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"Seeing" inside batteries key to building affordable, longer-lasting electric cars

Think of it like a toolkit of medical imaging strategies for your car's power system. Instead of taking pictures of the biological changes taking place within the human body, researchers at four Canadian universities are using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, electron microscopy (EM), and scanning electrochemical microscopy (SECM) to see and understand electrochemical changes inside lithium-ion batteries. This is the critical link required by car manufacturers for more widespread vehicle electrification.

"This research provides new opportunities for developing the next generation of batteries, enhancing today's technologies and potentially reducing costs," says Dr. Justin Gammage, Chief Scientist at General Motors of Canada.† "The key is that we can monitor changes in real time while the battery is operating, giving us a better picture of what's happening."

Canada is a world leader in new battery technologies, and one of the few countries studying in-situ NMR for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. As such, Gammage says they didn't have to look far for academic partners to lead a new four-year $3.5-million project supported by Automotive Partnership Canada (APC) and industry partners GM Canada, Bruker Limited and Heka Electronics. The Canada Foundation for Innovation is contributing an additional $1 million for specialized equipment to conduct the experiments.

"Before we make investments to commercialize a technology, we must have a really good understanding of what's happening on the scientific side. General Motors of Canada is pursuing an open innovation policy to work with the best in their field to give us that confidence," says Gammage, whose team is participating in three other APC projects.

McMaster University's Dr. Gillian Goward is leading the 20-member team that includes university researchers from McMaster, Western Ontario, McGill and Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), as well as General Motors engineers from Ontario and Michigan. Together, they are developing diagnostic tools and techniques that will help industry understand the nano-scale mechanisms that can degrade battery performance.

"General Motors can then use this information to evaluate new chemistries and how they perform with less expensive and higher energy density materials. It gives them the inside information on what cell components are going to be compatible and competitive," says Goward, who has been working with General Motors for eight years.

Findings from the studies will also feed into the mathematical models GM uses to evaluate how a battery will perform over several years. Gammage says this information will be put into practice as soon as it becomes available.

Applications beyond automotive
Engineers from non-automotive partners Bruker Limited and Heka Electronics are also working with the research team to develop new instruments for in-situ electrochemical studies. Bruker is an analytical instrumentation company based in Milton, Ontario, and Heka is an electronics company with a facility in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia. Both companies develop sophisticated instrumentation and software for biomedical and industrial research applications.