If you had told Maria Skyllas-Kazacos FIEAust CPEng(Ret) as a child that she would grow up to become an engineer, she would never have believed you.
“It definitely wasn’t on my mind. Apart from science and maths, I was studying art, French and English at high school. I liked drama classes,” Skyllas-Kazacos told create.
But not only would she become an esteemed chemical engineer, Skyllas-Kazacos would also help pioneer the innovative Vanadium Redox Battery and become one of Australia’s first female chemical engineering professors.
In her first year at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Skyllas-Kazacos couldn’t picture herself as a “hard hat wearing engineer”. She chose industrial chemistry so she could focus on the laboratory side of things, only to find that the course was more than 80 per cent chemical engineering anyway.
After graduating from university with first class honours and the University Medal, Skyllas-Kazacos worked at a pharmaceutical company. But she couldn’t stay away from UNSW for long, and soon she was back completing her PhD, focusing on electrochemical studies of molten salts.“I had no idea what I should research and my lecturer suggested ‘high temperature electrowinning’, which was exactly the opposite of where I pictured myself,” she said. “But once I got into it I was fascinated.”
At the completion of her PhD in 1978 she was awarded a CSIRO postdoctoral fellowship, meaning she could travel anywhere in the world to study.
“I was encouraged to go to Bell Telephone Laboratories, which was a very prestigious research institution in Murray Hill, New Jersey [in the US],” she said.
“I had decided at that point I wanted to do something that was going to make a difference to the world.”
Skyllas-Kazacos became interested in solar energy, and so asked to be placed in the solar energy program at Bell Labs. At the same time, she was invited to join the battery program, where the team was developing batteries for satellites.
During her time at Bell, Skyllas-Kazacos was tasked with helping to solve a problem they were having with a batch of lead-acid batteries. While looking into the problem she observed a soluble lead (IV) ion that was involved in the charging and discharging reactions of a lead-acid battery. This had never been observed before.
The Journal of the Electrochemical Society published Skyllas-Kazacos’ paper on the discovery and, when she returned to Australia, she presented her findings at the Electrochemistry Conference in Perth. She was awarded the Bloom-Gutmann Prize for her work, and became determined to continue her work on batteries and energy storage.
Skyllas-Kazacos applied for and received a Queen Elizabeth II fellowship from UNSW that allowed her to continue working on liquid junction solar cells at the university.
It was also around this time that Skyllas-Kazacos was appointed one of Australia’s first female lecturers of chemical engineering and industrial chemistry and was quickly promoted to the level of Associate Professor and full Professor at UNSW.
In the mid 1980s, organisations across the world had taken an interest in iron-chromium redox flow batteries as a viable solution to large-scale energy storage. However, researchers working on these batteries faced a problem: when the iron and chromium solutions mixed, the battery lost half its capacity.
But Skyllas-Kazacos and her team had realised that having the same solution on both sides of the battery could overcome this problem. Vanadium can exist in various oxidation states, allowing it to be used in both the positive and negative half-cells, overcoming the cross contamination problems of the iron/chromium system.
“Very early on, after getting some positive results, the university decided they wanted to do a feature article on our research,” she said
“They featured us on the front page of the university newspaper and they also sent out a press release to the media. That’s when things got a bit crazy.”
Skyllas-Kazacos received requests from national newspapers and television stations wanting to interview her about the exciting development.
“I thought I’d just be on the back pages of the newspaper but the next day my husband went to get the paper and he came back saying, ‘Maria, you’re on the front page!’.”
With the added media attention, Skyllas-Kazacos said she felt more determined than ever to succeed in her research. Finally she had a breakthrough using sulphuric acid electrolytes and in 1986 UNSW filed the first patents on her battery design.
Thus the girl who never saw herself becoming an engineer went on to change the world with her research.
Vanadium redox batteries, made possible through Skyllas-Kazacos’ work, use vanadium solutions in sulphuric acid to store energy. The solutions are pumped through a series of cell stacks where the vanadium ions exchange electrons, thereby producing electricity. The larger the cell stacks, the more power can be generated. The larger the solution volumes, the more energy can be stored. Vanadium batteries are capable of storing massive amounts of energy and are used to store clean energy such as solar and wind power, and potentially in electric cars.
Nowadays, Skyllas-Kazacos has technically retired but still volunteers her time supervising PhD students and postgraduate researchers. She continues researching the vanadium battery to achieve better performance and reduce costs, in addition to working on improving the energy efficiency of aluminum smelting.
Although she probably wouldn’t admit it, Skyllas-Kazacos is certainly a hero of the engineering world. She says she wouldn’t have achieved such success without the support of her husband, Michael Kazacos.
“He’s my engineering hero. He’s a scientist too, so he was always there beside me in the labs while also helping to raise our children at home.”
Despite coming up in a male dominated industry during the 1980s, Skyllas-Kazacos believes being a woman has been a secret weapon for her.
“I stood out for sure. I think being probably one of the first female academics in chemical engineering, a lot of the men I worked with at the university and in industry saw themselves as my mentor and wanted to help me along,” she said.
“I think that really did help my career and I really appreciate their support. Now, I would like to pass on my passion for engineering and science to my three granddaughters and my grandson.”