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Jeff Dahn, whose research focuses on making lithium-ion batteries more efficient, is one of six winners of the inaugural Governor-General’s Innovation Award.

Nick Pearce/Dalhousie University

Jeff Dahn's battery-research group at Dalhousie University in Halifax is about to begin a long-term project for Tesla Motors Inc., helping the electric car company's batteries hold more charge, last longer and become cheaper to manufacture.

Prof. Dahn and his students have been working for years on ways to make lithium-ion batteries more efficient, but the Tesla partnership, which was unveiled last year and begins this June, has boosted his lab's profile sharply. Interest in its research, which could help accelerate the shift off fossil fuels, has blossomed.

"When the Tesla announcement was made … my e-mail box went bananas, especially with students interested in doing graduate work, because Tesla is very recognizable," Prof. Dahn said. His work includes developing better battery electrodes and creating devices that measure how long a lithium-ion battery will last.

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It's not only Tesla that has recognized Prof. Dahn's work as an important contributor to technology, and society as a whole. He is one of six winners of the first annual Governor-General's Innovation Awards that are being named Thursday.

The award program, first announced last summer by Governor-General David Johnston, highlights innovators who have boosted Canada's quality of life. The idea is to shine a light on all kinds of innovation and inspire young people to see the value of doing creative work.

The overall goal is to "change the culture in the country, to enhance the notion of innovation, and to help Canadians see themselves as an innovative nation," Mr. Johnston said in an interview. One reason he pushed for the establishment of the award was that he was worried Canadians might have become too complacent, and he wasn't sure that "we embrace change with sufficient enthusiasm."

The list of winners, in addition to Prof. Dahn, includes four individuals or organizations working in the medical field, ranging from a maker of robotic arms to a researcher who developed a burn treatment using nanotechnology. Another winner, Métis visual artist Christi Belcourt, was honoured for her innovative use of artwork to raise awareness of violence against indigenous women.

"We really do believe that we should cover the full spectrum of innovation," Mr. Johnston said, including social innovation. "Certainly artistic and communication innovation should be very much a part of how we look at changes in our society."

Prof. Dahn, who helped create a spinoff company that makes high-precision equipment to measure the potential lifespan of lithium-ion cells, said stable research funding is one key to performing innovative work.

He also said arrangements with industry – such as his partnership with Tesla and earlier work with 3M Co. – help with innovation because it means he is "working on the problems that matter … it puts one foot on the ground." Essentially, these partnerships ensure "that our work has commercial relevance and relevance to society."

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But the most precious resource for innovators is still "to have the time to think," he said.

Prof. Dahn said the Governor-General's awards will help underline that there is very innovative work being done all across Canada. "It will be great for the Canadian public to see what is happening [and] what these six winners have done. I think people will be proud," he said.

The Governor-General's Innovation Awards will be presented at a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on May 19. The Globe and Mail is one of the partners involved in the awards.

THE RECIPIENTS

  • Christi Belcourt, a Métis visual artist from Espanola, Ont., was chosen because of her innovative use of art to communicate, bring together communities and push for social change.
  • Robert Burrell, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, created the Acticoat burn dressing that uses the antibacterial properties of silver to improve the care of wounds.
  • Jeff Dahn, a professor of physics and chemistry at Dalhousie University in Halifax, developed precise methods of measuring the life span of lithium-ion cells, speeding up the process of creating longer-lasting and more efficient batteries.
  • Breanne Everett, chief executive officer and founder of Calgary-based Orpyx Medical Technologies, created sensor-based shoe insoles that prompt diabetic patients to move their feet to improve blood flow.
  • Kinova Robotics, founded by Montreal electrical engineer Charles Deguire, developed the lightweight and energy efficient JACO robotic arms that boost the quality of life and independence of people with disabilities.
  • Mark Torchia and Richard Tyc, from Winnipeg, invented the NeuroBlate device that uses a small laser probe along with image guidance software to treat brain tumours and other problems in a minimally invasive manner.
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