Research chair finds chemistry in collaboration

Mark Obrovac, NSERC/3M Canada/Dalhousie Industrial Research Chair in Metal-Ion Batteries for EV Power Sources

- September 21, 2011

Mark Obrovac and grad students, hard at work in the lab. (Danny Abriel photo)
Mark Obrovac and grad students, hard at work in the lab. (Danny Abriel photo)

A new research chair at Dalhousie University is sure to energize the Department of Chemistry.

Mark Obrovac was recently named a 3M/NSERC Canada/Dalhousie Industrial Research Chair in Metal-Ion Batteries for EV Power Sources, charged with creating new, low-cost materials—specifically metal ion cells—for renewable batteries.

“There’s been very little research done in this area up until now. It’s in its infancy stage, so it’s a great project with lots of opportunity and lots of exciting work to do,” he says.

Dr. Obrovac joined Dal as an associate professor last September after spending eight years at 3M – a global diversified technology company – in St. Paul, MN.

The chair is a first for the chemistry department, and only the fifth for Dal as a whole, the last being awarded to the university in 2007.

“It is quite an honour, and it is a research position so the idea is to get graduate students into research,” says Dr. Obrovac, who grew up in Vancouver and attended Simon Fraser University, Dalhousie and Cornell.

Building better batteries

His project will focus on lithium alternatives such as sodium and aluminium, which could reduce the size and/or cost of batteries for hybrid and electrical vehicles, and beyond.

While lithium has the highest energy per unit weight, researchers are realizing the size of the cell is equally important, he says.

“If your cell phone weighs a few grams extra, you don’t really care. But if it’s smaller, that’s a big deal,” Dr. Obrovac muses. “Our lab is looking at volume and cost reduction through these other ions.

“We’re working for an industrial partner, so the goal is commercial sales and making something that’s real,” he adds.

Opportunities for grad students

The 3M/NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Materials Science, renewable every five years, will include seven graduate students, four post-docs and a research associate by year five.

They’ll certainly benefit from ties to such a large company. Already 3M is providing research materials including electrolyte solvents and salts that are not commercially available.

“Collaboration with 3M gives them a leg up,” says Dr. Obrovac, who will take students to company headquarters three times a year to present research. Students will also have a chance to do research at 3M’s facilities.

He says the benefits work both ways: “This is white-space research—you don’t know if there’s going to be a product here or not—so having students doing it in a university setting is very cost-effective.”


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