The UK and the race to electrification

The UK and the race to electrification
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The Faraday Institution supports research, training, and analysis of electrochemical energy storage science and technology.

Founded in October 2017, the Faraday Institution (FI) is the UK’s independent institute for electrochemical energy storage science and technology, supporting research, training, and analysis. Bringing together expertise from universities and industry, the FI endeavours to make the UK the go-to place for the research, development, manufacture and production of new electrical storage technologies for both the automotive and the wider relevant sectors.

The institution funds application-inspired basic research in electrochemical energy storage. The most promising research coming out of the Institution will be developed for real-world use through the pipeline of innovation and application established through the Faraday Battery Challenge. This model will discover new materials, leading to game-changing tech breakthroughs.

The FI brings together scientists, industry partners, and government funding with a common goal. They invest in collaborative research to reduce battery cost, weight, and volume; to improve performance and reliability; to develop scalable designs; to improve our manufacturing; to develop whole-life strategies from mining to recycling to second use; and to accelerate commercialisation.

The CEO of the Faraday Institution, Neil Morris, has over 33 years of international operations, business and commercial experience in the energy sector. Morris speaks with SciTech Europa Quarterly about the Faraday Institution, and the role they play in the future of battery technologies.

Can you tell us about a bit about the Faraday Institution?

At the FI, we leverage the UK’s world-class research capabilities to lead the charge to break down the fundamental scientific barriers that hinder the commercial realisation of future battery technologies. It is our organisation’s mission to accelerate scientific breakthroughs to benefit the UK in the global race to electrification. In doing so, we will contribute to economic prosperity, the lowering of carbon emissions, improvements in air quality, the creation of new industries and the securing of high-quality jobs for the UK.

In brief, the Faraday Institution is:

  • Creating new scientific knowledge,
  • Redefining the research model,
  • Building capabilities,
  • Growing economic value for industry,
  • and, Enabling the transition to a fully electric UK.

We work with the wider Faraday Battery Challenge to meet national goals set by the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. While the government’s investment in the Faraday Battery Challenge is initially focusing on the automotive sector to meet its commitment and the growing global demand for electric vehicles, the Faraday Institution will also help advance battery development for other applications in an electrified economy.

Creating new scientific knowledge

At the FI we are driven to leave a lasting legacy. Our fundamental research programmes have been set up to deliver scientific breakthroughs, not just incremental change. Our research is cutting-edge and application-driven, focused on the technical gaps currently holding back batteries from reaching their full potential.

To solve these challenges, we pull together leading UK researchers from a broad range of scientific disciplines from some of the best universities in the world. Our UK research community is 200-strong and growing, includes 20 universities and over 30 industrial partners, and we are looking beyond the UK to establish international research collaborations. The work we conduct today will form a legacy of scientific knowledge upon which future generations of researchers will build.

After consultation with industry and academia to identify the major challenges faced in advancing battery technology, four research projects, totaling £42m, were initiated by the Faraday Institution in early 2018. Three of the current Faraday Institution projects are focused on improving lithium-ion battery chemistry, performance and recyclability. The fourth, a high risk, high reward project, seeks to develop a solid-state battery that works at scale.

Projects in four additional research areas will be announced in August 2019:

1)         Next generation Li-ion cathode materials

2)         Electrode manufacturing

3)         Next generation Na-ion batteries

4)         Alternative cell chemistries beyond Li-ion

Redefining the research model

We are fundamentally changing the model of how basic research is carried out. We bring together academics—scientists and engineers from fields as wide-ranging as electrochemistry, physics, maths, computer science and mechanical engineering—to collaborate actively with one another and our industrial partners. These actively managed, coordinated, multidisciplinary research teams work quickly and at scale.

By drawing on the UK’s strong scientific research base, infrastructure and national facilities, we leverage every capability available to the UK. The aspirations of our research teams are bold. To maximise the possibility of reaching our research goals we foster a culture that encourages pioneering thinking, tenacity, creativity and entrepreneurship.

Building capabilities

Capability building, encompassing both skills and physical infrastructure, is fundamental to the goals of the FI. We are developing a diverse pool of talent from which we hope to raise future generations of battery scientists and engineers. To do so, our programmes operate at many levels, from inspiring school children through to supporting PhD researchers and beyond.

