Orral Nadjari, who founded the battery manufacturer in 2019, said that this was a change in focus from several years ago, when banks only backed projects that had battery offtake agreements with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in place. There was now more of a focus on security of supply chains, and a move for commodities houses and raw materials producers to do deals with battery cell manufacturers directly.
“In 2022, it’s equally important to secure offtake deals with miners who can give you raw materials, than only with OEMs to buy your batteries. Britishvolt has taken the slightly different approach of getting miners to our capitalization table, because raw materials have become so important,” Nadjari said.
“The product cycle plans of the OEMs were a long way down the road until government pressure pushed targets closer, at the same time as the younger generation wanted to invest sustainably,” he added. “These two pressure points combined. The OEMs expected the government pressure, but they never expected the consumer side.”
Britishvolt was building the UK’s first, full-cycle gigaplant in Northumberland, and it was planned to produce enough battery cells for more than 300,000 electric vehicles (EV) per year when at full capacity.
Clearance of the site began in September 2021, with production scheduled to start by 2024. The project will be built in four phases, to keep up with technology advancements, and will have total capacity for around 38GWh by the end of the decade.
According to Nadjari, the company has been allocating space on its capitalization table for raw materials producers. Britishvolt already has an offtake agreement with Glencore for its cobalt, alongside investment, and recently signed a deal with Indonesian firm VKTR designed to provide it with nickel sulfate.
That was not to say that the company was not working with end-consumers, however. Rather than targeting investment from OEMs, Britishvolt was instead partnering with carmaking firms such as Aston Martin and Lotus to create what Nadjari described as “joint exam questions” – in effect, posing questions and working together to solve them.
A key focus for many years has been the timing when carmakers would make direct investments into the raw materials space. Britishvolt’s twist on that narrative was for raw materials producers to invest directly into the gigaplant.
Aston Martin, for instance, wants to ensure that its electric vehicles last the competitive distance on a racetrack, Nadjari said, and to solve the problems around thermal degradation that have led to EV fires. To this end, Britishvolt planned to launch a new cell dimension in May, code-named Ultracell.
“We’re asking the questions to solve problems in order to be really competitive but, more importantly, to be sustainable. Whatever we do has to be sustainable, long term, and put the UK at the forefront of innovation and, thereafter, commercialization,” Nadjari said.
According to Nadjari, the shift in the UK automotive industry has been of “tectonic” proportions and began with the work of the country’s Auto Council, which was tasked with understanding the implications of electrification on the sector.
The result, Nadjari said, was a three-pronged ecosystem comprising the Faraday Institute, Innovate UK and the UK Battery Industrialization Centre, which act as enablers for the country to build out and retain commercialization and industrialization of its home-grown technology.
These three branches have invested roughly £650 million ($847 million) since 2015 and gave birth to the Advanced Propulsion Centre, which in turn acts as a door-opener for the UK’s Department of International Trade, aiding energy security around raw materials.
“The ecosystem demonstrates commercialization and industrialization applied to scientific research, funds it to make it real, then commercializes and industrializes it. This ecosystem… doesn’t exist elsewhere,” he added.
It was a core reason why Nadjari picked the UK for the gigaplant and England’s Midlands, the heartland of the country’s automotive industry, for Britishvolt’s headquarters and R&D facilities.
Access to the ecosystem allowed Britishvolt to work with top scientists across the nation at the expenditure of considerably less funding and time than would have been required if it had acted alone. The end-result was that Britishvolt was already demonstrating commercialization and industrialization of battery technology.
“The UK government had the foresight to implement policy changes six or seven years ago, and now it has the only gigaplant proposition in the whole of Europe that has planning permission in a race to net-zero [carbon emissions],” Nadjari said.
Describing Britishvolt as “proudly British, passionately global,” Nadjari said that his vision was to replicate the company’s model globally, creating what he described as global footprint for the UK around the world.
Another critical “exam question” on which Britishvolt was working was how to reinvent the supply chain to ensure it was sustainable as well as more efficient, and with improved energy density and longer life cycles.
According to Nadjari, it was here that digital technology such as that employed by Circulor, a provider of blockchain-based supply chain traceability and CO2 emissions tracking services, would play a key role.
“Just because an EV doesn’t have any carbon dioxide [CO2] coming out of its tailpipe doesn’t mean the entire production process is carbon-free. What we need to do is to lower the carbon in the entire battery production process, and create batteries, and EVs, with as small a carbon footprint as is possible,” Nadjari said.
The main way to do this, he said, was to use renewable energy in the manufacturing process.
“We need to reinvent the supply chain and, while doing so, put pressure on ourselves to achieve low-carbon production, which requires traceability of the CO2 embedded in the supply chain and the creation of an auditable track record through blockchain and other technologies,” he said.
“At the same time, the blockchain creation needs to be as low-carbon as is possible. Everything needs to be methodically planned out to ensure a successful net-zero future. Not all batteries are created equal,” he added.
This would help to put pressure on companies to reduce their carbon footprints in battery cathode, anode and cell manufacturing, which were the most energy-intensive parts of the process, he told Fastmarkets.
“Even if I can get my entire supply chain localized next to me, I’ll still be running a power grid roughly equivalent to a small country; that’s how energy-intensive it is. The Britishvolt proposition is centered around low carbon, sustainable-cell manufacturing, all powered on clean, renewable energy,” he said.
