University of Waterloo’s new Ontario Battery and Electrochemistry Research Centre aims to create an R&D platform for Canadian innovation
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May 28, 2024
Emma Jarratt

Centre co-leader Linda Nazar gives Electric Autonomy’s Behind the Battery series a glimpse of the next-generation battery technologies U of W researchers are exploring

The Ontario Battery and Electrochemistry Research Centre (OBEC), announced in March 2024, is led by chemistry professor Linda Nazar and University of Waterloo chemical engineering professor Michael Pope. Photo: University of Waterloo

Centre co-leader Linda Nazar gives Electric Autonomy‘s Behind the Battery series a glimpse of the next-generation battery technologies U of W researchers are exploring

There is a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere on the University of Waterloo campus.

Students and faculty alike have literally (and figuratively) shaken off the weight of the winter semester. It’s one of the first T-shirt weather days and finals wrapped up the week previously.

Life at UofW seems good.

A few minutes walk down the main tree-lined path brings pedestrians to the doorstep of one of the campus’s newer looking buildings. It’s here — in the glass-walled Mike & Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum-Nano Centre — that some of the most advanced battery research in Canada is happening.

“This is a $160-million building with $4 elevators,” University of Waterloo chemistry professor Linda Nazar remarks drily while giving a tour to Electric Autonomy as the wait to go down a few floors to her labs approaches its third minute.

The Ontario Battery and Electrochemistry Research Centre (OBEC), announced in March 2024, is led by Nazar (also the Canada Research Chair in Solid State Energy Materials) and University of Waterloo chemical engineering professor Michael Pope.

OBEC is the formalization and consolidation of two careers worth of research into battery technology into one hub. It will also, if all goes to plan, become a leading engine driving forward battery innovation for Canada and an incubator for talent and resources for the wider industry.

“We’re very, very keen on this new technology,” says Nazar. “That is certainly our vision for going forward.”

The battery of the future

The obvious question to ask Nazar is: what battery chemistry will win the race and which ones are being worked on at Waterloo?

Her response is a dizzying laundry list of proven, promising and provocative mixologies for cathodes, anodes and separators.

Lithium ion. Solid state lithium ion. Magnesium ion. Solid state lithium sulfur. Aqueous zinc ion. Solid state sodium. Silicon anodes. Garnet lithium anodes. Organic compounds. Inorganic compounds.

So, are OBEC researchers looking into all of these areas? Yes — and more. In some cases they are among the first researchers to delve into untested combinations. In others, they are trying to hone and refine what already works.

“We have a wide focus. That’s because, really, you can’t put your eggs all in one basket,” Nazar says.

“My feeling is I think solid state technology will probably win out. But I don’t know that for sure…so we will keep all of our little cars moving along.”

No battery is one-size-fits-all

Not only does Nazar not want to overspecialize OBEC’s researchers into certain types of battery chemistries, she also doesn’t want to restrict what applications Waterloo battery R&D may be developed for.

“There isn’t really one basket that fits all,” says Nazar. “There are different batteries you’ll need for grid storage and you need for automotive. Then, you might want to power a drone where the weight of the battery in that case really counts.”

The ultimate goal is for OBEC to secure industry partners across a spectrum of industries. (Nazar and her researchers already enjoy a successful 13-year relationship with chemical giant BASF.)

Automotive would be one, of course, but Nazar knows partners come in all shapes and sizes and she wants OBEC to be open to all of them. But that won’t be for at least a couple of years, she estimates, while the lab establishes itself.

“Once we get the facility up and running that’s when we can start reaching out,” Nazar says. “Most likely, [partners] would be interested in collaborating and developing new materials and then having OBEC test those materials in prototype cells.”

Will OBEC ever run its own pilot line that serves many companies in many industries? Perhaps, says Nazar.

“Ultimately, we’re hoping that it’ll grow into that. Hopefully it’s sort of like a snowball that will roll upon itself.”

Waterloo battery research momentum

The professional lifecycle of a researcher is years of challenges, trial and error and setbacks punctuated with tiny breakthroughs. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you hit the research jackpot.

Nazar contemplates the “markers of success” for her and her students’ research.

“In solid state cells right now we’re fighting with trying to develop cells that work at really close to ambient pressure. So, a marker of success there would be to develop a battery that functions with a capacity very similar to its liquid electrolyte counterpart, but where we have controlled the interfaces in the cell and we don’t have to put an enormous pressure in the cell to make it function well. We would be jumping for joy once we got to that point.”

But, says Nazar, there are many small victories to win between now and that point. And the outcomes of these successes could mean an award or a paper or a new patent. They could also mean a battery spin-off company that would generate jobs in Waterloo and resow talent back into the Canadian EV battery supply chain. Or support to bolster a big-name brand onshoring its battery production.

“The markers of success are very different in all of these — whether you want to call them chemistries or technologies,” says Nazar.

“We talk a lot about innovation in this company and in this country. But what’s really needed is that whole ecosystem in place that can then provide the site, the talent, the knowledge and the training that is required. What would be great is if we can develop OBEC into a research and development platform to interface with these companies and their battery materials development.”

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