a few to choose from. So he just picked a topic. But that's the thing: once you start doing research you realise that it doesn't really matter what the topic is, you get absorbed and totally immersed in it anyway. I started to get fascinated in what I was doing, on the electrochemistry of molten salts, even though it was so far from anything I might have thought I would want to do. If I was previously trying deliberately to keep away from anything dirty, here I was doing a project which had high temperature furnaces operating at hundreds of degrees and really hands-on stuff like climbing up ladders and building furnaces. I had to learn to do my own glass blowing, and cut things up and work with tools that I'd never had to use before.
By then I was very relaxed in that environment. My supervisor was a truly practical person. He used to design the instruments and then give me the circuit diagrams, saying, 'Here, Maria, you can build that.' So I had to do my own soldering and actually build my own instruments and test and install them. Computers weren't being widely used in those days, but I had to learn to program and interface the computer to my equipment. Everything was very practical and I loved it.
Did technicians help with those aspects?
We had a technician but mainly he was there only to order materials and equipment, making sure that everything was available for us to keep on working. It was Professor Welch who showed me how to do glass blowing – I used to love that – and taught me to build furnaces and soldering and so on. He had fantastic skills himself and was very highly regarded, with an international reputation, in his own area of expertise, aluminium smelting.
In fact, when I became a lecturer and started my own research activities, the aluminium electrolysis and smelting process was one of the areas I started in. He guided me into that because aluminium was a big industry in Australia and he suggested that if I could get some research support in the form of funding from some of the companies, that would help me to get started.
During your PhD, did you have an eye to the way in which your work might be applied in industry situations?
Not really. At that time I was concentrating on the project and understanding the system that I had. I wasn't thinking beyond that. As I was getting close to completing it, I was married and expecting my first child, and I still had no idea what I was going to do after I finished my PhD.
Again my supervisor, Professor Welch, was the mentor to guide me. I went to him and said, 'I'm going to start a family. I think I'll stop working for a while.' I thought that was what you were supposed to do, but he said, 'What's the difference? There's no need to think that things have got to be interrupted now and stop.' So he was always encouraging me, asking me, 'Well, what do you think you want to do, Maria?' I was looking around at his job and thinking, 'Oh, actually I wouldn't mind doing what you're doing.' The academic life in those days seemed to be just right – a relaxed life, flexible hours, the ability to do what you wanted in research. But I didn't know how to get there and I asked him, 'How does one become an academic?' He then started directing me into applying for different postdoctoral fellowships to get overseas experience, and I ended up getting what was then called a CSIRO Postdoctoral Fellowship. That would pay for a year's experience anywhere in the world, working on anything that you wanted.
Initially I was thinking of going to either Oxford or Cambridge, just because I liked the thought of going to one of these institutions. But CSIRO ask you to actually go and spend some time with some of their scientists, talking to them and getting a few ideas about the research topics you might be interested in or about research locations. They flew me down to Melbourne to talk to the people in the electrochemistry area, and one of them kept on insisting, 'Bell Labs, in America, is fantastic. You should go there.' I had never thought about going to America, which I had an image of as being all guns and violence. I was scared of going there. But he convinced me that it was the best place to go and that New Jersey was really a great place, so we decided to go.
Did you already know many of the researchers in electrochemistry in Australia?
I knew quite a few of the Australian researchers in electrochemistry before I left, because Barry Welch, being involved in the electrochemistry division of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, had some conferences on campus and conferences or seminars off campus that allowed me to meet a few of the people. That is good, because it makes you feel part of a community and you can exchange research ideas.
I knew that I wanted to do something different. Nowadays I can see the importance and excitement of mineral extraction and so on, but in those days I couldn't see any social significance in working in lead sulphide. I really wanted to do something that I could see as important for the environment and for society. As a physical scientist, I suppose the most important social contribution you can make is to the environment – particularly from my own area of expertise as distinct from the medical or other social areas. The environment is the obvious thing to focus on.
