Canada’s first supercapicitor manufacturing facility is on its way to being built in Abbotsford.
But what are supercapacitors? And who uses them? And why?
They are an alternative to batteries, explains Mitchell Miller, CEO of clean-energy startup Atlas Power Technologies. Supercapacitors are electrochemical devices that rapidly charge and discharge energy, which makes them “ideal to support a renewable energy grid.”
Up until now, however, the technology’s application has been limited by high cost and low performance, and that’s where Miller’s passion to deliver a cost-effective, higher-performing product is making the difference.
Atlas Power Technologies has announced that its Centre of Excellence — currently under construction in Abbotsford — is on track to be up and running before the end of 2022, bringing leading-edge technology first developed at the University of British Columbia and in partnership with Canadian innovation organization Mitacs a giant leap forward.
Now, the company’s groundbreaking clean energy transition work — which culminated in the launch of Atlas Power Technologies in 2016 — is one of dozens of Canadian research projects highlighted in a new Innovation Trends video series, called Their World, Our Future, by Mitacs.
“We’re accelerating the clean technology transition timeline by taking the most mined products today, that nobody wants, and turning them into a high value, clean technology,” Miller says, explaining that the company’s secret sauce is a process that takes materials like byproducts of the oil sands and refines them to make high-grade, activated carbon, which is a necessary component of supercapacitors.
“We’re solving one of the biggest challenges of the clean energy transition, which is ‘how do we store renewable energy, efficiently and cost-effectively?’” he says.
Miller started by establishing collaborations with highly-skilled researchers at Simon Fraser University and UBC with the help of Mitacs, eventually tapping into the Mitacs Indigenous Pathways program to hire top student interns to advance his ideas. He says his Metis heritage is part of what drives him to find ways to add value to the world around him. What started as a small project to investigate a concept, led to a breakthrough innovation that is performing 10 times better than existing supercapacitors today, he says.
“When you think about renewable energy going onto the grid, the amount of energy storage we have to produce is enormous and there’s simply no clear path to get there with existing chemistries,” says Miller, explaining that competing storage technologies rely on scarce minerals such as nickel, cobalt, graphite and lithium, meaning new mines will need to be commissioned — a process that costs billions and will take decades to build.
“I get up every day knowing that if we do our job correctly, the world will be a better place for my kids and that’s a nice way to start the day,” he said.
To date, Atlas Power Technologies has hired three Mitacs interns, and has secured more than $400,000 in Mitacs funding. Professor Jason Jiacheng Wang, who led the SFU research team, now serves as Atlas Power Technologies Chief Technical Officer.
Miller credits the success of his company to the team’s determination, skill and willingness to seek answers to profound questions. For example, when first iterations of the company’s supercapacitor were performing sub-par, Mitacs researchers found a way to match the size of the ions in the activated carbon to the ions in the electrolytes for maximum efficiency.
“Without Mitacs, we literally would not be where we are today,” said Miller. “We were able to outsource our research and development to the university at an affordable rate and that’s what allowed us to push forward.”
UBC Okanagan School of Engineering assistant professor Jian Liu is supervising the UBC team of Mitacs interns working on the project and says watching the technology transfer from the lab to a commercial product is extremely satisfying.
“We’re involved in many industrial collaborations and they don’t always get this far,” said Liu. “Not only did this project go better than I ever expected, but our partner is now building their manufacturing capability right here in Canada and that’s very important. They will be helping to grow the local economy and that’s much more important to me than the innovation itself.”
Candice Loring, Mitacs Business Development Director, Indigenous Community Engagement, calls the Atlas Power Technologies trajectory an incredible Indigenous-led business success story. “I’m thrilled to bring this research under our new Indigenous pathways stream,” Loring said. “It’s my hope that this funding program becomes a standard offering to ensure equitable access to entrepreneurs and scholars, and to support collaborative innovation.”
Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.