In recent years, as reliance on portable electronics, tools, and electric vehicles has intensified, the North American market has seen a surge in the use of lithium-ion technology. For example, the U.S. company Tesla Motors opened up a "gigafactory" in Reno, Nevada, in 2016, specifically dedicated to the production of lithium-ion batteries and electric vehicle sub-assembly. Traditionally, Asian countries—Japan, South Korea and China, in particular—have been the world leaders in Li-ion batteries and electric vehicle technologies. With increasing domestic production volumes, a demand for local supply chains is now upon us. And as it turns out, here in Canada we have an abundance of one of the key ingredients used in the production of lithium-ion batteries: graphite.
The NRC has been developing its expertise in lithium-ion technology since the early 1990s, and for the past 5 years its Automotive and Surface Transportation Research Centre has been working with the Quebec-based company Mason Graphite to develop conversion processes to supply battery-grade graphite materials for lithium-ion batteries, which are used for electric vehicles and other applications. After all, if we're going to go electric, we need safe and reliable ways to store electric energy.
From nature to technology
That being said, nature doesn't supply graphite in a form that's ready-made for modern technological purposes such as lithium-ion batteries. It's mostly mined in the form of flakes, which are used to manufacture steel, thermal management parts, flame retardants, brake and clutch linings, brushes for electric motors, etc. Initially, Mason Graphite had the sought-after raw materials, but needed support in terms of NRC laboratories and scientific expertise to create a commercially viable conversion process for battery-grade graphite.
Historically, fine graphite flakes have been considered to be of lesser value. But now, based on the technology jointly developed by the NRC and Mason Graphite, these fine flakes can be repurposed for use as anodes in lithium-ion batteries. In essence, the technology is transforming a traditionally undervalued commodity into a high-value-added product, using a process with a relatively smaller environmental footprint–one capable of performing at least as good, if not better, than other currently available types of battery-grade graphite.
"We have one of the highest-grade natural graphite deposits in the world at our facility near Lac Guéret, in Quebec," says Benoît Gascon, President and CEO of Mason Graphite. "The NRC provided us with exactly the kind of specialized expertise that we needed for the conversion of our natural graphite to battery-grade graphite."
An ideal partnership
"Our unique capability to transform graphite flakes to a coated spherical graphite powder, at the lab scale, allows the NRC to support junior mining companies and small and medium-sized enterprises to de-risk the engineering of their production plant, and the cost of pilot-scale production tests, by knowing upfront how their flakes will perform through the transformation process and how the resulting battery-grade product will perform in Li-ion cell anodes” says NRC researcher Jean-Yves Huot.
Through the process of working with Mason Graphite, the NRC has further developed the expertise and facilities needed to develop, prototype, and test materials from raw material to battery fabrication. This includes the launch of a battery prototyping lab, which allows NRC experts and partners to develop, prototype, and test their materials from the mine to a full-scale battery. The specific technology developed by the NRC for Mason Graphite has since been scaled up to pilot scale by Mason Graphite and the Quebec-based mineral research centre COREM. And in fact, the team at Mason Graphite was so happy with the collaborative nature of the partnership that they submitted a nomination for the project to ADRIQ (Association pour le développement de la recherche et de l'innovation du Québec)—as a result, the project was chosen as a finalist for the organization's 2019 Innovation Awards.
"The great thing about the work we've done with Mason Graphite is that it's a scalable platform technology that's adaptable for different situations," says Huot. "We've developed a conversion process to transform their flake graphite into spherical graphite anodes for Li-ion cells, which can be optimized not only for electric vehicle batteries, but also other potential applications."
As demand in general for renewable forms of energy continues to rise, so does the need to find viable ways of safely and efficiently storing this energy. From powering electric vehicles, to solar or wind-powered energy grids, or improved battery life for cellphones and other portable electronics, it seems the lithium-ion battery is a technology that's here to stay.