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In the quest to build a better battery, a Canadian is energizing the field

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He’s become a kind of rock star in a field where most people spend their careers working far from the limelight.

Canadian Don Sadoway, a professor of materials chemistry at MIT, has captured the attention of the world with his quest to build a better battery.

In the hallway outside his office, high-profile accolades abound.

Pinned to a bulletin board is a shout-out from Bill Gates.

A Time magazine cover story names him one of the 100 most influential people on the planet.

Sadoway’s battery uses liquid metals and molten salt. (Paul Hunter/CBC)

There are freeze-frames from Sadoway’s appearance on U.S. late-night news satire show The Colbert Report in 2012.

Because Sadoway’s invention, now in the final stages of development, isn’t just any battery.

It’s powerful enough to provide electricity for a whole neighbourhood and it can easily be scaled up into something even bigger and more powerful.

As the world presses ahead toward using more clean energy, such a battery is seen as critical to widespread adaptation of wind and solar power generation.

“This is not in the would-be-nice category, this is in the must-have category,” says the Toronto-born Sadoway.

Use it or lose it

Sadoway tackled a problem that has bedevilled battery experts for generations.

As he puts it: “You have to be able to draw electricity from the sun even when the sun doesn’t shine. And if you can’t do that, then solar power is not the answer.”

Likewise, accessing wind energy on a still day.

Generally speaking, electricity must be used as soon as it is produced, be it from coal-fired power plants or wind turbines.

Use it or lose it.

While the world has long had batteries that can store power in small amounts (think rechargeable laptops, cellphones and, increasingly, automobiles) the challenge has always been how to achieve that on a large scale — or, as it’s known in professional circles — grid level.

To date, attempts at grid-level batteries have run into myriad difficulties: They degrade too quickly, cost too much and have been prone to overheating.

Experts around the world, including billionaire Elon Musk, have for years been pushing the envelope when it comes to battery technology. Mostly they’ve been working hard to improve the world’s current battery of choice, the lithium-ion.

But Sadoway’s invention is radically different from anything else in the market: It uses liquid metals and molten salt.

David Bradwell, from Toronto, is co-inventor of the battery. He was one of Sadoway’s students and is now the chief technology officer of Sadoway’s development company that’s trying to bring the battery to market. (Jean-François Benoît/CBC)

Not only can it be easily constructed almost anywhere on Earth, but unlike most existing rechargeable batteries, it’s built to last a very long time. It’s shown to be cost-effective, reliable and safe. It never overheats, catches fire or explodes.

If a battery doesn’t check all of those boxes, the world won’t line up for it, Sadoway says.

“None of us has a 10-year-old lithium-ion battery,” he says. “For grid-scale storage, these batteries are going to have to last decades. We can’t be swapping them out every three to five years — that’s unacceptable.”

Testing and retesting

A prototype of Sadoway’s battery, 10 years in the making, now sits at a manufacturing and development plant in Marlborough, Mass. It’s roughly the size and shape of a corrugated steel shipping container.

A small team of employees is busy every day testing and retesting for durability.

By design the unit is modular. It can be made larger — and more powerful — simply by stacking another one on top of it.

Sadoway’s development company, Ambri, hopes to have the battery on the market within three years.  

Its chief technology officer is one of Sadoway’s former students, David Bradwell, who, as it turns out, also grew up in Toronto.

He graduated from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., before moving to MIT, where he helped finesse Sadoway’s battery idea and is now listed as its co-inventor.

In 2012, Time magazine named Sadoway one of the 100 most influential people on the planet. (Paul Hunter/CBC)

“[It’s a project] we believe will change the world,” says Bradwell.

He emphasizes the link between grid-level batteries and fighting climate change with clean energy.

Making wind and solar power available for everyone at the flip of a switch, 24-7, says Bradwell, “It’s the missing link for renewables.

“It’s absolutely the key to making it all work.”

‘Service of society’

While both Bradwell and Sadoway are confident in their creation, the challenge they face is proving that it all works perfectly.

They’re getting there.

Microsoft’s Gates is not only a fan of Sadoway’s but also a key investor.  

So is French energy giant Total S.A.

It’s tacit recognition that Ambri’s onto something.

And that whoever wins the race to build a better battery will indeed make history.

Sadoway thinks his work can make the planet a better place.

“It is science and service of society,” he says. “And maybe that’s the Canadian piece.”

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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