I decided I wanted to do solar energy, which was starting to become interesting and well known. I started looking around for places where I could do solar energy research, and looking for topics in solar energy research – especially because solar energy involves much electron transfer processes and reactions, so there was a link with electrochemistry. I found out that Bell Labs did have a solar energy program, I applied to go there and somehow was accepted.
When I applied to go to Bell Labs, I had a scholarship and didn't require any funding. But I didn't realise that because they were a very prestigious institution and also did a lot of military projects, you had to go through a strict screening process. We had to fill in all sorts of applications and we probably have a file in the FBI somewhere, because we had to be screened to get the clearance to go. And then you had to be accepted by someone in one of the departments. I had two offers, one from the battery department and the other from the solar energy department. In fact, I worked on some battery projects and some solar energy projects, which actually turned out to be perfect because it exposed me to the battery side as well, which I hadn't really contemplated.
Did you have extensive facilities and resources at Bell?
Yes. There was a big difference between working at Bell Laboratories and in a university in Australia. From my first job in Australia I knew fairly quickly that you had to count every cent. It was always 'Where are you going to buy this equipment from? How are you going to get the money to buy this chemical?' whereas at Bell Labs it was never an issue. Budgets and money were never mentioned. You just went down to the store for anything you wanted, and if it wasn't on the shelf you filled in an order and it would arrive almost the next day. You didn't have to spend time building your own equipment, because everything was readily available. I was able to work on a couple of projects almost straightaway without having to worry about ordering materials or equipment, waiting for things to arrive. Someone somewhere must have had a budget, but it was certainly not visible.
Who were some of your famous contemporaries at Bell?
I worked closely with Professor Adam Heller, who is now professor at Texas A&M, and Professor Barry Miller. They were in the solar energy group, in supervision/group leader positions – probably about 15 or 20 years older than I am. Shortly afterwards they both left Bell Laboratories and took on positions at universities. I had some close contacts with people in the battery department as well.
What research projects did you undertake at Bell?
There were at that time two different, distinct branches of solar energy: the solid state, silicon solar cells that most people are familiar with, and the liquid junction, electrochemical solar cells that were also starting to take off. Those have been overtaken by the solid state, but back then it was hard to know which direction would be the profitable one. I ended up going into the liquid junction solar cell work. In those days solar cells were very expensive and were only used in highly specialised applications, in remote areas and in satellites, for example. But that was around the time of the oil crisis, and governments all round the world were starting to get very concerned about the continuation of the oil supply and to put a lot of money into looking for alternative fuels and alternative energies. It was a good time for solar energy around the world.
We were looking at ways of depositing thin films. To make solar cells cheap enough (including silicon solar cells) requires an ability to manufacture thin films. One way of making thin films of any material is to electrodeposit, and so my electrochemistry was important because it enabled me to work on these electrodeposition projects. We could deposit things like cadmium sulphide, cadmium selenide, mixtures of these materials, and then, having made them, build a solar cell in which to test their performance, their efficiency, under illumination with artificial light of the same sort of spectrum and intensity as the sun. That was the solar energy aspect of the work I was doing.
The other aspect was on the battery side. Bell Laboratories had to service Bell Telephone Company, so a lot of the work of the battery department was to maintain and monitor the performance of the batteries in their telephone installations – the telephone exchanges, the satellites, for example – and if there was any problem, to find out what it was. If batteries weren't performing properly, the department needed to be able to track through all the supplies and see if any of the materials or specifications had changed, and then to find out what was causing the problem.
They asked me to assist them with a problem in a batch of lead-acid batteries. I started doing some experiments and actually discovered something which had never been observed previously. I was the first to observe a soluble lead(IV) ion that was involved in the charging and discharging reactions of a lead-acid battery. It's such an insoluble product that you don't expect to see the ions in solution. Everyone thought that this was a solid state reaction only – solid ions converting from one form to the other. But during the test that I was doing, I observed something unusual without realising there was any significance in it. I just went along to the person I was working with, saying, 'Oh, this is some lead(IV) ions here in solution,' but they replied, 'What! This is a discovery.'
