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Interview with Johan Nordstrand

Johan Nordstrand. Photo: Sofia Nyström
Publicerad 2021-01-26

We have met Johan Nordstrand, a Doctoral student from the research group Functional & Nano Materials (FNM), Department of Applied Physics for an interview. Johan has recently participated in the conference The Global Youth Science Seminar (GYSS) and we would like to hear more about the conference and his research.

Hi Johan, can you tell us a little bit about the conference?

– The Global Youth Science Seminar (GYSS) is an excellent opportunity for a young scientist to do networking. At GYSS, around 20 winners of the Nobel Prize, Turing award, or Fields medal held lectures over four days to inspire the next generation of scientists. A few hundred participants from countries around the world were selected by their countries for being prominent scientists under the age of 35. Participating in GYSS means that I got the opportunity to connect with fellow researchers from around the globe and got to see a bigger picture of how prominent groups are contributing to immensely valuable progress in a wide range of fields.

Was there anything from the conference that you could use in your own research?

– My research in CDI uses supercapacitor batteries for desalination by removing sodium-chloride salt from water. Thus, the most valuable takeaways are insights into how other groups are working with similar areas from completely different applications, such as sodium-ion batteries for energy storage. Generally, the seminar gave extensive opportunities for starting collaborations with groups from around the world, and hearing the Nobel laureates talk about their background gave profound insights into what makes a successful researcher.

Tell us about your own research, why is it important?

– Global water scarcity necessitates development in new technologies for producing drinkable water, and CDI is a technique that uses supercapacitors for desalination. Basically, the device consists of highly porous electrodes separated by a spacer. When we apply a voltage to the electrodes, electric forces are rapidly pulling the salt for a passing water stream and collects them inside the electrodes. Thus, the device produces freshwater.

Who are in your research team and what is your role more specifically?

– Professor Joydeep Dutta is leading the functional nanomaterial (FNM) group at KTH, and we have members specializing in different areas of CDI research, such as the critically important area of materials development. My work focuses on deriving theory for understanding, predicting, and optimizing how these devices work. This will be especially important as the technique evolves from the lab scale to tackle complex real-world desalination challenges.

What is the biggest challenge with your research?

– Visitors in our lab who are interested in investing in this technology keep stressing the fundamental importance of making the CDI technique economically competitive. We have already shown the environmental advantages of this technique and its suitability for decentralized water production. Moving forward, a critical challenge for the future is to continue developing materials and operations that make it increasingly competitive for widespread use.

What could your research mean for people in practice?

– The UN estimates the over 2 billion people are living in water-scarce areas. Because of rising world populations and climate change, they further estimate that water scarcity will affect around 5 billion people in 2050. Because 97 % of the water reserves on earth are too saline to drink, desalination is crucial for meeting global demands. Thus, developments in CDI have the potential to profoundly improve lots of peoples’ lives.

How far have you come in your doctoral studies?

– My doctoral work started at the end of 2019 and the current rate of progress means that I now have enough publications for getting a doctoral degree. Still, there is much work to explore, especially on developing theory for enhanced CDI materials, and I will continue working hard to further strengthen this technology.

Has your research been affected by the pandemic?

– The corona pandemic has widely presented challenges for lab-based research work and for communicating across research teams. Still, while people often focus on the severe negative impacts of the corona pandemic, it drives innovations in new methods of working online that could be immensely valuable as our countries continue to digitalize. For instance, the online GYSS platform successfully provided well-organized methods of networking, including support for finding like-minded researchers and dedicated one-on-one sessions. If we put effort into continue developing such digital platforms now, I believe we could reach a point where online meetings are as effective as in-person meetings without requiring hundreds of people to spend 12 hours flying across the world to attend a conference.

Why did you start researching in the field of capacitive deionization (CDI) desalination?

– When I started the master's program in nanotechnology I was deeply impressed with professor Joydeep Dutta who was teaching one of the first nanotechnology classes, and I asked him if could start working part-time in the lab during my studies. I highly recommend students at the bachelor and master levels to find what they are passionate about by seeking out opportunities to work in different areas.

You studied technical physics and then nanophysics. What made you interested in these educations?

– Engineering physics is a solid area of study because it teaches broad skills in natural science, mathematics, and programming, which makes it highly relevant for a wide range of careers. Now, nanotechnology is exciting because, as we move to smaller and smaller sizes, things start to behave in ways that are fundamentally different from the ordinary things that we see around us. Thus, it provides a curious mind with ample opportunities for exploring the world while solving real-world challenges to improve peoples’ lives.

My interest in the natural sciences and physics started in elementary school when my grandfather gave me a small book entitled “Relativitetsteori för alla” (theory of relativity for everyone). It truly opened my mind to how fascinating the world really is and how much there is to explore. In my experience, lots of curious young people who visit our lab are deeply fascinated by the natural sciences when they get a glimpse of how the world truly works, and I believe we as a society could do even more to introduce young people to science.

You are active and participate in various events such as SIYSS, GYSS etc. How come?

– As the world continues to get more and more technologically advanced, it will become increasingly important to get young people to engage in research and development. SIYSS is a seminar that takes place during the Nobel week where each country sends one representative to present their research and aims at inspiring young students to get into science. I am deeply grateful for all the support I have gotten to get into the research field as I was growing up, and I would love to contribute to making Sweden a stronger country by getting more young people to engage in science.

You have taken an animation course and are interested in communicating your research and also made a film recently. Why is it important for you to communicate your research?

– We are living in dark times of rising world problems such as the coronavirus and the changing climate. While it is easy to get pessimistic, new technologies have immense potential to solve these issues and build a better future. By communicating my research, I want to inspire people to hope for a brighter future and increase support throughout society for developing technologies that will be crucial for solving the most pressing world challenges of today.

Watch Johan's film about his research

Read more about Johan and his work