Batteries, electricity storage, and alternative fuels

McGill in the race to innovate

With Quebec’s promise to fully electrify transport, heating, and part of its industrial sector by 2050, the province is firmly committed to making the transition to renewable energy. The government and multinational corporations are investing billions to develop a battery production industry. Hydro-Québec has shared its 2035 action plan, with aims to achieve carbon-neutrality by 2050.

It was in this context that McGill University created its Centre for Innovation in Energy Storage and Conversion (McISCE) in 2021, which brings together some 50 researchers and more than 150 graduate students.

Sylvain Coulombe, Director of McISCE

“At the moment, both the government and investors are making the production of green energy a priority, and that’s great,” says Sylvain Coulombe, physical engineer and Director of McISCE. “But the challenge of making the large-scale storage of this energy possible, both for the electricity grids and for the conversion of large industrial processes, has yet to be solved.”

In collaboration with the International Economic Forum of the Americas and the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, McGill organized a one-day conference, “Future-Charged: The Renewable Energy Revolution” on November 15. It brought together researchers, business leaders and senior civil servants, as well as ministers Pierre Fitzgibbon (Economy, Innovation and Energy) and Steven Guilbeault (Environment and Climate Change).

“We’ve been preparing for this event for a year,” explains Benoit Boulet, electrical engineer, and Associate Vice-Principal (Innovation and Partnerships) at McGill. “Quebec is in the process of radically reorganizing its electrical grid, as well as investing massively in the battery sector and its entire supply chain, which is a new industry. Our message to companies and governments is, ‘Research is also part of the chain. You’re going to need thousands of engineers and scientists.’”

Storage and conversion

“Now that the electrification of transport is well under way, a huge amount of development work needs to be done in order to make batteries more efficient,” explains Coulombe. “Not to mention the problem of recycling. Too many batteries are still designed without any thought for their end of life.”

Benoit Boulet, Associate Vice-Principal (Innovation and Partnerships)

Roughly a third of the researchers at McISCE are working on finding new materials to make anodes and cathodes and to develop solid electrolytes, which would have the advantage of not being flammable. “With our electron microscopes, we can observe the behaviour of every atom in a battery,” says Boulet.

McGill researchers are also exploring different energy storage and conversion techniques. Quebec’s abundance of renewable energy makes it possible to produce either hydrogen or green ammonia, which, when they react or are “broken,” release large quantities of energy.

“Ammonia has the advantage of being the most widely produced industrial molecule in the world,” says Coulombe. “Everything we need to transport and contain it has already been developed and is being put to use.”

Other avenues of fundamental research include looking at metallic fuels such as iron or aluminum powder. When they react with air or water, these powdered metals can create energy immediately without producing carbon emissions. “This is the principle behind the rocket engines of space shuttles, which use aluminum powder as fuel,” says Boulet.

Metallic fuels are of great interest to anyone working on making industrial processes that require a lot of heat greener — for example, producing green steel or green concrete — but their first application will undoubtedly be in maritime transport, says Boulet. “Our researchers have already patented the burner.”

The issue of acceptability

Of course, these solutions will only work if they are produced from renewable energies, and at a reasonable price. One of the key aspects of McISCE’s work is analyzing life cycles of the various options being explored, as well as their social impact. “We’ll be shooting ourselves in the foot if the alternative solutions we develop turn out to be worse than the original problem,” warns Coulombe.

That’s what makes McISCE so remarkable. The innovative centre brings together not only engineers, physicists, and chemists, but also architects, political scientists, economists, and communications specialists.

Metals, which store energy during refining, could be used to transport and store energy, as fossil fuels currently do

“It would be a mistake to believe that science and technology are enough to solve the problem,” says Coulombe. For example, the transition from the dream of an electric car to its current state of advancement is a perfect illustration of the meeting point between technological progress and changing attitudes. “New technologies must be understood, adopted, and accepted. Scientists can’t do anything without involving the social sciences.”

Coulombe also emphasizes McISCE’s interest in changing regulatory frameworks. “When it comes to the energy transition, public policy is just as important as research, and the meeting of the two is critical,” he explains.

So, involving political scientists, economists and geographers in the research being carried out is crucial. The two engineers see the issue as one of social justice. “Energy efficient houses and electric cars won’t achieve anything if they are unaffordable to half the population,” says Coulombe.

He is delighted to see how concerned young researchers are about the social impact of their work. “In my generation, we were almost strictly technical. We eventually adopted a different way of thinking. But the new generation asks these questions spontaneously. That gives me a lot of hope.”