Did anything important for you come out of your year's research at Bell?
I wrote a paper on that discovery which was accepted in the Journal of the Electrochemical Society, in the US, one of the top journals. Also, when I came back to Australia I gave a poster presentation on it at the Electrochemistry Conference in Perth, and consequently I was awarded the Bloom-Gutmann Prize for the best young author under 30. It was my first award.
During my PhD I had published about four papers, and when I went to Bell Labs we published another four or five papers plus a patent for a new process which we developed for electrodepositing thin films of cadmium selenide.
You were invited to stay at Bell, but you decided to return at the end of the year. Did you know what you were returning to?
No. I just wanted to come home. Once we got back, then I would think about what we'd do. I knew my husband would be able to go straight back to his work, so I had no great financial imperative to get a job straightaway; I could spend a bit of time with my son while I looked around. I applied for a Queen Elizabeth II Fellowship and I was awarded one a couple of months later. Those were the top postdoctoral fellowship awards in the country at the time, and very prestigious. (They are now funded through the Australian Research Council.)
While I was at Bell Labs, Professor Haneman came from New South Wales University, where he was doing liquid junction solar energy research, to meet the people I was working with. We had lunch together when he was visiting the department, and as we started talking we realised we were both from New South Wales. I saw an opportunity and thought, 'Maybe when I get back I could seek a postdoctoral position with that group in the School of Physics.' So I had already started thinking about where I might find another lead for a job.
The Queen Elizabeth II Fellowship allowed you to work anywhere in Australia on any project that you wanted, but because I'd been working mainly on the solar cells I thought I'd go on in that area, continuing the work I was doing at Bell Labs. And having been at New South Wales University all along, it was a familiar environment, so once I got the fellowship I approached Professor Haneman and came to work here.
The fellowship was for two years, but during its course I decided this was a good time to have child number two. My Nicholas was 2½ by then, and I didn't want him to be an only child. So I asked for the scholarship to be suspended for six months while I had George and spent some time with both him and Nicholas. That was probably the only holiday I'd had in a long time. I certainly didn't have the luxury of a break a few years later, in 1987, when our third son, Anthony, was born.
By then, weren't you organising a major international conference?
Yes. We wanted to have a third child, but I was altogether too busy, with too many commitments, too many things happening, to be able to afford any time off. By then the vanadium battery project had started to build up and was already a major activity. We had a very large group, with quite a few students, and I couldn't bring myself to take time off and abandon my students without a supervisor. Also, I had a very heavy commitment to organise an international aluminium conference, the second in a series of six so far. I thought, 'Gee, I can't just abandon this.' When I take something on I can't simply walk away from it.
Fortunately, the baby was due in January, in the middle of the summer break. But the conference was going to be held five weeks after he was born, so we worked it out that Michael would take some time off and look after him. Anthony was born right in the middle of the busiest registration time – every day we were getting dozens of registrations, we had to make all the bookings for the hotels, everything. In Michael's time off he was picking up the other boys from school, visiting me in hospital, bringing all my mail; and in hospital I'd be working through all the registration forms and so on – opening my mail, going through all the correspondence and replying to everything, writing all the letters, for Michael to take things back with him. No laptops in those days; it all had to be done manually.
When we went home, Anthony turned out to be an extremely quiet baby, thank goodness. He'd sleep most of the time, waking up every two or three hours for a feed and then going back to sleep. And in the meantime I'd be still working away at getting all the conference organisation in place. Then I showed up at the conference with a bassinette, and everyone was saying to me, 'Where did this baby come from?' I told them casually that I had squeezed it in somewhere, but they could scarcely believe it. I hadn't really made an issue of it. Even the other members of the conference organising committee said to me, 'When did you have a baby?' I had thought they just might have noticed in the last meetings that I was pregnant, but they probably thought I was getting fat and were too embarrassed to ask!
