Nova Scotia

Dalhousie on 'amazing' run, winning 3 $1M Herzberg medals in 4 years

No university in Atlantic Canada had won the prestigious $1-million Herzberg medal for science and engineering. Now Dalhousie has won three of the last four.

Medal honours excellence and influence in Canadian research

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

Until this decade, no university in Atlantic Canada had won the prestigious $1-million Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering. Now Halifax's Dalhousie University has won three of the last four.

The most recent winner of the research prize, Jeff Dahn, was honoured earlier this week for his work extending the life of lithium batteries.

"It's pretty amazing," Dahn said of Dalhousie's success in an interview Friday with CBC's Mainstreet.

The Herzberg medal recognizes excellence and influence in Canadian research that has substantially advanced science or engineering. The award is presented by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

Here's a rundown of Dalhousie's winners and the research that earned them the prize. (There was no 2014 winner, and the award went to McGill University in 2016.)

2013

Who won?: W. Ford Doolittle, a professor emeritus of biochemistry and microbiology.

What did he win for? Doolittle proposed that Charles Darwin's view of evolution as a "tree of life" isn't enough to explain two-thirds of life's history on earth, thanks to the ability of unrelated bacteria to trade genes. When Doolittle first published the idea in the journal Science in 1999, he faced "heavy criticism," NSERC noted, ​but the concept "is now accepted as one of the major forces driving microbial genome evolution, including the spread of antibiotic resistance and the spread of new pathogens."

2015

Who won?: Chemist Axel Becke.

What did he win for?: Becke helped make it practical to predict and explore the chemistry of complex molecules, such as proteins, using computers. The computer-modelling techniques developed by Becke over three decades are now being used for a huge range of applications, from discovering drugs to developing nanotechnology to designing materials for use in clean energy technology.

2017

Who won?: Battery researcher Jeff Dahn.

What did he win for?: The work at the Dalhousie's Dahn Lab, which NSERC said has "had an impact on nearly every aspect of lithium-ion battery research." The focus of the research is threefold: increasing the lifetime of cells; helping to reduce cost of cells; and increasing the energy density of the battery. Dahn and his team have already played a large part in making these batteries more efficient. Working now in collaboration with electric car company Tesla, Dahn aims to make a battery that will last 30 years.

With files from CBC Mainstreet, Emily Chung and Nicole Mortillaro

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