Tesla and Dalhousie University ink new research partnership deal
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Jan 18, 2021
Emma Jarratt

Tesla is renewing its industrial research partnership with the Jeff Dahn lab at Dalhousie University for a second five-year term, with preeminent lithium-ion battery scientist Dahn still at the helm

Tesla is renewing its industrial research partnership with the Jeff Dahn lab at Dalhousie University for a second five-year term, with preeminent lithium-ion battery scientist Dahn still at the helm

The Tesla-Jeff Dahn-Dalhousie alliance, one of the most watched research contracts in the cleantech world, today announced a new deal for a second five-year term taking the relationship until at least 2026.

The extension — with lab head Jeff Dahn remaining in his post as NSERC/Tesla Canada Inc. Industrial Research Chair and the Canada Research Chair in Materials for Advanced Batteries — sees the addition of two new chairholders: Dr. Chonyin Yang as Tesla Canada Research Chair and Dr. Michael Metzger as Herzberg-Dahn Chair.

The renewal not only fortifies Dalhousie’s prominence in the field of international battery research, it is also tacit confirmation that Tesla — the most valuable automative manufacturer in the world — is benefiting from the work coming out of Dahn’s lab even if they remain tight-lipped about what, exactly, it is that’s being developed.

Advancing Tesla’s “mission”

“We are thrilled to be extending and expanding our work with Dalhousie and Jeff Dahn with the addition of Chongyin and Michael. We look forward to their important contributions in battery technology to help achieve our mission,” said Tesla in the announcement press release.

All parties closely guard the goings-on in the lab. Dahn is notoriously self-effacing, preferring to put his head down and get on with the science. But there is no mistaking the quality and impact of Dahn’s research that has made it to the public domain.

From novel ways to alter mineral chemistry in lithium-ion batteries to confirming the existence of a “million-mile battery” to the latest patent granted in December 2020 for a “one-pot method” for synthesizing compounds that would bring efficiency to the chemical process and reduce the amount of harmful solvent used; Dahn’s research causes excitement and buzz around the world.

“Our goal is to continue to help Tesla develop better advanced batteries for its products,” says Dahn in the press release about the news.

When Electric Autonomy Canada contacted Dahn this morning, he simply added, “The team is awesome.”

Research and results

Between 2016 and 2021, during Tesla’s first contract with Dahn, the EV maker hit some critical industry high points: the development of an anode-free lithium-ion battery; acquisitions of key North American properties that vertically integrate Tesla’s supply chain and drive down costs; and the reveal of a battery that costs 56 per cent less at the company’s September 2020 Battery Day event.

It’s not known how many (if any) of the announced Tesla achievements can be linked directly back to Dahn’s lab and Dahn certainly isn’t prepared to publicly reveal who deserves credit for what. But he says the research partnership and all lab work is guided by a mantra: reduce cost, boost density and stretch out the lifetime of the lithium-ion battery. As long as those are the guiding principles there are very few limitations put on the chosen fellows of Dahn’s lab as they try any and everything to beat the last apex in lithium battery technology.

“We do things that no else does,” Dahn once described in a Dalhousie University biography article. “We have fearless builders.”

Similarities and differences

Clearly Dahn, Dalhousie and Tesla have all enjoyed a net benefit from the first partnership, but this new phase allows an opportunity to reassess what’s working and what isn’t.

Dalhousie University logo
The initial collaboration agreement was a first for Tesla and a Canadian university.

What will stay the same is the original premise of the sponsored research: Tesla will fund Dahn’s lab and claim exclusive right to the developments and inventions that come out of it. The biggest change is simply the breadth of research. The press release describes Yang and Metzger’s team contributions as, “developing high-performance materials for advanced lithium-ion batteries” and “developing novel methods to study the performance and lifetime of advanced lithium-ion batteries, lithium metal batteries and desalination batteries,” respectively.

Dahn has told Electric Autonomy Canada in previous interviews the most fulfilling aspect of his career is the mentorship of the students that go through his lab. What may be less known to the public is that Dahn is a committed community man. Giving back to the Nova Scotia ecosystem that helped nurture his career and provide him with support, academic resources and nurtured a cleantech space around his lab is important to him. Under the terms of the original Tesla deal, Dahn wasn’t allowed to take on mentor roles or consult with other clean tech start ups in the province. Now, that will change. For the next five years Dahn is free to work with the leading EV maker and help the little guys, too.

“There was some negotiation as to how that would work out,” says Dahn. “It will be with selected Nova Scotia business.”

Tesla in Canada

Tesla has long had an interest in Canada.

Of course, there is Jeff Dahn. Then there is the Jeff Dahn student brain trust Tesla has availed itself of over the years both in its hires and in its close relationship with Novonix, a high-precision battery testing company in Bedford, N.S., that spun out of Dahn’s lab.

And then there is Tesla’s behind-the-scenes activity elsewhere here. In October 2019, Electric Autonomy Canada exclusively reported Tesla had quietly acquired Hibar Systems Ltd., a high-precision dispensing pump manufacturer crucial in the assembly process of batteries. While Tesla only made one small mention of Hibar on Battery Day, lobbyist registry documents show that between October and December of last year, Tesla rechristened it Tesla Toronto Automation ULC.

It’s unclear what the name change signifies or how Tesla has built the acquisition into its vertical integration. But a recent job postings on Tesla’s website indicates the company is looking for new hires for TTA ULC who can work with “a new generation of high speed, automated manufacturing equipment” and contribute to “the development of new automation equipment and assembly lines.”

A large part of Tesla’s battery cost-reducing strategy is refining and synergizing their manufacturing process. Tesla projects bringing efficiencies to their cell factories will account for 18 per cent of their overall 56 per cent reduction in $/KWH costs over the next three years.

A more highly automated precision dispensing pump process in Toronto, coupled with Dahn’s latest patented “one-pot” chemical process could indicate Canadian innovation will have a significant hand in helping Tesla achieve their battery cost cutting goals through 2021.

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