The Jeff Dahn effect: superstar alumni and a growing regional battery cluster
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Aug 21, 2020
Emma Jarratt

In the second of our feature series on the NSERC/Tesla Canada Industrial Research Chair, we focus on the cluster of lithium-ion battery expertise building around Dahn’s lab at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and his extended impact on the next generation of Canadian researchers and developers

Jeff Dahn with a student in his Dalhousie-based lab. Source: NSERC

In the second of our feature series on the NSERC/Tesla Canada Industrial Research Chair, we focus on the cluster of lithium-ion battery expertise building around Dahn’s lab at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and his extended impact on the next generation of Canadian researchers and developers

Lithium-ion batteries are critical to the future of green energy and Nova Scotia is going all in to support and grow its cleantech economy — in significant part by harnessing the power of an industry champion.

“We recognize Jeff Dahn is a significant force in the battery world,” says Suzanne Fraser, investment attraction executive at Nova Scotia Business Inc. (NSBI), a business development agency.

“Everyone in the international space knows who he is.”

For 40 years, Jeffrey Dahn, a Dalhousie University physics professor and the NSERC/Tesla Canada Industrial Research Chair, has been immersed in lithium-ion technology. As detailed in the first article in this series, based on his exclusive interview with Electric Autonomy Canada, Dahn’s reputation as an industry pioneer was a steady build until 2016, when he was catapulted to international name recognition after signing an exclusive five-year R&D contract with Tesla.

Lasting impact

In a 2017 TEDx talk, Dahn estimates one in 10 electric cars on the road uses chemistry that comes out of his lab. Much global credit is owed to Dahn for advancing technology and establishing lithium-ion as a viable energy storage option.

But back in Nova Scotia, there are signs — and expectations — that Dahn will have an even greater, lasting impact on his home soil.

Through his work at Dalhousie, Dahn is not only developing and testing new methods of energy storage and publishing world-famous papers on his findings, but attracting and mentoring the best and brightest minds from around the world — the next generation of lithium-ion researchers. Beyond the classroom, spin-off companies, partnerships and contracts with international technology leaders are also taking root.

“Everything we’ve done is really only possible because of the opportunities from Jeff…to this day [he] still refers customers to us who come to him with questions. We couldn’t be here without him, frankly,” says Chris Burns, a former Dahn student and the co-founder of Novonix, a company in suburban Halifax formed out of Dahn’s lab to develop battery testing equipment.

It may not yet be common knowledge across Canada, but Nova Scotia is undergoing a transformation from Canada’s crown jewel for seafood, ships and Alexander Keith’s to a globally recognized battery research and development cluster. Call it the Jeff Dahn effect.

Helping local companies

Dahn — who first moved to Nova Scotia at age 13 when his family emigrated from Bridgeport, Conn. — is always looking ahead to what’s around the next curve, both for himself, professionally and the industry. As we reported in our previous article, Dahn says his goal is “to be able to help more local start-ups in Nova Scotia. When I retire that will be my goal: to help more local companies.”

In fact, as the example of Burns and Novonix shows, that work is already well underway. Dahn is committed to building an industry in Nova Scotia that will retain the talent that passes through his lab and the other nine university and 13 college campuses in the province.

“There are some very good labs and researchers across the country,” says Dahn. “I’m proudest of my students who have gone off and done really well. I think that makes me the most happy, to tell you the truth.”

“If you combine those two things together: ‘I have to work more and think more’ and ‘It has to be right,’ you have a pretty good scientist there.”

Jeff Dahn, NSERC / Tesla Canada Industrial Research Chair

On the Jeff Dahn Research Group lab website there is a list of former students. It’s a wall of fame for graduates of Dahn’s program that tracks their careers.

Research scientists, Tesla engineers, CEOs, professors — the possibilities appear limitless.

Thousands of students around the world vie for the opportunity to join the lab. Today there are currently 18 students from six countries — just a snapshot of the international appeal the lab enjoys.

“It’s really nice to get a cross section of people from all over the world,” says Dahn. “I’m taking on people who are passionate about the type of research that we do, who are really creative, think outside the box and think of things that I don’t think of.”

Dahn works closely with his protégés, helping guide their research, hone their methods and chase their passion.

The key, Dahn says is to nurture precision and grit in each of the students. “If you combine those two things together: ‘I have to work more and think more’ and ‘It has to be right,’ you have a pretty good scientist there.”

