- Canada has a long history of excellence in innovating on and producing lithium-ion batteries.
- Lithium-ion batteries are going to be used in a variety of applications, meaning Canada has to accelerate its supply chain strategy.
- Canada has access to key materials and infrastructure needed for producing lithium-ion batteries.
Businesses and researchers in Canada are continuing the tradition of the country’s expertise in lithium-ion batteries. Canada will need to capitalize on this expertise and the country’s reserves of key materials to jumpstart its strategy for a local supply chain for EV batteries.
Can you tell us more about your research and your partnership with Tesla?
I am Jeff Dahn, Professor of Physics and Atmospheric Science at Dalhousie University. I have been working on lithium and lithium-ion batteries for a long time. Over the years, our group developed a reputation for doing useful work. In 2014, when Elon Musk announced the creation of his first Gigafactory in Nevada, I thought it was absolutely fantastic because it would bring lithium-ion battery manufacturing on a large scale to North America for the first time.
I wanted to be a part of this because Tesla’s mission of electrified transportation and grid energy storage, as well as solar power production, resonated with me a lot. After some back and forth, they decided to work with us and we set out to try and help as best we can to increase the energy density of lithium-ion batteries, lower their costs and improve their longevity.
What forces are shaping the demand for lithium-ion batteries and how will they help with the decarbonization of our economy?
Pretty much everything you put a lithium-ion battery in becomes a better product. For example, take the lawn mower. You can have a gas-powered lawn mower where you have to put gas in it, change the oil once a year and it is very noisy. A lithium-ion-powered lawnmower is completely maintenance-free, with no gas, no oil changes required and very little noise. There are various products that can benefit from this such as drills, saws and even snowblowers. In the end, it just comes down to the fact that products are better. This goes right back to the smartphone, which would not exist without the lithium-ion battery.
By introducing electric vehicles, we can eliminate all tailpipe emissions.
It is obvious how lithium-ion batteries play a role in helping us decarbonize. By introducing electric vehicles, we can eliminate all tailpipe emissions. We also have to make sure we are charging these electric vehicles with green electricity. There are many jurisdictions where there is not a lot of hydroelectric power. In such a situation, you will need to bring more solar and wind onto the grid. Those are not always available, so you will have to find a way to store electrical energy from when the wind blows and the sun shines with an extensive battery storage system, be it lithium-ion or some other chemistry not yet developed. Then, you will have to deliver that energy back when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining. This means that lithium-ion batteries will play a massive role to help us to get where we need to go.
How well-positioned is Canada within the lithium-ion battery space?
We have to bear in mind a couple of things. First, Canada actually developed the first rechargeable lithium battery that used lithium metal back in the mid-1980s. This was done at Moli Energy in Vancouver. Moli continued to produce lithium-ion batteries in Canada until about 2009 and now, all of Moli’s product is produced in Taiwan. There is a long history of excellence in lithium-ion technology here in Canada. We have a lot of talented researchers across the country in universities doing good work.
Quebec is very well-positioned in terms of an abundance of raw materials that can support the lithium-ion business. They have lithium, graphite and nickel, as well as cheap, green hydropower to operate lithium-ion battery manufacturing plants. The Quebec government is aggressively courting companies to come and either make lithium-ion batteries or active materials for the batteries.
There are a lot of startups across the country in both lithium-ion battery R&D and materials manufacturing.
There are a lot of startups across the country in both lithium-ion battery R&D and materials manufacturing. The sector is coming along but we are decades behind China and Korea, where massive lithium-ion battery supply chains and manufacturing already exist. We have a long way to go to get to where we need to be but I am optimistic we can get there.
What can Canada do to better compete with other countries in terms of our lithium battery supply chains?
We have to decide what we want to do. Do we want to develop a materials supply chain? If so, we have to open our minds and start making the materials. Do we want to build lithium-ion cells at a high volume here? If so, you have to build manufacturing plants and move forward.
Decisions have to be made, money has to be spent and we have to move ahead if that is the way we want to go. Canada needs to accelerate its battery supply chain strategy because lithium-ion batteries are going to be used in electric vehicles and grid storage in a very large way.
What are Canada’s top competitive advantages in the battery and electric vehicle space?
There is a study commissioned by Investissement Québec on the suitability of Quebec as a location for lithium-ion battery manufacturing. This study was performed by an organization called Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, which is pretty reputable. They looked at lithium-ion battery manufacturing plants of significant size, about 60-gigawatt hours (GWh) or larger, which is a little bit bigger than the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada. The conclusion of the report was that the best place to site a large lithium-ion battery manufacturing plant is in Quebec. The reason for that is the abundance of green power, proximity to the resources required for manufacturing lithium-ion batteries and more. If one believes that report, then it should be quite attractive to do lithium-ion manufacturing in Quebec.
We have Lion Electric in Quebec, which makes electrified school buses and electrified garbage trucks. They are going to be building a very large battery assembly plant in Saint-Jérôme and it looks like they are doing all the right things. There is NOVONIX in Nova Scotia, which was formed in 2014. They make high-precision test equipment for the battery industry. They have a plant in Tennessee that makes synthetic graphite for the negative electrode of lithium-ion batteries, and they are establishing a pilot plant in Nova Scotia to produce material for the positive electrode. They are in many different spaces that are very important for moving the technology forward.