Listen: Slate podcast features a profile of the forensic analysis process

Slate’s podcast, Working, profiles various professionals in an attempt to understand what certain unique jobs entail. In a recent episode, Jacob Brogan profiled Mark Hughes, a self-described “cell technical specialist” who performs forensic analysis of batteries:

The lab where Hughes works is an enormous facility, coming in at around 85,000 square feet. It includes equipment that allows the company to put in-development batteries through their paces under unusual and extreme circumstances. (If your memory of how batteries work is, like mine, fuzzy, fear not: Hughes also clearly explains the underlying processes.) They can, for example, test how those cells perform under temperatures higher or lower than any driver would be likely to encounter.

“When those batteries fail … they’re then given to me, and then I perform what’s called a battery teardown,” Hughes tells us. “What I do is I literally cut the pouch that the battery is encased in. I open it up, and I look through the electrodes and try to piece together what happened in the chemistry of the battery during these extremely strenuous test environments.” He and his colleagues then try to create a report that can help the company and its suppliers ensure the next generation of models will function better.

Though Hughes also goes into detail about the other elements of his work, it’s the process of pulling apart a battery and inspecting the insides that clearly excites him most. “The teardowns are absolutely the most fun part of my job,” Hughes says. “Because teardowns are such nonstandard work, there really is no handbook for how to do a battery teardown. … Small variations could result in huge consequences throughout the battery.”

The process Hughes describes above is fairly similar to the destructive testing protocols we use in the investigation of building performance issues. So, I can absolutely relate to that feeling of excitement that comes from performing a root cause analysis of a failure mechanism, with the express goal of preventing future incidents of failure.