UK battery production on full charge

Through the £274m Faraday Battery Challenge, the government hopes to turn the UK into a powerhouse of EV battery technology. We talk to industry experts to find out how the scheme is powering the drive towards low-carbon transport.

Transport makes up around 28% of global carbon emissions, and EVs will play a critical role as countries decarbonise. A car battery capable of 400 miles is close to being achieved but the industry has ambitions that extend to aerospace, and providing storage for the domestic power grid, and to developing revolutionary new chemistry to make safer, more sustainable fuel cells. 

Despite a history of recruitment challenges, the UK engineering sector is strong on R&D and potentially well placed to be a market leader. In fact there are several carmakers – including Jaguar Land Rover, Aston Martin and Williams Advanced Engineering – eyeing up new UK-based battery projects.

In 2017, as part of its Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, the British government announced the Faraday Battery Challenge, a four-year scheme to support research into current generation lithium-ion technology and next-generation technologies. 

What is the Faraday Battery Challenge?

“The Faraday Battery Challenge is designed to help UK businesses seize the opportunities presented by the move to a low-carbon economy,” says Susan Robertson, CFO at The Faraday Institution, a research body set up to oversee the project through to March 2021.

“It’s focused on developing cost-effective, high-performance, durable, safe and recyclable batteries. Initially addressing eight industry-defined limitations of automotive batteries, the challenge will allow the UK to realise its commitment to move to full electrification and zero-emissions vehicles.”  

A total of £274m has been invested into research, innovation and scale-up, £88m of which has been made available through Innovate UK. Some 63 projects involving over 90 companies have been supported to date. The new UK Battery Industrialisation Centre in Coventry, due to open this year, received £108m.

How much progress has been made?

“Battery development for EVs has moved on a huge amount over the past 10 to 15 years,” says Pete James, a member of the Transport Policy Panel at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).

In the near term, I’d like to see government and regional support attract major battery players to the UK, and for the auto sector to commit to building their EVs in the UK and using local battery suppliers

Dr Bill Macklin
business development director, Nexeon

“But essentially the battery technology in EVs today is the same as in our mobile phones and laptop computers, but on a much larger and more robust scale. We’re still a long way off a battery that will allow long trips and is affordable, but a huge amount of work is going on round the world and in the UK and this will filter through to the forecourts in 10 to 15 years from now.”

Nissan partnered with the Faraday Institute, Axion Recycling and Johnson Matthey on CALIBRE (Custom automotive lithium ion battery recycling), a £3.2m project to explore end-of-life battery recycling. 

“Nissan welcomes any support that helps to create a competitive and sustainable EV supply chain in the UK as we move towards greater uptake of EVs,” says Nissan spokesperson Dominic Vizor.

“In 2010, the first-generation LEAF debuted with a 24 kilowatt hour (kWh) battery. Ten years later, the new Ariya, Nissan’s first all-electric crossover, was unveiled with a battery capacity of up to 87kWh – a 263% increase – and a range of up to 310 miles on a single charge.” 

What do businesses say?

Oxis Energy, a battery technology firm based in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, has participated – alongside partners including the Centre for Process Innovation, Williams Advanced Engineering and University College London – on two projects funded by the Faraday Battery Challenge.

Dr David Ainsworth, the company’s chief technical officer, says: “We welcome funding by the UK government. However, it’s sometimes more difficult for SMEs to participate due to the match funding requirement. Also, grant-funded projects are good for covering labour costs but not for advanced pieces of equipment, which are often required to make significant developments in this space. 

“In addition, the Faraday Challenge funding is heavily centred around the automotive industry, which has a very high barrier to entry for new battery technologies. It would be great if this funding were to be extended to other markets, such as aerospace, marine and defence.”

While the UK has a strong R&D base in materials science, it currently lacks the presence of any large battery cell manufacturers.

“In the near term, I’d like to see government and regional support attract major battery players to the UK, and for the auto sector to commit to building their EVs in the UK and using local battery suppliers,” says Dr Bill Macklin, business development director at Oxfordshire-based Nexeon, which has used Faraday funding to develop and scale up a new type of silicon anode material to improve lithium-ion batteries.

“Over the medium term, the UK needs to develop a broader supply chain, including the materials supply, recycling capabilities and the widest use of green electricity.”

Can the UK be at the forefront of EV battery technology?

Germany, Sweden, Poland and Hungary have emerged as key competitors by creating business conditions highly conducive to attracting battery manufacturers. China and South Korea are home to large battery manufacturers that have established bases in the US and Europe.

“The UK has two choices, which are simply: do we accept that the EU, Tesla and China will take over the market and we will lose billions in GDP, or do we create our own competitive offering?” says Dr Colin Herron CBE, a member of the manufacturing policy panel at the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

“The Envision AESC battery plant in Sunderland [which supplies Nissan] provides jobs but has imported technology and materials. The Faraday Challenge is building capability, and this cannot be done in a couple of years. It is also addressing what to do with batteries when they come out of vehicles.”

What comes next?

The EV battery market is very dynamic. Lithium-sulphur batteries have been hailed as the next big thing in battery technology, promising significantly longer use and being more environmentally sustainable to produce than lithium-ion cells. The Faraday Challenge is also accelerating research into sodium-based batteries and solid-state batteries, which could be smaller and lighter.

“The UK needs to continue investing in EV innovation and increasing the size and reach of the Faraday Battery Challenge,” says Isobel Sheldon, chief strategy officer at Britishvolt, a battery manufacturer that recently signed a MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the Welsh government to develop the UK’s first battery ‘gigafactory’ in the Vale of Glamorgan.

“We need to do more to create the right conditions in the UK for the establishment of large-scale battery manufacturing plants by ensuring the companies installing the capacity and the government objectives are aligned and strengthened to keep the momentum going,” says Sheldon.

“There are significant opportunities in adjacent industries. Mining needs to go electric for cost and pollution reasons, and the mass transport of people and goods need to be electrified for local air quality reasons. 

“The UK also has a long history in aerospace, with many world firsts in innovative technology, but hybrid and full electric solutions will be required to reduce emissions, and it will be the best technology, rather than the lowest cost, that will win the race to decarbonise the aviation sector.

“There is a long way to go to solve the aviation problem, but the UK has the skills and ambition to rise to that challenge and lead by example,” Sheldon concludes. 

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