Interview Michel Gauthier
Conducted by Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent (last question by Arne Hessenbruch), October 26, 2000, Burlington, VT
How did you enter into the field?
I graduated at the Université de Montréal, Canada, in electrochemistry. Then in 1970 I went to Grenoble, France, as a post-doc in the Laboratoire d'electrochimie des solides. They were working on conductive ceramics for fuel cells. Armand was at Stanford at that time.
Could you describe the research project that you conducted at Hydro-Québec?
I came back to Montréal in 1971 with the intention of bringing back expertise and starting a research center at Hydro-Québec. Hydro-Québec is the Canadian equivalent of Electricité de France: the national supplier of electricity, 99% of which is hydroelectric. My initial project was on fuel cells. I suggested focusing on the storage of energy since there was no local industry. So we decided to work on a long-term project: choice of materials, processes and development of an accumulator. We thought that it would take 10 years. In reality it took 20.
We first had to acquire the technology of lithium: sels fondus (English term?) at 400°C. We used lithium and sulfur as electrodes. Then for the electrolyte, could we chose a polymer? Armand had recently published his paper on Poly-ethylene oxide (PEO) in 1978. Thus started the collaboration with Armand and Grenoble to investigate Li-PEO. A first patent was taken. It aroused the interest of the US Department of Energy. So the French also became interested. Following the oil crisis, Elf Aquitaine was trying to diversify it sources of energy and possessed an expertise in polymers. Armand said yes and took charge of the relation with Hydro-Québec. In 1980 a tripartite agreement was signed involving the CNRS, Hydro-Québec and Elf Aquitaine.
Between 1980 and 1986, 30 patents were taken. In 1986 Elf Aquitaine declared the project was no longer a priority and wanted to sell its participation. Hydro-Québec took an option. The USA were no longer interested. Instead YUASA, a Japanese company manufacturing lead accumulators, joined.
Our aim was to design an accumulator 5 times lighter than lead accumulators. Polymers are light and cheap. And we wanted to reach long-term performances. In 1988, following the Clear Air Act in California with the 0 pollution objective, the US Advanced Batteries Consortium (USABC) invested $260 million to accelerate research on electrical vehicles (EV). Considering lithium batteries to be the best formula, USABC negotiated a contract with Hydro-Québec. Hydro-Québec and 3M cooperated in a joint venture with a budget of $100 millions. Michel Armand came to the Université de Montréal to work in the Laboratoire de technologie.
Then (which year?) we created ARGOTECH, a subsidiary of Hydro-Québec, in order to make the first commercial pilot with 3M. 3M was in charge of the polymer components. Hydro-Québec was in charge of the lithium and of the assembly of all components. We worked in this format until 1999. In that year 3M withdrew from the project. This decision resulted from the fact that the year before they moved the budget for this project away from the corporatist long-term budget to the automotive division which works on short terms projects. On the other hand Hydro-Québec wanted to go back to its initial mission focusing on telecommunication batteries. They did not cancel the project but transferred it to the venture capital division. This decision I found a bit premature. Therefore I resigned in 1999 and moved to the Université de Montréal. I disagreed with this choice of strategy although I understand that after 20 years people want to see a product. In the early days a perspective of 10 to 15 years was acceptable, at least incompressible. Now we are dealing with people who think in terms of 5-year projects. They want rapid success. However a lot of work is still needed to address safety issues. Such batteries concentrate an enormous amount of energy in a small space. If it released suddenly then it would burn the car. We need 5 more years. We need to design a new polymer science. Moreover the introduction of electric batteries will require an entire redesign of the car.
Do you think that state support would be a key for success?
We had it already. The USABC was a state project like MITI in Japan and the European Community projects. We have played that game for 20 years. State money can help but, human nature being what it is, it is not sufficient. Too easy money makes for bad research. Researchers need a schedule and strong motivations. The people we hired wanted to succeed. The motivation for basic research can not be money, but for development a great deal of money is needed. To move from R to D you have to increase the budget 10 times. And another 10 times to move from development to the commercial process. The EV provides a good example of the difficulties of technological innovation. The difficulty is the transition from research to product. You need both money and motivation. A company will never develop the EV because that requires long-term investment. What we have to do is bring the technology to the level where it is attractive enough for industrial investments. The difficulty is the transition between the long and the short term.
