MIF Team in search of unicorn battery technology

Professor Philippe Ouzilleau and Yee Wei Foong are creating an alternative to lithium-ion batteries which is less environmentally costly, and simpler to both manufacture and recycle. With the help of the McGill Innovation Fund (MIF) the team is getting closer to making this a reality.


(Editor's note: this team is part of the 2nd cohort, which was awarded funds in 2023. 3rd cohort teams will be featured in future articles.)

Batteries are recognized as essential building blocks in the transition to a greener future. With the transporation sector accounting for a large portion of fossil fuel emissions globally, electric vehicles (EVs) are seen as a solution to decarbonising road transport. However, EVs are far from a panacea. The batteries that power EVs are typically composed of large amounts of lithium and cobalt, which are mining intensive to produce and come with a host of negative social and environmental impacts.

With these factors in mind, the scientific community is aware of the need for a more environmentally friendly battery, and researchers around the globe are working to create “the” new battery. Among these scientists is McGill PhD student Yee Wei Foong from the Materials Engineering department. Foong’s PhD thesis explores electron transfer in battery materials.

“We actually discovered a new way of storing electrons which led us to spin-off as a start-up,” said Foong.

The new company founded by Foong – VolfLeaf Energy Inc. – aims to develop a new type of battery that can store as much energy as traditional types but is faster to charge, simpler to produce, and easier to recycle. In short, the unicorn of battery technology.

A Sustainable Solution ?

Although batteries are seen as a promising alternative to carbon-based fossil fuels, they are not always as sustainable as they might seem. EV batteries are complex to manufacture and are made up of myriad different raw materials, including mined minerals such as lithium, nickel, and cobalt. The amount of raw materials needed for each EV battery is not negligible as they weigh on average 1000 pounds. These primary materials account for much of the environmental cost of battery production.

Lithium mining in particular is an example of the negative environmental impacts associated with EVs. Extracting one ton of lithium requires approximately 1.9 million liters of water. But despite this heavy footprint, lithium mining has rapidly increased over the past decade to meet the growing demand for EVs, with production increasing more than four-fold from 28,000 metric tons in 2010 to 130,000 in 2022. Lithium mining also harms the soil in surrounding areas and causes air and water pollution that is detrimental to local communities and ecosystems.

The same is true of cobalt and nickel which are used in large quantities in EV batteries. Cobalt mining is synonymous with modern-day slavery, with much of the world’s supply coming from unregulated and highly unsafe “artisanal” mining operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nickel mining is also detrimental to the environment, producing sulfur dioxide emissions and causing air and water pollution in surrounding areas.

Additionally, the complex composition of batteries impedes the recycling process and adds to their unsustainability.

“The difficulty in recycling batteries is to extract all the metals from it, which involves a lot of metallurgical processing. We want to use fewer, more sustainable materials to make our batteries to try and counter the existing recycling problem,” described Foong.

Nanomaterials and a Philosophy of Simplicity

Beyond their possible negative environmental impact, it is useful to understand how batteries actually work. In the simplest terms, batteries are containers which store energy. The amount of energy they can store is dependent on the amount of electrons that can be fit into them. Conventional batteries use lithium intercalation to store the electrons.

“How much energy is stored depends on how many electrons can be pushed into the material, my PhD was about investigating what kind of materials can store more electrons,” explained Foong. “What we discovered is that when we use nano-materials, because they are so small the electrons try and repulse each other, creating a charging energy. So we can store more electrons at a higher potential energy.”

His PhD research earned the attention of McGill Assistant Professor Philippe Ouzilleau, an expert in nanomaterials from the department of Mining and Materials Engineering. With Professor Ouzilleau’s support and mentorship, Foong is working towards creating a more sustainable battery using nanomaterials to store electrons.

“We want to make something that is competitive with the standard in the field today at a fraction of the cost and a fraction of the environmental impact. We can do this thanks to the electrode materials that we use which are much simpler to produce, manufacture and transform,” said Ouzilleau.

VoltLeaf is still in the early stages of research and development on their battery, and they are working to come up with a patentable product in the next few years.

MIF support for VoltLeaf

Voltleaf’s technology is supported by the McGill Innovation Fund (MIF). As part of the MIF’s Second Cohort, Voltleaf earned the Discover stage of funding receiving $25,000. The MIF’s help on the project is not limited to financial contributions, as teams also benefit from the expertise of the MIF ecosystem and work with their own Research Advisory Boards (RABs) on the commercialisation of their project.

“I think the MIF is really helpful because there are regular meetings with mentors who provide us with advice on topics like how to build a business model, or how to go forward with patents,” explained Foong.

Professor Ouzilleau and Foong are not the only scientists in the community working to solve the issues related to traditional battery usage.

“There are thousands of battery labs working hard right now, each of them with their own little twist on the next big thing. It is incredibly competitive and incredibly difficult, especially when you’re a small niche laboratory like mine and Yee Wei,” said Ouzilleau.

Despite difficulties, the team has been able to leverage their involvement with the MIF to earn additional funding.

“The funding that the MIF gave us helped jumpstart the project which is essential, especially doing R&D in this field. This allowed us to go see other partners and leverage our funding to get more from University Advancement,” explained Ouzilleau. “We are extending the project from six months to a full 2-year post-doctoral fellowship which wouldn’t have been possible without the MIF.”

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