Electric and hybrid vehicles could be more common if only rechargeable batteries could be produced at a lower cost.
That's the goal of engineers and scientists at Quebec-based Clariant Canada Inc., École Polytechnique de Montréal, Université de Montréal (UdeM) and Western University who are testing a new chemical process that cuts manufacturing costs by at least half—a huge step in making electric vehicles affordable for consumers and profitable for manufacturers. Automotive Partnership Canada is contributing $5 million to the four-year project.
Clariant's patented process builds on Canada's pioneering expertise in lithium batteries and its abundance of low-cost minerals. It involves melting lithium, iron and phosphate commodity sources to create a reduced cost cathode (LiFePO4) with a potentially superior crystalline structure that increases a battery's performance.
"In the molten state, we can better control the quality and the purity of the material," says Dr. Guoxian Liang, director of research and development, Clariant Canada. "We can also use less expensive raw materials, like iron from Quebec, instead paying a higher price to source it internationally."
Project leader Dr. Gregory Patience at École Polytechnique de Montréal says the Université de Montréal and Clariant have already demonstrated that the technology works. "Now we're scaling up the process to prove to that it's possible to make 10,000 tons of this material per year, and at a price point that can blow away the competition."
"If we can use concentrated mineral from Quebec mines instead of chemical grade reactants and low-cost energy, we can drive the price from $15 to $20 per kg down to less than $10 a kg, while still producing a high quality product. That will really help to penetrate the market for electric vehicles and energy storage," adds Michel Gauthier, one of the inventors of the molten process who co-founded Phostech Lithium (now Clariant Canada) in 2001. He is now an adjunct professor at École Polytechnique de Montréal.
The molten process—as opposed to the current wet (hydro thermal) and dry (solid state) processes used at Clariant's two Quebec plants—would also make cathode LiFePO4 in high-capacity batteries recyclable. At the end of the battery's life, the chemicals inside could be separated and the cathode material reheated and reprocessed, eliminating the waste and high premiums associated with current disposal methods. It creates a business case for large lithium batteries where none existed before.
Clariant is collaborating with engineers at École Polytechnique de Montréal to scale up tests of this safe, stable and non-toxic material. The company is also working with the CANMET Materials lab in Hamilton to produce 100 kg batches of C-LiFePO4, while researchers at Western University's Nanomaterials and Energy Group, headed by Dr. Andy (Xueliang) Sun, will bring expertise on ingot and final product characterization.
Patience says the C-LiFePO4 will then be field tested by Clariant's customers to demonstrate that it can be mass manufactured at a price point that undercuts emerging Asian competitors.
"Our goal to get this tested, scaled up and into the market in three years," says Patience, who is overseeing a team of 19 Master's and Ph.D. students, post-doctoral fellows and research associates.
The company's technology is based on a carbon-coated lithium iron phosphate (C-LiFePO4) process developed by the Université de Montréal, France's Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) and Hydro-Québec. One of the patents is a result of research undertaken by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada (NSERC) Industrial Research Chair at UdeM supported by Phostech and NSERC. It gives Clariant exclusive right to a novel process that melts the lithium, iron and phosphate which is then ground into nano-sized particles and carbon coated to increase their conductivity.
Clariant opened its second plant in Candiac, Quebec in 2012, and if this molten process is commercially viable, Liang says management will look at the feasibility of investing in another plant, and growing its 110-strong workforce. The other industry partner on the project, Bathium Canada Inc., will validate the end product of the process in cell and battery designs for all-electric vehicles.
"Without government of Canada support for this project, and without the partnerships we built with university experts, it would be very difficult for a company of our size to take on a project at this scale," says Liang. "This type of collaboration lessens the risk for industry and gives us access to students who may become our future employees."