Can you explain your choice of materials: lithium and polymers?
Lithium is interesting because it is not as reactive as sodium, a film of passivation is formed. The beauty of polymers lies in their versatility. In a polymer environment the film of passivation formed on lithium is preserved and we obtain adhesion. We have learnt how to electrodeposit lithium and to take advantage of its plasticity. We lose 1% per cycle and we can reach 600 cycles of charge and discharge.
Lithium metal or rocking chair battery?
Our initial patent was for a rocking chair battery using graphite (date?). The rocking chair is used in electronics with liquid electrolytes. It is important to work at ambient temperature. But for the EV it would entail additional weight and a dilution of energy. The EV battery has to work between 40 and 100 degrees C. It would be better to lower the temperature in order to avoid ageing and damaging.
Is there a connection or competition between electronics and the EV?
EV and electronics is not the same design of battery. In electronics, polymers are not the best solution because they cannot be used at ambient temperature in solid state. The game is to insert a liquid and to make a gel polymer. But then the number of cycles becomes a problem. The moment you put a liquid you get dendrites and very reactive mixtures that can be explosive. The accident of a commercial battery (When? Where?) proved decisive in showing the value of the rocking chair battery because there is no lithium metal. They are easier to handle and simpler technologically than batteries containing lithium metal. Sony developed battery technologies not to make money but to put them in cameras. Belcor builds on a mixture of Li + polymer gel electrolyte in Japan. In Hydro-Québec we had a program on ambient temperature supported from 1990 to 1999.
What kind of expertise is needed to make a lithium polymer battery?
Lots of different kinds of expertise. Metallurgy, electrochemistry, polymer chemistry, process. The whole chemistry is mobilized in the design of a lithium polymer battery. It could be used as a didactic support for a course of chemistry. In the process we had to learn or relearn various branches of chemistry that had been no more than distant school memories. First, handling lithium requires a lot of skills. It's like wet toilet paper. We learnt thin-film technology from the capacitor industry. We had to learn to dissolve a salt into a polymer. The fluoride chemistry we got from 3M. The composite electrode was V3O3. Here again, 3M were crucial because they knew the reactivity of oxides, and we had to use the reactivity in order to make voltage. We also learnt from paint industries. Oxides are more or less like pigments and carbon was like the fillers they use. For the binder we are developing an iron phosphate. It would be the ideal electrode because iron is cheap and non-toxic, phosphates can be recycled as fertilizers. This is our current project at the Université de Montréal based on a suggestion made by Goodenough. Finally to assemble all these kinds of expertise, we used the expertise of capacitor industry.
How many individuals worked on the project?
We started with 4 in 1980: Armand, Gauthier, a polymer scientist, and an electrochemist. By 1986 we had grown to 14. In 1991, in order to design the process, we increased up to 35. In 1998, 140 people were working on the project: 18 university members, 45 from Hydro-Québec, 10 people from the LTI and 90 at Argotech.
What amount of theory was involved in your project?
Theory was useful in the beginning with the models provided by solid state. Then the use of conductive polymers led to new models. In the 1990s new thoughts about polymers emerged, and I am sure there will be feedback to basic science once the battery is viable. A new generation of polymers will emerge. In any case, throughout the project the driving force was chemistry.
You have developed international collaborations. Did you meet difficulties in the relations with scientists from various cultural contexts?
The collaboration between French and French-Canadians was easy. We can jump from one concept to another, but working with Japanese companies was more difficult. Then we needed a step by step linear process.
You worked in academic context and industrial context. How different is it?
Writing a patent requires a contemplation of all the possibilities. But writing a paper is the most difficult. My challenge was to make a product at any cost. If you succeed it is great because you control the whole sequence from basic research to the commercial product, all the technologies embedded in the final product.
Could you describe the changes in the space of the laboratory over the 20 years of the project.
In the beginning it was salt chemistry with glove bags. In the 1990s we introduced dry rooms. Thin film requires dust filters and water filters. But we try to get out of the dry room and work under air. Anyway, the dry room is not an obstacle for industrial production.
The transcript was prepared by Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and this page was last updated on 22 June 2001 by Arne Hessenbruch.