The Britishvolt mission, to deploy the UK’s first battery gigaplant in Northumberland, is on track to deliver high performance lithium-ion cell technology to the automotive industry and beyond. Planning permission was officially submitted March 1, a real milestone for the company.
As we continue to make great progress towards our overall goals, key objectives for Britishvolt have gained in strategic importance for us as a business, and potentially the country as a whole.
The need for the global automotive sector to reduce emissions, drive down embedded CO2, and increase sustainability has resulted in a drive towards uptake of electrified powertrains, as well as associated energy storage. We are now close to a tipping point for EV-focused OEMs and the supply chains behind them.
Having been involved in the battery industry over the past twenty years, we have seen the progression of battery technology to the point where that development now enables full electrification of a vast range of the automotive fleet.
Local Battery Needs
For the UK, as pointed out by a number of eminent studies, including that by the Faraday Institution, the need for local, high volume, supply of li-ion cell technology, to support the automotive industry, is imperative.
Given the time it takes to put in place and construct such facilities, the need to act is pressing and this is why Britishvolt is in the process of putting in place the talent and capability now to support the automotive industry of the future, as a key pillar of UK plc.
Without access to high performance batteries, in large volume, from low carbon renewable energy, made in UK gigaplants, the UK automotive industry, its workforce and supply chains may face increasingly steep challenges.
The above research institute studies, industry reports and even mainstream media articles all strongly highlight the technical, economic and logistics case for battery cell manufacturing capacity close the automakers. Batteries are heavy, expensive and complex. Ideally, they should be made virtually next door to the vehicle production line where the battery pack will be integrated.
The recent EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement also throws up increasing challenges, and potential opportunities, particularly regarding the complex Rules of Origin directives. In essence, batteries have to be made in-region to where the end vehicle manufacturing takes place in order to avoid prohibitively large trade tariffs. By 2024, 45% of a vehicle’s value has to come from the UK or Europe. By 2027 that number currently rises to 55%, meaning both the battery and a substantive part of the chemical supply chain behind it has to be produced in-region.
At Britishvolt, we feel now is the time to act. The UK is today exceedingly well placed to support businesses such as Britishvolt, to build the required cell capability. The investments in academic research, testing and characterisation facilities, open access scale-up and pilot line facilities, including the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre (UKBIC) are the parts of the UK battery development eco-system that Britishvolt is well placed to leverage. Therefore, the time is now to bring that together for the overall benefit of the country.
A key focus for Britishvolt right now is understanding the future, and longer-term needs for of our customers, such that we can bake the targets into shaping our overall product development programme roadmap and portfolio. The technical performance metrics are also increasingly challenging, but this is where we feel Britishvolt can be a valuable proposition. By doing that applications analysis, in parallel to the cell chemistry and design engineering of both product and manufacturing plant, we can embed a degree of flexibility that will allow us to tailor that product portfolio against specific customer and/or market sector requirements – offering a tailored cell technology solution in a world where one size does not fit all.
As my colleague, Richard LeCain, Britishvolt’s Head of Cell Design and Process Development, stresses in our discussion with potential customers; we are flexible. And it is this flexibility that will enable our future success.
Recycling Imperatives – But Not Yet
A fundamental principal of Britishvolt is being an environmentally responsible, social and governance-driven business. As such, we have a clear understanding of the importance of recycling to our overall business model as a future high volume cell producer.
As zero-emission vehicles, manufactured via low carbon processes, come to end-of-life they must also be disposed of via equivalent recycling methods to maintain that highly sustainable principal. Net-zero must entail from cradle to grave.
I’d again quote my colleague Mr LeCain, who says “recycling must mean actual recycling and reclamation”. He is completely correct in saying so, as the ultimate goal must be to establish a fully closed-looped system, whereby every gram of waste is reused and value-added. However, we must consider not simply the case of recovering the materials in the battery, but the grade of material that is recovered, because some battery components require very high grade matter.
An automotive battery pack is constructed from lithium-ion cells that contain a range of chemicals. The key targets for recycling processes are the inherent high value metals of Cobalt, Nickel, Copper and Lithium (carbonate).
Unlike your weekly household recycling routine, batteries are not separated at source back into more easily processable streams, such as plastic, paper or metal cans. Typically, batteries are recycled by first shedding everything into a ‘black-mass’ mixed material that makes it inert and processable thereafter potentially back to materials that can be re-used in batteries.
As mentioned above, battery materials to reconstitute cells need to be of high purity, high grades and therefore demand controlled and stringent recycling processes.
Just reflecting more upon the growth of the industry as well as the infancy of Britishvolt, with EVs only accounting for a currently small but significantly growing uptake rate and market share, then the truly high-volume material feedstock for that recycling process is still to come sometime in the future.
As Britishvolt is the UK’s first battery gigaplant, it is paramount for us to put in place the capability and volume to match that demand. In the meantime, we will continue to work with partners to assess and match the best available and most appropriate recycling technology to that future position.
Recycling of battery materials is a highly complex, typically multi-process flow, for which we may have opportunities to match those processes to the cell chemistries within our product portfolio. That too will likely evolve with time and we must therefore be cognisant of future need and again employ potential flexible process technologies, some of which may not yet be demonstrated at scale.
The recycling of end-of-life battery technology is an area of rightful importance and as such will bring with it a level of attention and regulation. Therefore, at Britishvolt we are making it a key strategic goal engaging with policy makers.
As we progress our technical development, we are often asked about our intentions for our own recycling facility, the Infinity Centre, and when it will be fully operational.
We are working with partners, undertaking techno-economic analysis, to establish when best to scale operations. The largest influencing factors of this are: the input raw material, or rather the end-of-life battery packs returning from the field, that then require appropriate processing for disposal and recycling; and the maturity, efficiency and ultimate capability of material processes to do so in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way. As you might expect, the requirement for full recycling capability will lag behind the cell volume start of production and for Britishvolt we expect this will occur in the late 2020s.
Nonetheless, we are actively engaging with research programmes and technology delivery partners now to put the groundwork in place to support the long-term business and UK needs. We are investigating a number of potential technology solutions from which can we deploy the most efficient and cleanest recycling processes in the right timeframes. Again, this goes back to our core values of offering the right technology at the right time via a highly flexible approach.
Recycling Our Way to Zero Carbon
As battery scientists, engineers and technology developers, we are confident we can play a part in helping the UK government to deliver on its ambitious 10-point plan and mission towards reaching net-zero.
Britishvolt’s data-driven and analytical approach, built around best practice set against the highest of environmental/, social and governance standards, will be the underpinnings of a sustainable, viable state-of-art recycling strategy. With a low carbon process and capability matched to the best science can offer. As Mr LeCain has commented; “recycling is essential to the viability of the battery industry, as every gram recycled is one less gram mined from the planet”.
We see the combined collaborative talents of UK-based research and development coupled to leading international industrial and commercial expertise.
As Britishvolt continues to grow its technical, core science and engineering teams over the near future, recycling and sustainability will be key components and linked fundamentally to the wider product development strategy.
As the automotive battery industry evolves, at Britishvolt we feel we are in a strong position to make a difference. It is the right time to leverage and build capability for the UK and a greater good. As we build our business, we have a fantastic opportunity to synergistically leverage technology capability and put in place the foundations for low carbon, volume cell production in the UK, products tailored against the end application and recyclable at end of use in a highly sustainable way, that hopefully set the benchmark for others to follow.
Dr Allan Paterson, CTO Britishvolt with contributions from Richard LeCain, Head of Cell Design and Process Development