DR Brenda Long, a recent recipient of a SPRINT award, wants to change how we travel. More specifically, her work will change the type of vehicle we sit ourselves into.
I meet Brenda in an office in UCC to discuss her latest achievement. Outside the modern, generously windowed room, trees sway over a lazily flowing river. It seems apt. Our conversation is all about the preservation of nature, and how the smallest things can make the biggest difference.
Dr Long’s research goes beyond currently available electric vehicles (EV) that run on batteries. The carbon footprint for the fabrication of batteries for EV largely negates their environmental benefits. Her technology will allow vehicles to run on fuel cells -hydrogen to be specific.
“The smallest atom in the world,” Dr Benda Long explains, “could end up having the biggest impact.”
Our conversation also centres around the role of women in creating such change, a subject about which she is extremely passionate.
Brenda starts our conversation by shining the spotlight on the head of the SPRINT programme, Myriam Cronin.
“Myriam is phenomenally talented. She has great magnetism and charisma and brings people together. She makes you feel comfortable.
“It’s poignant that all four people receiving the SPRINT awards are women. This is an externally judged competition in STEM. The government is always pushing women in STEM so it is wonderful that the driving force behind us all is a woman. She is just brilliant at her job and deserves to be celebrated.”
The job of the SPRINT accelerator programme is to mentor and support people with innovative research and business ideas. SPRINT facilitates the commercialisation of academic research. It aims to create entrepreneurs at the top of their game in various fields.
Dr Long’s success is particularly significant considering it’s still a highly gendered area.
The vast majority of women in STEM work in Food Science and Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences. Chemistry, Engineering and Physics are still dominated by men.
Checking the UCC website, I discover that roles in the School of Chemistry are indeed predominantly filled by men, with only five women on the team of 24.
It’s interesting, then, that women researchers were awarded the top accolades in all categories at the annual SPRINT awards. Interesting, too, that in 2022-2023, 50% of participants are women founders, which represents the largest cohort of women founders in the programme to date.
And SPRINT is not to be under-estimated. Since the inception of GatewayUCC in 2011, supported companies have raised in excess of €50 million of public and private investment and supported over 75 start-up and pre-start-up companies based on IP from the university. These IP based companies have contributed more than €25 million a year in salaries to the local economy.
Brenda traces her journey in Chemistry back to her science teacher in secondary school.
“She was brilliant. I attended Scoil Carmel in Limerick. Her name was Claire Madigan. Sadly, she died young but in her time she inspired a great number of girls. She was incredibly passionate in how she taught. About one third of my class went on to do something in the field of science.”
Dr Long started off in general science and imagined she’d focus on biology. During her time at third level, she found herself gravitating towards chemistry and ended up majoring in it in her final two years.
She was similarly inspired by her Ph.D supervisor in UCD, Professor Donald Fitzmaurice. Like Mrs Madigan, he was passionate and had the largest number of students in his group. Dr Long was eventually accepted into his group in the area of nano technology and went on to complete a Ph.D along with three other male students.
Dr Long spent time working and researching in Ferrara in Italy and later in MIT in Boston as a post-doctoral researcher under another inspiring mentor, Francesco Stellacci.
Following a stint in Birmingham, she made her way back to Ireland where she was privileged to work under Professor Justin Holmes, a world leader in his field, as a Research Fellow and Principal Investigator.
“You’ll notice that my mentors at third level were all men,” she smiles.
There are very few female lecturers in Chemistry still, which is a great shame.
Battery Alternatives by Women
A few years ago, Dr Long was awarded a small seed fund from Lam Research and began working with two female scientists, Dr Gillian Collins and a very talented Ph.D student, Louise Colfer. This was unusual, she says, as she was used to working in a room of men.
They were melting platinum nanoparticles onto copper films and were surprised to end up with platinum at the core with a copper shell.
“We handed the platinum core with the copper shell on to Dr Lorraine Nagle at the Tyndall, who measured its catalytic activity and found a 32% enhancement over what is currently available.”
The exciting discovery came by chance, but this is very common in the field, she explains.
“A lot of big breakthroughs happen by chance. Post-it notes were invented by accident. The scientist was trying to create a really strong adhesive when he discovered this very weak but multi-functional one.”
Dr Long says she knew there was something special about what they’d discovered together.
“They just looked so beautiful. They were stunning. We were really eager to do something with them. Gillian said straight away that they could be useful for fuel cells or glucose detection and we were just delighted with the result.”
Dr Long’s discovery, alongside her team of women, means we can get a 32% greater conversion of methanol to electricity.
“You get more energy out of the material per milligram of platinum. This is a very expensive material but it is the best metal for fuel cells. This means we can reduce the amount of platinum by 32% which will make electric transport more affordable.”
“Our carbon footprint is still huge when it comes to electric vehicles,” Dr Long continues.
“About one in 400 electric vehicles are run on fuel cells, including a number of buses in Dublin. What we want is to develop a better technology to make the production of fuel cells cheaper and more affordable. We are talking to companies, including De Nora in Italy about potentially using our technology.”
Dr Long shares her healthy concern over the climate crisis.
We must change how we travel.
It is inevitable that we will leave oil behind and actively address our climate chaos. When the world ground to a halt during Covid, we managed to come up with a vaccine in a matter of months. That technology transformed how we will deal with future pandemics. Sadly, until the developed world is severely impacted we won’t feel the same impetus. This is why the government must support research like ours.”
But she comes back to the point again – such vehicles need to be affordable.
“The only emission from hydrogen powered fuel cells is water. There is no battery to manufacture or dispose of. But it must be affordable. A new small battery operated electric vehicle is about €27,000. That’s unaffordable for most people.”
Before leaving UCC, I look outside the window again at the trees outside. The rain is coming in and they are moving more vigorously than before. Dr Long’s words come back to me.
“Sometimes, the smallest things make the biggest impact.”
Having met this one woman, I feel like my eyes have been opened to a whole new world of possibility. I feel hopeful.
Next week: We continue our interviews with the SPRINT winners.