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Luis CASTANHEIRA, Senior R&D Engineer – Electrochemistry & Materials

Merci d'avoir accepté l'interview.

What was your motivation to live abroad for 11 years?

I'm Portuguese and as for many of us in Portugal, I've grown up hearing the stories of my grandparents and parents whilst they have lived in Brasil, in South Africa and in France. They've went looking for a better life and a work opportunity, and finally stayed for many years: visiting the countries, learning the differences, experiencing the culture. I've always wondered what that would be like to, what that would feel and how fantastic a life like that could be. So very early in my life, I've decided to live abroad for a period and while doing so, to enjoy the best that moment of my life.

How does a biomedical engineer shift to a PhD in alternative energies, such as hydrogen fuel cells and electrolysers?

I was finishing my master thesis at École Centrale Paris, France, during my Erasmus year of 2010-2011 to finish my degree in Biomedical Engineering. Regenerative coatings for dental implants, that was my topic. Though, at Centrale, I've started as well doing a side project on corrosion for materials to be used in nuclear reactors for the CEA. At that moment, I've realised that as a biomedical engineer I could actually work on other areas, as energies. That has lead me to open my mind, and start considering professional opportunities outside the medical/prosthetics area. Whilst looking for professional opportunities abroad by the end of my master's, I've been told that a PhD position at Grenoble with the LEPMI and Air Liquide was open to investigate degradation mechanisms of fuel cell catalysts. I've applied, and on the TGV Paris-Grenoble for the PhD position interview, I was reading for the first time what a fuel cell and what a catalyst were...but after all, my skills and knowledge on materials, corrosion, electrochemistry and engineering were the ones the jury was interested by. At the end, I was selected and from then, I've found the career that drives me the most and I can't see myself working in another area.

What are your most remarkable memories from your PhD?

The PhD is an intense moment of my career and of anyone who chooses that pathway. I've learnt a new technical domain, a new language to work with my peers and for the first time, I was responsible for the progress of a research project during 3 years. It was intense and filled with ups and downs, so I'll leave you two memories...a positive and a less positive moment:

The positive one is the 14th of November 2014, the day I've presented and defended my thesis in front of an international jury. It's the selection of the "best of" of those last three years: I've presented the results of three published papers in my field, demonstrated how my work as helped improve the technological progress of fuel cells and push the commercialization of these applications. I've also exposed the weaknesses of my work, and how future engineers could start address those topics I had not found a solution. All of that, to an auditorium filled with my family, childhood friends and all my friends and colleagues from the PhD time. That's a memory that will stay forever!

The less positive moment, is a common one shared between all the PhD students: when after months of experiments and tests, the results still do not provide you the answer you are looking for. We start doubting ourselves, pointing out the weaknesses of our work, questioning the quality of our choices and the potential of our work. Today, the memory of those days gives me a smile, and I realise those hurdles are the ones that teach us the most. An advice for PhD students: look at these moments as opportunities!

Could you give us a tour on your professional career? What's the PhD contribution on it?

I've always wanted to work in the industry and contribute to the technological progress of a product. So my career is driven by the possibility to work at or very close to the industry. It started with my PhD with close collaboration with Air Liquide. Afterwards, I was given the possibility to be the technical lead at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), in London, for hydrogen fuel cells and electrolysers from 2015 to 2019. I had the chance to provide support for the UK hydrogen industry, by leading research projects, establishing new measurement methods and expanding the visibility of our activity. Then, I had the possibility to join a promising fuel cell company back in Grenoble, and in 2019 I've integrated the R&D materials team of Symbio: establishing methods, seeking the best cost and performant materials for fuel cells, and supporting the activities for industrial production. Since October 2021, I've decided to return to Portugal, joining a Fusion-Fuel Green Plc, portuguese company in Lisbon to participate in the development of solutions to produce green hydrogen through electrolysis processes.

On the positions at the different countries, the same expectations were required from me: capability to adapt, to perform tasks and help others to progress on their tasks, being able to communicate on the progress or the tackles of the projects, being driven by curiosity and error/trial. Most of the time, a failure comes always with a lesson...and that is what the PhD has given me and how I've applied it.

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