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Universite de Montreal's campus on Nov. 14, 2017.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

The University of Montreal has received a major donation of $159-million aimed at spurring green innovation, including in the lucrative area of electric-vehicle battery supply chains.

Provided by the Fondation Courtois – a private charity founded and managed by the Courtois family of Quebec – the donation will support the university’s Institut Courtois, which uses quantum physics, quantum programming and artificial intelligence to develop new materials.

The university will use the gift to expand its science complex to house new laboratories, robotics facilities and supercomputers needed to bolster its research on green batteries and alternatives to the mining of the polluting minerals used in conventional batteries. These alternatives – such as waste and wood fibres – would help the development of a variety of more sustainable electronics, including EVs, said Mickaël Dollé, a chemistry professor and researcher at the Institut Courtois.

“We are also looking for materials that can contribute to ecomanufacturing and create a circular economy,” said Dr. Dollé. With the new funding, he intends to develop materials for EV batteries that can be used over and over again, employing new state-of-the-art robotics and AI to speed up the research process.

Domestic research into sustainable battery-related materials signals Quebec’s – and Canada’s – increasingly prominent role in the EV battery supply chain. Just last month, General Motors and POSCO Chemical Co. Ltd. announced a new $500-million factory in Bécancour, Que., to produce cathode active material, a major component of EV batteries. A few weeks later, Stellantis and LG Energy Solution announced their own $5.1-billion EV battery plant in Windsor, Ont.

“Research has been going on in the province for more than 30 years, and Quebec has become a leader in [the supply chain] because it had the minerals and researchers that were needed,” said Electric Mobility Canada president and CEO Daniel Breton, who headed Quebec’s electric mobility plan as a provincial minister a decade ago.

However, he added, other provinces have also made great strides in EV supply chain-related research, including Ontario and Nova Scotia, making donations like the one to the University of Montreal a contribution with national benefits.

The economic ripples of investing in research related to greener materials for the EV battery supply chain are substantial, said Frédéric Bouchard, the dean of the university’s faculty of arts and science. It is likely to attract more stakeholders to the province, allowing them access to innovative intellectual property within arm’s reach.

“If there’s a capacity to build some batteries in Quebec and Canada, it increases the ability of the businesses that we can generate here,” said Dr. Bouchard. “We’ll be generating our own intellectual property, and therefore it will be easier to leverage it in a [domestic] industrial context.”

Combined with the federal government’s sales mandate for zero-emission vehicles in its latest climate plan, released in March – as well as its commitment that all light-duty vehicle sales be zero-emission by 2035 – this kind of work will also be lucrative for Canadian researchers, Mr. Breton said.

“Now, people and companies from all over the world are paying attention to Canada,” he said.

“They are interested in talking to Canadian partners and Canadian governments to see what kind of business they could do together in this field. They want to invest in us.”

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