Jeff Dahn, battery researcher wins $1M Herzberg Medal

A leading Halifax-based researcher of lithium-ion batteries has won the prestigious Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering.

Looking to a future of renewable technology, Halifax-based researcher aims to make a battery to last 30 years

Jeff Dahn, who has been researching lithium-ion batteries for decades, is the winner of the 2017 Gerhard Herzberg medal. (Martin Lipman/NSERC)

A leading researcher of lithium-ion batteries has won the prestigious Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering.

The award is presented by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), along with several other honours. The recipients were announced Tuesday.

We use lithium-ion batteries every day, in everything from our smartphones to laptops to electric cars to drills. Jeff Dahn has played a large part in making these batteries increasingly efficient.

Working now in collaboration with electric car company Tesla, Dahn aims to make a battery that lasts 30 years.

In his lab at the Department of Physics and Atmospheric Science at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Dahn works with about 25 people: undergraduate assistants, graduates and post-doctorates. The 5,000-square-foot laboratory is loud with activity, machines humming relentlessly in the background.

Dahn, seen here with a Dalhousie student, is looking to the future of lithium-ion batteries. (Martin Lipman/NSERC)

Green tech

While existing lithium-ion batteries are quite efficient, Dahn is looking at the bigger picture — the future of our planet. 

As the world attempts to turn to green technology, there is an increasing need for better, more efficient storage. And that's where Dahn comes in.

"No matter what electric chemical energy storage technology you pick… they have to last many decades to be viable for our planet," Dahn told CBC News. "Germany has said that by 2050 they're going be 100 per cent renewable. Well, how are they going to do it? How are they going to use solar and wind and storage to do it?"

Dahn's research focuses on "unwanted parasitic reactions," the process which reduces battery life.

"Our job is to make them zero," he said. "And it's very tough."

The focus of the new research is threefold: increasing the lifetime of cells; helping to reduce cost of cells; and increasing the energy density of the battery. If energy density is increased, the battery could maintain its size and weight but store more energy or store the same amount of energy with less weight or in a smaller package. 

Tesla partnership

In 2016, electric car giant Tesla Motors created a five-year partnership with NSERC and Dalhousie University, forming the NSERC/Tesla Canada Industrial Research Chair, headed by Dahn. This is Dahn's second chair: he held the NSERC/3M Canada Industrial Research Chair in Materials for Advanced Batteries at the university from 1996 to 2016.

Tesla is at the forefront of grid-energy and electric vehicle research and it is the first time the company has partnered with a university researcher.

For Dahn, it's a perfect partnership. He believes the world needs to shift to renewable energy technology, a view also held by Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk.

"At this moment, we've been working with Tesla only for six months so far, and none of our research has made it into their products yet, but I'm quite confident that our work will be incorporated in their products going forward, and that's pretty exciting for us."

The future

Dahn is modest about his contributions to battery research. Though he won a Governor General's Award for Innovation in 2016, has helped develop technology to test the lifespan of batteries, has held two consecutive research chairs and is the co-inventor of more than 65 inventions, he believes he's played only a small part in battery research.

Jeff Dahn, has partnered with Tesla Motors in an effort to improve lithium-ion batteries used in its vehicles. (Martin Lipman/NSERC)

"A lot of people ascribe the success of lithium-ion cells way too much to me and my group," he said. "We've made small contributions along the way that have been important, but many, many other labs around the world and companies too have done a lot."

Dahn says a battery that will last 30 years is necessary if we're going to try to slow the effects of climate change.

"I often tell my students our role is not to publish papers in Science and Nature; it's to do something useful. And I think getting this award really recognizes the fact that we have accomplished some things that have been useful and valuable to society."

About the Author

Nicole Mortillaro

Senior Writer, Science and Technology

Nicole has an avid interest in all things science. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books.