Esther Takeuchi has spent decades inventing better ways to bottle up electricity, saving it for later like summer tomatoes squeezed into a jar.
She is among the world's leading experts on the complex batteries that give life to pacemakers, defibrillators and other medical devices implanted inside patients' bodies. She tinkers with metals that burst into flames if exposed to humidity. And with 153 battery-related patents to her name, she is one of America's most prolific female inventors.
Now Takeuchi, an electrochemist, is bringing that expertise to Long Island. She has joined the staffs of Brookhaven National Laboratory and Stony Brook University to lead a multimillion-dollar effort to develop a robust generation of batteries to power cars, homes and handheld gizmos.
Brookhaven and Stony Brook are among several finalists for a $120 million, five-year federal grant to create a battery-research hub pairing local scientists with researchers from General Motors, General Electric, IBM and other companies. The goal is to extend the frontiers of commercial battery technology and, ultimately, make Long Island an international center for energy storage research, spurring manufacturing and job growth. Takeuchi will lead the effort.
Scientists believe better batteries could revolutionize the U.S. economy by unshackling it from fossil fuels. With the right technology, energy companies could better deploy wind and solar power even when the breeze slacks and night falls. And automakers could build electric cars that cruise 300 miles on a single charge.
Takeuchi's assignment poses huge challenges. While batteries have been around for two centuries, scientists still struggle to understand them. They involve a dizzying mix of chemistry, physics and engineering. Consider, for example, that electric engines have existed for almost as long as automobiles. But electric cars are stuck in the future. The holdup: batteries.
Key role of energy storage
"Energy is so critical, and figuring out how to store it is a long-term question that's not going away," said Takeuchi, who arrives from the University at Buffalo, where she was a chemistry professor.
Takeuchi is best known for developing a matchbox-size battery in the late 1980s for lifesaving defibrillators implanted in the chest to shock the heart back into rhythm. In 2009, she received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama for the invention. The medal, America's highest honor for technological achievement, has gone to 171 people since first awarded in 1985. Just nine of them have been women.
"So, you've saved millions of lives, eh?" the president said to Takeuchi during the ceremony at the White House.
"Yes, I believe I have," she replied with a smile.
Takeuchi, who began her career 30 years ago, is tall and fit, with high cheekbones and shoulder-length brown hair. Her demeanor is tranquil. And she is private about certain things. She asked, for instance, that her age not be printed.
She arrives on Long Island with her husband, Kenneth Takeuchi, a scientist who has also joined Stony Brook's chemistry department.
"We are really lucky to have attracted her," said Doon Gibbs, Brookhaven's deputy director for science and technology. "Her research could change the game in energy and energy storage for this country."
Takeuchi's lab is at Stony Brook's Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center, a glass-and-steel building studded with solar panels. Her laboratory buzzes with white-coated researchers working with lithium and other reactive metals. Exhaust fans hum. A sour chemical smell hangs in the air.
During a tour, Takeuchi pointed out a device containing superhot plasma to break down atomic particles. As she spoke of electrons dancing inside batteries, her voice quickened. She punctuated sentences with her hands.
"Every day it's fun here," Takeuchi said.
She inherited science from her father, Rudolfs Sans, who was born in 1904 on a farm in Latvia. When he was 8, Sans saw his first lightbulb and was transfixed.
Sans became an electrical engineer. But Latvia fell into chaos during World War II. Sans and his wife fled in 1944. They spent eight years pushing across Europe, living in refugee camps before arriving in the United States in 1952, with two suitcases.
By then the couple had a son and daughter. They lived first in Kansas City, Mo., where Esther was born. Her father worked in a factory building coffins, from which he collected leftover scraps of white satin lining so his wife could sew dresses for young Esther.
Eventually, Sans took a job with Goodyear Aerospace in Akron, Ohio. The family settled into a three-bedroom house, where her father designed automotive parts in the garage. At night, her mother played Beethoven on the radio, said Takeuchi's brother, John Sans, a chemist for a subsidiary of the chemical company BASF.
He recalled his younger sister helping paint the garage and shingle the roof, with her hair in pigtails. "She was always willing to do things that other girls didn't want to do," Sans said.
Young Esther spoke little English before starting school, but she excelled nonetheless. She studied chemistry and history at the University of Pennsylvania and received her doctorate from Ohio State University, where she met her husband. They married in 1982.
Two years later, Kenneth Takeuchi was teaching chemistry at the University at Buffalo. Esther Takeuchi took a job at nearby Greatbatch Inc., which designs medical device components.
Discovery, then refinement
Her seminal work came several years later. Implantable defibrillators work like regular defibrillators. But instead of having handheld paddles, the devices, which fit easily in a palm, are surgically installed and deliver jolts from within. Early defibrillator batteries didn't last long enough for practical use. The trick was developing one that could sit dormant for years -- then instantly deliver a huge shock.
Takeuchi and her team developed a model incorporating lithium, propylene carbonate and silver vanadium oxide. Silver -- which is the most conductive element -- gave it the crucial jolt.
Takeuchi continued to refine the battery for years, filing scores of patents. In 2007, she moved to the University at Buffalo to broaden her research.
Her days on Long Island typically begin at 6 a.m. She eats peanut butter on toast for breakfast, lifts weights and is at her lab by 8 a.m. Her days are a whirl of meetings and trips between her office and lab. Takeuchi eats lunch with her husband. Work ends by 7 p.m.
The Takeuchis, who are still house hunting, walk in the evenings, talking sports and, inevitably, science.
At the lab, her research continues. Much of it involves creating compounds with iron, magnesium, vanadium and other elements, hoping to find the right combination to store energy as long as possible. The technology for defibrillators might be different from that of bigger batteries. But the basic chemical process is the same.
And that process, Takeuchi hopes, could change the world.