Karim Zaghib powers up a Chevy Volt electric hybrid for a tour of his domain: the energy storage and conversion facilities at Hydro-Québec’s sprawling two-square-kilometre research campus in Varennes, a Montreal exoburb on the South Shore of the St. Lawrence River.
Mr. Zaghib is Hydro-Québec’s point man on a high-stakes strategic mission to develop the superbattery of the future that will propel the much-vaunted all-electric car into the realm of commercial viability and consumer receptivity. The veteran electro-chemist is a self-described idealist who dreams of spearheading the big technological breakthrough in electric-vehicle battery technology, committed to making a major contribution to a cleaner, more liveable planet.
For the province of Quebec and its marquee utility, which spends about $100-million a year on research and development, the spoils of victory are potentially huge: bragging rights to ownership of a revolutionary battery technology – potentially valued in the billions of dollars – that beats out an impressive bevy of rival research organizations in the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Europe, not to mention such major corporate players as Panasonic and Sony.
Mr. Zaghib says he and his team can create – within five years – a battery providing a range of 500 kilometres before needing a recharge.
The current maximum range for electric vehicles (EVs) is about 160 kilometres. It’s one of the more aggressive targets – both in terms of timeline and range – among other major research projects around the world. And the challenge is huge: producing a battery that is safe, affordable, light, reliable, that can be cheaply mass produced, that charges quickly and efficiently, and offers the kind of range and power that drivers now get from the ubiquitous internal combustion engine. Hydro-Québec touts itself as a major contender in the EV battery sweepstakes, pointing to its 35 years in EV battery research and solid reputation based on hundreds of patents and research breakthroughs.
Of course, the current political and environmental context seems right for throwing money at this type of research, although low gas prices at the pump these days aren’t helping EV sales. The major countries of the world have just signed off on the Paris Agreement to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and there is a renewed sense of urgency regarding the need for clean new technologies. But whether Hydro-Québec and its research centre – known by its initials, IREQ, where about 480 people work – can actually reach its daunting targets on the elusive superbattery front is another matter.
“I really love originality, the act of creation,” says the 52-year-old as we step out of the Volt and into a hangar-sized skunk works. “I’m a big believer in breakthroughs.” Inside the building, Mr. Zaghib shows off several different projects on the go using different materials, including efforts to improve the efficiency and storage capabilities of the workhorse of the industry: the lithium-ion battery, found in most laptops and mobile phones today and the most common power source for the current crop of EVs.
EVs, while still in their infancy and selling in very modest numbers around the world, have been making headlines lately – helped immensely by celebrity entrepreneur Elon Musk and his critically adored but expensive Tesla Model S luxury hatchback – as concerns mount over the climate-change-related urgency of addressing vehicle emissions and the growing need to tap into clean energy sources. Hydro-Québec, Canada’s largest hydroelectric utility, already holds dozens of patents and has licensed out some 40-odd battery and energy-storage technologies to companies worldwide, including Sony and BASF.
The scandal at Volkswagen AG involving widescale cheating on emissions tests on millions of diesel vehicles has provided a welcome boost to efforts to put more EVs on the road in more than just token numbers (there are currently about 330,000 EVs registered in the U.S.). But the competition is brutal. Electro-chemists, materials scientists and engineers around the globe at hundreds of private-sector ventures, university labs and government-funded agencies are on the case in a big way, intensifying efforts to conjure up the elusive, delicately balanced alchemy that will produce an energy source capable of revolutionizing ground transportation (not to mention the applications for home and industrial use).
Among the major players in the uber-battery sweeps are the Chinese – BYD Auto, BYD stands for “Build Your Dreams!”– and the South Koreans – LG Chem Ltd. The big auto manufacturers are all to some extent involved in funding or doing in-house research. Even Google, Apple, Swiss watch maker Swatch and entrepreneurs James Dyson of vacuum cleaner fame and Richard Branson are getting in on the action.
In the United States, one of IREQ’s biggest rivals in the public sphere is the Argonne National Laboratory, officially named the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, a big science program that brings together some of the top minds in high-tech battery development. Indeed, the lithium-ion batteries powering Mr. Zaghib’s Chevy Volt on the tour of his facility use a technology licensed from Argonne.
EV battery research over the past several years has been dogged by a surfeit of companies and institutes boldly trumpeting allegedly paradigm-shifting battery discoveries. The field is littered with the remnants of grandiose hype and unfulfilled promises.
“There’s a battery innovation announced at least every month, usually every couple of weeks,” says Jeff Chamberlain, one of the linchpin scientists at Argonne, near Chicago, and – along with Mr. Zaghib – a cheerleader for new battery technology. “Somebody somewhere in the world says, ‘I’ve got it.’” Expectations run high for a battery that is inexpensive, that addresses so-called “range anxiety” – the fear of having a drained battery before reaching home or the next public charging station – and that doesn’t take an eternity to charge, he says.
The result is massive pressure on inventors, developers and financial backers to proclaim the Next Big Thing without it having passed critical tests such as commercial viability, Mr. Chamberlain says. A number of battery discovery claims ended up being big letdowns, he adds. “The VCs [venture capital firms] are impatient,” but the science itself is slow.
Mr. Zaghib – whose track record includes a four-year research stint in the 1990s at Japan’s influential Ministry of International Trade and Industry – says he firmly believes a 500-kilometre range is doable, notwithstanding the raft of skeptics out there who contend that a wonder battery of this kind remains far off in the distant future. Mr. Musk’s Tesla Motors Inc. – whose growth strategy includes building a “Gigafactory” in the Nevada desert to mass produce the lowest-cost lithium-ion batteries – has a “lovely” program but it doesn’t address such critical issues as short battery life cycle, low range before recharging and weight, Mr. Zaghib says. “We need new systems” that go beyond the current industry standard lithium-ion battery pack, he exclaims.
Essentially, the modus operandi in boundary-smashing battery research is to test an array of combinations of elements and new materials in the hopes of lighting upon the Holy Grail of combos that will outshine the limited – although still perfectable – lithium-ion battery. IREQ has a strong reputation for its research into so-called solid-state battery materials that are deemed safer than their liquid counterparts because they are not flammable.
Mr. Zaghib – who has been at IREQ since 1995 – enjoys huge respect in the small world of cutting-edge battery research. He is the author or co-author of 130 scientific papers and is a tireless promoter of battery innovation and patent protection. Unfortunately, he and his fellow members of the Big Battery congregation are up against a wall of skepticism that has been built up over the years.
“I don’t think it should be Hydro-Québec’s responsibility to be involved in that kind of development,” says energy economics expert Jean-Thomas Bernard, a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa. “It shouldn’t be the government that is imposing the choice of a technology” on the market, he says.
Donald Sadoway is another illustrious battery pioneer.
Producing the “God Battery,” as one wag dubbed it, is fraught with difficulties, says Mr. Sadoway, a materials chemistry professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and entrepreneur who invented a liquid-metal battery to store power on the grid that has the financial backing of Bill Gates and French oil and gas giant Total SA.
The lithium-ion battery is not the solution because it is prone to losing its stored-energy capacity over time, he explains. “Can you imagine a 200-kilometre range vehicle in its first year that, after five years, is down to the 100-kilometre range?,” Prof. Sadoway asks. “How are you going to sell that car? You’re not going to pull the battery pack out of the hood and replace it.”
Discovering the elusive, harmoniously matched mix of materials to make the perfect – or near-perfect – battery is a gigantic undertaking, he warns.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Mr. Sadoway. It also incorrectly stated that Hydro-Québec licensed technology to Mercedes-Benz and IBM. This has been corrected.Report Typo/Error