Sept. 25, 2020

Chemistry prof honoured for years of research in electrochemical and solid state science

Venkataraman Thangadurai is sole Canadian inducted into 2020 Class of Fellows by The Electrochemical Society
Research holds the key to efficient use of renewable energy sources.

“Without energy,” says Dr. Venkataraman Thangadurai, “nothing moves. Energy is everything.”

Thangadurai, PhD, chemistry professor in the Faculty of Science, is the only Canadian to be inducted into the 2020 class of Fellows by The Electrochemical Society (ECS), which was founded in 1902 to advance the theory and practice of electrochemical and solid state science and technology.

The Fellows award, established in 1989, honours outstanding individual contributions in these fields. For Thangadurai, this recognition from peers who themselves are experts in their fields is a special honour.

To be a fellow of the ECS is about being involved in advancing next generation environmentally friendly electrochemical technologies.

Electrochemical and solid state science has applications in many fields — everything from the materials that make up cell phones, batteries for electric vehicles, converting fuels into electricity, converting carbon dioxide into valuable chemicals, and many more.

Developing new and innovative all-solid-state battery and solid oxide fuel cells technologies are essential, he says. “We need lightweight batteries that are capable of providing high storage capacity and use safer and less expensive materials.”

Compared to the acid-based batteries used in cars, the next-generation lithium batteries are essential to making substantial improvements in performance and reducing environmental impacts. All solid-state lithium and sodium batteries currently developed in the Thangadurai research group will operate at higher temperatures and rule out the safety concerns of present-day batteries — the key to cleaner modes of transportation, but also an impactful way to store energy from renewable sources like wind and solar means to balance the power grid.

New challenges drove Thangadurai's research path

The path to becoming an internationally recognized chemist has always been about new challenges for Thangadurai. Growing up in a rural village in India, Thangadurai was encouraged by his family and teachers to strive for excellence. Later, as a master’s student in the Muthurangam Government Arts College in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, faculty mentors organized visits to the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. And that, Thangadurai says, is when everything changed.

“I realized my passion for research. I could see that everything I had learned in the classroom — chemical principles, chemical reactions and reaction mechanisms — were being further investigated by researchers.” It was a moment of clarity that inspired the next stage of his academic career.  

At the University of Kiel in Germany, Thangadurai completed a Humboldt fellowship, pushing his fundamental research into the realm of applied materials science. “I was able to study without limitations to what I could do or try,” he says, “and realized the practical applications of the fundamental research I had started in India.”

Coming to the University of Calgary in 2005 was a natural next step. “Here, we had people working on research of clear, practical value, and in an environment that encouraged entrepreneurial activities. The University of Calgary is a highly energized institution in an energized city — it was the best place to continue my work.”

With the support of his colleagues and family, Thangadurai flourished. 

I’m doing the things I love best. Research, teaching, service – I love it all.

Earlier this year, Thangadurai joined the second cohort of Parex Resources Innovation Fellows. The program enables researchers to focus on innovation and technology transfer. The fellowship will allow him to continue to push towards commercial solid-state ionic devices, including solid-state batteries and solid oxide fuel cells.

“Dr. Thangadurai’s work is on the leading edge of clean energy innovation,” says Dr. Cathy Ryan, PhD, associate dean (research) in the Faculty of Science. “The ECS Fellows award is a remarkable accomplishment, and he is a most deserving researcher working in a research area of critical importance.”

As for what’s next? His recent invitation to join the Creative Destruction Lab gives him new opportunities to promote commercialization activities in energy to encourage innovation and development, even as he forges ahead with groundbreaking research.

“Science has no boundaries,” says Thangadurai. His advice for students and new researchers is to always think about what’s next…and what comes after that. “There’s always something more, always room to think. Invention has no end.”