Can the UK reassert its global position as a leader in battery technology?

Photo shows: Neil Morris, Faraday Challenge, Graham Purdy, Ilika PLC & Rob Millar, Williams Advanced Engineering
Bessemer Dinner speakers

Last year the government announced the first phase (£42 million) of a £246 million investment into battery technology to ensure the UK builds on its global expertise in the design, development and manufacture of electric batteries.

At a packed Bessemer Society dinner in Oxford in October, some of the UK’s leading experts led a lively debate on the issue, including the potential for, and speed of adoption of battery technology across the wider population.

The Bessemer Society is a forum and mutual society of CEOs, founders and entrepreneurs committed to creating successful new companies based on technological innovation in science and technology.

The UK has form in battery technology – and a big missed opportunity to capitalise on a unique discovery. In 1980 Professor John Goodenough, a visiting professor at the Department of Chemistry at Oxford University, discovered lithium cobalt oxide which led to the development of the high-performance rechargeable lithium-ion batteries now widely used in devices such as mobile phones and laptop computers.

However, it was Sony which commercialised the discovery, and the UK saw minimal financial benefit.

Now millions of pounds are being poured into UK research and development into battery technology, as much of the world moves towards the adoption of electric vehicles, in a bid to consign the internal combustion engine to history. Continued electrification is also set to reinvent sectors from transport to power generation and distribution to banking.

Speaker Neil Morris, CEO at the Faraday Institution, the UK’s independent institute for electrochemical energy storage science and technology, highlighted the institution’s commitment to overcoming battery challenges to accelerate the electric vehicle revolution. If successful, the Faraday Institution’s research will put the UK at the forefront of battery technology worldwide. It has the potential to radically increase the speed with which we are able to make the move to electric vehicles, as well as the speed with which we can decarbonize our energy supply, with obvious benefits to the environment.

Funding the Faraday Challenge is a key part of the government’s Industrial Strategy. It will deliver a coordinated programme of competitions that will aim to boost both the research and development of expertise in battery technology.

Rob Millar, Head of Electrical at Williams Advanced Engineering discussed the collaboration between Williams Advanced Engineering and Unipart Manufacturing Group which will result in the opening of the UK’s largest independent vehicle battery manufacturer in early 2019 in Coventry, creating around ninety new jobs at a new, high-tech facility that will produce batteries for future hybrid and electric vehicles.

The new company, called Hyperbat, will combine world-leading expertise in manufacturing, logistics and innovative vehicle battery technology from Unipart and Williams.  The partners say the facility will provide a secure future supply chain for UK-based car-makers as their vehicles transition to electric power, with the potential to provide similar solutions to developing marine and aircraft projects in future.  The launch customer for Hyperbat batteries is the Aston Martin Rapide E, which will be a limited production run.

Also speaking was Graeme Purdy, CEO at Ilika plc, which has been inventing new materials for energy and electronics applications for over a decade, including in automotive, aeronautical and electronic components sectors. Global brands such as Rolls Royce and Toyota have long term collaborations with Ilika’s development teams.

Following their presentations, the debate widened to include discussions on the poor existing infrastructure which exists to support wider adoption of electric vehicles, including the shortage of public charging points. Also discussed was where the increased national grid capacity would come from to meet demand for electric vehicles and public transport.

While there is huge ambition to drive the adoption of battery technology globally and position the UK at the heart of its development, significant challenges and uncertainties remain as to how this will be achieved, including improving battery storage, speeding up battery charging, the lack of grid connected battery storage and inadequate transport infrastructure.