The Jeff Dahn interview: One-on-one with Canada’s foremost lithium-ion battery expert
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Leader Interviews
Jul 10, 2020
Emma Jarratt

From his renowned research lab at Dalhousie University, the NSERC/Tesla Canada Industrial Research Chair speaks exclusively to Electric Autonomy on lithium-ion battery progress, vehicle-to-grid integration, hydrogen and more

From his renowned research lab at Dalhousie University, the NSERC/Tesla Canada Industrial Research Chair speaks exclusively to Electric Autonomy on lithium-ion battery progress, vehicle-to-grid integration, hydrogen and more

According to Professor Jeffrey Dahn, Canada’s reputation for turning out top talent, innovation and products in battery technology is polling worldwide at an all-time high.

Dahn would know. He is a lithium-ion pioneer and the NSERC/Tesla Canada Industrial Research Chair. His name is synonymous with battery technology.

“I think Canada is pulling way above our weight in lithium-ion battery R&D and beyond lithium-ion R&D,” says Dahn in an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with Electric Autonomy Canada. “We are in a very good place in the moment, I have to say — and it’s only going to get better.”

That prediction is just one of many things Dahn discusses in his interview. Among the others:

  • He lifts the curtain on what he believes could be around the corner in the lithium-ion battery space including the prospect of a million-mile and $100/kWh battery
  • Besides that battery’s obvious benefits for EV makers and EV drivers, Dahn explains why it’s also significant for utilities keen to scale up vehicle-to-grid charging
  • Dahn tells us what 10 years of working in hydrogen fuel cells earlier in his career taught him about their likely role in electric transportation.
  • He shares his thoughts on why Canada is a natural place to build a lithium-ion battery plant — and why it isn’t

Canadian talent on the battery stage

The word “boast” doesn’t seem to exist in Dahn’s lexicon, but he’s proud to stand by his research. To Dahn, the future lies in lithium-ion batteries and much of it is due to the work coming out of labs around the world, including his.

Last October, Electric Autonomy Canada exclusively reported Tesla acquired Richmond Hill, Ont.-based company Hibar Systems Ltd. Hibar specializes in precision pump dispensing equipment used in battery manufacturing.

Tesla has yet to comment publicly on the news. But the reveal generated intense public interest about the under-tapped potential Tesla was seeing and investing in, in Canada.

“There are some very good labs and researchers across the country,” says Dahn. “Batteries are going to get smaller, cheaper, longer lasting.”

Dahn rattles off names of his colleagues — Xueliang (Andy) Sun at Western University, Zhongwei Chen and Linda Nazar at University of Waterloo, the Hydro-Québec research team and E-One Moli Energy research teams. All esteemed, decorated and celebrated researchers in their own right — people he admires.

Significant successes

While there is natural competition in the race to the best battery, Canadian researchers and developers champion each other’s successes. And they have been significant. The world’s first alkaline and lithium batteries were invented by Canadian Lewis Urry, in 1954. In 1977, the world’s first rechargeable lithium-metal battery was commercialized in British Columbia by Moli Energy Ltd. — the company of Dahn’s early mentor, Rudi Haering.

Since then innumerable Canadian talents have gone abroad to work at leading global tech companies.

And then there is Dahn: a rising star in Canada’s battery labs for 15 years before setting up his own shop at Dalhousie in 1996 where, as a professor in both the departments of physics and chemistry, he heads the Jeff Dahn Research Group.

In 2016, he formed an exclusive research partnership with Tesla “to develop lithium-ion batteries with longer lifetime, higher energy density and lower cost.”

Dahn said at the time of the announcement, “Our goal is to do something useful.”

By his own account Dahn and his group have achieved at least one of those aims — longevity — as outlined in a paper his team published in 2019.

The promise that a long-lifetime, or million-mile, battery holds for the EV sector is huge. If and when a lithium-ion battery is developed that hits the $100/kWh price point, that is when cost parity between EVs and internal combustion vehicles will be achieved, say experts.

“What you are going to find is that as manufacturing becomes more and more scaled over time, at the same types of volumes as internal combustion vehicles, the costs of EVs are going to come quite a bit down,” says Dahn.

