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Eight Lassonde faculty members unite in a $1.5M NSERC-funded initiative to elevate critical mineral research

Canada is home to some of the world’s most sought-after critical minerals, like copper, nickel and lithium. These minerals are essential for building a green and sustainable economy in Canada, with direct applications ranging from electric vehicles to solar panels. This is why Pouya Rezai, associate professor in the Mechanical Engineering department at York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering, is leading a $1.5M project to optimize the rapid detection and extraction of these critical minerals, particularly lithium.

In addition to Professor Rezai, other Lassonde researchers co-leading this project include Mechanical Engineering Professors, Thomas Cooper, Cuiying Jian, Roger Kempers, Siu Ning (Sunny) Leung,  and Nima Tabatabaei and Electrical Engineering & Computer Science Professor Razieh (Neda) Salahandish. The team will apply a diverse range of expertise while collaborating with industry partners AfimaCheck, Elomatic Consulting, Frontier Lithium, pH7 Technologies, RecycLiCo Battery Materials and Sixth Wave Innovations, to elevate the research capacity of this project.

Lithium is a versatile mineral, boasting unique physical and chemical properties. It is widely used to develop and improve innovative technologies like energy storage solutions, as well as metallurgic and automotive applications.

Currently, the industrial processes used to detect and isolate lithium are tedious, time-consuming and often expensive. To improve the efficiency of lithium retention, many companies and researchers are exploring methods to reuse and recycle the critical mineral from various sources like electronic waste and electric vehicle (EV) batteries.

“Our project aims to enhance the entire supply chain of lithium production – from detection to mining and recycling to reuse,” says Professor Rezai. “We are starting with developing technologies that can detect, quantify and isolate lithium from electronic waste materials like EV batteries.”

This project is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s (NSERC) Alliance Mission grant and addresses a nationwide call for critical minerals research, stemming from Canada’s Critical Mineral Strategy.

Through the collaborative efforts of eight Lassonde researchers and six industry partners, this project will uplift Canada’s green and digital economy by helping increase the nation’s supply of responsibly sourced lithium.

Specifically, Lassonde researchers are engineering and testing lithium-imprinted polymers which are specially designed to isolate lithium from complex sources like electronic waste.

The team is also exploring and developing optical and electrochemical-integrated microfluidic devices that can detect and quantify lithium amidst other materials. For example, these tools would allow miners to detect the presence of lithium within hard rock ore.

To ensure optimal performance and portability of the microfluidic devices, the research team is investigating the use of aerogels – an ultralight material with favourable properties and immense potential.

“We want this interdisciplinary project to demonstrate the Mechanical Engineering department’s ability to work together and achieve a single goal,” says Professor Rezai. “This is the first initiative that has brought together such a large group within our department. We are also hiring 28 student researchers across a spectrum of expertise to support the project and provide valuable learning opportunities. Our idea is to eventually expand the team and build more industry partnerships to achieve greater research and funding.”

This collaborative initiative is only the beginning of a much larger project. Through continued efforts, the research team hopes to innovate the future of critical mineral supply chains and generate licensed, commercialized and patented technologies.

“If we can successfully detect lithium with our technology, we can do so much more,” says Professor Siu Ning (Sunny) Leung. “We are working on a platform technology – the idea is to optimize the detection of one mineral and then work toward other applications. One day, we plan to expand our work to detect other materials like biological contaminants or disease biomarkers.”