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In the quest to build a better battery, a Canadian is energizing the field

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He’s become a kind of rock star in a field where most people spend their careers working far from the limelight.

Canadian Don Sadoway, a professor of materials chemistry at MIT, has captured the attention of the world with his quest to build a better battery.

In the hallway outside his office, high-profile accolades abound.

Pinned to a bulletin board is a shout-out from Bill Gates.

A Time magazine cover story names him one of the 100 most influential people on the planet.

Sadoway’s battery uses liquid metals and molten salt. (Paul Hunter/CBC)

There are freeze-frames from Sadoway’s appearance on U.S. late-night news satire show The Colbert Report in 2012.

Because Sadoway’s invention, now in the final stages of development, isn’t just any battery.

It’s powerful enough to provide electricity for a whole neighbourhood and it can easily be scaled up into something even bigger and more powerful.

As the world presses ahead toward using more clean energy, such a battery is seen as critical to widespread adaptation of wind and solar power generation.

« This is not in the would-be-nice category, this is in the must-have category, » says the Toronto-born Sadoway.

Use it or lose it

Sadoway tackled a problem that has bedevilled battery experts for generations.

As he puts it: « You have to be able to draw electricity from the sun even when the sun doesn’t shine. And if you can’t do that, then solar power is not the answer. »

Likewise, accessing wind energy on a still day.

Generally speaking, electricity must be used as soon as it is produced, be it from coal-fired power plants or wind turbines.

Use it or lose it.

While the world has long had batteries that can store power in small amounts (think rechargeable laptops, cellphones and, increasingly, automobiles) the challenge has always been how to achieve that on a large scale — or, as it’s known in professional circles — grid level.

To date, attempts at grid-level batteries have run into myriad difficulties: They degrade too quickly, cost too much and have been prone to overheating.

Experts around the world, including billionaire Elon Musk, have for years been pushing the envelope when it comes to battery technology. Mostly they’ve been working hard to improve the world’s current battery of choice, the lithium-ion.

But Sadoway’s invention is radically different from anything else in the market: It uses liquid metals and molten salt.

David Bradwell, from Toronto, is co-inventor of the battery. He was one of Sadoway’s students and is now the chief technology officer of Sadoway’s development company that’s trying to bring the battery to market. (Jean-François Benoît/CBC)

Not only can it be easily constructed almost anywhere on Earth, but unlike most existing rechargeable batteries, it’s built to last a very long time. It’s shown to be cost-effective, reliable and safe. It never overheats, catches fire or explodes.

If a battery doesn’t check all of those boxes, the world won’t line up for it, Sadoway says.

« None of us has a 10-year-old lithium-ion battery, » he says. « For grid-scale storage, these batteries are going to have to last decades. We can’t be swapping them out every three to five years — that’s unacceptable. »

Testing and retesting

A prototype of Sadoway’s battery, 10 years in the making, now sits at a manufacturing and development plant in Marlborough, Mass. It’s roughly the size and shape of a corrugated steel shipping container.

A small team of employees is busy every day testing and retesting for durability.

By design the unit is modular. It can be made larger — and more powerful — simply by stacking another one on top of it.

Sadoway’s development company, Ambri, hopes to have the battery on the market within three years.  

Its chief technology officer is one of Sadoway’s former students, David Bradwell, who, as it turns out, also grew up in Toronto.

He graduated from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., before moving to MIT, where he helped finesse Sadoway’s battery idea and is now listed as its co-inventor.

In 2012, Time magazine named Sadoway one of the 100 most influential people on the planet. (Paul Hunter/CBC)

« [It’s a project] we believe will change the world, » says Bradwell.

He emphasizes the link between grid-level batteries and fighting climate change with clean energy.

Making wind and solar power available for everyone at the flip of a switch, 24-7, says Bradwell, « It’s the missing link for renewables.

« It’s absolutely the key to making it all work. »

‘Service of society’

While both Bradwell and Sadoway are confident in their creation, the challenge they face is proving that it all works perfectly.

They’re getting there.

Microsoft’s Gates is not only a fan of Sadoway’s but also a key investor.  

So is French energy giant Total S.A.

It’s tacit recognition that Ambri’s onto something.

And that whoever wins the race to build a better battery will indeed make history.

Sadoway thinks his work can make the planet a better place.

« It is science and service of society, » he says. « And maybe that’s the Canadian piece. »

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Anglais

Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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