In April, Tesla founder Elon Musk dropped major news to analysts about how “scaled” production could become: his company is eyeing premises for a Terafactory for Cybertrucks in Austin, Tex.

Hydrogen fuel cells versus lithium-ion

To those who don’t know Dahn’s history it may seem like he holds a singular preoccupation with lithium-ion. Not so.

Dahn spent a decade in the fuel cell space trying to riddle out just that question: is lithium-ion the best? How does it stack up against another magic fuel source: the hydrogen fuel cell? The answer, he found, comes down to math. And it doesn’t favour the fuel cell.

Dahn’s calculus starts with the type of energy used to make hydrogen in the first place: fossil fuels or green.

“As soon as you say the only source of hydrogen that you’ll accept is hydrogen that comes from the electrolysis of water by solar or wind … that’s about 70 per cent efficient,” he says. “And then you have to take the hydrogen and compress it into tanks. And that’s about 90 per cent efficient. Then you have to run a fuel cell, which is only about 55 per cent efficient.”

“By the time you multiply those three efficiencies together, from the solar panel or windmill to the wheels of the car, it’s about 35 per cent efficient. And if you compare that to a lithium-ion system, you are about 95 per cent efficient,” says Dahn.

“The fuel cell has this fundamental limitation of an efficiency problem. As soon as you say you can’t use fossil fuels and everything is coming from solar and wind then the fuel cell doesn’t look very good.”

Long-range transportation

That’s not to say there isn’t a place for hydrogen fuel cells at all.

“The only reason to use a fuel cell might be for extremely long-range transportation like long-haul trucking where people are going 1,000 kilometres per day,” says Dahn.

Trucks that aren’t stopping for food or bathroom breaks make more sense for hydrogen fuel than road-trippers who can plug in during pit stops.

As for the solid-state batteries in R&D at the Volkswagen labs, Dahn is interested in the developments, but isn’t sure they will be catching up to lithium-ion’s 40-year head start anytime soon. “The [lithium-ion] cost is decent and the performance and lifetime is very good — the safety record is far better than a gasoline-powered car,” says Dahn.

“Whether something better can come along, I don’t know. It remains to be seen what kind of performance those types of solid state batteries can deliver and at what cost.”

Are we there yet?

There are thousands of online discussions speculating about what battery heights Tesla will reach by their upcoming Battery Day — currently scheduled for Sept. 15, after multiple delays. Tesla watchers are on tenterhooks.

But as yet there is no official confirmation about what, exactly, will be announced.

As part of the terms of this interview Dahn was explicit: he could not discuss Tesla and his work for them nor could Electric Autonomy Canada bring it up. Both sides adhered to the agreement.

Dahn is firm in respecting Tesla’s privacy. He refrains from discussing the specifics of his work (demurring, for example, when asked what his April 2020 patent application “Method For Synthesizing Nickel-Cobalt-Aluminum Electrodes” means for battery advancement).

But his guiding principles — the creed by which he conducts his research — offer a peek behind the curtain. “We have three major goals: reduce the cost of lithium-ion batteries, help improve the lifetime and improve the energy density,” says Dahn. “Everything we do addresses those three goals.”

But have they done it?

“I think the $100/kWh is very attainable,” says Dahn.

And the long-lifetime or million-mile battery?

Well, Dahn writes it himself in his paper, “We present a wide range of testing results on an excellent moderate-energy-density…We conclude that cells of this type should be able to power an electric vehicle for over 1.6 million kilometers (1 million miles) and last at least two decades in grid energy storage.”

And since then Dahn has only seen further real-life proof that a long-lifetime lithium-ion battery exists in the now.

“I know there are companies that manufacture things like that at this time,” says Dahn. “We’re not far off. Some lithium-ion batteries are there.”

Vehicle-to-grid solution

That last statement doesn’t simply unlock the potential around price and longevity the million-mile battery offers to EV makers and drivers. It also points to ways in which the million-mile battery could also be the Rosetta Stone for a green energy future — through vehicle-to-grid energy transfer.

“I mean how often do you drive a million miles? Probably not very often,” says Dahn. “And you need a really long-lifetime battery if you want to tie into the grid.”

Here’s the situation. For utilities to be able to bring solar and wind energy online at the scale needed to replace fossil fuels, the grid needs to add a huge amount of electricity storage capability — to ensure electricity is available when it’s needed, not just when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining.

