Next-generation batteries power a more sustainable future
This story is part of the Forward happens here series.
UBC’s Dr. Jian Liu and his team are developing safer, more powerful batteries for electric cars, solar panels and more—and building a western Canadian supply chain to ensure renewable energy security
Many of us are feeling the pinch of rising gas prices. But few of us ever think about the price of lithium, which helps power batteries in everything from laptops to electric cars. The element touches our lives in more ways than we might realize—and it’s become precious and expensive.
“Lithium is considered ‘white oil’ right now,” says Dr. Jian Liu, an associate professor with UBC Okanagan’s School of Engineering. A key material in today’s rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, the element is in short supply and high demand.
The demand for lithium-ion batteries is expected to grow exponentially over the next few decades. That’s one of the reasons Dr. Liu and his team are working on building the next generation of batteries.
Batteries can help us transition to renewable energy, a key to fighting climate change. But we need safer batteries that last longer, cost less and can be recycled efficiently to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. And we need access to the raw materials that go into making these batteries to keep our clean-energy systems humming.
Batteries store chemical energy that is converted into electrical energy. As we transition to renewable energy, we need better batteries to harness electric, solar and wind power. While solar panels on your roof can power your home during the day, storing that energy in an efficient battery could help heat your home all night. While the average electric car can go about 300 kilometres on one battery charge, Dr. Liu’s team aims to extend that to beyond 500 kilometres per charge—comparable to one tank of gas.
Producing safer, more sustainable lithium-tellurium batteries
Dr. Liu leads the Advanced Materials for Energy Storage Lab at UBC’s Okanagan campus. He works in UBC Okanagan’s Innovation Precinct, where interdisciplinary researchers come together to solve critical challenges and test new technologies. He and his team are researching materials in order to develop safe and high-performance solid-state lithium-tellurium batteries.
The team is also striving to make batteries smaller and more energy dense, so they can more efficiently power e-bikes, e-scooters and devices such as medical implants and wireless sensors. They’re also working to improve battery safety by reducing the risk of fire and explosion caused by flammable liquid electrolytes.
Moving toward a circular economy
Currently, less than five percent of all batteries are recycled globally. This results in toxic chemicals ending up in landfills, and scarce elements, such as lithium, cobalt and nickel, never being recovered.
Dr. Liu’s team is working to create a circular economy for batteries, from development and manufacturing through recycling. “We want to source the critical elements for batteries in Canada,” he says. “And we want to be able to close that loop locally in Canada.”
Right now, for example, batteries for electric cars come largely from abroad. “Our goal is to build a local supply chain in Canada,” he says. “It’s a huge issue that’s related to national security in terms of energy.”
What is the circular economy?
Dr. Liu adds that the first generation of electric cars is nearing the end of its 10- to 15-year lifespan. “We’re trying to use batteries to address an environmental issue without causing a new problem,” he says. “Determining how to properly recycle vehicle batteries is an urgent task to avoid potential adverse environmental impacts from battery disposal.”
Creating a stable Canadian supply chain
Canada, he says, is well-positioned to create its own battery supply chain, because we have many of the necessary raw materials right here. These include lithium from Quebec and, in BC, graphite from the Okanagan and tellurium from the Kootenay region.
While tellurium is relatively rare in the Earth’s crust, it can be recovered from mining waste as a by-product of copper, lead and zinc smelting. Canada is among the world’s leaders in tellurium production, with at least three firms engaged in tellurium production in BC.
“We have the capacity in western Canada,” says Dr. Liu. “It’s a matter of growing that capacity to really build that network and the supply chain.”
Collaborating on clean, renewable energy
Dr. Liu says that the location of his lab in UBC Okanagan’s Innovation Precinct is key to building that network. “We work in the Clean Tech Hub, where everyone focuses on different perspectives on clean technology,” he explains. The collaborative space lets researchers mix with industry partners and local technology companies.
Dr. Liu’s team includes doctoral students who perform lab research and work with industry partners. These students include Evan Hansen, who focuses on improving battery safety; Amardeep (who uses one name), who is determining the best composition of material for battery anodes; and Yue Zhang, who is working on a collaborative project with Trail-BC–based Fenix Advanced Materials to turn recycled tellurium into battery-grade cathode material.
UBC’s strength in facilitating industry partnerships is helping make the battery supply chain a reality in western Canada.
“UBC has a reputation for industry collaboration,” Dr. Liu explains. People in the industry approach his team because they want to collaborate and are often working individually, don’t know one another or lack the resources to work with one other. “We can play a role in bringing people together,” he says.
Manufacturing these batteries in Canada using local materials will go a long way to ensuring Canada’s energy security. It will also help reduce our dependency on fossil fuels by encouraging a greater transition to electric vehicles. That would help the planet, since transportation currently accounts for 25 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. So while most of us are currently thinking more about gas than batteries, UBC’s researchers are working to move clean energy forward—by harnessing the potential of batteries to power positive change.