EXCLUSIVE: Hot ideas emerging from Western Canada’s growing battery research cluster
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Jan 15, 2024
Emma Jarratt

In part three of Electric Autonomy’s Behind the Battery series, we visit the Western Canada Battery Consortium and Innovation Hub, which is making an R&D virtue out of Alberta’s cold winter climate

The Western Canada Battery Consortium and Battery Innovation Hub, headed by Professor Venkataraman Thangadurai (far left), has a clear goal: to become the cold weather battery chemistry specialists in the world. Photo: Electric Autonomy

Continuing Electric Autonomy‘s Behind the Battery series, we visit the Western Canada Battery Consortium and Innovation Hub, which is making an R&D virtue out of Alberta’s cold winter climate

The University of Calgary campus looks as though it could be an inviting place on a sunny day.

But in minus temperatures, with a howling wind, the walkways are mostly empty of students as the horizontal sleet — promised later to turn to 15 centimetres of snow piling up overnight — drives everyone indoors.

It’s slippery tiptoeing to finally make it to the doorstep of Science B where an interdepartmental initiative is anchoring and growing the battery industry in Alberta.

The Western Canada Battery Consortium and Battery Innovation Hub, headed by Professor Venkataraman Thangadurai, has a clear goal: to become the cold weather battery chemistry specialists in the world.

“The electrolytes that we made can enable the batteries to operate efficiently at temperatures as low as minus 30 degree centigrade,” says Thangadurai.

“We have made some very promising improvements including: safety from fire hazards, extremely low temperature operation and prolonging the useful life of lithium-ion batteries up to 10 years. I think we have addressed the main problems of current lithium ion battery technology.”

The Western Canada Battery Consortium

If you drew a blank when you first read “the Western Canada Battery Consortium,” you aren’t alone.

The WCBC is a baby by industry standards. It officially launched in 2021 and it’s working to leverage the mineral resources in Alberta as well as the talent at UCalgary and the University of Alberta to position the province as a key stakeholder in Canada’s EV battery supply chain.

“The goal of WCBC is to work pan-institutionally to employ world-class battery technology research at several Canadian universities…WCBC will develop safe, robust, high energy density solid state batteries that have about five times the energy density as the current generation of Li-ion batteries (LIBs),” sums up the WCBC’s website.

Within the WCBC, Thangadurai’s lab at UCalgary is the centre of attention seat for cross-disciplinary battery innovations.

A “super-electrolyte”

Headshot of Professor Thangadurai
Venkataraman Thangadurai, professor of physical chemistry at the University of Calgary Photo: Venkataraman Thangadurai

Thangadurai is a modest organizational head for the WCBC. Soft spoken and deferential during the conversation, he prefers to let the R&D his lab produces speak for itself.

There are a lot of claims about “the greatest” and “the best” in the battery development world. Sometimes it can feel like every stakeholder is picking their favoured pony and trying to create as much lore around it as possible.

But, in Thangadurai’s lab, the tone is different. There is an air of curiosity that goes missing in an environment laser-focused on achieving one pre-supposed outcome. But, even so, sometimes there is a breakthrough that deserves some horn blowing.

Tinkering with battery chemistry for the better part of his 30-year career has finally led Thangadurai’s team to discovering their cold weather capable, non-flammable “super-electrolyte.”

When the Thangadurai lab hit on the breakthrough, they quickly moved to create a spinoff battery technology and cell testing startup called Superionics.

Through Superionics, Thangadurai and his researchers were able to enhance their developed liquid electrolyte’s performance in cold weather, stress test its stability in adverse situations and extend the lifetime of batteries.

Thangadurai calls this long-life, low-temperature electrolyte “game changing battery technology.”

“If you know somebody who was interested in next generation electrolytes, if there’s one place in Canada you can get it, it is in Calgary,” he says.

Diverse research

Some battery researchers or labs today like to specialize in just one type of battery.

With a seeming golden ticket like the “super-electrolyte” it would be easy to drop everything else to work on that technology. But Thangadurai does not like or want to put all his lab’s eggs in one basket.

His group is developed several novel solid-state electrolytes and elemental anodes for future lithium and sodium metal batteries.

“These metal-based batteries are ultimate dream for battery community,” says Thangadurai.

He has enough experience working in the battery industry to see that there likely isn’t a silver bullet, battery “super chemistry” or form that will meet the needs of every application.

With respect to transportation, however, Thangadurai does have a prediction about battery-electric vehicles: “Absolutely the future is thermally stable electrolytes with metallic anodes.”

Vehicles running on solid state batteries are more of a long-term vision, though.

Meanwhile, Thangadurai and his team of researchers are trying (and succeeding with) several interim solutions.

“We do research quite a few different types of battery chemistries ranging from flow batteries, lithium-sulfur batteries, anode-free and solid-state batteries,” explains Thangadurai.

In addition to the battery chemistries, the WCBC also works on solid oxide fuel cells. It’s pretty standard to have one researcher at one bench working on a cutting-edge battery chemistry and another researcher at the bench right behind them working on a fuel cell.

“[We’re] actually building and testing a fuel cell in collaboration with a company from the USA,” says Thangadurai nodding to a researcher dismantling a cylindrical object specified to be an actual fuel cell.

“This project is being supported by Nissan.”

Industry partners

Though the WCBC brand recognition is not mainstream (yet), Thangadurai is working overtime to make industry connections that will, he hopes, secure the Hub’s reputation and future.

With a coalition of researchers uniting under one umbrella, areas of research being pursued, and third-party testing completed (by Nova Scotia-based battery testing lab Novonix), one of the primary items on Thangadurai’s to-do list for the coming year is to establish industry partnerships for the WCBC.

Every research work is expensive, but with the specialized equipment and skillsets needed in a lab, battery research is especially so. What the WCBC is looking for is a deeper partnership and, perhaps, ideally one that feeds back into the made-in-Canada battery supply chain loop.

“We have a lot of collaboration around the world and also regionally,” says Thangadurai.

“[The WCBC is] looking for investors to take this from the lab to somewhere outside. We are now ready to change the world.”

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