The conference was at the Hilton, so we packed the baby bath, bassinette, clothes and everything, and moved the whole family into the hotel. Every few hours I'd have to go up to the room to feed the baby and come back down, and carry him into all the functions. It was exhausting but I loved it.
Was it after your fellowship that you were appointed to a lectureship here?
Yes. The incredible irony is that my former supervisor, Barry Welch, had this office and the lab down there that is now mine. He was an associate professor here, but he was offered a chair at the University of Auckland and decided to return to New Zealand, after many years in Australia. That meant his position here was vacated and had to be filled. So there I was applying for the job of my former supervisor, and I was just fortunate to get it. He had once asked me what I wanted to do and I had thought, 'Oh, I think I would like your job' – and it turned out that way.
I still had close ties with the School of Physics and I was hoping to maintain the collaboration in that area, but it was important, I was told, to set up my own research activities within the school. The aluminium area was an obvious area, because it used my PhD expertise in the molten salt electrochemistry. To set up a research activity, first of all you need funding. I spent the first couple of years writing many grant applications, but not getting anything. That was extremely discouraging, but Barry Welch was always in the background and he kept on encouraging me to keep trying. If I applied for anything he would write a reference and I'm sure his references were the ones that really helped me to get the job or the fellowship or whatever it was. And in the third year suddenly it all came together, and everything that I applied for, I got.
Besides writing grant applications, did you do any research?
Yes. You always have research projects, because we have lots of honours project students in the school and part of our job is to supervise them. It's not an optional thing. Everyone who enrols in the course has to do a research project in their fourth year, so you have to give them a topic. This gave me the opportunity to get a few ideas off the ground, but the lack of funding was a frustration. Even though you are expected to supervise students and their research projects, you don't get any money and you wonder how you are to get the equipment. It was depressing to have to go around begging and asking to borrow materials and equipment. Anyway, we got past that. The grants started to come through and we managed to get some funding to buy the equipment and give scholarships, and things picked up after that.
I myself started off with the aluminium and the molten salt work, but I was offering honours projects in solar energy and some battery topics as well. By about 1984 I had a couple of PhD students who were being funded by Comalco, an aluminium company. One of our technical officers in the school was trying to finish his degree in electrical engineering and had chosen a masters project to look at the storage of solar energy. Professor Martin Green, in the Solar Energy Department, told him, 'I can't supervise you in that area, but if you can find someone else to co-supervise you, then I'll be happy to take that project on.' Knowing that I was an electrochemist and energy storage is one of the areas of electrochemistry, he asked me if I wouldn't mind co-supervising him. He had been reading about NASA's work on redox flow cells, and he wanted to work on the iron–chromium redox battery which NASA had started working on. I started reading about that project and found it really interesting, so I agreed to supervise him. And that's when I began to get involved in this area of energy storage research.
As he got further into the project, it became apparent that this system was not going to go very far. Because of various inherent problems, it was leading to a dead-end. Although the redox flow battery concept was ideal, one problem was that if you have two solutions of different elements separated by a membrane, when you pump the solutions through the cell stack the membrane can't separate them permanently. No membrane is 100 per cent efficient: eventually you get the solutions permeating through the membrane and mixing, and you end up with two fully mixed solutions which you have to take out or re-process or just replace. It was obvious that we had to find something to overcome that problem and only an element which had different oxidation states could work. So we started talking with various people about a number of different elements.
Vanadium is the obvious element – everyone knows that vanadium exists in different oxidation states – and a few other elements could work, such as tungsten, molybdenum and titanium. Professor Bob Robins had suggested that we try vanadium first, as he had been doing some research on its extraction for a minerals processing project. I decided to give vanadium a try but we hadn't done any previous work on it, so we thought we'd apply for a grant to see if it would work. We didn't get the grant but I was very keen to see if it was going to work anyway, and the next year I managed to get an honours project student, Elaine Sum, onto this project. In fact, she was the top student of the year, getting a university medal.