So far Dahn’s lab boasts two direct spin-off companies situated in the Halifax area: Novonix and DPM Solutions, a company that designs custom research equipment.

The cluster building up around Dahn’s lab and the labs of other notable Dalhousie researchers — including professors Mark Obrovac and Lukas Swan — have helped lure companies like battery maker Salient Energy to relocate from Ontario to the Atlantic Coast and helped to attract the attention of international power players like Apple, GM and Panasonic.

Novonix, meanwhile, which Burns co-founded with David Stevens, another of Dahn’s former students, now holds contracts with companies in over 15 countries — including Tesla, Samsung and Microsoft. Beyond its founders, the company has an additional five Dahn mentees working in their lab, including Dahn’s son.

The making of a mentor

Dahn comes by his mentoring skills and passion for teaching honestly, having spent his life working his way through the ranks of battery research; starting as a student, climbing to a lab head and working with everything from lithium metal to lithium-ion to hydrogen fuel cells.

He got his first break in the battery industry at age 21; taken under the wing of Rudi Haering, a University of British Columbia professor working to commercialize the rechargeable lithium-metal battery.

“In the 1980s there were no rechargeable lithium batteries or lithium-ion batteries and a lot of the materials and components you’d need weren’t available,” recalls Dahn. “[For example] we started out using the wick-able membranes from disposable diapers as separators.”

Dahn’s relationship and eventual employment with Haering, who was later named an Officer of the Order of Canada, yielded two important discoveries: the thrill of innovation and the value of a great mentor.

The two keep in touch to this day.

When asked for his impressions of Dahn, Haering tells Electric Autonomy Canada: “Jeff’s work at Moli Energy, NRC and Dalhousie is world-renowned. He is one of the world’s most respected scientists in the field of Li-ion batteries…even [in 1980] it was clear that Jeff was outstanding.”

A nucleus to build around

The potential to leverage the Jeff Dahn effect to build a lasting battery cluster in the Halifax area is by now top of mind for the Nova Scotia Business Inc. (NSBI).

By pairing that hub with the province’s overall academic and R&D expertise as well as Canada’s preferred market access, it also hopes to entice more manufacturing to move to the province to really cement the industry as an end-to-end provincial mainstay.

“What happens when you get a nucleus that’s so strong in terms of their skill and expertise…you end up at this place where they grow and nurture people who grow and become their own entities and have their own expertise,” says Laurel Broten, CEO and president of NSBI.

The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy: “Others around the world say, ‘Hey, I want to be in that zone and near that expertise,’ and it just begins to grow,” says Broten.

“[For example] I spoke with a company who partnered with Novonix to pilot their cells,” adds her colleague Fraser. “Because of that partnership they are now interested in locating some R&D here and they are exploring Nova Scotia as a potential place to manufacture their battery cells as well. R&D is kind of a good way for them to dip their toe in the water and then we hope they scale here as well.”

“Every time I speak to a battery company and say, ‘Have you ever heard of Nova Scotia?’ they say ‘Oh, yes, we know about Nova Scotia because of Jeff.'”.

Ironically, part of their selling job is still about raising local awareness of Dahn’s story and influence.

“We want to make sure people locally understand the significant impact he’s making globally to the development of lithium ion batteries,” says Fraser.

Keeping talent at home

Part of that is highlighting Dahn’s initial pursuit of Tesla in 2014. He singlehandedly “brought the relationship to Nova Scotia,” recalls Burns. Ultimately, Tesla expanded its reach into the province. They opened a research centre in Dartmouth in 2016 and have relationships with local labs — like Novonix — to test research coming out of the adjacent Halifax cluster.

That investment, in turn, has led to the creation of good R&D jobs with high-profile companies — the ones that students would have previously chased to California — which helps Nova Scotia retain the talent they teach.

It’s a realization of one of Dahn’s goals: stemming the national brain drain by creating opportunities that allow Canadian researchers to find good jobs at home.

“All these kind of direct links are ways Jeff really supports the people around him and the people who come up through his lab,” says Burns.

“He’s the reason we’re here, the reason all these things have started up here and the reason that momentum has really been gained here. He’s a really modest guy and would shy away from this, but at the end of the day it all does tie back to his influence on the industry and his ability to bring these types of opportunities or help create these types of opportunities here in Atlantic Canada.”

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