March 25, 2021

UCalgary researchers power up the search for durable energy storage and conversion

New Canada Foundation for Innovation funding helps buy powerful tools for grad students and postdocs
Dr. Ted Roberts works with some of his students.

As companies and organizations line up to make renewable energy pledges, University of Calgary researchers are putting themselves in a position to lead the way in providing those groups with the resources they need to turn their green dreams into realities.

Led by Dr. Viola Birss, PhD, Faculty of Science, and Dr. Edward Roberts, PhD, Schulich School of Engineering, nearly 70 current graduate students and postdoctoral researchers are developing energy conversion and storage technologies to deliver a low-carbon energy future.

The Materials for Electrochemical Energy Solutions Program is one of the University of Calgary-led Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s (NSERC) CREATE initiatives. The CREATE ME2 program aims to find durable materials for electrolysers, fuel cells, and batteries.

“To enable widespread use of these technologies, they need to be cheaper, safer, and have a longer life,” Roberts said. “This project will contribute to all of those goals.”

Search for the right materials

The team is looking at a number of variables as it develops technologies.

Not only are researchers looking at large-scale and distributed storage options for the power grid, they would also like to secure and grow sustainable power for remote communities with infrastructure like solar panels with battery storage, as well as batteries and fuel cells for vehicles.

“Our new electrolysis cells can operate on renewable energy while converting the greenhouse gas CO2 and/or water to chemicals and fuels, including syngas and green H2,” Birss said. “There is currently tremendous interest in H2 in Alberta and Canada, especially for fuel-cell-powered vehicles, such as trucks, to take advantage of the high efficiencies, zero carbon emissions and only few minutes of recharging time required.”

Among the challenges facing these technologies is the climate, which is something Roberts admits the team is taking into consideration knowing some of the criticism at home has been levied against the uncertain dependability of the technology when Old Man Winter arrives.

“One of the advantages of the solid-state batteries that we are working on is that they can still function and are less likely to be damaged by cold temperatures, although they can still be affected,” he said. “For grid applications, this may also be an issue, although typically the batteries will be located inside a temperature-controlled housing.”

Finding the right partners

The project is one of five UCalgary-led projects to be awarded Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) funding for infrastructure investments.

In this case, researchers received $2.99-million to purchase two powerful instruments, including a state-of-the-art transmission electron microscrope and an X-ray photoelectron spectrometer.

“The instruments will allow us to study changes in the structural and chemical properties of the materials during device operation, and to understand degradation mechanisms, which is essential to developing high-performance, durable materials,” Roberts said.

Birss and Roberts add the instruments give them a magnification to less than a nanometre, which is about 100,000 times smaller than the tip of a human hair. The devices will be available to everyone involved in the project.

“This will help us accelerate the research towards new solutions, and provide graduate students and researchers with new skills and expertise,” Roberts said. “Our CREATE ME2 program is also targeting training students in entrepreneurship and technology transfer, and we are already seeing student start-ups that are taking the technologies we are developing towards commercialization.”