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Bridging Sectors: A Look at Battery Solutions for Mobility with Jacqui Murray

Opinion

We recently spoke with Jacqui Murray – Deputy Challenge Director for the Faraday Battery Challenge at Innovate UK – to discuss batteries, research and innovation. In this conversation, we explored how the UK is facilitating the future of battery technology, the evolution of research and development with the industry and how collaboration is the key to modernisation.

Sam Rangasamy

Sales and Marketing Executive

You describe one pillar of the Faraday Battery Challenge, the Faraday Institution as a “virtual Institution,” where teams of University Researchers can answer questions posed by industry, not just academically-focused topics. Could you expand on this?

Faraday uses an application-led model of doing research within universities. The virtual aspect refers to a head office with about 15 people, plus our wider team made up of 450 researchers throughout universities in the UK, all working on solving the problems issued by the industry. Typically science funding is allocated to everything from blue-sky thinking to practical applications, but often it’s not all cohesive. Our model at Faraday is to bring together those isolated pockets of academic thinking and create a “Team UK” approach.

We also have our collaborative R&D pillar, a group made up of academics, enterprises, SME, and scaling start-ups. Again, collaboration is key to success for these groups because solutions and innovation is not a linear process. You can discover the best cell chemistry but it’s another challenge to develop a functioning prototype and an even bigger challenge to bring that to market. Manufacturing cells must be done at scale and pace to bring down costs and improve quality. You need a thriving community of high technology businesses across the country developing substantially new Lithium-Ion battery technologies with greater performance, along with new solutions that have the potential for a globally significant breakthrough in performance, weight and cost. It’s essential for these partners to work together.

And finally, we have our UK Battery Industrialization Centre - our commercialisation pillar, a £130 million facility where the industry can bring prototypes and products to life at scale. It’s open and flexible, so you can work confidentially as a single company, or partner up with collaborators (e.g. battery companies and vehicle companies). Our partners work on everything from full battery and vehicle builds to individual component prototypes. This open and flexible industrialisation model has really pushed the UK ahead in this field; we’re the first in Europe to have this type of facility.

So in the end, while the Faraday Battery Challenge has the virtual Faraday Institution, every delivery pillar has very tangible outcomes for British industry. Ultimately it’s about connecting partners across the UK and providing them with the capacity and capability to innovate on battery technology.

Have you seen any trends or changes over the past three years of operation, in the questions asked by the industry? How has the UK advanced in its readiness to be more electric?

There have been massive changes. We recently evaluated our innovation spending and we’ve seen a step-change in technology readiness levels. We’re seeing companies scale and shift from technology development to actually commercially supplying their products. Of course, this takes significant capital and patience, and we’re seeing more and more interest from investors.

From a materials point of view, we’ve seen the conversation change as well. For example, cobalt has traditionally had an issue with its credentials, stemming from the negative social and environmental impact it’s had on some of the countries where it’s mined. Now, as a programme, we’re looking at how we can support the world better. Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance. "Definition of Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance") (ESG) plays a fundamental part in R&D, and we continually analyse and compare our solutions to other options, be it petrol-diesel or other battery technology. We have to make sure we deliver solutions that don’t just hit technical product targets but also are socially and ecologically sustainable as well. We are already seeing trends to low cobalt batteries due to supply chain concerns.

It sounds like the process of getting products to market is picking up speed. What’s driving this acceleration?

It’s amazing - we’re now seeing AI accelerate the battery R&D process. For example, a key challenge to battery development is material selection - you have this incredible array of tools you can put into batteries, but where’s the best place to start? So we ran an event on this topic, which resulted in the MAT2BAT project, an AI system that can analyse what type of batteries are most likely to be best for different applications, which then informs what materials are the best candidates to start researching. This cuts down research and development time significantly, by leveraging the UK’s strength in AI and high-performance computing.

Have you seen any trends in the electric vehicle (EV) space, specifically?

Well, there has always been a focus on solving range anxiety, but the miles per kilowatt-hour that vehicles are delivering now has hugely improved since just a year or two ago - meaning less electricity needed for every mile you drive. What’s more, we’ve seen improvements in the sustainability front as well. When you look at the lifecycle impact of EVs now, in terms of how they compete with existing internal combustion engines and their entire supply chain, the figures can be phenomenal. They absolutely destroy it where there is a green electricity grid. And so, with both the improvements in EV infrastructure and EV battery technology, you see a shift in the consumer’s demand for EVs. Now electrification is expanding into the high-end vehicle space - it’s a real maturing of the industry.

So has the impact mainly been around the automotive industry?

No, it’s the entire supply chain. There’s a £4.8 billion opportunity for chemical companies in the UK. We’ve been working with The Society of Chemical Industry, as well as joining up partnerships with companies like 3M. The UK is certainly the right place for it, as many of the leading companies are already here.

So outside of Faraday, what are some cross-sector collaborations that you think are essential for the integration of this type of technology moving forward?

It's not just the tech that needs to move forward, it's also the services, the business models, the systems and more. We have to catch up to 120 years of internal combustion engines, and that includes regulations, safety development, and environmental guidance. There is a lot currently in play but it’s in a very complex system — so for me, it’s looking at how we can improve our life cycle so that the life of each battery is fully optimised, in all aspects, from environmental impact to safety. And there are untested questions like how do we use technologies such as blockchain? A distributed ledger could, for example, create an agreement between the cell manufacturer and the battery recycler, so that the dismantler could access the necessary information, therefore allowing them to invest in the most efficient technology for recycling. The depths of complexity that we're dealing with need almost everything to change.

What are the changes in economic systems that are influencing industry the most?