I started to get her working on different vanadium compounds and electrolyte solutions, but after a lot of trials, she could not observe any reaction. It was discouraging. But I'm the sort of person who, before I give a student a project, wants to make sure it works. So during the Christmas holiday I'd actually tried the experiment and found that it did work, but then every time she tried it, it just would not work. We went backwards and forwards in the laboratory, and finally we worked out that whereas I was doing quick, rough experiments and it was working, when she was doing things very meticulously and cleanly there were no reactions. We discovered that the key to the whole thing was the way I was scraping the electrode, which had to be roughened up to activate it.
After many years of studying all the mechanisms, and why and how things work, we now know that if you use carbon as the electrode for vanadium – which is what we were trying to do – the vanadium oxidation reduction reaction involves not only a transfer of an electron but a transfer of oxygen as well. The VO2+ has to gain an oxygen to go to VO2+, and if the carbon is too clean there aren't any oxygen groups on the surface to allow it to grab an oxygen. Consequently it wasn't reacting on the clean, smooth surface.
I have the impression from Dr Bhathal's interview with you that there was absolutely no reason why you should have continued working on vanadium. Apparently it didn't exist in a soluble form and from the literature you would never have predicted the results that you actually got. So what made you do it?
Well, initially you have an idea, and then of course you go to the literature to make sure that no-one else has done it before or, if it has been tried, what drawbacks and limitations there are. No-one had tried a vanadium redox battery before, but we needed to understand some of the fundamental properties of vanadium ions. The most important fundamental property of vanadium systems is that the ions must exist in highly soluble forms, because that's how a redox flow battery works. When you charge it and discharge it, the ions have to be in solution. If they come out of solution, you're in trouble.
So you have to check the solubilities. But often there's not enough information on solubilities or it's only in limited systems. You might find the solubility of vanadium in water is very low, but what if you use a different system? So you shouldn't be turned off by what you initially read, because the literature that's available often contains limited information and does not necessarily lead to a dead-end. There could be conditions in which all of the vanadium ions might show a reasonable sort of solubility.
When we first started looking at it, it appeared that all the oxidation states were okay except for the vanadium(V), which is extremely insoluble. We were simply hoping that we'd be able to find an electrolyte which would allow it to be dissolved in a high level, but no-one had shown or predicted that. There was nothing to actually lead us to such a conclusion; we were just hoping to find something. In fact, what we eventually discovered was that the common V(V) compounds are highly insoluble, but if we started off with the soluble V(IV) sulphate to produce a 2M V(IV) solution it was possible to charge it to the V(V) state without the V(V) coming out of solution. In fact, this turned out to be the vanadium redox battery invention and this was something that could not have been predicted. But again, it was necessary to find the right type of solution in which to dissolve the V(IV) so that we could oxidise it to V(V) as well as reduce it to V(III) and V(II).
And then you experimented with various forms and came up with the sulphuric acid?
That's right. Vanadium is a really tricky system, a very complex element. That's what makes it so fascinating. You could spend your whole life studying it and still not understand it. Each of its oxidation states has its own chemistry. Things behave in opposite directions. For example, if you try to increase the solubility of one ion, it then tends to reduce the solubility of one of the others. To get conditions which will allow all ions to exist at a relatively high solubility is very tricky. And then there are things like temperature. Typically, one would try increasing the temperature of the system, because all other ions will increase their solubility with temperature. But not vanadium(V). If you increase the temperature, vanadium(V) precipitates. So you've got to work within an operating window and try to find ways of extending it so that you can operate over greater temperature ranges. The same happens with the sulphuric acid. If you increase the concentration of sulphuric acid to get the vanadium(V) into solution, all the others start precipitating. Everything works against you. It's a real challenge to get those conditions right so everything works together in your favour.
