Working on batteries of the future – ”As a chemist I couldn't have more of a dream job”

Professor Ulla Lassi, head of the research unit of sustainable chemistry at the University of Oulu, is working for a greener future.
Tutkija Ulla Lassi laboratoriossa

Solutions for future generations

Lassi has been researching new means to further hydrogen technology and developing catalytic methods to extract hydrogen from methane without producing greenhouse gases such as carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide while capturing carbon as a solid, high-value product. Her work has significance also in improving new battery technologies as she is trying to reduce our dependence on critical natural resources in energy storage and develop zero-emission processing alternatives.

”I want to build solutions that will have an impact on future generations. This is a part of my ethics as a scientist,” Lassi explains.

Research career led by chance

Lassi is a passionate scientist but she did not dream of being a professor when she was young. She says she sort of fell into her work by chance, even if it is work that she enjoys wholeheartedly.

”When I was younger, I never thought I would write a doctoral thesis, even if I was a good student in school, strong all-around. The only profession I ever planned for was a language teacher,” Lassi says.

There were a few language teachers already in Lassi's family and they suggested she should consider teaching natural sciences, like chemistry, because there would be more job opportunities. She took their advise and started going for a career as a chemistry and mathematics teacher. When she started her chemistry courses at the university, things began unfolding very differently than her original plan. Lassi ended up as a double major, graduating with a master's in chemistry and in process engineering.

”After my Master's of Science, I found myself pursuing further education and before long it led to writing my doctoral thesis. I feel that my career path has been shaped a lot by coincidence. Still, I have never regretted taking on this career or any of my choices, quite the contrary. I couldn't have more of a dream job,” she says.

Lassi says her work as researcher and professor is very varied. She gets to be a teacher, and use her social skills while also “dabbling in finance.” Her job is very dynamic and requires a lot of coordination, which comes naturally to Lassi.

“No two days are the same at my work, it really is true. And this work is never done. It’s kind of a tricky thing because every funding application that gets approved creates more work for you,” Lassi chuckles.

Many types of collaboration

During her 15 years as a researcher Lassi has witnessed many changes, for example in the collaboration between industry and academia. The Finnish Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment has named the city of Kokkola as the thematic national lead in battery technology and Lassi with her research group holds a key position in developing battery chemistry. Lassi says that close collaboration between the university and industry is vital in a country the size of Finland in any area of research. A professor’s work has also evolved with the times, she says.

“We have so many avenues to further our work. The used to be that a professor would give a few lectures and then be given free rein in their own work. There were very narrow responsibilities in a sense. This won’t hold in modern universities, where in addition to your core skills as a scientist you also have to have social and communication skills,” Lassi says.

Collaboration is also crucial in her immediate work environment.

“Your team has to have great spirit, it really makes a difference. Researchers must have independence, responsibility, freedom. That’s when creativity gets to flourish. This cannot be achieved in a small box where everything you do is given to you from above. The secret behind my team’s success comes from successful recruiting and having researchers who are very capable and enjoy their work.”

Read more about the development of low-emission hydrogen production methods and new battery technologies: New innovation in unpacking hydrogen and carbon from methane can contribute to cleaner energy and improve battery technology

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