In the second panel of Electric Autonomy Canada’s national EV battery supply chain series, three leading battery experts took deep dives into technology, centralizing research and post-vehicle applications
Electric Autonomy Canada hosted its second of a six-part series of national panel discussions on Canada’s national EV battery supply chain this week, with a focus on Canadian R&D and innovation in batteries.
Dr. Jeff Dahn, NSERC/Tesla Canada Industrial Research Chair at Dalhousie University; Dr. Chisu Kim, Director of Research at Hydro-Québec; and Dr. Soeren Striepe, Senior Manager, Electrified Powertrain and Batteries at Magna International are three of this country’s world-leading experts in the field. The discussion was moderated by Emma Jarratt, managing editor of Electric Autonomy Canada.
In an exclusive discussion, they gave their insights on Canada’s cutting-edge potential for innovation in batteries, as well as the challenges that might hold us back. To view a recording of the entire event, click on the video player at the top of this page.
Canada’s position in the world
It’s no secret that battery research is moving quickly. Lithium-ion is still the preference in electric vehicles, but the panel stressed that researchers here are matching their counterparts elsewhere in exploring developments in everything from zinc to solid-state electrolytes to graphite-based batteries.
Their message: from coast-to-coast-to-coast Canadian scientists are pushing the limits of batteries forward. The community here plays a vital role in advancing all varieties of chemistries and the R&D coming out of Canada is something the world watches and wants to be a part of.
That being said, the panelists pointed out some areas where Canada could do better to solidify its position and organize research and researchers in a more productive way. Of particular concern: the independent and disconnected nature of the country’s research teams can be a potential barrier holding back innovation.
“We don’t have a centre of gravity to put together different stakeholders [and] different expertise to create synergy,” said Kim.
Centre of Excellence needed?
A national battery Centre of Excellence, which would pool university and government labs together, could serve as that centre of gravity. The panelists outlined a vision for a centre that could make researching technology commercially viable — especially in the first few years when innovations don’t yet make money. One of the success stories of such centres in other countries they cited is the Faraday Institution in the United Kingdom as an example balancing “productivity and confidentiality.”
Striepe expanded, saying in Canada’s case it doesn’t have to just be the one centre: “It could be a community of multiple research teams, and industry participants in a constant exchange about projects.” But all the panelists acknowledged the collaborative nature of any centre may cause issues when, currently, top researchers are typically backed by corporations motivated to keep cutting-edge developments for their own products.
“I think many university scientists, like myself, have funding from industrial partners, and industrial partners are looking to get an advantage over the competition,” said Dahn. With so much competition in this area, Dahn said no company wants to “give up their secret sauce” and while an umbrella national organization would be excellent for encouraging start ups and more foreign interest, much of the sponsored research happening now will continue.
“I believe a centre of excellence is not the whole solution. It’s just a part of the solution,” added Kim.
And even with the rapid development of technology, all the panelists expressed confidence that a Canadian battery Centre of Excellence could keep up with the battery development of the future and an investment today, would not be obsolete in 10 years and, in fact, many of the technologies of tomorrow may come out of a Canadian centre.
“We’re very well set up in Canada for that,” said Dahn. “There’s really, really powerful research going on across the country in many of the universities.”
Battery second life
Another key topic for the group — one that was also a focus of many questions from the hundreds of webinar viewers — was the issue of what to do with batteries after their EV life. Dahn used the hypothetical example of a “typical” EV battery where the full charge-and-discharge cycle yields enough power to travel roughly 500 kilometres. If a vehicle did 800 full cycles, that works out to 400,000 kms of charging — longer than most people keep a vehicle, but not nearly enough to exhaust the energy lifetime of the battery.
“The modern lithium ion battery is going to outlast the vehicle,” said Dahn, “so you don’t want to just recycle it, you want to reuse it.” Panelists estimated a battery can still hold anywhere between 60 to 80 per cent of capacity once the car is done.
Another option, while drivers still own their vehicles, is to tap batteries for power when they’re not in use, said Dahn. “Why not connect the vehicle to the grid and … store energy from solar and wind and deliver it back when the car is parked?”
