Meet our researcher: Dr David Rand AM

By Kashmi Ranasinghe

30 October 2020

8 minute read

Dr David Rand AM

Dr David Rand AM is an electrochemist and CSIRO Honorary Research Fellow. Image: supplied.

By now you would have heard that 21 July 2019 was the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. It was the first moment where man walked on the Moon, showing the world what humanity was truly capable of achieving.

But it was also the 50th anniversary of another event.

On 21 July 1969, another traveller set foot into our labs for the first time. Dr David Rand AM, an electrochemist and CSIRO Honorary Research Fellow, was ready to show us what he too was truly capable of achieving.

Now in his 51st year with us, David has had an illustrious career as a leader in battery, hydrogen energy and fuel cell research. He’s also had a friendship with both Stephen Hawking and Jocelyn Bell Burnell from his time at the University of Cambridge. And he even survived a mutiny on the high seas while on his way to work with us.

Ultimately, it’s been one small step for Rand, one giant leap for sustainable energy.

The beginnings

David enrolled at the University of Cambridge in 1961. After he finished his undergraduate degree in Natural Sciences, he applied for a PhD. But instead of waiting to hear whether he achieved a place in the very competitive Department of Physical Chemistry, he jet-setted to The Netherlands to become a chocolate scientist.

Then things changed in September 1964.

“I had a phone call in the lab in Rotterdam and a gentleman said, ‘I’m Dr John Agar from Cambridge,’” David said.

“He asked me, ‘Do you know anything about fuel cells? Would you like to come back and enrol for a PhD?’

“I said, right… I’m on the next boat, sir.”

David found his PhD proved to be a little difficult in some areas. The students of all the other PhD supervisors were looking at gas reactions. But David was becoming an electrochemist to examine reactions in water-based substances. Additionally, his research involved a lot of high-level maths. As a result, he had to hunt around for help.

“The mathematics got a bit difficult for me so I asked Stephen Hawking if he could help me. We were members of the same college,” David said.

“Every Tuesday night we used to play bridge. There were four or five of us who took turns playing,” he said.

David’s bridge between two friends

“About seven years ago, I visited Stephen with a friend who played in our bridge group,” David said.

“At that stage, Stephen was winking with his eye. I was unaware this was caused by him using a speech-generating device that involved twitching his cheek. Obviously, he said nothing for the 30 mins we were there.”

“But as we were leaving, he came out saying, ’I was not very good at bridge.’ Unbelievable, but I had a witness!”

“My friend who stood next to me had frozen in front of this iconic figure. I didn’t. In fact, I checked his batteries in his wheelchair. I was running out of ideas.”

David even (playfully!) asked Stephen why his batteries were of German origin and not the gel battery we developed.

If that wasn’t enough of a name drop, David served as the President of the Cambridge Graduate Society. His social committee also included Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

Unaware of having, in his presence, the student who was busy becoming the first to observe pulsars, he became irritated when she arrived late to the meetings because of hockey practice.

“I will have to apologise to her sometime,” David said.

A scan of a ticket with the names David and Gwen Rand.

This is David and his wife’s ticket to Melbourne on board the TSS Fairstar. Image: supplied.

Coming to Australia

A life surrounded by so many amazing scientists was about to take David to a new place.

Dr John Agar had just been on sabbatical in Australia. He told David that he should go to a place called The Division of Mineral Chemistry at CSIRO in Port Melbourne, Victoria. According to Dr Agar, it had the best set of electrochemists he’d seen in his life. And that was all David needed to know.

David and his wife got on board the TSS Fairstar and sailed to Melbourne as part of the wider post-war migration of skilled Brits to Australia.

They opted to sail to Australia instead of fly – for one reason.

“I thought a nice cruise would be very a welcome break. I was wrong. It was horrific. It was an Italian ship. Very few of the crew spoke English, we didn’t have any decent food, and there were far too many passengers,” David said.

“There was a passenger mutiny at one stage because we were sick of the way we were being treated.

“There was a knife fight which resulted in a funeral at sea.”

David and his wife ended up arriving at Port Melbourne in one piece. It was cold, dark and rainy. A driver took them to the Federal Hotel. The next day, his future boss with his wife and two daughters, called to meet them.

“‘Where would you like to go’, he asked us. ‘The coast or the hills?” David said.

“Obviously, we chose the latter. We went to the Dandenongs for afternoon tea. And it was still raining. My boss had forgotten to bring sufficient money with him. My wife and I had only £5 ($A11.25 exchanged on the boat) between us and destitution. But I made up the deficit.”

“We were now down to $1.80,” he said.

One small step for David Rand

If arriving at Port Melbourne wasn’t stressful enough, things were about to get a little more interesting for David on that fateful 21 July 1969.

“My boss told me to go up to the Division by mid-morning on the Monday. He gave me instructions on where to stand to get the number eight bus to Garden City. I either received incorrect instructions or I had misinterpreted them because no bus arrived. It was also still raining,” David said.

The rain had now come down in full force and David needed to get to site as quickly as he could.

“In desperation, I flagged a passing taxi and asked the driver how far $1.80 would take me. The driver looked at the drenched vision in front of him, took pity on me and said, ‘No worries, to wherever you are going.’

“On arrival, I found the site deserted. Finally, I traced noises coming from a room in a far corner of the canteen. I opened the door to find a crowd watching the action on the smallest black and white TV that I had ever seen.

“It was precisely 12:56 pm on Monday, 21 July 1969. And at that moment, I joined 600 million people watching mankind taking its ‘one giant leap’ as Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon.”

Man surrounded by students looking over a solar panel

David also co-founded the World Solar Challenge in 1987. Here he is at last year’s event (in the centre). Image: JLousberg.

A powerful career

David’s career has taken him far and wide. And his work in the energy sector has not gone unnoticed. According to some, David became a proverbial ‘rockstar’ in the lead-acid battery industry.

After initially researching methanol fuel cells, he set up the CSIRO Novel Battery Technologies Group. His team members were inspired by what was happening elsewhere in the battery industry. They published a new research paper almost every month.

Eventually, David and his project leaders began their research on lead-acid batteries for which they are best known. It was a relatively established technology at the time. But the team investigated other avenues to improve its performance. And in turn, this improved its productivity and quality.

Another major contribution was solving premature capacity loss (PCL). PCL is a phenomenon that drastically shortens the life of lead-acid batteries. The value of this work to the battery industry is beyond calculation. Other important work involved developing battery technology for remote-area power supply (RAPS) facilities. David and his team installed them in several Asian countries, Peru, Africa, and the Torres Strait Islands.

If that wasn’t enough, David also co-invented the UltraBattery with Lan Lam in 2005. It’s the first lead-based hybrid battery that incorporates a supercapacitor – combining two technologies into one supercharged storage unit. Bonus: it’s also 100 per cent recyclable!

He became a Member of the Order of Australia in 2013 for service to science and technological development in the field of energy storage. He also received the Faraday Medal of the Royal Society of Chemistry and the UNESCO Gaston Planté Medal, amongst his many awards.

Final thoughts

David came to us on the advice of his PhD supervisor. But does he agree we’re full of top-class scientists in a great environment?

Short answer: yes.

David highly values our organisation and the outstanding colleagues with whom he spent his time pushing back the barriers to research. He also appreciates the ‘fine work ethic’ of our support staff and all-important scientists.

“Dr John Agar was totally correct. I consider it fortunate to have been a member of CSIRO for the past 51 years.”