Webinar Recap | Building a UK Lithium Valley: Opportunities & Challenges
Image: © muratart / Adobe Stock
With the transition to electric vehicles, the UK finds itself in a position to build a battery supply chain nearly from scratch. It is absolutely critical to do this in a manner that is environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable by design. The approach requires systemic thinking and collaboration from everyone involved in the battery supply chain. In order to take the first steps towards establishing what we like to call a UK Lithium Valley, we hosted a webinar at the end of May, which included speakers from UK Research & Innovation (UKRI), BritishVolt, and RS Bruce, as well as nearly 90 participants.
This blog includes a brief recap of the presentations and answers to the questions posed by participants. The full webinar recording is now available on YouTube (click here).
Recap of the Presentations
HSSMI’s Battery Technology Lead Robin Foster spoke about the importance of Gigafactories and how relationships, or lack thereof, can impact the efficiency and competitiveness of the UK’s battery manufacturing ecosystem. A few years ago, in 2017, the supply chain was fairly disjointed and fragmented, and there was little activity in the reverse supply chain. However, at the moment there are stakeholders in all areas of the supply chain within the UK. As Robin said, “We’re building an industry up from scratch and have the chance to build the ecosystem strategically and not necessarily just organically. This helps to support our competitiveness against other countries”.
Peter Rolton (Britishvolt Chairman) pinpointed a key challenge in establishing a robust battery supply chain in the UK by saying “batteries have to come to cars, or cars are going to go to batteries and leave the UK”. Britishvolt is looking to establish and start running a UK based Gigafactory by Q4 2023. According to Peter, the rapid pace of development has partly been possible thanks to a supportive ecosystem that the UK government has created, which enables Britishvolt to go straight from idea to site while in parallel doing development and R&D work. The objective of Britishvolt is to produce a battery from scratch in the UK without reference to other parts of the world from a security of supply perspective.
Jacqui Murray (UKRI / Faraday Battery Challenge Deputy Director) elaborated on the ways the UK government is supporting the UK industry to make sure it prospers from the net zero transport transformation. Due to the length of the design development and production phases of new products, decisions on automotive technology for 2030 must be made today. The Faraday Battery Challenge is designed to support research in the automotive industry and deliver solutions to the targets set for mass adoption.
Last but not least, Sam Haig (RS Bruce Battery Recycling Business Manager) emphasized the communications gap problem prevalent in the supply chain. Stakeholders involved in producing the battery communicate with one another, but once the product goes to the customer, it is difficult to keep track of. This makes it very difficult for stakeholders in the reverse supply chain to communicate back to the original manufacturer, when the product enters the recycling supply chain at its end of life.
Presentations from the speakers were followed by a riveting and insightful Q&A session. We also received several questions after the webinar, which we have posed to the speakers and have included here below.
Q: Where do you see the UK battery industry in 2030?
A: [Jacqui] There will be more cross-sector applications of batteries, for example like we are already seeing in aerospace with electric flights. I anticipate we will also see a shift towards battery recycling and the idea of end of life taking off. There will be a wider discussion around battery lifespans.
[Peter] Cars are the focus at the moment but the interest will spread to other vehicles. With the demand for more batteries, more work will also have to be done in identifying feasible sites for Gigafactories in the UK.
Q: [for Peter Rolton] Is there an intention to apply circular principles to the whole life of the Gigafactory – from design, build and day-to-day operations?
A: Definitely, we realise that it needs to be a fully circular economy in the Gigafactory. Recycling will be a key component as the business grows. We have the Infinity Centre that will focus on developing our recycling capabilities and technologies. We will see recycling really taking off as economies of scale increase, 2027 onwards, perfectly in line with the build of our third and final phase of the Gigafactory. Moreover, we are also looking at natural sources for battery production and want to switch to hydrogen when that becomes a feasible commercial alternative.
Q: [for Robin Foster] What are your thoughts on the role of smart factories in improving the efficiency of Gigafactories?
A: Smart factory is a concept that 100% needs to be included and next generation Gigafactories are already benefiting from it. Historically battery production was a disjointed process but we are seeing increasing levels of automation, which also requires a level of smart technology. The time spent in the formation, testing and ageing stage – often weeks, when it’s effectively a big storage facility generating significant energy costs – that’s something where smart technologies can help to make the process more efficient.
Q: What skillset or capability does the private sector lack most to match the demand for lithium-ion batteries, and how can academia support the industry to overcome this barrier?
A: [Peter] Cell designers.
[Jacqui] At the research end, the Faraday Institution is supporting and training over 130 PhD researchers through our research projects to pursue industrial or academic battery careers. In the manufacturing sectors, the Faraday Institution has been leading an effort for the Auto Council working in partnership with High Value Manufacturing Catapult and WMG to develop a National Skills Framework for Electrification. This Framework will facilitate the development of a common framework of knowledge, skills and behaviours for current and future training requirements by job type and skills level to meet demand driven by electrification of the automotive sector. It will also propel the development of modular training activity for which the content and delivery mechanism can be tailored to the needs of the individual depending on requirements such as skills level.
[Sam] I think the skillset that is missing most in the recycling sector is in understanding the safety aspects of handling and dismantling high-voltage battery packs. There is a gap in both people with the right skills and also the right training. Academia could help with this by developing new courses or modules to focus on these areas, specifically safety; I think there is also a place for technical training colleges as well to provide the practical skills.
Q: [for Jacqui Murray] Is the UKRI doing any work with aerospace? Most major aircraft manufacturers now have an E-Flight initiative, which could bring interesting opportunities.
A: Yes, aerospace can be seen as one of our most exciting areas in batteries – particularly right now with light aircraft applications and eVTOL. If you go to https://www.ukbatteriesnetwork.org/battery-systems-landscape-map and select by sector, 213 companies are registered. On the same knowledge hub, there is a report on the Battery Targets and Priorities across sectors including aerospace https://www.ukbatteriesnetwork.org/resources/reports/43.
Q: [for Sam Haig] What is your view on the Global Battery Alliance (GBA)? They are leading some interesting activities to overcome the communication gap.
A: I think the GBA is great for bringing together stakeholders along the supply chain, and the Battery Passport is something that could have real benefits for informing efficient second life and recycling options at end of first life. I’d be keen to see more of these initiatives to bring more standardisation to battery communication, safety, and design principles. This all has to be underpinned by concrete conversations and actions by supply chain partners.
Q: [for Peter Rolton] How much funding is needed to finish the Gigafactory and who are the potential investors?
A: The headline number is £2.6bn, to finance the entire construction of the 30GWh plant in Cambois, Northumberland. We are working with Barclays on a series B that is attracting funds and other institutions. We are an ESG-centric business that is attracting a lot of positive attention from a myriad of large investors.
Q: [for Peter Rolton] What are the target customer OEMs in the UK and the world for batteries?
A: OEMs are our target customers. We are currently in advanced talks with all major automakers, in the U.K., Europe and globally.
Q: [for Peter Rolton] It is great to see that you are also looking for a supplier park, is it mainly around cell supply or module or pack?
A: Co-location will be across the supply chain. Battery manufacturing is an energy intensive process, so it makes perfect sense to co-locate on our prime site in Northumberland, which has ready availability to an abundance of renewable energy. Renewable, clean energy is imperative to battery cell manufacturing.
This was just the beginning of the conversation and we are currently exploring the best way to continue this and build upon the discussions had in the webinar. If you would like to discuss battery technology and how the UK needs to adapt in the transition to electrification, please contact us by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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