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Okotoks resident recognized for innovative capstone project

'Revolutionary' method that cuts down on waste, cost to extract cobalt from batteries, oar developed by SAIT students
Okotoks resident and former SAIT student Kaevin Heffernan has been chosen as a finalist for the ASET Capstone Project of the Year Award along with his classmates, for their work on cobalt extraction.

An Okotokian is among a trio being recognized for finding a more sustainable method to extract the material for lithium batteries.

Okotoks resident and former SAIT student Kaevin Heffernan and his peers have been recognized by the Association of Science and Engineering Technology Professionals of Alberta (ASET) for their work in developing a sustainable method for extracting cobalt, a key component of lithium-ion batteries.  

Heffernan, who graduated from Holy Trinity Academy in 2012, along with former classmates Norman Lee and Parveer Singh, have been announced as one of seven finalists for the ASET Capstone Project of the Year Award.  

“We were pretty excited,” said Heffernan on the news of his team’s nomination.  

The trio of SAIT Electrical Engineering Technology students discovered an innovative way to remove cobalt from mined ore in their capstone project. The technology works by using an aqueous solution to extract the element – a process called hydrometallurgy, Heffernan explained.  

“We use a chelating agent, which is a chemical that binds to the cobalt in a selective way. So, when we melt the oar down with acid, we can pull out just the cobalt,” he said. “We can do that using less energy than they do with the method they use right now which is called pyrometallurgy, that uses a lot of heat and a lot of energy.”  

The method can also be used to extract cobalt from used batteries. 

“It’s revolutionary in some respects,” said ASET CEO Barry Cavanaugh.  

Not only is this method better for the environment because it requires less energy, but Heffernan said that they are able to reuse the chelating agent, which ultimately cuts down on waste and cost.  

Lithium-ion batteries are becoming exceedingly popular with the rise in electric vehicle production, but are also used to power smartphones, medical devices and more.  

“We need to find better ways of extracting it, because there’s a lot of batteries and stuff that they make with lithium ion, and so if we can work on storing those for long term solutions, then we can work on [climate change],” said Heffernan 

ASET represents 17,000 science and engineering technology professionals in the province, with most being graduates of polytechnic schools, according to Cavanaugh.  

He explained that students at SAIT, NAIT, Red Deer Polytechnic and Lethbridge College are all required to complete a capstone project in their final year of study that demonstrates and applies their learning.  

In 2017, ASET began asking those institutions to put forward their two best projects for consideration on a larger scale – the ASET Capstone Project of the Year. 

“When we see those [finalists], it’s just astonishing,” said Cavanaugh. “Each one of those finalists is a winner in my view because I’ve seen some amazing technology, some amazing innovation that comes out of it, and some projects that really have a huge public benefit.”  

The winner of the award is expected to be announced some time in December.  

Heffernan now works at Evergreen Solutions Corp. outside of Okotoks, which produces chemical solutions for the oil and gas, mining, transportation and aviation industries that focus on being safe for humans and the environment. 

He said that there is the potential for the technology developed by him and his classmates to be commercialized in the future. Cavanaugh said he is optimistic in that possibility.