Kim pointed out that while second-life use is environmentally beneficial, re-fitting a battery for use other than in a car may currently be more expensive than making another one altogether.
“To make the second life possible, I believe the design of the battery pack should be re-oriented to keep second-use in mind,” she said, adding that the process needs to be easier and cheaper.
And to Dahn’s point about vehicle-to-grid charging, although using leftover energy to power houses and buildings “totally makes sense,” Kim added there needs to be more research done to design batteries for more than vehicle use, as well as consideration of the many regulations and stakeholders that become involved once the batteries are a utility.
One of those stakeholders would be EV owners. Striepe said it would be prudent to consider the issue from a customer’s perspective, who might not want to give up such a valuable part of their car for public utility.
“One way is to make it very attractive to pay a good price for the energy that comes out of the car when it is discharged,” he said.
Electric Autonomy’s next panel discussion on Battery Metals Extraction and Processing will take place on June 15. You can register for the event here.
Congratulations for an excellent Session 2. The speakers were very qualified and professional. All of the comments were right on the money. The big theme of the session was searching for an answer on how to group all of the research activities under a significant program. Some thought was given to creating a national research institute (a physical entity staffed with specialists) or a centre of excellence. This is a very complex issue and one that I have had the privilege of being involved with when I was at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) in the 1980s and 1990s. I was one of three who defined and created an R&D institute in advanced manufacturing technologies.
I support the position that creating an institute is the worst case scenario. In my experience, the politics and the financial commitments are too complex and there simply is not enough time to go through such a process. First, there must be a political champion that can get the government in power to support such a venture and I can’t see that there is any political will at this time. Plus, my former research institute had a number of false starts over about 8 years that were cancelled with a change in political party in power. Our attempt was successful only because there was strong industrial support. However, it still took 5 years from approval to inauguration. The long and short is that there just isn’t enough time to go through such an ordeal, and if it were successful, it would come too late.
I fully endorse the approach of a distributed center of excellence where each component specializes in one or more related technologies. And there is no shortage of topics. Your three speakers listed a number of topics: extraction of raw materials, processing of these materials, researching alternate materials, electrolytes, clean manufacturing, battery pack design, product evaluation, repurposing/reuse/recycling, charging strategies, modeling, duty cycles for different applications, testing/evaluating, etc. There also is no shortage of top notch R&D leaders in Canada. Two of your Session 2 speakers are great examples of R&D leaders that already have a financial and infrastructure base on which they work and the third is a great example of a leading Canadian manufacturer ready to adopt new technology. The missing element is a qualified centre of excellence coordinator that is led by science and who can operate effectively regardless of the political party in power. It’s a tough call, however, I believe that Daniel Breton, CEO of Electric Mobility Canada of Session 1 is a great example of one who has the capability and the connections required to do this job.
The biggest challenge is getting the additional funding that is needed to flesh out the various R&D programs. The classical approach is to have a willing industrial “benefactor” that provides the additional funding. However, this always comes with strings attached – the intellectual property is owned by and stays with the company that provides the funds. A better approach that I found to be extremely effective in my former NRC institute as well as in another NRC institute focused on industrial materials in which I played a major role before being recruited to form the advanced manufacturing institute is the Special Interest Group (SIG) format. Each of the topics listed in the paragraph above could be a SIG or part of a SIG. In this format, manufacturing leaders are invited to participate in defining, supporting, testing and ultimately adopting the technology of the SIG. To belong to a SIG, the participating companies sign a SIG contract, pay an annual membership fee and in return, they act as a board in defining R&D deliverables and their timing, plus they have access to the ensuing IP at no additional cost as long as they are in the SIG while IP ownership remains with the R&D developer. This format provides a sense of belonging and purpose to the participants, not to mention a tangible outcome. Over the years that I organized SIG, I learned that all reasonable Canadian manufacturers find this format to be attractive. Recruiting SIG membership is an ongoing task and this is the biggest contribution that the qualified centre of excellence coordinator would play. I also found that provincial and federal assistance programs can be tapped for financial support of such a centre of excellence coordinator. It’s the snowball effect – hard to start up but then the government funding does come once the purse holders realize that the industry is serious and is involved.
I trust that these comments can be beneficial to you in providing your feedback to your collaborators.
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