Government of Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Good news for electric cars: Research on track to reduce battery testing from years to weeks

Spending 10 years to find out whether batteries for electric cars will last 10 years is one of the major hurdles facing battery makers and automotive companies. The problem is even more challenging for power grids and medical devices that need batteries to last 30 years or longer.

Fortunately, hope is on the horizon. A leading battery expert at Dalhousie University has come up with a way to cut that testing time to just two weeks, while saving companies  millions of dollars in the process.

Bringing the solution to market is the goal of an $11.2-million research partnership involving Dr. Jeffrey Dahn at Dalhousie University, 3M Canada, Magna E-Car Systems, General Motors of Canada, Nova Scotia Power, and medical devices manufacturer Medtronic. Automotive Partnership Canada has awarded $3.6  million over five years towards the research, with the industry partners contributing an additional $4.9 million in cash, equipment and resources.

The goal is to design lithium-ion batteries for automotive, medical and power grid applications that last longer, cost less and pack a bigger power punch.

The ability to obtain rapid feedback on the performance of new, low-cost materials will also spur innovation. Using Dr. Dahn's approach, companies will be able to fast-track the testing of new materials and chemistries to quickly determine whether they provide a competitive edge.

"Through this research, our collaborators get an early look at some of our advanced materials and chemicals and how they perform on their larger cells under realistic conditions," says Dr. Randy Frank, Technical Director, 3M Canada, which has already commercialized several new materials as a result of joint research with Dahn. "And with this new testing capability, we will be able to determine in only a few weeks if cell chemistry and design changes are beneficial."

Faster testing also will speed up the rollout of more durable and less expensive batteries, which is key to creating broad market acceptance of electric vehicles.

"North America, and indeed the world, really needs improved and accelerated testing approaches to evaluate emerging lithium-ion technologies against automotive performance and durability targets," comments Dr. Gammage, Chief Scientist at General Motors of Canada. GM hopes to integrate what it learns from this collaboration into development activities taking place at its Canadian Regional Engineering Centre in Oshawa and at technical centres around the globe.

Sharing results across sectors
As one of the people who pioneered the lithium battery that today is used in cell phones, laptops and many digital cameras, Dahn heads one of the world's largest university research groups focused on batteries and fuel cells. Two years ago, his team built a device that can precisely measure amounts of lithium too small for commercially available equipment. Those measurements—taken over a couple of weeks—make it possible to accurately estimate how many years a battery cell will last, and how many cycles it can sustain.

Lithium-ion batteries currently used in small portable devices last about four years. For electric vehicles, they need to last at least a decade, sustain over 3 000 charge-discharge cycles, and withstand Canada's extreme temperatures.

The benefits of this research will extend well beyond the automotive sector. "We have five partners who don't compete against one another, so they can all share in the advances," says Dr. Dahn, who holds a Canada Research Chair and an NSERC/3M Industrial Research Chair. "We will teach our methods to our partners, and the equipment we develop will result in new commercial tools that companies from various industry sectors can use to advance their products."

Medtronic anticipates using Dahn's methods and techniques as new R&D tools to advance a range of medical devices, from defibrillators to implantable neuro-stimulators that provide relief from symptoms of Parkinson's disease and debilitating chronic pain.

"Medtronic wants these rechargeable batteries to literally last a lifetime," says Dr. Dahn. "The last thing you want is to have surgeons continually opening people up to replace batteries."