Have your relationships with your students been particularly important and sustaining in your research?
Having a good research team and good students is vital. You need their commitment to be able to get good progress. Fortunately, I've always had really good research students, who are also good researchers, as part of the group. I am still in touch with Elaine Sum, my honours student who did the first experiments on vanadium with me, for example. She stayed on to do a PhD with me on an aluminium electrolysis project, then took up a postdoctoral fellowship in the UK, went on to Germany and now is back working in the research laboratories of Comalco, in Melbourne.
After those preliminary vanadium studies with Elaine in the laboratory, we went on to reapply for the grant to investigate the vanadium battery. By then we had some evidence – it wasn't purely speculative as it was in the first round of applications – and we were able to get the grant that second time. Once we were given the funding, I was able to employ a masters student and a research fellow, Dr Miran Rychick, who then came to join our group. With their input, we were able to prove the concept further and, at least in a small-scale cell, show that we were able to get really high efficiencies. That led to subsequent grants, allowing us to employ more people, enlarging the group. At one stage, by about 1987–88, we had about 18 group members in the laboratory, including my husband.
After my husband had taken that one year off to help to look after our son Anthony, he decided to do a part-time masters in electrochemical technology to retrain himself – he was getting really excited about the vanadium battery project and he wanted to be a part of it, but his background was not appropriate. After completing his masters, he started working in the laboratory on a voluntary basis with no pay. After a year or so of that, we applied together (successfully) for a few grants, and from there on he could be officially employed. Basically he was the project coordinator for many years, helping to coordinate the laboratory facilities and all the staff, and keeping things happening on a day-to-day basis.
Such an all-consuming project must have overtaken your other research projects.
Well, because we were very successful in getting grants to further develop the vanadium battery, for several years it occupied most of my research effort and I had to put my other research interests aside. But now that the vanadium battery has actually been bought out and taken over by a company, I'm a lot freer. A lot of the issues of commercialisation and manufacturing can be taken care of by other people, so I can now start thinking about other research areas as well.
What research projects do you have in mind now?
Firstly, I'm interested in fuel cells. I like the idea of methanol fuel cells, so I've got a student working on direct methanol fuel cells. The ideal fuel cell is one where you feed hydrogen on one side and oxygen on the other, and they combine together electrochemically to produce power and water. But hydrogen is so difficult to store and to transport. So instead of using hydrogen directly, people have been working on transporting methanol and then feeding it into a pre-process to convert it into hydrogen. Then the hydrogen is fed into the fuel cell. This reforming process is very complex, like trying to get a chemical reactor happening in the fuel cell and hoping it is going to work optimally. I think that's too ambitious. So researchers are now starting to look for suitable catalysts which will allow the methanol to directly react: feeding methanol into the fuel cell and reacting it with oxygen to produce electricity – and carbon dioxide and water, in this case.
Fuel cells lead to the possibility of clean sources of energy, because they don't produce as much pollution as does burning the methanol and/or other fuels with oxygen, and they are more efficient. When you burn a fuel, the efficiencies are quite low, usually around 30 per cent. When you electrochemically react the fuel with oxygen, you can get more than 60 per cent energy efficiency. For the same amount of greenhouse gas – carbon dioxide – you're producing twice as much energy. So fuel cells are very promising future alternative sources of energy. But they are alternative ways of generating electricity, not storing it. You can't really use a fuel cell to store solar energy, and to use a fuel cell to generate hydrogen and then store the hydrogen is not very efficient. It's still best to store energy with a battery.
Secondly, I'm interested in returning to aluminium electrolysis research. We've recently set up a new Centre for Electrochemical and Minerals Processing in our School of Chemical Engineering and Industrial Chemistry. In fact, Barry Welch has now retired from the University of Auckland and I've invited him back to our department as a Visiting Professor and as Associate Director in the new centre to work with us on aluminium projects.
