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Powering up solutions for a healthier planet

$2-million grant from TD Bank Group a welcome boost for new McGill Centre for Innovation in Storage and Conversion of Energy

Credit: Owen Egan

With the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) wrapped up, the hard work of transitioning to a greener economy lies ahead.

How do we get there from here?

The new McGill Centre for Innovation in Storage and Conversion of Energy (McISCE) plans to be a key contributor in moving us closer to a more sustainable future.

Launched in Spring 2021, McISCE received a welcome boost in its quest this fall in the form of a $2-million donation from TD Bank Group (TD). The generous support will help bolster research capacity in innovative, carbon-free energy solutions, build a community of researchers in the field, and train students to become agents of change who can drive forward the advanced clean energy storage technologies of the new green economy.

With current technology, energy can be harvested from alternatives to fossil fuels, such as wind, solar and hydro power. But the challenges of long-term storage and conversion of this energy impede its widespread use.

That’s where McISCE’s cutting-edge research comes in. The centre aims to become one of the world’s leading sites for carbon-free energy conversion and storage innovation.

“Everybody is talking about transitioning to a low-carbon economy, and clean energy is a key element of this strategy,” says George Demopoulos, Professor in the Department of Mining Materials Engineering and McISCE co-founder. His lab focuses on research into low environmental footprint clean technologies and is exploring the development of advanced lithium-ion batteries for storing solar energy and powering electric vehicles. “Clean energy and clean technologies are those that are environmentally sustainable and respectful of resources. They’re clean in terms of material sourcing, recycling, and energy,” he explains.

“The donation is a real catalyst for us,” says Demopoulos. “It strengthens McISCE so we can launch new projects we wouldn’t be able to otherwise.”

The donation through the TD Ready Commitment, the Bank’s global corporate citizenship platform, will also facilitate the centre’s educational mission by enabling it to hire a coordinator for activities and workshops; it will support a liaison person who will connect the University’s research with industry, looking for pathways for transferring knowledge and technology into the local and national economy; and it will provide seed money for especially promising initiatives that need a boost before they can be competitive in applications for other funding.

Perhaps most significantly, the donation will support students who work in McISCE’s labs. “Our primary product is the people who are trained in our labs and are then hired by companies and government organizations,” stresses Demopoulos. “And once out there, they become agents of change. That’s where we’ll make the biggest difference.”

The donation aligns with the commitment made by TD to support and help accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy – including renewable and clean energy technologies, businesses, and processes.

“At TD, we believe that we have a role to play when it comes to driving sustainable growth for the customers and communities we serve, and the economies we support,” said Norie Campbell, Group Head and General Counsel, TD Bank Group. “We’re proud to support the McGill Centre for Innovation in Storage and Conversion of Energy, and the enthusiasm and ingenuity of the innovators that help inspire positive change.”

Based in the Faculty of Engineering, the centre’s approximately 40 professors and their groups are spread across the faculties of Science, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and Management.

There are several steps to creating a broad clean energy program, and the first problem has been largely solved: generating clean, renewable energy from solar, wind, or geothermal sources. “We’ve got those technologies, they’re cost-effective, and they can scale. We haven’t scaled them, but that’s a question of political will rather than technology,” says Jeffrey Bergthorson, Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and co-founder of McISCE.

“The challenges now are that we need more energy, doubling or tripling our electricity production,” adds Bergthorson, who is also the Associate Director of the Trottier Institute for Sustainable Engineering and Design (TISED). “And we need to provide storage solutions so that the energy is there when we need it. The wind is not always blowing, and the sun’s not always shining.”

The answer lies in developing alternative sources of energy and in creating effective approaches to storing this energy once it’s been produced, essentially saving it for a rainy day – or season. “We’re not talking about storing solar or wind energy over a few hours – we’re looking at long-term storage, such as from summer to winter,” says Sylvain Coulombe, Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and another of McISCE’s co-founders. “And often that also means converting the energy into something else that can be more easily transported and stored.”

Hydrogen, for instance, has earned a high profile as a potential alternative fuel, but, while plentiful and renewable, it is extremely difficult to store and transport. So, its viability as an alternative fuel lies in developing ways to convert and store it in some other form.

“Hydrogen has the potential to be a clean energy commodity, but the problem is how can we store it for heavy duty transportation or long-distance energy delivery, or even for international energy trade,” says Bergthorson, whose Alternative Fuels lab is exploring the use of “metal fuels” as a means of storing energy and even for producing hydrogen on demand.

“One idea is to use aluminum as a recyclable fuel and renewable energy commodity. The aluminum can later be burned with water to release hydrogen on demand rather than transporting and storing hydrogen itself. Further, it’s completely sustainable, as you can keep re-using the aluminum over and over – it’s a circular fuel.”

Using metals to store fuel offers another important advantage: availability. “There’s only so much lithium, and if we try to make lithium-ion batteries for everything, we’re going to run out,” says Bergthorson. “But we have much more iron and aluminum, and the more materials you bring in, the lower the overall cost of the system.”

In his lab, Coulombe and his team are exploring ways to electrify chemical processes using plasma processes. Plasma, the fourth state of matter, is a highly-reactive gas that conducts electricity and thus, plasma processes can be entirely powered with renewable electricity. Several heavy industries and emerging ones in Quebec and several provinces in Canada could become “all-electric” with plasma technologies.

“Most large chemical production facilities are powered by fossil fuel, and these processes usually operate at high temperatures,” says Coulombe. “With plasma we can obtain and sometimes surpass the performances of these traditional chemical processes, while being much more energy-efficient and sustainable. Further, plasma processes can drive chemical reactions that would not be possible otherwise.”

Research like Coulombe’s could help transform large-scale industrial processes while reducing emissions – a hopeful step toward a more sustainable future.