NRC working with industry, academia to build value chain for lithium-ion batteries

Mark Henderson
June 9, 2017

Escalating demand for specialty materials that go into next-generation lithium-ion batteries has prompted the National Research Council to create an R&D group to bolster the value chain for their use in the transportation and stationary applications. Advanced discussions between NRC officials and several companies are already underway to determine the extent of their participation in the new lithium-ion battery technologies (LiBTec) program, which kicked off June 7 with a webinar.

The LiBTec program is a multi-party, precompetitive industrial R&D initiative that will pull together five research teams from across the NRC. Canada has plentiful reserves of the required materials — graphite, graphene, lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese and silicon — which the NRC and its industry and academic partners intend to exploit through collaborative technology development and commercialization, third-party evaluation and testing services.  For example, Canada has the largest reserves of flake graphite in North America in the Canadian Shield and Labrador Trough.

Adding value to the activities of raw material suppliers, material processors, battery producers, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and other companies will help meet the requirements of anode and cathode manufacturers, amongst others. Membership fees from industrial partners will facilitate access to research expertise, providing funding and meaningful participation.

The global market for lithium-ion batteries, which some prefer to call graphite-nickel battery cells, is expected to reach US$145 billion by 2025, prompting governments, research institutions and companies worldwide to target niches where they can succeed on the world stage. The surge in demand is largely driven by the automotive sector while the stationary market for energy storage is increasingly attractive for remote communities and industrial installations seeking to address peak demand and integration of renewables into their energy mix.

“We have a nascent value chain in Canada but demand will grow significantly. We need to support the development of that supply,” says Eric Baril, NRC’s Vehicle Propulsion Technologies (VPT) program — one of three within the Automotive and Surface Transportation portfolio. “There are two streams — actual materials and future demand — and two objectives — creating value within mining companies for specific market streams and technologies for next-generation batteries.”

The market for energy storage is huge and lithium-ion batteries may prove to be one of the most effective methods of delivering energy to vehicles, spurred by low-carbon regulations and a move away from fossil fuel-powered vehicles. LiBTec is focusing its supply chain on the North American market which will be benchmarked against global standards. Up to 12 companies are expected to sign on within the first few months.

“NRC has been working on battery materials for many years and organizations like Hydro Québec have also been very active,” says Baril, who began his career as a senior scientist with Noranda Inc specializing in magnesium and zinc product development. “There are also battery research groups at many universities including Jeff Dahn’s research group at Dalhousie.”

One company that will likely be a key player in LiBTec is the Canadian division of Johnson Matthey Battery Systems (formerly Clariant’s Energy Storage division’s manufacturing facility in Candiac QC). Johnson Matthey is the world’s largest producer of hydrothermal lithium iron phosphate — a key component of lithium-ion cathodes for electric vehicles and stationary batteries.

Baril says the LiBTec R&D group is similar in structure to several other NRC groups that assemble players from raw material producers to end users.

“We felt there was a need so we consulted with stakeholders and validated that need,” he says. “Three or four months ago we got approval to build a business case to show the outcomes for the industrial stakeholders … We hope to develop momentum and traction to deliver results quickly.”

While membership fees are considered sufficient to jumpstart the R&D group’s activities, Baril says a second stage of funding is being pursued from public entities such as provincial ministries (Quebec Ministry of Economy, Science and Innovation) and federal departments (Natural Resources Canada).

“This is our response to clean tech. We want to drive its industrial development,” he says. “It also aligns with (the) superclusters (initiative).”



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