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Smaller, superpowered and sustainable: battery research is charging ahead

At UBC’s Okanagan campus, Dr. Jian Liu and his research team are developing the batteries of the future.

At the Advanced Materials for Energy Storage (AMES) Lab at UBC Okanagan, Dr. Jian Liu oversees a research team developing the next generation of batteries. With applications ranging from solar or wind-powered homes to long-range electric vehicles, battery research has caught the attention of industries transitioning to sustainable technologies.

“The aim is to store electricity in the home—called a net-zero house—while producing the energy or electricity needed to sustain your home,” explains Dr. Liu. “For electric vehicles, we are hoping to get 500 km per charge—comparable in range to internal combustion engine vehicles.”

Dr. Liu and his team are looking for alternatives to lithium, the current go-to option for battery production and a diminishing resource with rising costs. The researchers are looking to minerals such as zinc used in sun block and sodium used in table salt to serve as alternatives.

“To innovate energy storage solutions, we need to investigate how different substances interact with one another,” he explains. “The ultimate goal is to create smaller and more powerful batteries, while building a circular battery economy in Canada.”

As the Principal Investigator at AMES, Dr. Liu has already filed three U.S. provisional patents on battery and supercapacitor technologies. He believes these innovations will accelerate the deployment of renewable energy technologies in different sectors and contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Dr. Liu and his team were supported by the Mitacs Accelerate Program, a critical link between the private sector and post-secondary institutions. Mitacs connected the AMES Lab with donor funding from partners like Atlas Power Technologies and Fenix Advanced Materials. The Province of BC also provided $180,000 for this research through a partnership with CleanBC Go Electric and the UVic/PICS program. To date, Dr. Liu’s research has generated over $6 million in funding, and he has found the support of partners essential for his lab’s battery research. “They help us further validate the technology at industry-relevance scale.”

There is much more to be done in battery production research—for which future donor funding will be crucial in two areas.

“The first thing donors can help fund is the infrastructure—such as helping us build industry-scale battery manufacturing facilities at UBCO,” says Dr. Liu. “Second, donor funding can help us hire the next generation of leaders in battery technology in the Okanagan. Together, these investments will help transform the way Canada and potentially the world, store and access energy resources.”

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