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Researcher Highlights: Dr. Lukas Swan

Atlantic Canada is home to over 10,000 academic researchers scattered across a multitude of post- secondary institutions. And the Springboard Atlantic network acts as a bridge for our regions business community to connect and collaborate with these brilliant minds.

We want to start highlighting some of these individuals—the professors who are doing it all at their institutions, those who juggle teaching, manage research labs, and deliver on various research contracts with industry. And to kick off our new Researcher Highlights series we’re starting with Dr. Lukas Swan of Dalhousie, a mechanical engineer with a focus on renewable energy and energy storage. In this conversation we discuss his research interests and the future of energy storage and renewable energy. So, without further ado, let’s meet Dr. Swan:

When did you first become interested in renewable energy?

Well, my father is an engineer, and his father was an automotive mechanic, so I was introduced to technical things at a very young age. When I was about 10, my dad bought me a solar powered car kit that I assembled, and it drove around in circles by itself whenever the sun was out.

I became even more interested in electric vehicles (EVs) when I worked as an automotive mechanic throughout high school and university. I would also build electric race cars with my father, so together we learned a lot about electric cars and batteries.

I went to school and became a (mechanical) engineer. And in 2010 there was an opening for a new professor in mechanical engineering and energy at Dalhousie. I taught a few courses and it all worked out quite nicely so that same year I decided to start a new research program at the university dedicated to renewable energy storage.

What is renewable energy storage?

It’s about using things like wind and solar to charge up an energy storage system and then discharging that (stored) energy to varying loads in the electricity grid. I promote the electrification of everything: cars, heat pumps, and I’m hoping to work on electric boats and electric airplanes soon.

Since 2010, my research program has grown substantially—we now have what I think is the foremost applied battery systems research lab in Eastern Canada. Our hands-on experimental skills are very strong and we’ve positioned ourselves with a unique and broad range of equipment that no one else has in the region.

How else has your research evolved over the years?

In 2010 through to 2015, the research was focused on capacity and efficiency and the thermal performance of battery systems. And in the last 5 years we have really pushed boundaries into unique stuff, like studies on performance degradation as systems age, or how reliable the capacity of these systems are when we need the electricity most.

We’re asking questions like: when you need electricity on that cold winter day- will it be there for you? What if the wind is not blowing? Or the sun is not shining?

And all our research, our data and our models are being rolled into new policies for the province and the region. We’ll often work with and advise the energy departments across various jurisdictions as well as the utility companies. We really don’t do any theoretical research, there is a collaborating group involved with almost every project we’re doing.

That’s excellent to hear! What other ecosystem supports have you leveraged and how has the industry grown alongside your research?

Every organization you can think of: NSERC, IRAP, MITACS, to name a few, and we have lots of research contracts from industry. I really see (industry) picking up here on energy storage and battery systems projects. I used to have to go outside of Nova Scotia (to engage with industry) but now there’s a whole group of companies in Atlantic Canada. Last week, for example, we had some new batteries delivered to our lab which use a new type of battery chemistry, and incredibly, those batteries were built right here in Nova Scotia.

Also, the individual who dropped them off to us was one of my former students! So, my students are graduating from my lab and going out and being hired by the companies we’ve worked with, or starting their own companies around Atlantic Canada, and then sending their product right back our way.

What excites you the most about your research? 

I love renewable energy and to see those energy systems work, and to see them be efficient, and last a long time, and be cost effective is really invigorating for me.

I’ve sat through way too many meetings or conferences where people say- ‘oh, that won’t work, it’s too expensive, wind energy would be too expensive, solar would be too expensive and they’re going to break all the time.’ Those people are wrong, and (my lab is) proving them wrong.  I have an immense appreciation for this technology, and why it’s better than traditional technology that uses fossil fuels. And it goes back to basic human fundamentals: We like things that are quiet, we like things that don’t smell, we like things that don’t shake, we like things that require little maintenance. Now contrast that against your standard fossil fuel power plant or gas car and you’ll see why renewable energy is better for people and the planet.

What industry needs do you foresee in Atlantic Canada that can be address by your lab? 

I see this oncoming onslaught of EVs that will need to be recycled, and I often wonder: What will be done with those batteries?

All cars eventually retire—they rust away, or gets into an accident, or maybe people just don’t like 1987 Cutlass anymore, but electric vehicle batteries are designed so well they’ll outlast the cars themselves. So, we’re looking at how we can pull those batteries out of those cars and give them a second life and repurpose them for renewable energy storage.

What else is happening in your lab? Any words of encouragement you can share?

We have about 8 research projects on the go right now. Being in Atlantic Canada, our research group tends to run in a lot of directions all at once to satisfy local needs. Recently, we were awarded two big grants–one of them is a CFI/NSRIT infrastructure grant, meaning we’ll get new equipment for our lab. And with that, we’re going to be building the largest and most powerful battery test chamber in Atlantic Canada. We were also just awarded an NSERC Create grant, which we’ll use to help develop energy workshops and start new relationships between energy industry partners and the university.

I don’t think any company that’s wanted to engage with us has had any trouble doing so. I’m always amazed at the support structures that are available out there to ensure that this sort of collaboration exists in the region. And keep hiring the great students coming out of Dalhousie!