There’s little doubt that the UK stands on the verge of a battery manufacturing revolution.
It’s estimated that by the end of the next decade Britain could be home to as many as seven giant battery gigafactories: huge facilities capable of producing the high volumes of batteries required to satisfy the automotive industry’s inexorable and rapid shift to electrification. Indeed, it’s becoming increasingly clear that without these factories - given the high cost of batteries - the commercial case for making cars in the UK will disappear.
As things currently stand, the UK’s largest battery factory (and at one time the largest facility of its kind in Europe) is the former Nissan plant in Sunderland (now operated by Chinese firm Envision AESC). With an annual capacity of 2GWh per annum, this plant is dwarfed by many of the sites springing up around continental Europe: where 450GWh of battery production is expected to be in place by the end of the decade.
And although two major battery manufacturing projects - Britishvolt’s Blyth “Gigaplant” and an expansion to the Sunderland site - have now secured funding, it will be at least three or four years before the UK is firmly back on the battery manufacturing map.
However, a sparkling new 20,000m3 facility on the outskirts of Coventry, bristling with all of the advanced technology required to manufacture high volumes of batteries from scratch, provides a tantalising glimpse of what this new era of UK manufacturing will look like.
One of the key pillars of the government’s £330 million Faraday battery challenge (an injection of cash designed to supercharge the UK battery sector) the £130 million UK Battery Industrialisation Centre (UKBIC) was established to help prove the manufacturability of emerging battery technologies and to equip innovative battery companies with the know-how to take their technologies into production.
According to the facility’s MD, Jeff Pratt, the centre provides a vital missing link in the UK battery ecosystem by enabling organisations to validate technologies and processes prior to pushing ahead with investment. “A lot of companies haven’t got £130 million to invest in this type of facility, they just couldn’t get started” he told The Engineer. “The idea with this is we stick a facility in close to market and we help companies get their product ready for market, so it’s de-risking their large-scale investments giving them the expertise to get to market.”
A veteran of the UK battery sector (he was previously general manager at Nissan’s lithium-ion battery plant in Sunderland) Pratt is encouraged that this approach is already starting to bear fruit.
“It’s very healthy, he said, “there’s a lot of good research going on and we are starting to get to the stage where some of the multi-year projects funded through the Faraday challenge are coming through - which is a real breakthrough for the UK. We’ve always had this this massive science capability, but we’ve always struggled following through.”
Whilst the arrival of the pandemic created some challenges ahead of the centre’s July 2021 launch (at one point it was impossible to get commissioning engineers on site to set up all the new machinery) it’s done little to derail UKBIC’s ambitions. “Since launch we’ve had 22 orders. We’ve closed off 12 of them and we’ve got 10 live at the moment,” said Pratt. “Our order base is at about £7 million, and our pipeline is at about £20 million.” What’s more, in a compelling illustration of the pent-up demand for the facility, all of this business has, he added, come off the back of incoming enquiries.
Non-disclosure agreements prevent Pratt from namechecking these customers, but unsurprisingly most of the interest so far has been from organisations working in the automotive sector. However, whilst automotive will undoubtedly dominate in years ahead, Pratt does expect to see a broadening customer base as the push for electrification gathers momentum in other areas, with potential customers from aerospace; off-highway; rail and marine all showing varying levels of interest in in what UKBIC has to offer.
Alongside its technical manufacturing focus another key area of UKBIC’s remit is developing the skills that will be critical to the sector’s short- and longer-term future, something Pratt describes as “a massive issue”. To give a sense of the demand, one gigafactory is expected to employ around seven thousand people and that doesn’t include the additional jobs created further down the supply chain.
“If you look at what’s going on around the world now there’s the big resignation, where everybody seems to be moving jobs….and I think this is magnified in the battery world because of the growth in the area.”
Whilst UKBIC and other members of the Faraday battery challenge are all helping shape the degree and apprenticeship programmes that will train up tomorrow’s battery engineers there is, said Pratt, a more urgent need for skills that will only be met by rapidly upskilling the existing automotive workforce, and attracting engineers with transferable skills to the sector.
Having achieved something similar during his time at the Sunderland plant, Pratt is confident that the UK’s engineering workforce will rise to the challenge. “I pulled people from all over”, he said, “I pulled people out of body Shop, welding, paint shop, process. I pulled them out of chassis assembly, and I pulled them out of the engine shop for the high tolerance work. You need all of that through the battery process. It’s like full car manufacturing in one shot.”
Alongside skills, the other huge challenge for the battery sector, said Pratt, is getting an effective UK supply chain for raw materials in place. As much as 60 per cent of the value of a battery is in the raw materials, and whilst it’s clearly not practical to start mining the UK for lithium, graphite and other key materials, there’s a pressing need to develop UK capability in many of the industrial chemical processes at the heart of this supply chain.