As an applied scientist wanting to do research with implications for the real world, how do you see yourself in relation to so-called pure scientific research in Australia?
I've always felt the need to see an outcome to whatever I do, a purpose to my efforts. So when I start off on a project I want to see its purpose. But once you get into a project you find that the research becomes pure as you get into the complex experimental issues, and with the vanadium battery we had to do pure research as well as applied, in order to understand everything – why and how things happen. Without understanding it you can't possibly do successful development, because you can't improve things unless you know how they're behaving and why. We've been fortunate that we've been able to do both pure research and development. Over the years we've had funding for the PhD students to do the pure research while some of our other research group members would do the development.
I have the best of both worlds, actually. I find more stimulation in doing research rather than development, but it has to have an outcome. I need to see that it could be important for something in the future. I also like to see a possible benefit to society.
Has working with industry partners on the vanadium battery been a good experience?
Initially we were mainly funded by government. In those days we could still get enough funding from various government sources to make reasonable progress in the research and development. But it was important to get industry interest in the project, otherwise it would not have had an application and would never have been able to get off the ground – and then the government would not have wanted to fund it.
Our development approach was influenced by the interactions we had with industry. Very early on, an Australian company took out a licence – international and exclusive, all round the world – to the technology. But although we believed that the vanadium concept had potential, a company needs some assurance that it is supporting more than scientific curiosity. It needs some prospect of commercial return, otherwise you can forget it. So the first problem we had to solve was how to get vanadium pentoxide into solution. It was simply uneconomical to start with vanadyl sulphate at a price of $800 per kilogram, so we had to develop very quickly a process to dissolve vanadium pentoxide and form an electrolyte. Once we did that, then we were at least confident, 'Okay, this is going to be economically viable.' That started me on the road to realising that in addition to the research we must always keep in mind economic issues such as the material's availability, 'manufacturability', cost and other commercial considerations. The development part was really important.
Did you have to market the battery?
Oh yes. It was so funny, the way things turned out. Back in 1986–87, a small feature on the vanadium battery project was put into an issue of Uniken, which tends to send some of its stories around to newspapers. The Sydney Morning Herald rang me up and then sent out a team to take photographs. We were waiting to see the newspaper the next day, expecting to see an item in the back pages of the 'Higher Education Supplement', but when my husband bought the newspaper next morning he came home saying, 'Guess what. You're on the front page.' And there we were, with this little cell that was going to be 'groundbreaking', 'revolutionary' and all this. We thought, 'Gee whiz! What have we created here?'
Another expectation to live up to!
Exactly. The TV and radio stations started ringing me up and there were more newspaper reports, and for the next several weeks it was one interview after the other. The head of school at the time came to see me one day and said, 'Maria, it does work, doesn't it?' I said 'Oh yes, it works.' But that set the tone. We'd proven that we could get 90 per cent energy efficiency, yet it was just this little cell. From there we had to live up to the expectation that in the end we would deliver. It certainly led to a lot of commercial interest as people read the newspaper articles and heard me on radio, and people from different companies, institutions, organisations were ringing me up all the time, wanting to find out more about it.
The company to which we licensed the technology in 1987 was Agnew Clough Ltd: it owned vanadium mines in Western Australia so there was a common interest, a synergy. But sadly the person running the company had a heart attack and died, and then there was no champion, no driving force for the company's involvement in developing the battery. For several years we just went along but with no real commercial direction, until the company felt it simply couldn't continue to fund the research. It withdrew and returned the licence to the university – but signing an agreement to share in any profits made in the future, so it did actually get something back. So we were left stranded, having to continue to market the idea and find people interested in it.
