The third and final installment of In Vacuo is below. In this part of the story Alex gets his first chance to prove himself.
Let me know what you think in the comments section.
As a reminder, Fresh Story Friday will be returning on 12/2.
In Vacuo - Part (3/3)
‘Alright, so I came up with just, ah, a list of, like, some things that we should be testing in these cells.’
I turned my back to the group and started writing on the whiteboard. This group, five in total, including myself, consisted of all of the members of the Doane group that were currently working on electrolyte additives for lithium-ion batteries.
‘Okay, so, a lot of this I took from Jim’s email but I threw in a couple more things that might be worth considering.’
This was me in my element. There was a time when I was a hands-on cell engineer; when I spent hours on end in the lab, elbows-deep in the glovebox assembling cells, staying late, getting tests started. And I was good at it. Actually, I was pretty damn good at it. But, it’s that thing where, if you become good enough at something you’ll eventually be asked to stop doing it and start teaching other people how to do it like you do it. That’s the point that I’d reached at MagTech. By the time I left, I was more of an engineering manager than an engineer, which, like everything, has its pros and cons. True, I was a little rusty with the hands-on, nitty-gritty of cell-making, but I’d gotten pretty good at putting together a DOE and I knew how to effectively run a meeting. I guess that’s why Jim asked me to host this ‘MIT chin-wagging session’ to qualify and validate the 280mAh pouch cells that the Doane group had recently received for electrolyte testing.
‘Okay, so, as per Jim’s email, we need to look into the following.’ I looked down at the printed copy of the email that Jim sent out earlier that week where I had also added a few of my own notes. ‘So, we need to get the dee-vee dee-cue data for the half-cells.’
I grabbed a blue marker and made a horizontal dash on the board. Next to it, I wrote ½ cells for DV/DQ.
‘We gotta lock down the electrolyte volume. Jim suggested starting at point seven grams, but I think Pred followed up saying that we should do one point two, so I was thinking that we’d start at, like, point nine and work our way up incrementally to one point two. That sound good to everyone?’ I turned around and looked at the four battery researchers seated at the round table behind me and got a few vague head-nods. ‘Yeah? Cool.’ I turned to the board and, after the second dash, I wrote Elyte amount - 0.9g+.
I continued on in this fashion, writing up bullet points, looking back at the table behind me for occasional acknowledgement or feedback, then writing some more. Adding notes next to the bullet points when necessary. Some of the experiments were crossed out, some were modified, until eventually we had a pretty comprehensive list of experiments that covered about half the width of the dry-erase board. We then went through and decided on who was responsible for what and I wrote their initials beside the respective bullet points. Then, recognizing that some items were more important than others and that some experiments needed to be done before you could start others, we went through and gave each action item a ranking of one, two or three. One, being the highest priority, was reserved for experiments that could be described as qualification. These were the minimum tests that needed to be done in order for us to use these cells. Two was standardization, which focused on locking down certain testing parameters to ensure that all of our testing was carried out in a similar way. A ranking of three meant that the test was focused on optimization/application. That is, tests with this ranking were really meant to fine-tune our previous work and/or were focused on obtaining the initial real testing data. Data that would go into papers.
After we assigned ownership and priorities to everything, we came up with a few initial cycling parameters. For these I drew heavily from Matt’s input. For all intents and purposes, Matt Shaw was the most senior battery guy in the Doane group. He was a fourth year physics PhD student and, while there were other members who’d been there longer than him, he was one of the co-inventors of the HRC and, as a result, had published the most papers of anyone else in the group. He was from Rhode Island and he wore Fleetwood Mac T-shirts and had a receding hairline that, at the age of 26, had already retreated into a 3-4’ long peninsula of hair jutting right down the middle of his scalp. When talking with him, I would catch myself running my fingers through the thick, light-brown forest on the top of my head. I would let out a slow breath through my nose and would accept the fact that life wasn’t fair and that sometimes people get things that they don’t deserve.
‘So we’ll, I know Jim is going to want to have the formation cycle and the rest of the cycling data in one file.’ Matt said this as he leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. ‘So we’ll just, what we’ve done in the past is, for LMO, I’m pretty sure this is LMO, we’ll do the formation cycling and hold it at three point six volts for two hours so that you can come in, suspend your channel, degas it, and put it back on for cycling.’