The recent announcement that Singapore’s Trafigura is to build a 50,000 tonne per annum green lithium refinery in the UK is clearly welcome news in this regard, but Pratt would like to see even more support from the government to help address the supply chain challenge. “£1bn from the automotive transformation fund was a great start but will it be enough?” he asked. “We may need a bigger fund. We need to incentivize the supply chain.”
Pratt also expects the spiraling demand for raw materials, to drive manufacturers to explore the application of alternative materials and different battery chemistries, something which UKBIC is future-proofed to deal with. “If you think about the rate that this is going up now, I don’t think you can fetch the raw materials online quick enough so you’re going to have to look at different materials. I absolutely think we’ll get a stage where there will be a requirement to run multi chemistries,” he said.
Despite the challenges ahead, the buzz around UKBIC and the general sense of urgency in the UK’s burgeoning battery sector is a welcome development for Pratt, who admits being frustrated by the way in which the UK surrendered its early lead in the technology.
Indeed, whilst just a couple of years ago there were very real fears that the UK may have missed the boat, there’s now a growing confidence that the sector will be able to meet an expected demand of 140Gwh per annum of battery production by 2040, an unthinkable target until relatively recently. “I think we’re definitely catching up now,” said Pratt. “We’ve got a couple of announcements on giga factories in the UK, and we’ve hopefully got a couple more in the pipeline that we’re working on.”
What’s more, in an encouraging sign that the UK isn’t simply playing catch-up when it comes to battery manufacturing, UKBIC itself has attracted a fair share of international interest from economies and regions looking to replicate the model. Indeed, earlier this spring (April 2022) Germany’s Fraunhofer Research Institution for Battery Cell Production FFB – which is said to be considering building a similar facility - signed an MOU with Pratt’s team, a vote of confidence that Pratt describes as “a fantastic accolade for the UK.” Imitation, as they say, is the sincerest form of flattery.
Building a battery - Inside UKBIC
The centre itself - though not a full scale gigafactory - contains most of the technologies you would expect to find in one and is bristling with a host of advanced systems that enable it to produce batteries at industrial rates from scratch: all the way from electrode and cell manufacture through to module and pack assembly.
Pratt estimates the capacity to be around 2 to 3Gwh per annum (enough to supply around 60,000 Nissan Leafs) a significant volume for something that’s a development facility rather than a full-on production plant.
The process begins with electrode manufacture, the first time such a capability has existed in the UK.
To form the electrodes precise doses of anode and cathode materials (delivered via giant hoppers) are mixed into a slurry with water and solvents which is carefully coated onto metallic foils to form the electrodes (copper for the anode, and aluminium for the cathode). These foils are dried in giant 40-metre-long oven and formed into a large roll in a “calendaring” process. This roll is then fed into a slitting machine where it is broken down into smaller rolls to make the electrodes required for the cells
The cathodes and anodes are produced on two parallel but entirely separate lines, with strict protocols in place to prevent cross contamination. The whole process is carried out in the kind of carefully climate-controlled conditions more typically associated with the semiconductor industry. Pratt describes it as “a dirty process in a clean room.”
Once the electrodes have been made, the anodes and cathodes are bought together for the first time in the cell assembly machines, where they are assembled into a single unit.
Although there is a common set of fundamental steps, assembly processes vary depending on the type of cell that’s being made. The facility is currently set up to produce two types of cell format: cylindrical (the familiar tubular cylinder) and pouch, which each require slightly different assembly techniques. The facility is capable of producing around 20 cylindrical cells / minute and three pouch. Pratt is hopeful that further down the line the facility might also be equipped with capability to produce prismatic cells.
Once the cell has been assembled and the electrolyte added it’s time to set the cell chemistry, a process that can take around 31 days. During this so called “formation, ageing and testing” stage the cell is allowed to stand for period of time to let the electrolyte soak around it, before going through a number of charging and heating processes, to kick off the chemistry in the cell and tease out any potential problems before it leaves the facility. This is one of the most carefully monitored and safety critical phases of the process, with high levels of automation used to move cells around and a host of safety systems in place - including robotic fire-fighting technology and a two-hour firewall – to minimise the impact of any issues.
For a fast-moving sector at the forefront of technology it seems a frustratingly drawn-out final stage. But there’s no way around what can, admits Pratt, be a nervous waiting game: “You could have 30Gwh of batteries worth £450 million in that area and you don’t know whether it’s good until you get to the end.”
Finally, once the cells have passed this stage it’s time to bundle them up for the end-customer. In this part of the process multiple cells are connected together to form a module, and modules are connected together to form a pack. For context, the 40kWh battery used in the latest version of Nissan Leaf uses 24 modules, each consisting of 8 cells.