To fully electrify the economy, the UK needs to attract more people from every section of society to relevant roles. Our outreach programmes encourage young people to consider careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). Our attraction programmes and bursary are targeted at groups under-represented in STEM—women, black and ethnic minorities, and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds—as positive actions to increase participation over time.

We fully deploy the skills and experience of established UK scientists, many of them world-leaders in energy storage research. We train our strong cohort of early career researchers, imparting skills, knowledge, experience and aspirations. In doing so we aim to develop generations of scientists who will deliver wave after wave of research breakthroughs for the UK.

We fully utilise national research infrastructure to facilitate our projects. We identify gaps in infrastructure and fund equipment and facilities empowering our researchers and giving our teams every chance of making a successful breakthrough.

Growing economic value for industry

Our initial scientific projects focus on national goals set by the UK auto industry. These technical challenges for electric vehicles are shared by the three strands of the Faraday Battery Challenge. They include, for example, a reduction in battery cost of two thirds, doubling the energy density (and electric vehicle (EV) range), and having a closed loop recycling system in place for EV batteries by 2035. We recognise that for the UK to fulfil its potential for EV and battery manufacturing the country needs to play a leading role in overcoming all these challenges simultaneously, in a commercial battery.

To help us meet our objectives, industry representatives are embedded at every level within the FI: within our research projects, expert panel (that advises on our scientific programmes), and our Board of Trustees. We monitor our research closely for commercial opportunities and set scientific discoveries on a path to commercialisation.

We seek to capture intellectual property from our projects for the benefit of UK industry and the economy. One year into our projects our research teams are already making discoveries that are necessitating talks regarding intellectual property and possible spinouts.

Enabling the transition to a fully electric UK

We provide independent, evidence-based understanding of battery science, economics, societal issues, capabilities and competitive position through commissioned studies. As a result, we inform policy makers and regulatory bodies on the energy transition.

In order to inform government and other stakeholders, in June 2019 the FI published a study produced with individuals from McKinsey Energy Insights and University of Oxford to define the UK’s electric vehicle and battery production potential to 2040 and what actions need to be taken, and by whom, to ensure that this opportunity is captured.

What would you say are the current trends in battery research?

The biggest challenge for mass market uptake of EVs is cost of the battery. Up to 70% of the costs of battery cells are materials costs. If you want to take cost out of a battery you have to focus primarily on cathode materials. There is a strong movement towards research that would enable using less expensive cathode chemistries and processes.

The current generation of EV battery, (based on NMC 111 with the metals in certain proportions) is a compromise – in terms of life, energy density and safety. But it’s too expensive because of the high cobalt content. The other strong driver away from Co is the increasing pressure that EV manufactures and automakers are coming under to demonstrate they are ethically sourcing the raw materials used in batteries.

The expectation is that battery EVs will be predominantly using NMC622 by 2021 and NMC811 by the mid 2020s (which will need less cobalt and increased amounts of nickel.) But at higher Ni contents new degradation mechanisms and side reactions not seen in 111 are observed and existing ones become faster. Understanding these mechanisms as a step towards adopting mitigation strategies so materials and chemistry can be optimised for 811, making it a viable material for commercial battery cathodes with with a lower cost of ownership, is something that the FI battery degradation project is looking to accelerate.

Another major research trend is to develop new battery chemistries striving to achieve performance (power density and energy density) that gives a driving experience aligned with expectations from driving cars with internal combustion engines. There is a huge amount of effort being expended in the UK and worldwide to develop solid state batteries, metal air batteries, lithium sulphur batteries and silicon-based electrodes. But we need to be careful to set expectations. New chemistries at proof of concept stage in the lab typically take at least 10 years to move through Technology Readiness Levels and emerge as market products.

How important is it for institutions like this one to have entrepreneurial fellowship programmes, and skills and capability building initiatives?

We foster entrepreneurship in the energy storage sector. Our Entrepreneurial Fellowships have been set up to facilitate the creation of new business opportunities that have emerged from our research programmes or closely related activities. They provide seed funding, business support and mentoring to maximise the potential of success and accelerate the spin-out process.