Instead of a standardized approach to batteries, Britishvolt was working with different types of cell chemistries, tailoring them to the application requirements of its end-users.
“The one-size-fits-all battery model days are coming to an end,” Nadjari said. “Sports cars want to go fast, and rapid-charge; others want to recharge multiple times, or simply be more affordable for mass adoption. This will be key to the EV revolution. There are two ends of the spectrum and a big overlap in the middle.”
Britishvolt was therefore planning to produce versions of both lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) as well as nickel-cobalt-manganese (NCM) batteries, depending on its clients’ needs.
“Our NCM Ultracells are 811 [80% nickel, 10% cobalt, 10% manganese], but we’re trying to reduce the cobalt content, to end up with around 85% nickel, 7.5% manganese and 7.5% cobalt,” Nadjari said.
Even with nickel-rich, high-energy-density battery cells, used for faster cars with greater travel times, cobalt will probably never be eliminated, at least not in the near term, he said.
“We’re focusing on other products with LFP for vehicles that don’t need to go fast; the consumers instead want to drive, recharge, drive, recharge, and focus on the life-cycle capabilities of the vehicle,” he added.
Britishvolt’s goal was initially to bring to market a 2170 battery, a rechargeable lithium-ion cylindrical cell defined by its 21mm x 70mm dimensions. The company was already producing these at the UK Battery Innovation Centre; Nadjari said that the results were very good and the company was already over-committed for its first go-to-market phase.
“The supply-demand imbalance for responsibly manufactured batteries is so high, and demand for truly low-carbon cells will continue to grow,” Nadjari said.
The plan was to then develop a 4680 cell in the next six months, a next-generation battery measuring 46mm in diameter and 80mm in length that produces significantly more power with a much higher energy capacity, at a much lower cost.
“If you want to solve the problem of energy transition or global warming, you have to start today,” Nadjari said. “If you wait for the right product or technology, then you’ll be twiddling your thumbs for the next five to ten years – and then it’s too late. The problem is in front of us, today.”
The company was in the process of deciding on its anode supplier, but Nadjari hinted that Britishvolt was looking to vertically integrate it, adding: “We need to reinvent the supply chain – we need to localize production where we can.”
This was something that could be done at the company’s gigaplant, itself regenerated from a former coal store for the Blyth Power Station, with an abundant supply of adjacent renewable energy at a wholesale price.
“We can now compete with anode facilities in Asia where electricity is cheaper due to coal, because we’ve found a way to reinvent ourselves,” Nadjari said.
In the future, Nadjari said that the company intended to branch off into new areas: static energy storage and charging infrastructure were two obvious targets, each integrally linked.
“In an ideal world,” he added, “we want to do everything because the energy transition is a large area, but you have to do things step by step. The Blyth facility is job number one, and once that’s up and running and we see it working, we’ll add new subsidiaries and secure new partners.”
Solid state batteries were also part of the company’s product development portfolio.
“We know the ecosystem is so strong that we’ll end up with better batteries very quickly as we advance our work,” Nadjari told Fastmarkets.
Earlier this year, Britishvolt established British Loop in a joint venture with Glencore at the Switzerland-based marketer-miner’s Britannia Refined Metals site in the UK.
Once complete, the plant will be the pair’s first battery recycling facility in the UK, with expected processing capacity for at least 10,000 tonnes per year of lithium-ion batteries, including but not limited to valuable battery manufacturing scrap, portable electronics batteries, and full EV packs.
The facility, which will process all of Britishvolt’s valuable battery manufacturing scrap from its gigaplant, was expected to be operational by mid-2023 with the long-term aim of being 100%-powered by renewable energy.
“If you don’t have a recycling strategy, you are not in this for the long haul,” Nadjari said. “Recycling is an imperative for a sustainable future. The status quo is no longer sustainable.”
In his view, recycling was a journey containing several other “exam questions,” including those related to shredding processes and the extraction of critical materials from black mass – the combined materiasl from end-of-life batteries. The key, he said, was to get nickel, manganese, cobalt and lithium out of spent batteries, with the latter being the holy grail of recycling.
“For two decades, Glencore has been extracting cobalt from black mass. British Loop is looking at creating British intellectual property to extract the raw materials from end-of-life products, including EV and consumer electronics,” Nadjari said.
While the real critical mass of recycling batteries would not come for perhaps another decade, when EV batteries reach the end of their life cycles, Britishvolt was opting to build the project in stages, so it was ready to meet future demand.
For Nadjari, there was another so-called “exam question” related to recycling: currently, OEMs set aside money to finance their responsibility for used battery packs, which in turn often end up in junkyards, abandoned at end-of-life by consumers.
“Legally, the OEM is responsible and has to pay to get the battery back, but the junkyard owner now wants more for it than the car company has set aside. We need to reinvent again, and together set up new frameworks to facilitate a circular economy,” Nadjari said.
“The Glencore-Britishvolt proposition is so brilliant because the initial cell supply agreement will say, ‘Let me solve a problem for you – I’ll take responsibility for the battery.’ We want to have end-of-life responsibility for the cobalt, nickel and other raw materials in batteries, and can fix a problem for OEMs at the same time,” he told Fastmarkets.
“It’ll take time to create that circle,” he added, “and we need [there to be] some policy changes to get there.”