The race is on to develop new battery chemistries and manufacturing processes – and the UK is looking to take the lead.
For most of the 20th Century, batteries were an overlooked technology. And for good reason; the available batteries – predominantly lead-acid, although disposable zinc-carbon cells were also popular – were entirely suitable for the applications of the time. There was no particular reason to push the technology forwards.
But times changed. As the Century drew to a close, portable battery powered consumer electronics devices became widely used. Consumers not only wanted their products to last longer between either installing new batteries or recharging them, but a trend for smaller devices also appeared.
Now, electric and hybrid vehicles have added another twist. Together, these elements have kick started the recent interest in finding new battery technologies and chemistries.
Energy storage was one of the areas selected by ex industry minister David Willetts as one of the Eight Great Technologies. In a paper published in 2013, Willetts noted: “We need better ways to store electricity. This need arises at three distinct levels. First, there are the batteries in all our personal electronic devices. The second level is the development of better energy storage for vehicles. Thirdly, there is the challenge of storing more electricity for the Grid.”
Looking to take advantage of the opportunities, the Government is providing significant funding – as part of its Industrial Strategy – to help UK organisations to get the jump on other countries. Business and Energy Secretary Greg Clark announced in July 2017 the launch of the first phase of a £246million investment into battery technology designed to ensure the UK builds on its strengths and leads the world in the design, development and manufacture of electric batteries.
Known as the Faraday Challenge, the four year investment will feature a coordinated programme of competitions, delivered via Innovate UK, that aims to boost the research and development of battery technology.
Anna Wise, batteries innovation lead at Innovate UK, told New Electronics: “The Faraday Challenge will provide an exciting opportunity to rebuild technology that has been developed in the UK. From the start,” she continued, “we’ll be looking at how we can invest at seven stages of technology readiness; looking to accelerate work that is close to market, as well as longer term projects.”
Towards the end of 2017, a partnership between Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG), Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership and Coventry City Council was awarded £80m to establish a National Battery Manufacturing Development Facility (NBMDF).
The NBMDF is intended to enable UK based companies and researchers to come together to build and maintain a world leading position in manufacturing technologies for batteries and their components in vehicles and transportation. It will provide a strategic link between the research, development and full-scale industrialisation for battery technologies across the UK. The facility will enable the development of the next generation of battery systems across battery chemistry, electrodes, cell design, module and pack levels.
Greg Clark, Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary, said at the launch: “Battery technology is … one of the cornerstones of our ambition, through the Industrial Strategy and the Faraday Challenge, to ensure that the UK leads the world and reaps the economic benefits in the global transition to a low carbon economy.”
Dr Emma Kendrick, a materials chemist and energy storage technical specialist at WMG, provided attendees at last year’s Electronics Design Show Conference with an update on developments in the field. “If you look at the rechargeable battery market, lead-acid is still the biggest technology, with NiCd and NiMH declining. But it’s a huge market, estimated to be worth $65billion and growing.”
When you consider the various market segments, it’s surprising to find the starter, lighter, ignition (SLI) sector in cars remains the largest of all markets and depends almost entirely on lead-acid batteries. “And lead-acid batteries will be around for a long time,” Dr Kendrick noted, “because it’s a massive market.”
It’s no surprise that demand for batteries in portable electronics product grew significantly since the 1990s, but more surprising perhaps is that demand has slowed somewhat. “The strongest growth in the rechargeable battery sector is now coming from the automotive and industrial sectors,” Dr Kendrick pointed out.
And it’s the electric vehicle (EV) market which the Faraday Challenge has at its heart. The Advanced Propulsion Centre, in association with the Automotive Council, has set some challenging targets for those developing batteries.
“I’m not sure how realistic these targets are,” Dr Kendrick admitted. “If we are to get costs down and create 1400Wh/litre batteries, we can’t stick with what we have. New chemistries will be needed.”
One company looking to hit these targets is Nexeon, which has pioneered the development of silicon based materials for next generation Li-ion batteries.