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Battery expert Jeff Dahn wins major Canadian science prize

Jeff Dahn, a professor of physics at Dalhousie University, is a leading expert in battery technology whose work brought Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors Inc. to his doorstep last year.

Martin Lipman/NSERC

When Jeff Dahn answers the phone at work, the first thing you notice is the sound of blowing air.

"Our air conditioners run in the winter," said Dr. Dahn, a professor of physics at Dalhousie University and a leading expert in battery technology. Working in rooms packed from floor to ceiling with testing equipment, all of which generates enormous amounts of heat, he and his team have spent years advancing the subtle science of lithium-ion batteries – the slim little power packs that have become key enablers of the smartphone era.

In recognition of his long and impressive track record in the field, Dr. Dahn has been named this year's winner of the Herzberg Gold Medal, Canada's most prestigious science prize. But at 60, Dr. Dahn shows little sign of powering down.

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Last year his work brought Elon Musk's Tesla Motors Inc. to his doorstep. The company has set up a research facility in nearby Dartmouth, N.S., with the aim of jump-starting a revolution in electric-car performance by leveraging Dr. Dahn's insights.

"Jeff is very practical. He's not a blue-sky research person who's going to come up with something that can't be used," said Kurt Kelty, director of energy-storage technologies at Tesla, based in Palo Alto, Calif.

By his own description, Dr. Dahn is not a "high-flyer academic" with a string of papers in top research journals. Others say he is a gifted and perceptive scientist whose explorations into the inner workings of batteries are highly regarded in a field where pragmatic approaches are favoured over publishing prowess.

"The goal of our lab is to do something useful," he said, adding that he was both surprised and flattered to learn of his gold-medal win. The award is bestowed annually by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the federal agency that is the primary funder of non-medical research in Canada. Dr. Dahn will top the list of award winners who are to be honoured during a ceremony in Ottawa on Tuesday evening hosted by Governor-General David Johnson.

Dr. Dahn was born in Bridgeport, Conn., and grew up on Long Island, N.Y., where his father was a business manager at a Quaker college and his mother an activist and organizer in the peace movement. In 1970, with tension in the United States mounting over the war in Vietnam, his parents opted to emigrate with their four children to Lunenburg, N.S.

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"It was really time to leave," said Dr. Dahn, who still marvels at the leap his parents took coming to Canada without jobs and using their savings to purchase and upgrade what is now the family homestead. "It was pretty primitive during the first year."

He was more interested in playing basketball than studying physics when he enrolled as an undergraduate at Dalhousie University, but he took to the subject and its intellectual rigour, and headed to graduate school at the University of British Columbia. After obtaining a PhD in 1982, he passed up a job offer from the United States to work at the National Research Council in Ottawa. On his first day, he recalled, Colin Hurd, who was then head of solid-state chemistry at the NRC, told him to take note of the the well-resourced labs and the calibre of scientists there. "Look around this place. There's nothing here that stands between you and the Nobel Prize except your own capabilities," Dr. Hurd said then.

The three-year stint at the NRC led to a job with Moli Energy (now E-One Moli Energy Ltd.) a B.C.-based battery manufacturer, where Dr. Dahn rose to become director of research. But by 1990, the growing importance of lithium batteries, which were destined to overtake other materials as a lightweight and potent source of stored energy for consumer products, drew Dr. Dahn to academic research. He joined the faculty at Simon Fraser University where he remained until his return to Nova Scotia and Dalhousie in 1996.

Mario Pinto, now president of NSERC, was a chemist and faculty member at Simon Fraser at the time. He said Dr. Dahn was well known there both as an exceptional teacher and an inspired researcher for the same reason: "Because he has learned how to learn. And he's trying to pass that on to the next generation."

At Dalhousie, Dr. Dahn honed his expertise, probing some of the key questions that surround lithium-ion batteries, just as they were poised to change the world of portable electronics and turn the Internet from a desktop experience to a perpetual presence in modern life.

Lithium-ion cells, which involve positively charged lithium atoms swimming though a material called an electrolyte and taking residence between layers of carbon, are ideal for smartphones, tablets and other small devices, but their performance remains hampered by various effects at the atomic scale that Dr. Dahn has long worked to understand. It is this expertise that ultimately led him to seek out Tesla once he heard the company was planning to manufacture its own batteries for its electric cars in a giant new factory in North America. "I just thought this is incredible. I have to be a part of this somehow."

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Tesla Motors was equally interested and a unique partnership with Dalhousie was struck. As Dr. Dahn explained, his team's goals with respect to the company can be easily stated: Increase the amount of energy a lithium-ion battery can carry, increase battery lifetime and cut its cost. "But achieving those goals requires a lot of hard work and a lot of smart action," he added.

Farther down the road, Dr. Dahn sees an even greater and more fundamental challenge. As the world seeks to decouple from its reliance on fossil fuels, it's become clear that a vastly improved form of battery technology is needed so that energy generated by renewable but intermittent sources such as wind and solar can be efficiently stored.

Whether or not lithium-ion batteries will provide the ultimate storage medium is unclear, Dr. Dahn said, but the future of energy may hinge on what kind of progress he and other researchers can make in the coming years.

"I think people are beginning to realize that storage is the missing link," he said. "And it's massive."

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