UK's billion pound battery bet should look to solid state cells

July 02, 2021 // By Nick Flaherty
£1bn battery gigafactory for UK
Envision AESC is planning to expand its battery plant in Sunderland, UK to create a gigafactory for Nissan as part of a billion pound project

Nissan's EV36Zero is a £1bn (€1.17bn) project for electric vehicles based around a new 9GWh battery gigafactory

The plant, to be built by Envision AESC, is an initial £450m investment for a 9GWh capacity but could see a total of £1.8bn (€2bn) investment. Envision already owns and operates Europe’s first battery plant, established alongside the Nissan plant in Sunderland in 2012 for the localization of Nissan LEAF battery production. This has been the subject of intense speculation as the basis of battery supply in the UK. The UK motor industry has called for the government to commit to supporting 60GWh of capacity per year, which would see six such plants around the UK.

This is one reason why startup BritishVolt moved its own gigafactory plans from South Wales to nearby Blyth with ambitious plans for a 30GWh capacity. It is currently raising investment for the project. Earlier this month BritishVolt also signed an initial deal with Entek Membranes of the US for the possible supply of coated lithium battery separators from a nearby factory. The agreement will see Entek invest in its UK production sites and expand capacity to meet demand at the current manufacturing site in Killingworth, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  

However there is already a battery plant in Sunderland, with Hyperdrive opening the UK’s largest independent battery pack facility in Sunderland in 2019, manufacturing 30,000 batteries per year for customers, including JCB’s all-electric mini excavator.

The driver for the development of home-grown plants is the Advanced Propulsion Centre, which has set up a pilot cell and module manufacturing line has is directing a £1bn budget for battery development. 

“This announcement cements Nissan’s long-standing commitment to the UK automotive sector. From the Bluebird over 35-years ago, through to the ground-breaking fully-electric Leaf, it secures continued collaboration well into the future," said Ian Constance, CEO of the APC. 

“It sends a strong signal that the UK is globally competitive and offers the right conditions for manufacturers wanting to accelerate the electric vehicle transition to net-zero – an important message if we are to meet the forecast 90GWh of UK battery demand by 2030.  It’s great news for Sunderland and those involved in Nissan manufacturing but it also recognises that our entire UK ecosystem can sustain the significant pipeline of automotive demand for low-carbon technology," he said.

“The APC has provided funding to a number of projects involving Nissan, developing EV technology that is on our roads today and I am proud to work for an organisation that champions the UK’s globally recognised expertise and capability in clean automotive innovation.”

However the question is whether the focus should be on lithium ion battery plants. By the time this plant and other come on-line to support production of new ranges of electric vehicles, the technology will be moving onto solid state batteries, with longer range, lighter weight and better safety. The APC has a number of projects on solid state battery technology, and if manufacturers are to be encouraged to set up, it is those focussed on solid state batteries such as Solid Power that should be focus for long term sustainability.

The £1bn Automotive Transformation Fund builds on the significant research and development base supported through the APC since 2013. Announced by the Government in July 2020, this is the final stage for industrialisation at scale, supporting investment in the key technology areas of batteries, fuel cells, motors, drives and power electronics. There have already been 53 feasibility studies funded looking into the upscaling in these key areas.

The Nissan deal is the first ATF support for capital investment and follows £9.5m (of a total £19m project) in 2016 to Nissan an partners to develop the production line for a 40kWh vehicle battery used in the latest Leaf EV.

Williams Advanced Engineering and Unipart Manufacturing Group announce a joint-venture, Hyperbat, which aims to be the UK’s largest independent battery manufacturer, backed by APC in 2018, and Hyperbat launches its first facility in Coventry, aiming to produce 10,000 battery packs per year for several premium automotive brands.

The Envision plant will also take batteries at the end of their life in Nissan vehicles and repurpose them for second life applications such as the 1MW energy storage system at the site. It will have its own microgrid for renewable energy supply from local wind farms and solar farms.

“Growth in demand could bring future investment of up to £1.8bn, additional capacity of 25GWh and 4,500 jobs by 2030. This will put the North East at the heart of a new EV hub in the UK, collaborating on R&D around the whole battery lifecycle, from storage, to second life use, V2G smart charging and closed loop recycling,” said Lei Zhang, founder and Chief Executive Officer of Envision Group

“The Envision Group mission is to be the net zero technology partner of choice for global enterprises, governments, and cities. We are therefore delighted to be a part of EV36Zero with Nissan and Sunderland City Council. As part of this, Envision AESC will invest £450m in a new, cutting-edge, low-carbon gigafactory in Sunderland creating 700 new jobs,” said Zhang. “This commitment builds on our long-term partnership with Nissan to achieve our global ambition to make high performance, longer range batteries for EVs affordable and accessible for millions more motorists.”

Envision will also use machine learning in its manufacturing systems to use AIoT systems to monitor and optimize energy consumption, manufacturing and maintenance at the plant. This will enable rapid increases in production and provide batteries to power up to 100,000 Nissan electric vehicles a year says the company.

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The formal planning process is about to begin for the battery gigafactory. The interconnected projects will create 900 jobs at Nissan and 750 at Envision, with another 5000 in UK supply base. The microgrid could stimulate up to ten solar farms generating 132MW with a direct connection to the plant, boosting demand for solar panels and power inverters.

Reports have the UK government backing the whole project with around £100m.

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