Over the past two decades we have become surrounded by lithium battery technology, some of it almost invisible but nevertheless essential to providing portable power storage that we now take for granted. But turning raw lithium into an appropriate medium for retaining and transferring an electrical charge is a complicated process. A finished cathode calls for this material to be dried, ground, milled and melted with other metal salts, all of which requires the extensive supply lines and complex manufacturing infrastructure that define this industry.
Reactor vessels demonstrate lithium-processing technology. Photo credit: Nano One Materials Corp.
Dan Blondal has long wanted to improve the way batteries are made. But rather than trying to disrupt the existing commercial model with some new, exotic material, he and his colleagues have explored better ways of handling the lithium that is already being used. As CEO of Vancouver-based Nano One Materials Corporation, Blondal has turned these efforts into the core business of this enterprise. “We’re developing technology to assemble the raw materials into a value added, mixed-metal composite,” he says. “The powder that comes out of that would be mixed with a binder and some other materials until it is basically an ink, then coated onto a thin piece of aluminum foil. That becomes the cathode in the battery.”
This carefully controlled chemical process dramatically simplifies lithium’s path to becoming a battery. The mechanical reduction process has been replaced by chemical precipitation of intermediate powders made up of nanostructured particles, which then require only a single firing step to make them ready for the cathode.
Blondal brought this patented approach to the West Coast in 2014, when he set up laboratories in collaboration with BC Research, a technology incubator and commercialization centre based in Burnaby, BC. In 2015, Nano One began formally collaborating with the Swedish engineering firm Noram Engineering & Constructors to build a Burnaby-based pilot plant that should demonstrate the practical potential of this process. That plant opened in spring and starts operations this summer. “The pilot is an outcome of the full-scale commercial conceptual design, rather than being a scaled-up version of the bench,” Blondal says. “Part of it is to deliver enough material that we can actually do testing at a larger scale with industrial partners. And of course its primary purpose is to demonstrate scalability and generate commercial interest.”