There are two major ones in the UK. Firstly, Brexit and the Rules of Origin. In order to meet the anticipated global demand for EV batteries, production needs to increase significantly worldwide, including in the UK and Europe. A battery represents around a third of the total value of an electric vehicle. If the cells were imported and only the modules and packs assembled in the UK, only about 20% of the value of the battery would be captured locally in terms of jobs, value-add etc. If the cells are made here, that increases to 45%, and if the upstream chemicals are processed here then the value to the UK is 80%+, estimated to be worth up to £9bn by 2035.

Additionally, the Trade & Cooperation Agreement (TCA) between the UK and the EU has recently introduced Rules of Origin requirements that need to be adhered to in order to avoid tariffs on trade between the two markets. Here the regulations stipulate a maximum amount of value in the finished product that does not originate from the UK or EU. By 2026, this will effectively mean that any Electric Vehicles traded between the two blocks will need to have the battery cells and the active cathode material manufactured either in the UK or EU. Clearly, we want as much as possible in the UK.

Confidence in investments is key. Bringing the uncertainty surrounding the UK future trading relationship with the EU to an end has been hugely positive. The announcement by Nissan confirming the future of Sunderland as a long-term centre for EV production was a direct result of the clarity provided by the TCA.

We have since seen very significant announcements from Jaguar Land Rover and Ford and further signals regarding Gigafactory sites. Although the Rules of Origin requirements described earlier do put the UK in a straight race with the EU, there is plenty of reason for optimism. The total UK/EU market will be vast, and in the case of Internal Combustion Engines, over the years the UK has captured much more than its fair share (2.6m units pa) of UK/EU volumes through leadership in technology and innovation.

Secondly, ESG is becoming increasingly important, both from a social and environmental context and for brand alignment. You’ll recall the public outcry around Apple and the mobile phone industry because of the slavery used for mining or rare earth materials. The growing sensitivity around accountability in the supply chain is pivoting the market. And as the market pivots, sustainability is being woven into more and more touchpoints. Volvo recently announced leather-free options in their latest models. It’s great to see that, especially as an ex Environmental Regulator.

One interesting way to look at EVs is ‘batteries on wheels’. When Texas was hit with the recent snowstorm, we saw Ford EV truck batteries being used to power home essentials. So it changes the profile of EVs from energy consumption devices to potentially energy storage and providers, as well. Have you seen any activity around this new use case?

That topic is fascinating because it really opens the conversation around energy infrastructure and a two-way energy exchange. We work closely with the National Grid and have their Chief Engineer, David Wright on our advisory group. He often speaks on the long-term strategy of the UK grid, how many renewable options are coming online, grid storage, and how they're going to manage all that. Within that is the concept of a more distributed energy network. Some of the issues he anticipates we will face in the UK is the demand that will be put on old technology - such as 1950’s transformers - as they power a neighbourhood. A possible solution would be the vehicle to grid (V2G) idea, which would create a micro-grid to support your home and your neighbour’s house rather than the National Grid. We also have solutions such as Tesla using second-life batteries as a battery box for your house and a connected grid of solar panels. The concept of a micro-grid has been instrumental in places like Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America where their macro grid isn’t as well constructed as the UK because of distances between energy generators and homes. But they can use their own energy generation platforms like solar, wind or hydro to power their community.

But to return to EV as batteries, I think people underestimate the power of stored energy. It isn't like a slightly bigger 12-volt lead-acid battery. The entrained energy in EV’s is much larger, so yes you can power a house during peak demand times easily. Though it’s worth adding that we are still in the infancy of building the infrastructure needed to fully utilise a V2G model.

How do you balance business, consumer, and environmental value in some of the initiatives you are supporting?

No one can accurately answer what type of batteries or solutions will solve climate change and energy issues in the long-term. What we can do, is own this complex problem and build the solutions of tomorrow with our industries that will support both our country's prosperity and also help our learning of electrification as new technologies are discovered, developed and deployed.

In the Faraday Battery Challenge, we conduct research into lithium-ion developments and next-generation technologies such as solid-state batteries, lithium sulphur batteries and more. From the research, you can deliver answers like: how to enable fast charging, what is the best cell chemistry, and how can we optimise current technology to be more resilient. As we are open to and focused on those questions, we can get a clearer view of future technologies. In the UK, we’re building a superpower through a world-class science base, the creation of an ecosystem of ambitious scaling companies and pivoting large companies that are all collaborating to build the future.

The future of innovation is always difficult to predict and that’s part of the Faraday Battery Challenge - we get an early peek into what the future holds.

Looking ahead, what innovations and opportunities are you excited to see in the next 2-3 years as mobility and energy merge?

As a materials engineer, the use of AI in R&D is exciting. We’ve seen examples of it in the pharmaceutical industry, with the use of AI to help streamline the research phase of molecule composition. I can see it being used for battery chemistry research, answering topics like whether solid-state is better than lithium-sulphur. I anticipate it will help us choose what to focus on and create a more efficient roadmap.

I’m also fascinated by the material side of batteries, understanding what’s going on at an atomic level, material degradation and looking at concepts like using silicon anodes (because you need four carbon atoms to intercalate a lithium-ion, whereas with silicon you can use six but structurally it expands, which so you need to reinforce the crystalline structure).

There’s also all the high-level questions to solve. As you mentioned, building a V2G infrastructure, what we can do with second-life batteries and improving the life of a vehicle. I think one of the most immediate opportunities is the recycling industry in the UK — we’re increasing efforts to understand what we can do to recycle and reuse batteries.

Cost for consumers is really important too. This is where sodium ion, for example, is really exciting. Take India as a case study - sodium-ion batteries could be placed into every scooter and micro-mobility vehicle. That’ll be interesting to watch.

That concludes our conversation with Jacqui Murray. You can follow her on LinkedIn. To learn more about our energy and mobility approach, check out our energy and mobility pages.

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