We need the research community to encourage entrepreneurship as one way to pull scientific breakthroughs through technology readiness levels and into improvements in commercial products. The incumbent automotive industry tends to not like changing very fast. We need entrepreneurs and start-up companies – both to engender change themselves – and to trigger a response from the established industry.

Playing the long game

We are hoping our work on building capabilities will generate wave upon wave of scientific and commercial innovations, fuelling the UK’s economy not just for the next five years, but in each of the decades to come. To compete on this basis, as the UK will have to do, everyone, government, the FBC, academics, industry, need to think beyond the political cycle, beyond industry’s planning cycles and well beyond academic timescales.

The UK must play the long game. The FI has already set in motion four accelerated research programmes addressing the thorniest issues in energy storage. This is the seed corn for the future, however by itself it is not enough. We cannot rely on today’s established academics to deliver the breakthroughs that will fuel the third, fourth and fifth wave of innovation. We need to nurture and build a steady stream of trained battery scientists and engineers – we have to build capability, and this will be one of the key legacies of the Faraday Institution.

Much of this initiative is focused on developing a pipeline of talent as we raise the next generation of battery scientists and engineers that can take the baton from their current supervisors. We’re building this talent pool at several levels through the following: undergraduate internships, fully funded PhD training programmes (including internships in industry), travel grants for early career researchers, and through continuing professional development for research associates and staff.

We are putting the training and development of the next generation of researchers at the heart of what we do. The challenge of electrifying the economy will need to draw on every resource available.

When it comes to battery research, what would you say are the biggest challenges? How are these overcome?

Lithium ion batteries have been demonstrated as being commercially viable during this phase of the early roll out of EVs. Incremental gains in performance will continue to be made to improve the materials and electrolyte used and to give a better overall system design.

However, current Li-ion batteries have limitations. The flammable solvents they contain mean that there is an inherent safety concern – though well-developed strategies are in place in commercial EVs to manage these risks. More generally there is a lot of research being undertaken around counteracting the harsh environment inside of batteries to enable them to be safer and enable the use of improved materials that give an improved performance.

The evolution of conventional lithium ion chemistries can only take you so far. In order to achieve a step change in performance radically different materials and chemistry need to be used. The challenges are around new materials discovery (an inherently unpredictable process) which may include solid electrolytes. Beyond that, solving the interface problems that could enable the realistic use of lithium anodes that may be an enabler for lithium sulphur and lithium air batteries – two attractive blue-sky technologies – is a fundamental challenge that researchers around the world (including on the Faraday Institution Solid State Battery project) are exploring.

Looking towards the future, where would you like to see the FI in five years’ time? How do you plan on achieving this?

In five years, I would expect that the Faraday Institution is well established as the place to fund electrochemical storage research in the UK, and that it has a strong international reputation for doing so. I would expect that over that timeframe we will have moved from being funded solely through the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund to have sources of funding from industry, including perhaps from companies based overseas, that see the Faraday Institution as a way to access the UK’s world class electrochemical energy storage research community in a joined-up way.

Breakthroughs in fundamental scientific understanding take time to reach commercialisation – often up to 10 years. But in five years, if intellectual property we have captured through our programmes hasn’t yet been incorporated in a commercial model of an electric vehicle it needs to be well on its way to doing so, or we as an organisation wouldn’t have been fulfilling our own and our stakeholders’ expectations.

I would like to think that in five years there is a Gigafactory (a large, high volume, battery manufacturing facility) in operation in the UK and that some of the researchers currently working on our scientific programmes are working in the many R&D jobs that will be created to support production at such facilities. Over that timescale many of the researchers that are currently being trained on Faraday Institution projects will have risen through the ranks and will themselves be supervising, training and mentoring some of the researchers of the future.

I’d also expect that our research focus will have extended well beyond the initial automotive focus that we currently have to help advance battery development for other applications in an electrified economy. With the research areas that have been defined for our round two projects, which will begin in the autumn of 2019, as well as the study for the Department of International Trade to define the market and technological needs and opportunities for battery and other energy storage technologies in developing countries and emerging economies, we have begun to make these transitions.

 

Neil Morris

Chief executive officer

The Faraday Institution

+44 (0)1235 425 300

CEO@faraday.ac.uk

Tweet @FaradayInst

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