The race is on to power up the UK’S future in electric cars
As the UK, and the world, get ready to ramp up battery production, research will be key, says Hasan Chowdhury
Harjavalta, a sleepy town off the Baltic coast in south-west Finland, has seen little change to its flat terrains, vast pine forests and steady smelting sector for decades. That, however, could be about to change. In just a few years the 7,000 or so residents of the remote region will witness an industrial transformation. German chemicals giant BASF this week announced plans to build a battery plant in Harjavalta as part of a £360m venture. The facility will supply batteries to 300,000 electric vehicles a year in Europe once production begins in 2020.
Electric cars make up only a tiny percentage of annual vehicle sales, but a sudden change in fortunes for Tesla could mean mass adoption of the cars – and a spike in demand for batteries – arrives sooner than expected.
Elon Musk’s company has been marred by production woes for its entry-level Model 3 electric vehicles this year. However, the firm announced the largest profit in the company’s history last Wednesday. Revenues doubled from the same period in 2017 to £5.3bn – thanks in large part to Model 3 deliveries outperforming expectations.
With an increasing number of manufacturers like Volkswagen, BMW and Nio, a Chinese carmaker, all turning their hand to electrification, an international race is under way to build a battery-manufacturing industry to power electric vehicles. The future of the UK’S automotive sector hinges on its ability to keep up.
“People are making decisions now about where to locate battery manufacturing for electric vehicles,” says Neil Morris, chief executive at The Faraday Institution, an independent institute for energystorage science and technology.
The organisation, based in Harwell, Oxfordshire, is ready to stand up to competition from the likes of BASF. Harwell is the birthplace of the UK’S nuclear industry and is spearheading the country’s “battery revolution”. The body was established in 2017 as part of the Government’s £246m investment into the Faraday battery challenge, an initiative aimed at overcoming current technological shortcomings.
Improvements in battery life, energy density and efficiency are just some of the areas identified by the research hub as requiring attention if the UK is to take a lead in a battery market estimated to be worth £5bn by 2025 and £50bn to Europe.
The make-up of a battery is complex. Lithium-ion versions, the most common form currently found in electric vehicles, consist of multiple modules holding cells, the smallest unit of a battery. The cells contain a highly flammable liquid electrolyte that carries the charge between electrodes, as well as a variety of metals such as cobalt and nickel, for which prices have soared as demand surges for batteries.
The Faraday Institution sees the need to scale batteries quickly, but is ready to change the status quo and get the technology right to meet future needs. One key area it is looking at is extending battery life.
As part of a project led by the University of Cambridge, the Institution is examining how stresses such as high temperatures and charging rates damage batteries over time. By understanding these complex processes, it can start to accelerate the development of new chemistries that can keep them going for hundreds of miles, doing away with range anxiety – a phenomenon describing the fear that a car will not reach its destination because it has run out of power.
The institution is also looking at more experimental areas. The modelling of batteries, all the way from the atomic level to the design of the package, can reveal ways of influencing performance.
“Part of our remit is to help move those breakthroughs into commercialisation,” says Morris.
But one major stumbling block is a skills shortage. The UK will need to retrain the thousands of people skilled in the manufacture of internal combustion engine vehicles if it hopes to one day build an industry that can compete globally.
Technicians, engineers and research scientists will be needed in abundance to create effective production lines to support the gigafactories of the future, and Morris sees numerous opportunities to retrain workforces stuck in the systems of the past.
When firms are deciding where to place plants, they will be carefully observing the demand for batteries locally, which he says “is code for ‘how much car manufacturing is there?’” given the practical benefits of locating the two together.
“The UK is in a good position in terms of the number of cars we currently make. Quite a number of those get exported into Europe, so this is a major industry,” he says.
The Government recognises the need to invest in battery research, and can see the UK being ready to lead innovation. It says battery technology is at the heart of its industrial strategy. The Department for Business has pledged £246m over four years for research and development.
However, the global competition is fierce.
Belgian mining company Umicore is gearing up to invest more than £290m in a battery plant in Poland, while BASF’S intent to take battery manufacturing seriously is clear, with its facility set to appear in Harjavalta next to a cobalt and nickel refinery owned by Norilsk Nickel, the Russian mining giant.
BASF’S strategic decision to locate next to the refinery ensures access to a steady stream of commodities, which will only become more valuable as the world shifts gear to electric vehicles.
German carmaker Daimler is building a battery plant in Kamenz, while Northvolt, a Swedish battery company led by former Tesla executives Peter Carlsson and Paolo Cerruti, is throwing £3.6bn at a facility in Sweden as part of a tie-up with Siemens, truck maker Scania and ABB, the Swiss engineer.
While Europe is investing huge amounts in battery facilities, it is a long way behind the Far East in manufacturing. The likes of China and South Korea have stolen a march on their European rivals, and are boosting production with such pace that the region is primed to be the main supplier of the world’s most affordable batteries. Build Your Dreams (BYD), aS henzh en head quartered car manufacturer from China, operates three lithium-ion battery facilities in the country, while LG Chem, based in Seoul, is making itself known with factories in China and is aggressively pushing production in locations as far flung as Poland.
BYD’S third facility, which opened in China’s Qinghai province in June with a 24GWH capacity, will be the world’s largest once construction is complete. It is planning a 60GWH capacity for the facility by 2020. By contrast, the UK’S only battery plant in Sunderland produces 2GWH of lithium-ion batteries per year.
The production powerhouses of the East may be pushing down the prices of batteries, but according to Colin Herron, the managing director of consultancy Zero Carbon Futures, there is great incentive for the UK to build its own. “The big challenge is simply transporting what is the equivalent of a quarter of a ton of content from China to the UK on an ongoing basis. Even if it’s not the whole battery pack, even if it’s just the modules, it’s a pretty weighty thing,” he says.
“The other point I’m sure the Americans will be [alert to] is that the transport systems of the West are 100pc reliant on China. I think Germany’s waking up with the campaign to get batteries up and running in Europe.”
Much of the UK’S ability to attract manufacturers globally will depend on the quality of its research, as Herron says there would be little use in competing against China on production numbers alone. But the clock is ticking and the UK risks being an unattractive prospect. Sir James Dyson said last week that he would be establishing a manufacturing base for his electric vehicles in Singapore instead of the UK. Dyson’s electric vehicles, due for launch in 2021, could run on solid-state batteries, a new type with fewer hazardous risks – and one the Faraday Institution is looking at with urgency.
“There is a tech risk if someone gets solid state before we do,” says Morris.
Despite an urgency to build plants in the UK, much more will need to be done to catch up with global competitors.
“I think the Faraday Battery Challenge itself shows a strong commitment from the Government, but that in itself will not guarantee the investment will come here,” says Morris.
Herron, however, remains sceptical about how quickly things will move, and thinks carmakers are some way off the annual volumes required to see lots of electric vehicles on the roads. He believes the UK’S prioritisation of quality over quantity will give it an advantage, despite China “hoovering up the market”.
Decisions will need to be made by the Government, says Herron, about how seriously it wants to take the future of batteries, and whether it wants to attract foreign investment or build its own self-sustaining industry.
“It depends on whether politicians want a short-term win or a long-term investment.”
‘Transport in the West is reliant on China. Germany is waking up to getting batteries up and running in Europe’
Sir James Dyson’s electric vehicles, due in 2021, could run on solid-state batteries