How would a Gigafactory contribute to the UK’s green recovery?

Reports have emerged that the UK is set to unveil funds for a national battery production centre in the UK, but efforts may still be required to ensure that battery production is aligned to the circular economy.

How would a Gigafactory contribute to the UK’s green recovery?

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As reported in the Guardian, the Government “is committed to securing investment in gigafactories in the UK” and that the industry needs “a robust battery supply chain to realise our ambitions of making the electric vehicles of the future here in the UK”.

It is believed that a gigafactory could be included as part of the £1bn automotive transformation fund, however, details of funding allocations are yet to emerge. However, with the Government expected to unveil a 10-point plan to accelerate efforts towards net-zero, transport is expected to feature heavily in new policy introductions.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to move the ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars forward to 2030, as part of a raft of new policy announcements to drive the UK towards its net-zero target.

Moving the phase-out date forward will see requirements and demand for electric vehicle (EV) batteries surge, and the UK is attempting to promote national supply chains, rather than outsourcing more of its automotive sector to China, South Korea and Japan.

With many UK automakers pledging to switch to all-electric or hybrid products over the coming years, national battery production will help keep the UK transport market competitive.

Already, a 30 GWh Gigafactory has been proposed by manufacturer Britishvolt. The firm confirmed this summer that it has shortlisted two potential sites for the facility, both located in Wales. Its preferred plot is in Bro Tathan, South Wales. Britishvolt has said it will require 80 hectares of land for the facility, given that it wishes to co-locate it with a new solar farm.

If £1.2bn financing is secured and planning permission granted in the expected timeframe, the first phase of the facility is expected to become fully operational in late 2023. Britishvolt estimates that this would create 3,500 jobs for local residents, and a further 10,000 to 15,000 roles in the wider supply chain.

Batteries produced at the Gigafactory will range from small devices for electric cars, to larger arrays for energy storage by businesses.

The announcement from Britishvolt comes amid a backdrop of reports that Tesla is evaluating a site 635-acre site in Somerset for its next Gigafactory. Tesla and the Department for International Trade (DIT) have remained quiet on the specifics of the plan.

Circular economy concerns

According to Carlton Cummings co-founder of Aceleron a circular economy battery company based in Birmingham, gigafactories would still need government support to ensure that EV batteries are part of a closed-loop system.

“We welcome the news of a gigafactory in the UK,” Cummings said. “But, we would also like to see a concerted effort from the Government to introduce more circularity to the EV sector. EVs alone are estimated to produce 11 million tonnes of battery waste alone by 2040, enough to fill Wembley Stadium almost 20 times.

“With the right strategy for repurposing and reuse this doesn’t have to be the scenario. We can design out battery waste while creating a booming service employment market to drive our green recovery.”

The development and industrialisation of recycling technologies for end-of-life EV batteries is currently being outpaced by a boom of EV uptake, paving the way for a “huge waste management problem” in decades to come. That is according to research led by a team of experts at the University of Birmingham, which calculated that the one million EVs sold in the UK in 2017 alone will generate 250,000 tonnes of battery waste when they reach the end of their lives – likely in the early-to-mid-2030s.

Experts believe there is not enough cobalt in the world to replace every working petrol or diesel vehicle on the roads with fully electric alternatives. Moreover, batteries are typically warrantied for less than 15 years and considered hard to recycle, even though they contain high proportions of recyclable and high-value metals. The good news is that the likes of BMWNissan and Formula E are beginning to invest heavily in more circular battery products and systems, and that startups in this space are continuing to innovate.

A new multi-million-pound industrialisation centre to test recyclable and innovative battery systems is ready to become operational in Coventry. The £130m UK Battery Industrialisation Centre (UKBIC) is one of the key components of the Faraday Battery Challenge, which is funded through the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s (BEIS) Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.

The Centre will be a first of its kind development facility in Coventry to help develop and fast track batteries that are recyclable, cost-effective and high performance.

Matt Mace

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