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UK Chemicals sector leverages Nobel Prize winning technology to enable net zero ambitions

Posted on 06/11/2019

Achieving net zero by 2050 will require a mix of technologies, like biofuels, carbon capture & storage. How can the Li-ion battery research help?

Congratulations to John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham & Akiro Yoshino for being awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their contributions to the development of lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries.

M. Stanley Whittingham’s research in the 1970s was an important step on the journey to commercialisation of the rechargeable Li-ion battery, having developed a rechargeable battery that used a lithium-metal anode and a titanium disulfide cathode.

In the early 1980s John B. Goodenough identified that cathodes made from layered metal oxides were capable of storing lithium ions, improving the amount of energy that could be stored. These cathode materials are still used today.

Akira Yoshino’s research into new anode materials, based on graphite, significantly improved the safety of the battery by removing the need to use metallic lithium. This resulted in the development of the first commercial lithium-ion batteries which were released in 1991.

The introduction of the rechargeable Li-ion battery meant smaller, lighter and more powerful devices could be designed, revolutionising the way we listen to music, communicate and work.

How does this Li-ion battery research relate to the net zero target?

In June this year the UK Government committed to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. An ambitious target that will require action from government, industry and consumers. With clean growth being one of the Grand Challenges set out in the Industrial Strategy, that action has already started with significant investment in clean technologies.

Achieving net zero by 2050 will require a mix of technologies, including biofuels and carbon capture and storage, but batteries will play a significant role as well. The transport sector will be the first to adopt battery technology in a big way, particularly for passenger vehicles where it is estimated that 800,000 electric vehicles will be manufactured in the UK alone by 2027.

So, how are we going to seize this opportunity and what could it mean for the chemical sector?

The UK Government recognises this opportunity having invested £274 million in the development of batteries for automotive applications through the Faraday Battery Challenge. This programme is playing an important role in supporting UK chemical companies to capitalise on this opportunity, providing a mechanism to work together with potential future customers in the automotive sector. 35 of the 62 collaborative innovation projects funded through Faraday involve chemical companies who are investing over £13 million in improving the battery chemistry of current Li-ion and other battery chemistries.

The recent report from APC and Innovate UK – supported by KTN – highlights that the majority of the value within a battery pack is in the materials and chemicals used to make the cathode, anode and electrolyte. This means the chemical supply chain opportunity for the UK market alone is estimated at £4.8 billion a year by 2030. This report has also identified the UK already has a strong capability in this supply chain, with capacity for growth.

KTN has been supporting initiatives to help bring the UK chemical and automotive sectors together, in order to share knowledge of industry trends and drivers. One of the key areas identified for further collaboration between the Chemical and Automotive sectors is how to recycle and reuse batteries.

As the prevalence of electric vehicles increases the number of batteries reaching the end of their life will also increase. An important aspect of the future clean growth economy will be the reuse and recycling of products in circulation. This will offer additional opportunities within the battery supply chain, with options for second life and recovery of materials being explored by projects across the UK.

What are the opportunities beyond the passenger vehicle market?

The performance expectations of a battery will be different depending on its application; passenger vehicles will have different performance demands when compared to marine, aviation or stationary uses. KTN will continue working with industry to understand these cross-sector challenges and opportunities.

As the UK moves towards a net zero target, we will need to rapidly develop and deploy a range of technologies, including sustainable fuels for aviation, hydrogen as an energy vector and carbon capture and storage, but we will continue to rely on battery technologies for mobility and stationary energy.

John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham & Akiro Yoshino couldn’t have known the greener future their discoveries would bring. What other discoveries do you think will enable the road to net-zero?

To find out more, contact Sheena Hindocha and Peter Clark.