“A picture is worth a thousand words” is a very apt description for this photo of our next pathbreaker Karthik Ganesh, riding a bike. Well, there is nothing special about it, except that Karthik is riding a hybrid motorbike powered by a Fuel Cell/Battery and propelled by Hydrogen generated on demand. Wait, there is more to it, Karthik built this futuristic bike from old bike parts for his thesis project at University of California. 

Learning by doing is the best way to have fun, and understand what works and what doesn’t. Imbibing the learnings from his experiences, Karthik has been working at Mercedes Benz R&D India as a LI-Ion Battery Research engineer.

Karthik talks to talks to  Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal  about his work on battery research and resulting benefits that will help make the next generation of EV batteries more efficient!

Karthik, tell us about your background

I am currently a battery research engineer working with Mercedes-Benz Research and Development India. I was born and raised in Chennai. My father (deceased) was a banker and my mother is a home-maker. Secondary education in a very competitive school got me interested in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics early on, though my test results were not stellar. My interests varied periodically but I loved to work with my hands – woodworking and machines. Therefore, my natural choices were mechanic, carpenter or a mechanical engineer.

What did you study?

I decided to follow the herd and try to find my unique path. After my bachelor’s degree in 2007 in mechanical engineering, I began my career in Tata Consultancy Services, moved onto Atlas Copco while trying to moonlight as a freelance design/analysis consultant before taking it up fulltime for a year, and then realized that a Master’s degree would not only add more credibility to my profile but also open doors to more rewarding career opportunities. Hence, I started applying for universities in the US in 2010.

I finished my Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from University of California with a focus on fuel cells, batteries and hydrogen production. I worked with one of the best professors in the industry and led a great team to build a fuel-cell/battery hybrid motorcycle that carried a chemical hydrogen generator that would produce hydrogen on demand.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career? Tell us about your career path

Right after my bachelor’s degree, I got a job in Tata Consultancy Services – it was what it was – a stop-gap solution till I figured out what I wanted to do with my life. I worked as a a generalist mechanical engineer in the Engineering Services wing. However, the job was monotonous and I simply did not get enough technical or practical exposure. I was still exploring options when  I got the opportunity to work as an Applications Engineer at Atlas-Copco India Limited. It was more of a market analysis-technical sales position; I realized that I was better suited for a more technical position for which I needed to reinforce my basics and equip myself by taking advanced courses. I took some courses on numerical methods, finite element analysis, advanced fluid mechanics and thermodynamics at IIT-M. I had tried to freelance/consult on some design/simulations projects during my time at TCS and Atlas Copco; I decided to take it full time by partnering with my friend who owns a software company and handling its engineering segment.

My initial stint as a consultant exposed me to simulations, mostly pertinent to thermal, fluid and battery systems. The 2006 documentary “Who killed the Electric Car?” and the attempt at revitalizing the electric car market by Tesla and Nissan during my time in California got me interested in the automotive energy storage industry (or more generally, the energy storage industry). It was not too long after my Master’s project before I realized that hydrogen was not/would not be the fuel of choice for the next couple of decades at least despite its energy density and ease of refueling. 

Towards the end of my Master’s degree (when I was performing experiments on the motorcycle that we built and finishing up my thesis), I decided to focus on battery systems in more depth than just characterizing and handling its thermal signature during their charging and discharging processes. Lithium-ion batteries had just started to gain traction in the electric vehicle industry and even with their limitations and challenges, I realized that this would be the new, possibly transitory, solution for mobility till further developments happen. Automotive battery systems fascinated me because the challenge was straight-forward though not simple – design a system that can carry the same amount of energy as petrol/diesel. Of course, the implementation of the battery solution was far more complex – I had to rehash basic and advanced electrochemistry, concepts from electrical engineering and just out of interest, some molecular dynamics and quantum physics as well. YouTube and Coursera were my friends; also helpful were MIT-OCW and my textbooks/reference books from school and college.

With some hands-on experience, theoretical knowledge and my master’s degree, I started applying for companies in my domain of interest. My first job was a Senior Mechanical Engineer position at an Iron-Chrome redox flow battery company. 

A redox flow battery (reduction-oxidation flow battery) is a type of battery (electrochemical cell) that consists of two working electrolytes being circulated in their own paths and a stack at which ion exchange takes place. Simply put, when you discharge our Fe/Cr battery, Cr2+  is oxidized to Cr3+ at the anode and Fe3+ is reduced to Fe2+ at the cathode. During this process, an electron is released between the electrodes that constitutes an electric current. Their primary applications are in large-scale stationary energy storage and renewable energy grids; research is ongoing to evaluate their applications/viability in electric vehicles. In the recent past, Fe-Cr, V-V, Zn-Br have all been commercialized or at least attempts at commercialization have been made. 

Working in a startup company is not just rewarding because your work is a direct contribution to the product but also it enables you to work on multiple disciplines. I took on the role of a mechanical / electrical / electronics engineer while developing my own code for the state-of-charge estimation device that I built. On top of that, I had to source components, interface with vendors and build up the supply chain for the product. We went on to build the world’s largest iron-chrome redox flow battery system. My key influences at this point of time were Bruce Lin, my direct manager and director of research and development, and Don Bloomdahl, a very skilled senior engineer who were sounding boards for my ideas.

This was also the time I realized that I wanted to work on something more practical that had a large consumer base. In late 2013, I started working for a stealth-mode solid-state battery research company. The prospect of working for a unicorn company that would revolutionize the automotive energy storage market excited me. I worked on mechanical packaging, thermal management systems, structural analysis, and handled some elements of the supply chain for the components I worked on. 

Ever since, I have been in the automotive industry working primarily on battery research, electrochemical and electrical modeling, thermal management systems, and the electric drive-train.

