British manufacturers believe the UK could become a significant exporter of solid-state batteries that could pave the way for lighter, longer-range electric cars within a decade, as a group of companies teamed up to develop prototypes.
The FTSE 100 chemicals company Johnson Matthey, the battery startup Britishvolt, which is backed by Glencore, and Oxford University are among the seven institutions that have signed a memorandum of understanding promising to work together on the technology.
Solid-state batteries are considered by many analysts to be the most likely technology to offer significant improvements in range and charging times for electric vehicles. Almost all electric vehicles in production use variations on lithium ion batteries.
“It’s an export opportunity for UK plc,” said Maurits van Tol, Johnson Matthey’s chief technology officer. “There’s such a strong need for batteries that I’m not afraid of there being one winner and one loser. There is space for many players and there is space for the many applications that we need to electrify.”
He said the consortium was able to “cover the value chain” from materials through to final battery manufacture. That could allow it to compete with other large companies racing to commercialise the technology, such as Toyota and Quantumscape, a US startup backed by Germany’s Volkswagen.
“Speed is of the essence,” he said. “If you bundle resources, they typically go a lot quicker. You don’t have any individual company developing any individual solution.”
The British consortium has been put together by the Faraday Institution, a government-backed organisation focused on bringing the UK’s academic battery research to market. The other partners in the consortium will be the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre, which provides facilities for early-stage battery prototype production, the manufacturing equipment company Emerson & Renwick, and the University of Warwick.
Prof Pam Thomas, the chief executive of the Faraday Institution, said the “unique consortium” was part of its efforts to “commercialise breakthrough science emerging from our research programmes to maximise UK economic value”.
The efforts to kickstart a UK solid-state industry are part of an attempt to avoid a repeat of the experience with lithium ion batteries, which were invented at Oxford University in the 1970s but commercialised by Japan’s Sony.
The automotive lithium ion battery industry is now dominated by large Asian companies such as Japan’s Panasonic, China’s BYD and CATL, and Korea’s LG and Samsung. Europe and the US are attempting to catch up, while in the UK Britishvolt and Nissan have outlined plans to build so-called gigafactories – large battery factories – to serve British automotive plants.
Solid-state batteries would improve on the existing technology by swapping a liquid electrolyte, in which lithium ions carry an electric current, for a solid ceramic material. That could raise the batteries’ energy density and make them lighter and smaller. However, while some prototypes exist, companies have struggled to commercialise a durable solid-state battery.
Allan Patterson, the chief technical officer of Britishvolt, which is building its plant in Blyth, in north-east England, said using a solid electrolyte remained the holy grail for battery developers, potentially delivering energy density that could be 70% higher than batteries in production.
“There’s still some added value that we can make from lithium ion, but that only gets us so far,” he said. “Solid state is the next natural attractive area that we need to drive forward. We need to be putting the UK in a competitive position with a homegrown, high-performance solution.” The UK’s academic battery research was “absolutely world leading”, he said.
Faraday expects solid-state batteries to account for 7% of the global consumer electronics battery market and 4% of electric car batteries within a decade.