Roundtable panellists call for greater investments in skills, a battery industry that supports the brand attributes that OEMs desire, and consumer education to enable the battery revolution and accelerate EV uptake.
On 8th April 2022 over 30 senior leaders from industry, academia and government joined a lively two-hour, on-line Faraday Institution CEO roundtable on the subject: "How can the UK position itself to lead the global technology race for next generation batteries?"
The panellists were:
• Professor Pam Thomas, Chief Executive Officer, Faraday Institution (Chair)
• Professor Peter Bruce, Chief Scientist, Faraday Institution and Wolfson Chair, Professor of Materials, University of Oxford
• Margot James, Executive Chair, Warwick Manufacturing Group
• Professor Paul Monks, Chief Scientific Advisor, BEIS
• Isobel Sheldon OBE, Chief Strategy Officer, Britishvolt
We thank all the panellists and attendees for the time and insight, and for the perceptive questions from the floor. The main discussion points are summarised here.
Challenges of capacity, technology and sustainability
Panellists discussed the challenges facing the battery industry as automakers transition to electric vehicles (EVs) and the wider economy is electrified. While regular announcements about increased capacity are made by battery manufacturers, the reality is that much of this capacity has yet to be built. Meanwhile the vehicle original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are developing new EV models all the time and looking for sites where their batteries can be built. A huge supply and demand imbalance remains.
The batteries currently on the market generally follow a “one size fits all” strategy, with little differentiation between the batteries being produced for different vehicles. This makes life difficult for the OEMs, which need to compete on price and performance but are not able to do this effectively if they all use the same types of cells. The battery industry needs to support the brand attributes that OEMs desire.
Sustainability remains a major challenge. The way the battery manufacturing supply chain has developed means many of the materials used are derived from “high carbon” economies. The environmental, social and governance agenda is not yet central to the industry.
The UK: a battery R&D leader
Through the work of organisations like the Faraday Institution, and with the support of the government, the UK has taken a leading role in battery research and development, the roundtable heard.
To help grow this capability the UK government launched the Automotive Transformation Fund to back the electrification of the UK automotive sector. Over £850m in funding has already been committed, to support capital investments in equipment, buildings and set-up costs, as well as efforts to build more sustainable battery supply chains.
Localising more battery production is important in the context of the post-Brexit trade agreement with the EU, as the ‘rules of origin’ conditions in the agreement stipulate that 55% of the contents of a product must be produced locally to benefit from tariff-free trade with the EU.
Increased EV battery demand also means there will be growing need for the critical minerals used in the production process. To help ensure the UK has an adequate and sustainable supply of these materials, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is developing a critical minerals strategy and is due to launch a critical minerals intelligence centre later this year. Forming part of the government’s Net Zero strategy, the centre will provide analysis of stock levels and flows of these materials to help inform government decision making.
Delegates heard that the strength of battery R&D in the UK is a big pull for companies from overseas, particularly when it comes to industrialisation. Businesses are not just looking for R&D, they want this research turned into an industrial process. The Faraday Battery Challenge is an example of how the industrialisation gap can be addressed, taking fundamental R&D and driving it through to make a commercial impact.
Technology development and the opportunity for the UK and Europe
While R&D must continue to focus on novel chemistries that can underpin the next generation of batteries, big performance gains can also be achieved by improving design and production processes around existing technologies. In manufacturing, this means increasing pack efficiency, focusing on how the best cells scale to create the best pack. More focus on challenges like reducing materials in pack design will improve energy densities further.
For new materials, the ability to scale up is often a barrier to progress, the roundtable heard. Focusing on cell design and engineering will be critical to increasing the amount of active materials batteries contain, as well as the cell-to-pack ratio. Process innovation should be seen as a ‘no regrets’ option, supporting new chemistries and future proofing existing technologies to meet increasing demand.
The opportunity for producers in the UK and Europe is to offer a more bespoke approach, delivering batteries to meet the demands of specific car models, rather than the commodified approach of delivering high volumes of a small range battery cells, favoured by manufacturers in the Far East. Britishvolt, for example, has signed deals with Lotus and Aston Martin to deliver the batteries they need. The UK has the R&D strength to lead on high performance batteries, where cost is less of a pressure.
UK can lead on battery standards
When it comes to regulation, the automotive industry, which has delivered intelligent regulation for batteries and their supply chains, can act as an example for battery regulation across other sectors, the event heard. The UK is a country where there are high levels of consumer trust, meaning it has an opportunity to be a leader in setting standards and regulations that could be adopted globally.
Many industries are a ‘Wild West’ when it comes to battery regulation, and in these sectors new rules must be introduced in a staged way so as not to stifle trade or innovation. The example of the marine industry was used, where a blanket ban on fossil fuels would be highly damaging, but new rules to mandate use of EVs in ports, to improve air quality, could be introduced.
Educating drivers is key
The panel discussed the need for better driver education when it comes to EV batteries. Range remains a major concern for many consumers despite the fact that only 10% of vehicle journeys in the UK are longer than 100 miles. Changing this public perception that all EVs need to be able to make long journeys on a single charge will open the door to diversification of the market, allowing OEMs to develop some models with small batteries using low-cost chemistries. This increased acceptance and maturity of consumer thought will come over time.
Building the skills base
With up to 100,000 new jobs set to be created in UK battery gigafactories and the UK battery supply chain by 2040, the panel discussed the need for greater investment in the skills that will underpin the electrification of the economy. Currently, some training programmes do exist, but these are often delivered based on the financial return they offer to the provider rather than a national need.
A long-term skills plan based on national demand is being developed by the National Electrification Skills Framework and Forum. Its goal is to provide a national curriculum that will be delivered regionally based on need. Partnership between the Department for Education and industry will be key. Deeper relationships are needed between training providers and businesses. Collaboration must be built between training providers, too, to ensure there are no gaps in the curriculum. The training curriculum must look beyond electrification of vehicles to consider the uptake of other technologies, for example heat pumps.
Businesses and the government have a responsibility and an opportunity to build a more diverse workforce, recruited from underrepresented communities and focused not only on graduate engineers, but apprentices, technicians and operators.