Argonne recognizes Kwon’s contributions to battery science with the Postdoctoral Performance Award.
Article authored by: Michael Matz, Argonne Associate
Bob Jin Kwon likes a good challenge, particularly when it comes to developing completely new kinds of batteries.
“Developing new battery technologies is very challenging,” said Kwon, who recently completed a stint as a postdoctoral appointee at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory. “But that challenge motivates me to discover the new materials that we need for the next generation of batteries.”
During his three years as a postdoc, Kwon worked in the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), a DOE Energy Innovation Hub led by Argonne. What he achieved during that period was remarkable.
Kwon discovered and developed a new, promising class of magnesium-ion materials for cathodes (positive electrodes) in rechargeable batteries. In the process, he published five papers. He was first author on three of them. JCESR recognized two of them with its Best Paper Award.
“Bob Jin did all the experimental work and collaborated with nearly every Argonne scientist in his research area,” said Baris Key, an Argonne chemist who hired Kwon as a postdoc in 2018. “His body of work made an entirely new field of science feasible. We now know that it’s possible for magnesium-ion batteries to compete with lithium-ion. Before Bob Jin did this work, we didn’t know if it was possible. It’s rare for postdocs to complete such comprehensive research.”
Kwon was one of 11 postdocs to receive Argonne’s 2021 Postdoctoral Performance Award. The award recognizes researchers who have made significant scientific achievements in their fields while demonstrating excellent problem-solving, collaborative, and leadership abilities. Awardees were nominated by fellow Argonne researchers.
“Bob Jin did all the experimental work and collaborated with nearly every Argonne scientist in his research area. His body of work made an entirely new field of science feasible.”— Baris Key, Argonne chemist
Transformation into a Complete Researcher
Kwon worked on a JCESR project to develop safer, better-performing alternatives to today’s commercial lithium-ion batteries. His research focus was cathodes for solid-state batteries with multivalent ions, which have a charge of +2 or +3. While lithium ions have a charge of +1, magnesium ions are +2. That means they can potentially provide double the electrical current of lithium ions.
Kwon received his Ph.D. in Chemistry from University of Illinois at Chicago. His focus was the design and synthesis of new materials for cathodes. Drawing on this experience, he synthesized several magnesium-ion materials in Key’s lab.
To advance the science of these new materials, Kwon new that he would need to characterize them comprehensively. But because his academic training was in material synthesis, he had limited experience with material characterization techniques. He overcame this challenge through perseverance and passion for the research.
“I needed to demonstrate the mechanisms driving the reactions in these materials,” said Kwon. “To do that, I had to expand my skills.”
Kwon reached out to numerous Argonne scientists with expertise in various characterization techniques. By collaborating with these experts, he gathered insights on how the techniques could support his magnesium-ion research. Equally important, he worked with the experts to learn how to use the techniques himself.
“He mastered several new techniques as a postdoc,” said Argonne Chemist Fulya Dogan Key. During the final year of his Ph.D. studies, Kwon worked in Dogan Key’s lab learning a characterization technique called solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. “He transformed himself from a gifted synthetic chemist into an independent researcher with a complete skillset—adept at designing, synthesizing, testing, and characterizing materials for next-generation batteries.”
The Value of JCESR
JCESR’s collaborative structure helped enable Kwon’s transformation into a complete researcher.
“Being part of JCESR gave Bob Jin the opportunity to connect with the right experts at the right time,” said Baris Key. “It would not have been possible for a standalone researcher to develop these new materials. Bob Jin collaborated with more than 10 JCESR researchers.”
“An important part of becoming mature as a materials synthesizer is learning characterization techniques,” said George Crabtree, JCESR’s director and an Argonne senior scientist. “They broaden your scope. As soon as JCESR researchers have a new material, they can subject it to five or more techniques at different institutions. We learn a lot more by doing five different experiments than doing just one.”
“Developing new battery technologies is very challenging, but that challenge motivates me to discover the new materials that we need for the next generation of batteries.” — Bob Jin Kwon, JCESR Alum
Ambitious Career Plans
The battery industry is now benefiting from Kwon’s research skills. When his postdoc appointment ended in 2022, he started a job as a researcher at SK Innovation, a South Korea–based manufacturer of electric vehicle batteries. Similar to his work at Argonne, he is using various characterization tools to analyze reactions in cathode materials.
“If my company’s manufacturing center is experiencing technical challenges with synthesizing certain materials, I help characterize the materials,” said Kwon. “Based on what I find, I suggest ways to adjust the synthesis conditions. This can help improve the performance of the materials.”
After working for a while in industry, Kwon wants to return to academia. His plan is to start his own lab researching magnesium-ion and other cathode materials. In academia, he can draw on his diverse experiences at Argonne and in industry.
“We only have half of the commercial technology that we need to address climate change, and we need to fill these technology gaps quickly,” said JCESR’s Crabtree. “That means we need a lot of smart, well-rounded energy storage scientists. One of JCESR’s most important legacies is its 332 alumni. Like Bob Jin, they have broad skill sets that include designing, synthesizing, and characterizing materials. Many will have careers of 30 years or more and can make a big impact on climate change.”
The Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), a DOE Energy Innovation Hub, is a major partnership that integrates researchers from many disciplines to overcome critical scientific and technical barriers and create new breakthrough energy storage technology. Led by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, partners include national leaders in science and engineering from academia, the private sector, and national laboratories. Their combined expertise spans the full range of the technology-development pipeline from basic research to prototype development to product engineering to market delivery.
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