- Vancouver, British Columbia
From smart phones to electronic key fobs to a bevy of television remote controls — our daily lives are packed with portable electronic devices of one sort or another. That includes the batteries that keep these devices working, although most of us spend little time thinking about this aspect of the technology. For armies of researchers around the world, on the other hand, tiny power sources have become a top priority and a foundation for much larger vehicular and stationary units. Their efforts focus primarily on improving battery performance, efficiency, and longevity, so much so that every day seems to bring news of some innovation heralding a breakthrough in the field.
Unfortunately, most of these ideas never make it past the confines of a laboratory bench, since they do not address the most urgent practical needs of manufacturers who are busy churning out the millions of batteries we all need. Vancouver-based entrepreneur Dan Blondal has made NRC’s Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) an ongoing partner in addressing what he regarded as a real breakthrough: improving the way battery makers turn raw materials into essential energy storage.
"If we come up with some kind of new material that doesn’t scale-up for manufacturing," he pointed out, "It’s never going to be a commercial success."
Shortcut to the cathode
Rather than proposing exotic new materials for the design of a finished battery, Blondal started at a more fundamental stage in the manufacturing process. As CEO of his firm, Nano One Materials Corp., he and his colleagues have been revising the preparation of the basic commodities that become part of such key components as a cathode. The result is a viable alternative to the drying, grinding, milling, and melting of lithium with mixed metal salts that is currently required to transform raw materials into appropriate energy storage media, such as battery cathodes.
Through a carefully controlled chemical process, Nano One entices lithium salts to precipitate from solution alongside other key ingredients such as nickel, manganese and cobalt. This forms intermediate powders of nanostructured particles and unlike the iterative and prolonged steps taken by competing industrial technologies, Nano One’s powders only require a single short firing step in a kiln to convert them to final cathode powders. These methods reduce the number of steps and improve the energy storing structure of the cathode and were invented several years ago with patents issuing in 2015; in 2014 Blondal established laboratories in Vancouver so that he and his colleagues could investigate its potential in collaboration with BC Research Inc., a facility that nurtures just this kind of start-up.
"When IRAP came to the table it offered us some credibility. It gave our partners, collaborators and our shareholder base real confidence in what we were doing."
Blondal is grateful to NRC’s IRAP for funding that assisted Nano One through this initial phase, as well as bringing the firm to the attention of NORAM, a local chemical engineering firm that specializes in the construction of production plants.
"When IRAP came to the table it offered us some credibility," said Blondal. "It gave our partners, collaborators and our shareholder base real confidence in what we were doing."
IRAP Industrial Technology Advisor Dr. Walter Cicha observes that much of that confidence originated with the creative and dedicated performance of Blondal, who has actively promoted the company’s technology to a wide range of audiences, including the invitation-only Lux Executive Summit that serves an exclusive audience of policymakers, investors, and multinational corporations.
"Dan is very good at positioning himself in circles beyond Canada," said Cicha. "That is very important to the future of the firm."
Thanks in part to a new IRAP-supported project, Nano One is now poised to leave the incubator setting of BC Research to develop an even more ambitious application of this technology. This work involves a promising class of cobalt-free cathode materials called high voltage spinels. Industry clearly sees these spinels as the future and Nano One is expanding its know-how and optimizing its process for spinels so that it is positioned to enable commercially viable spinel-based cathode materials.
By demonstrating cost effective production of spinels at a scale that begins to approach commercial volume, this work promises to have a major impact within the entire energy storage sector. Lux Research is forecasting that this market will grow to $50 billion by 2020 from its current $35 billion, as the demand for batteries evolves from the current emphasis on small, portable devices to larger formats, such as power supplies for vehicles and storage of electricity generated by solar and wind generators.
"We have a winning approach to bring this technology to market," says Blondal. "NRC’s IRAP helped us get here."
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