As UK startup Britishvolt prepares to begin building Britain’s first battery gigaplant, Jon Excell spoke to its Chief Technology Officer – world-leading electrochemist Dr Allan Paterson – about the firm’s vision and the challenges of scaling up from scratch.
Two years ago no-one had heard of Britishvolt, but today the company – founded in December 2019 by businessman Orral Nadjari – is at the forefront of an ambitious plan to propel the UK onto the A-list of European battery manufacturing nations.
Backed by £2.6bn of investment – one of the largest ever industrial investments in the UK – the firm is now poised to begin construction of a giant gigafactory in Blyth, Northumberland that will ultimately produce around 30GWh of lithium-ion batteries each year (enough to power 300,000 passenger cars) delivering a capability said by many to be critical to the future of UK automotive.
In its bid to pull off what might well turn out to be one of the most ambitious scale-up operations in UK industrial history, the company has set about recruiting some of the brightest minds in battery technology; including world-leading electrochemist Dr Allan Paterson, who joined as Chief Technology Officer (CTO) from the Faraday Institution in October 2020.
Paterson is something of a veteran of the UK battery sector, beginning his involvement with the technology as an academic at St Andrews where he worked on the development of cathode materials for next generation lithium-ion cell systems, before being tempted into industry by Scottish battery firm Axeon (later acquired by Johnson Matthey) which was beginning to look at automotive applications for its technology. “It was a great chance to join at the beginning of an emerging technology area and be leading some of the science behind it,” he told The Engineer.
After a spell in industry (at both Johnson Matthey and Cummins) it was this desire to be at the vanguard whilst remaining close to the science that drove Paterson’s 2018 move to the Faraday Institution, an organisation established to tap into and accelerate the commercial potential of some of the breakthroughs being made by the UK’s battery research base. “The opportunity to be in there at the start of trying to build a capability for the UK that would hopefully get us to that world class stage was a fantastic place to be – it was great to be coming back to the hardcore science but always with an industrial hat on,” he said.
During his two and a half years as Head of Programme Management at the Faraday Institution, Paterson observed a marked acceleration of the UK’s battery capabilities, with the research base increasingly energised by the commercial opportunities, and the emergence of facilities like Coventry’s UK Battery Industrialistion Centre (UKBIC) providing a practical route for accelerating the impact of this innovation. And when a company emerged with the ambition to leverage all of this expertise, Paterson jumped at the chance to be in at the beginning again. “To try and hit the ground running really hard to deliver a Gigafactory is a big scary opportunity but a really exciting one,” he said.
With many gigaplants already in operation around the world -including a number across Europe – it’s reasonable to ask whether it might be simpler, and quicker, to replicate an existing manufacturing solution rather than build a new indigenous capability from scratch. But Britishvolt, explained Paterson, is about much more than playing catchup.
Lithium- ion cells were invented in the UK and effectively given away to Asia to mass produce. Now we’re trying to bring them home
The company’s plan is to tap into the UK’s rich pool of scientific expertise and create a flexible manufacturing capability – in lockstep with the ongoing developments in battery technology and chemistry – that will enable it to meet evolving customer requirements, and go beyond the capabilities of many existing capabilities around the world. “Britishvolt is not looking to translate in or copy and paste an existing technology from an existing battery supplier”, he said. “We’re looking to analyse every step of the process and bake in a degree of capability and flexibility that is slightly above and beyond, to try and have a manufacturing technology capability and a pipeline of materials and cell chemistry technologies that come together to deliver something that’s great and matched to target applications.”
It’s a plan that Paterson believes will deliver a competitive edge for the UK automotive industry and which could – he said – ultimately see the construction of Britishvolt plants around the world.
But getting to that point won’t be straightforward. Indeed, setting up a large-scale automated facility that can reliably produce high volumes of high-performance batteries represents a complex and exacting manufacturing challenge. “What you’re trying to control is the microstructure in an electrode layer that’s coated on a substrate that’s 10 microns thick.” explained Paterson. “You’re trying to take highly complex materials….and formulate them in a way that you can then go and make those electrodes retain their fundamental ability to store charge and deliver power.”
Whilst various Faraday Institution funded projects and UKBIC have made great strides in understanding how to take advanced battery technologies into production, moving up to the level of mass manufacturing is a new challenge for the UK. “We’re spending a lot of effort looking at how we translate up through those scales, how we control the parameters for ensuring the thing we get out at the end is exactly as we expected and that it delivers when we put it in a cell, stack all the electrodes up and make a real device…that’s not an area of manufacturing tech that the UK has had in the battery space.”
One of the key challenges here, he said, is ensuring that the UK has the skills base required to deliver all of this. “The labour force required to directly support the gigafactory is a few thousand people. Some of those skills do exist in the UK, in the North East we’re blessed by being close to Nissan who do a chunk of the processing and manufacturing technology, but it’s one of those things that we have to be looking at, and are looking at now.”
In an effort to help build this pipeline of talent BritishVolt is now working closely with a number of organisations, including UKBIC, the Faraday Institution, WMG and SMMT to explore how the education system can support the requirements of the sector. “There’s a curriculum being built that mirrors the equivalent in the automotive industry but is very much battery driven,” he said.
Meanwhile, up in Blyth, the Britishvolt team has already started digging holes and carrying out surveys and hopes to begin “breaking ground in anger” towards the back end of the summer.
Paterson describes the location as the “premier site” for a gigafactory in the UK, and it’s not difficult to see why the firm ditched earlier plans to build its first plant in Wales.
With main roads, a railhead, and a newly rejuvenated deep-water port on the doorstep, it’s well connected to key logistics networks, and available land directly next to the site provides plenty of scope for co-locating and consolidating key elements of the supply chain. What’s more, the site has great access to renewable energy, thanks to the proximity of the landing stations for both the Dogger Bank wind farm and the new 1.4GW North Sea Link Interconnector from Norway. “Access to those green electrons is a fantastic proposition for us,” said Paterson.
Flat, clean and with an existing grid connection, it’s also a relatively straightforward site to develop, he added, with few obvious impediments to the construction of a building which, when complete, will become one of the UK’s largest industrial facilities.
There have been growing concerns in recent years about the UK’s failure to scale up battery manufacture, not to mention a sense of exasperation that it was failing to capitalise on its historic expertise in the field (the lithium battery was invented in Oxford and the battery plant alongside Nissan’s Sunderland car factory was once the first of its kind in the Europe).
Nevertheless, despite Britain’s belated arrival on the gigafactory scene, Paterson believes it’s well-placed to achieve the scale-up that’s now required. “The science is there, the understanding of the technology is world class, and some of the research groups within the UK are amazing. The ability to deliver against this and support the wider industry is a fantastic thing to be involved in. Lithium- ion cells were invented in the UK and effectively given away to Asia to mass produce. Now we’re trying to bring them home.”