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Clean energy revolution

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada project funding advances research into replacing inefficient batteries.

Four years ago, Queen’s University researcher Gregory Jerkiewicz and his team of Canadian and international collaborators received a competitive $4 million Discovery Frontiers grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Funding is presented to only one project every two years and the broadly defined research subject is different each time.

The entire research team visited Queen's University just before Christmas to wrap up the project.

Fast forward to 2020 and the Engineered Nickel Catalysts for Electrochemical Clean Energy (Ni Electro Can) has generated research results that could revolutionize clean energy technology through the use of nickel, an abundant transition metal in the Earth’s crust, in materials such as fuel cells.

“Batteries, which are heavy and have a limited life span, will soon be replaced by fuel cells (in electric cars for example), which are currently very expensive,” says Dr. Jerkiewicz (Chemistry), the project leader and scientific director. “The problem is, the currently available fuel cells employ platinum nanoparticles and there isn’t enough platinum on earth to convert all batteries to fuel cells. Nickel solves that problem and allows us to create cost-effective and efficient alkaline fuel cells.”

Two other thrusts of the research included alkaline water electrolysis for hydrogen generation and electrochemical transformation of glycerol into value-added products.

International Leadership

Featuring 14 Canadian researchers from seven universities (University of Victoria, Simon Fraser University, INRS Université de Recherche, University of Toronto, University of Ottawa, McMaster University and Queen’s University), nine international researchers from seven countries (Brazil, France, Germany, Israel, Japan, Norway and the United States), and several industry partners (eg. Ballard Power Systems, CNEM Corp., Hydrogenics, Nissan Motor Company, Perkin Elmer), the project has also allowed Canada to emerge as a world-class leader in the area of nickel materials, nickel electrochemistry, and electrocatalysis, and open new research areas internationally.

Five research groups from Queen’s were involved in the project including the Beauchemin Group, Daymond Group, Evans Group, Mosey Group, and Jerkiewicz Group.

Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities Kirsty Duncan visited Queen's University for the official announcement.

Project Outcomes

The project saw several research outcomes and successes. A few highlights, include:

  • Strengthening Canada’s leadership role in the area of novel materials science and engineering for clean and renewable electrochemical energy systems
  • Enabling innovative research on electrochemical transformation of glycerol, a by-product of biodiesel production
  • Disseminating newly created knowledge and transferring it to industrial partners in order to maximize the impact of discoveries, breakthroughs and inventions

The Ni Electro Can project had several other tangible results including training 135 highly qualified persons, generating well over 90 scientific papers with more still to come, creating 40 international and national internships, developing an additional 24 research projects garnering an additional $4.8 million in funding, obtaining six patents and 275 conference presentations.

“From the outset, the Ni Electro Can team set out to address challenges associated with declining reserves of non-renewable energy sources and environmental pollution, says Kent Novakowski, Acting Vice-Principal (Research). “From the outcomes, clear headway was made in research and knowledge transfer in these areas. It’s what is possible when we combine significant support from the government of Canada with leading minds in Canada and internationally.”

In terms of what’s next, the team is currently working on their final report to be submitted to the NSERC and exploring various national and international research programs that would allow them to explore new research horizons.