To illustrate the magnitude of the storage needs, Dahn points to the province of Ontario which consumes, on average, 500 gigawatt hours per day. “You would need to take world production of lithium-ion batteries in 2022, buy every single lithium battery produced in 2022, site them in Ontario and then you would have enough electricity storage to power Ontario for one day,” says Dahn. “One day. It’s just massive.”

“What’s that battery going to look like [to achieve that all over the world]?” Dahn asks rhetorically. “I don’t know. Do we have enough resources to create energy storage at that level? I just don’t know.”

What he does know is that plugging a multitude of cars with million-mile batteries into the grid when they are parked at home or business “is an important part of the puzzle.”

“You’ll sign up with a utility to let them use your car to store and deliver energy within certain limits,” says Dahn. “In doing that kind of approach you are putting discharge cycles on your car without ever moving. This is why you need a really long-lifetime battery if you want to tie to the grid.”

Vehicle-to-grid won’t be feasible everywhere, cautions Dahn. “It works in the case where people are going to be connected. Then you can do it. I feel like it’s going to be a reasonable majority of people who are like that.”

Recycling and manufacturing

The longevity of the million-mile battery — remember Dahn’s 2019 paper says they’ll have the potential of lasting two decades — also raises the prospect of “second use” of these batteries for full-time energy storage once the car expires.

While Dahn concedes that he doesn’t have a lot of expertise in battery recycling, “it appears there are paths forward for economical recycling, which is a good thing,” he says.

“Where do internal combustion engines go? You recycle a lot of the metals from those, that’s for sure. There is no reason you couldn’t do the same for batteries as well.”

The mention of recycling and end-of-life battery opportunities also brings the discussion full circle, to the production of batteries in the first place. It’s an area where many Canadian policy makers, OEMs, politicians and labour leaders argue this country needs to get in the game to expand our stake in the battery supply chain and to foster more domestic EV manufacturing.

Given Dahn’s bullishness on our battery R&D talent and capabilities, does he see an opportunity here? His answer, at best, is a qualified ‘yes.’

“To produce lithium-ion batteries, a couple of things are important,” says Dahn. “One of them is access to abundant clean and inexpensive power. So, a place that has hydro-electric power, like Quebec or B.C. where it’s inexpensive, these would be good places to site a lithium battery plant. [Another] is access to the materials that are necessary. Quebec has lithium graphite, Ontario has nickel, so there is a lot of the minerals that are needed in Canada. Then there is the talent pool and probably we can supply that from the output of all the university work.”

The problem? “You want to make the vehicles where the market is, too, and the Canadian market is small.”

The road ahead

Despite the global focus on his lab, Dahn isn’t phased by the celebrity swirling around him for the last four years.

With so much achieved and so much yet to be discovered, he isn’t taking his eye off the prize. It’s still critical to focus on the science and cultivate a work environment that churns out the technology of tomorrow.

“I think Thomas Edison maybe said it best. He said it’s 99 per cent perspiration and one per cent inspiration,” says Dahn. “I tell my students that, when you are in research, if you have four or five eureka moments in a year, that’s a good year.”

Dahn dedicates his energy to research and teamwork, two fluid and perennially challenging goals with no set finish line. When pressed to cite a highlight of his 40 years in the business, the legacy Dahn is most proud of is that of his students.

“I’ve been fortunate to have some really fantastic graduate students and post-docs over the years. I now have people from Tunisia, Estonia, Thailand, China, USA, Canada, India. It’s kind of nice to have that big cultural mix. Everybody brings a different way of doing things to the table. It’s really a pleasure to be able to have them in the lab. It makes it fun.” 

But for Dahn, what’s next?

“I have this history of helping or setting up a research partnership with only one company at a time. What I want to be able to do is help more local start ups in Nova Scotia,” says Dahn. “When I retire that will be my goal: to help more local companies.”

And what is the most valuable piece of advice he has for the next generation of researchers — the thousands of students Dahn has taught directly and the millions more around the world who will be picking up the research torch in the coming years?

“You have to love what you do. That’s the most important thing for a researcher,” says Dahn. “If you aren’t loving what you are doing you should not be researching.”

Jeff Dahn with student

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