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Victoria-based institute looking into improving range, safety of electric-vehicle batteries

Incorporating otherwise wasted material called tellurium could help make better batteries
PhD candidate Yue Zhang (left) and lead investigator Jian Liu examine high-purity tellurium metal and a tellurium-based battery made at UBC. The project is looking into the feasibility of incorporating tellurium into electric vehicle batteries. (Photo courtesy of the University of Victoria)

Using industrial by-products to improve the range and safety of the batteries powering electric vehicles. That’s the aim of a project the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS), which is housed at the University of Victoria, is partnering in.

The $180,000 project is looking at incorporating tellurium, a rare metal and by-product of lead and zinc smelting, into the lithium-ion batteries. PICS worked in conjunction with B.C. to select the project for funding, which comes from the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation.

Tellurium’s high conductivity and other properties make it better at energy storage than conventional lithium-ion batteries, the project’s lead investigator said in a news release.

Jian Liu, an assistant professor at the University of B.C.’s Okanagan campus, said commercializing sulphur batteries has been challenging due to the element not being able to transport electrons.

“We are looking for a way to balance electronic conductivity with energy density as a way to make lithium-sulphur batteries viable,” he said.

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Adding tellurium brings the needed conductivity and could help extend EV battery range, Liu said. The project is also seeing if including tellurium could improve safety, since liquid electrolytes in standard lithium-ion batteries are flammable.

Bentley Allan, the climate institute’s associate director, said they help researchers partner with climate “solution-seeker” government and industry groups that can scale up innovative ideas into real-world applications. He hopes Liu’s tellurium project will be successful and lead to a battery prototype being made.

“If we can make cars go longer and be safer, we’re hoping that would drive up adoption rates and increase the viability of electric vehicles here in B.C. and throughout the world,” Allan said.

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The project wants to enhance the province’s low-carbon economy. PICS has been reaching out to industry stakeholders as it hopes the research project could help foster a made-in-Canada EV battery supply chain.

One of the goals is to also use waste materials, in order to take advantage of the circular economy and create a sustainable battery industry. Using the by-product tellurium and waste sulphur, from oilsands refineries, Allan said the project could help alleviate the need for new mining of materials – besides lithium – that are needed for electric vehicle batteries.

“It’s basically incorporating a waste product into what would be a high-value-added product,” Allan said. “That’s a win-win, both on the climate side, but also on the sustainability side.”

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Jake Romphf

About the Author: Jake Romphf

In early 2021, I made the move from the Great Lakes to Greater Victoria with the aim of experiencing more of the country I report on.
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