Over the years, however, we always had media interest. Reporters would come back to get an update. We appeared on Quantum, The 7.30 Report, Beyond 2000 and so on, and were featured in newspaper articles. A lot of those reports appeared in other countries, and people overseas wanted to find out what was happening. Even though I was over here in Australia, because of the international interest that the project was generating I never felt isolated, at least in relation to the vanadium battery. People were always coming to us from all over the world to find out what we were doing and where we were and what was happening with the vanadium battery development.
In an industry field such as yours, would you have many women colleagues?
Chemical engineering for the last 20 years has attracted a reasonable number of females as compared with other engineering disciplines. When I did it, there were two or three females in my class, but since I became a lecturer about a third of the students have been females. And that's been fairly constant, whereas the other engineering disciplines have been struggling, starting off with almost zero and deliberately building up to 8, 9, 10 per cent through Women in Engineering type programs at both high school and university level.
Do you think women have mostly self-selected themselves out of those subjects, because they lack experience and exposure to them?
I think the culture has made them believe that women don't want to do science and engineering. Therefore, they meet society's expectations by deciding they won't do science and engineering.
Did you feel like a pioneer?
Perhaps, but not at first. When I was choosing to do industrial chemistry or engineering I wasn't even conscious that not too many women were doing it. I knew that most of my friends at the time were choosing very traditional things like teaching or whatever, but no-one made me feel as if I was being excluded at all from those areas. When I started at the university, though, it became obvious that it was a male dominated area. There were many occasions when I'd go to conferences as the only female in the whole auditorium. Then again, that makes you well known – everyone gets to know you really quickly.
What's been concerning me over the last few years is the way that school educational policies have been trying to focus on girls, with an insistence that the poor girls have been excluded from maths and science because the boys have been dominating the class and haven't allowed the girls to excel. I have been very sceptical, even cynical, about those theories and ideas. Basically women weren't interested, okay? And that's unfortunate: I used to love mathematics and I couldn't understand why other people didn't. It's important to give the information and expose male and female students to all their options, but not to try and bias the system. Over the years everything's been biased towards the females, and I feel sorry for the boys now. I'm the mother of three sons, and I keep on telling them that because the system is geared to work against them they've got to be really careful to make sure as they grow up that the future doesn't exclude them totally.
We have spoken about the prize you were given shortly after you returned to Australia. That's a long time ago. What honours have you received in the meantime?
I was very honoured to be awarded, first of all, the Whiffen Medal, by the Institution of Chemical Engineers and the Institution of Engineers Australia. That is for applied research or projects with applications for industry. Then two years ago I was awarded the Chemeca Medal, the most prestigious chemical engineering award in Australia, again by the Institution of Engineers Australia and the Institution of Chemical Engineers. Both those medals were awarded for the vanadium battery. I was nominated for them by Mr Graeme Paul, who is a member of the RACI and a really wonderful person.
And in 1999, in the Australia Day honours – again on the nomination of Graeme Paul – I was made a Member of the Order of Australia. That was a great honour and a very proud moment for the whole family.
What are your ambitions for the future?
I want to continue the research I'm doing now. Mainly, though, I want to find more time to travel, because with young children I've always tried to restrict the amount of my travel. I get a lot of invitations to go overseas but most of the time I have to turn them down politely because I haven't wanted to travel without my children. But as they're growing up now and getting more independent, I'm hoping to start doing a lot more travelling, visiting overseas research laboratories and attending more international conferences – and, who knows, starting a whole lot of new things in the future with my husband.
Do you look forward to a time when you can limit administrative and teaching work in favour of research?
Actually, that is one thing I'm hoping to be able to do. I'm not yet sure how, but I've got a few thoughts about it. Hopefully, I'll start taking study leave, which is another thing I haven't been doing much of, and getting away for a while. While I have enjoyed teaching throughout my academic career, I'm finding now that it is just too difficult to do everything well. After another 5-6 years I hope to be just doing research and that will give me more time for travelling, and reading novels and resuming art and sketching and so on – all those other things that I've put aside for 25 years.
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