‘Well, alternatively, we could just stick to using the Maccors for this round of testing. That way we can use the append to archived test feature and not have to worry about catching the cell in that two-hour window, right?’
‘Uh,’ Matt furrows his brow and quickly looks over at the others seated at the table and gives me that creeping halfway smile that you give someone when they’ve just said something stupid. ‘Maccor doesn’t have an append feature.’
‘It does. It’s part of the advanced start options on the opening dialog box that pops up when you start a test.’
‘I don’t think so.’ Again with that you’re a dumbass smile on his face, only this time more exaggerated. ‘Chuck Mills at Maccor told me you couldn’t append files on there. I was asking him about this a while back.’
‘Hmmm. That’s, I don’t know why he would say that. Unless you guys have an older version of MacTest thirty two. I used to append files all the time.’
‘Really? Well, if you think the guys at Maccor are wrong, you’re welcome to try it out. A-a-and let us know if it works. This would be really helpful to a lot of people.’ His tone was doubtful and laced with sarcasm.
‘Yeah, okay. I’ll check it out right after this and send out an email to everyone. I might need to update the software, but that should be easy enough to do.’ I took a breath in through my nose and looked around at the other members of the group seated at the table. ‘Okay. So, is that it? Anything else? Any questions? Anything?’
They all looked around at each other and shook their heads. ‘No, I think that about covers it,’ Matt said.
Nirav, a post-doc from southern India spoke up; ‘Yes. This is good.’
‘Alright. Thanks guys. I’ll, uh, I’ll capture all of this in a word document and disseminate it around to everyone.’
‘And you’ll check on appending files on the Maccor?’
‘Yep, I’ll look into that right after I leave here.’
‘All right,’ Matt said, with a slight chuckle.
Everyone started getting up and shuffling together the various pieces of paper and folders and books that they’d brought in with them.
‘Bye, thanks Alex.’
‘No problem. Thank you.’ I turned around and pulled out my phone and took a picture of the dry-erase board that was covered in notes. Then I grabbed an eraser and wiped off the blue dry-erase ink in clean rectangular streaks. This was my first chance to prove myself here and I’d killed it. I could feel it deep down in my bones.
I gathered up all of my stuff from the room and walked up to the third floor lab. I had about an hour and a half to kill before I had to return to this same room to TA the first year physics students for six hours so I figured I’d go check out the append file feature on the Maccors, run over to Subway real quick, then still have time to transcribe the notes from today’s meeting and email them out to everyone.
There was no one around when I walked into the lab. The only sounds were those of the cyclers humming and beeping away in the background. I sat down in front of the Maccor. Okay, I thought. Let’s see who doesn’t know what they’re talking about. I jerked around the mouse in loose circles until the screen awoke from sleep mode. I clicked on a channel at random, channel 14, and the font turned green as the status changed from Available to Selected. Alright, right-click, start test. Sure enough the start test box popped up. I looked at the bottom right corner of the prompt box where the Advanced Start button should be.There was nothing there.
I could feel the color leaving my face. My chest felt hollow. Shit! Shit-shit-shit! I’d just gotten into a battery testing pissing contest over the existence of this feature and now, in the place where this button should be, there was a tan, blank nothingness. No. No, I couldn’t start off my tenure in the Doane group like this. I couldn’t publicly contradict one of the senior members of the group and then turn out to be wrong. Think. Think-think-think. Why isn’t the Advanced Start button there? Why? Why-why-why-why-why-why?
I sat there, hunched over and staring dumbly at the computer screen. I’m not crazy, right? I know that I’ve used this feature before. But why isn’t it here? Was this software out-of-date? No, I could tell by the interface that this was either the newest or second newest release of MacTest32; both of which definitely had the Advanced Start feature. Why, then, was the bottom right corner of this prompt box so glaringly smooth and button-less? Then I remembered something. Something about how this button disappeared if you had multiple channels selected. Yes. That’s right! You couldn’t use the advanced start option if you had more than one channel selected.
I x-ed out of the prompt box and scrolled down the list of 96 channels. Sure enough, there it was. Second from the bottom, channel 95 and the word Selected radiating from the monitor in barely-readable neon green on a white background. I clicked it and the status changed to Available as the font reverted back to black. I then scrolled back up to channel 14, right-clicked, Start Test, and there it was, in the bottom right corner of the prompt box, in all of it’s rectangular, courier font glory; the Advanced Start button.
Things were going to be okay.
-- the end
 Design of Experiments