How Nova Scotia’s Jeff Dahn became a battery big shot

The specifics of Dahn’s research are confidential to protect Tesla’s intellectual property, he said. The aim is to develop a battery that combines a long life span, both chronologically and in charge-discharge cycles; high energy density or power storage; safe operation; and low cost.

“Those are the four things that really matter, and those are the four things we focus on,” Dahn said.

The difficultly is balance. Increasing energy density can shorten the cell’s life span or affect safety or cost.

And cost is subject to price swings in raw materials such as graphite and nickel, Dahn said.

“Eventually, if the cost were to be zero, everybody would be happy. So getting to zero is the hardest thing.”

Why don’t automakers collaborate to develop one battery technology they can all use?

“What you’re saying resonates well with me,” Dahn said, “but it’s just not the way that companies work.”

Not everything Dahn’s team does stays under wraps. While Tesla owns intellectual property produced by the lab, its researchers are allowed to publish their findings once patents are filed.

“That’s really important,” Dahn said, “because if the students couldn’t publish their work, they wouldn’t be noticed, and they would never get jobs.”

Dalhousie is not the only focus of Canadian battery research. Dahn noted work being done at the University of Waterloo, Ont., Western University in London, Ont., and the  University of Calgary. And Hydro Quebec’s “historically incredibly strong” research effort dates back to the 1980s, he said.


Efforts to develop and produce batteries in Canada have accelerated.

“My students are getting job offers when they’re a year away from graduation,” Dahn said. “Some companies are saying, ‘We’ll put you on salary now as long as you’re to come to us when you graduate.’ ”

Canada has the components for a robust battery sector, Dahn said. It has the raw materials and the intellectual resources.

Governments chasing greenhouse-gas goals are motivated to offer incentives to attract production.

“We have everything that’s needed,” Dahn said. “We have the brains, we have the cheap power, we have the raw materials.”

But he’s realistic. Other countries have the same goals. And new companies are sprouting up everywhere, propelled by risk-taking entrepreneurs, who historically are not thick on the ground in Canada.

“We’re not a big country, and to think that we would be pulling above our weight per capita might be a little bit crazy. But at least we should pull at our per-capita weight.” Dahn, who came to Nova Scotia from Connecticut with his family as a teen, said other institutions have tried to lure him away from Dalhousie, but his roots in the province are deep; his siblings and children are all there, he said.

“I will never move.”

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