What were the challenges in your career path? How did you address them?

Till this day, I keep kicking myself for not pursuing my Master’s degree right after my Bachelor’s. While being in the workforce introduces you to the real world of what jobs are like and how companies operate, and imparts life skills such as financial and time management, the transition from career back to education was difficult for me. Going back to books, reading academic papers (something that was not really necessary/enforced during my Bachelor’s degree), writing assignments and researching after being out of touch with extensive academic work for over 4 years was challenging, to say the least. Fortunately, my stint as a consultant required me to pore over books and papers more frequently than most conventional fresher jobs in India. It took me a whole quarter to get into the habit of spending time with books; my rapport with books was sufficiently reinforced by the second quarter during which time I also started working on the fuel-cell motorcycle (mentioned earlier).

My first company was a startup, as were most of the companies later in my career. Since I had to put on multiple hats and I was essentially the owner of the project you worked on, I had to manage my time between doing and learning efficiently. There were aspects that I wasn’t entirely too familiar with (aside from theoretical knowledge and/or basic academic implementations) – analog circuitry, electronics, industrial manufacturing processes etc. Learning concepts from scratch was not always an option because of the project deadlines; I had to put in extra hours to learn and apply. I am glad for the hours I spent in strengthening my fundamentals because of the ease with which I can work on them now.

2014 was a tough year for me since I had to deal with personal problems; I decided to move back to India after a personal loss. My field of work was not present in India around that time. After five months of grappling with decisions to change my field, even temporarily, I switched tracks (almost tangentially) to wind power. While the job itself was not very challenging, I was worried about what it might do to my career. Thankfully, I was able to move back pretty quickly to battery research at Mercedes-Benz which is where I am currently employed.

For a brief period of time during my time with Mercedes-Benz, my desire to experience the work, culture and challenges in an Indian startup company took me to Sun-Mobility Private Limited that is trying to pursue battery swapping as a solution to the long battery recharge times for electric vehicle owners. I took on the role of Lead Engineer – Battery Systems where I was handed the responsibility of designing, prototyping, analyzing, testing and evaluating battery packs for two, three and four wheeled vehicles. However, I decided to move back to Mercedes-Benz Research and Development India after a short while because of the laid-back and almost care-free attitude to technical research and the culture (or lack thereof) at Sun Mobility. 

What do you do currently?

I work in the battery systems department at Mercedes-Benz Research and Development India; however, I am a generalist thereby working on/contributing to multiple projects. I currently work on fine-tuning the lithium-ion battery model – this is not a conventional RC model or electrochemical model but a blend of both that is potentially implementable on the BMS (Battery Management System). In addition to this, I mentor (only technically) a team that works on EMI/EMC simulations pertinent to battery systems where I study the effect of noise on battery systems – thermal, electrochemical and electronic (signal/power distortion). I also contribute to projects that deal with fuel cells and electromechanical ageing of electric motors. Previously, I used to work on thermal management system design and optimization through simulations. 

What are the skills required for your role?

The skills required for the job include electrochemistry (intermediate to advanced – to understand and correlate various phenomena inside the lithium-ion cell), electrical engineering (intermediate – to understand the functions and behavior of different passive components such as R, C, L, CPE, Warburg etc. to represent lithium-ion battery), electromagnetics (to correlate and predict noise propagation in and from HV circuitry), finite element analysis (intermediate – not enough to code your own but just use existing software applications to run simulations, analyze behavior and troubleshoot convergence and other errors), AC and DC motor construction, performance and degradation, computational fluid dynamics (for fluid flow and thermal management simulations). 

What’s a typical day like?

The best thing about a generalist role is that there is no such thing as a “typical day”. Most of my days involve reviewing EIS data and manipulating the way it is viewed to see if more useful data can be extracted from it so that a better prediction of performance and degradation characteristics is possible. A part of the day is spent interfacing with my team for technical review of EMI simulations. Some days are spent interfacing with our third-party vendors to make sense of motor characteristic data and incorporate them in our ageing model. A good chunk of my day goes into learning new things to see if these can be implemented in my regular work as well – to speed up things, automate processes or just do away with monotonous work.

How does your work benefit the society?

Electric cars are inevitable; with the pace with which research is progressing on different fronts, policies around electric vehicles, government push and an overall green agenda, the adoption of electric cars will happen sooner than predicted. Of course, there are some inherent challenges associated with e-mobility – low energy density of battery, safety issues etc. What I am working on right now are things that will directly influence a small part of that process – improve our understanding of battery states during operation and make battery systems thermally safe/immune to external noise that may cause problems from mere data corruption to exploding batteries.

Tell us an example of a specific work you did that is very close to you!

As I mentioned before, working with my hands is something that I am really passionate about and need as part of my work routine. At University of California, I received an opportunity to work on building a one-of-a-kind fuel-cell/battery hybrid electric motorcycle that would generate its own hydrogen on demand. The project was funded by the Airforce Research Base, Dayton, Ohio, and if successful, the concept would be implemented on UAVs.

With absolutely nothing except an old Zero electric motorcycle to start with, we built from scratch or procured all of the systems necessary for our concept. The funds allocated for the project were limited and the timeline very short – so we had the worst of both worlds. We took it as a challenge, pulled some all-nighters, had some really technically innovative solutions and pulled this off successfully.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

It is completely alright if you do not find your passion during school or even college. Your first couple of jobs will shed light on where your interests and skills lie. Curiosity is a great virtue to have – it would behoove you to do some background reading/research on everything that you learn at school to understand the real-world problems that each concept is applied for. Aside from following whatever path you choose, learn a programming language as well – Python has always been my go-to language. The advantage of having a programming language in your belt of skills is vastly understated.

Future Plans?

I am hoping to go the entrepreneurial route in a couple of years and start my own firm.