Currently reading: From the boardroom: Britishvolt aims for performance EV market
Nascent battery maker's boss explains why it will offer two different battery chemistries

Britishvolt will target performance car makers as well as commercial vehicle providers with two different battery chemistries from its site in Blyth, it has said.

The company’s ambitious plan to become Britain’s biggest automotive battery provider was given a significant boost after it attracted £1.7 billion of mostly private-equity funding to help fund construction of the giant plant, which is now on course to start production in 2024.

It so far hasn’t revealed exactly who its customers will be in the sports/performance and commercial spaces, but Lotus is reportedly one in the former camp investigating a partnership, while the Financial Times says potential partners include electric truck start-up Tevva, Lion Electric (a Canadian electric bus and truck maker, possibly looking to source from Britishvolt’s planned Canadian plant) and Canadian aircraft manufacturer Bombardier.

Nothing has yet been formalised, but Britishvolt has 29 “active engagements” with specialist customers, Graham Hoare, president of global operations and former head of Ford of Britain, told Autocar.

“We're exploring relationships with mainstream companies as well, but the bulk of efforts are in those two spaces,” he said.

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Clearly Britishvolt is going to need volume customers to reach its claimed capacity goal of 48GWh by 2028, which would equate to 480,000 battery packs at 100KWh each. Even the first-phase plan of 11GHw is 110,000 vehicles, which is going to be tough when focusing on start-up companies or niche sports car makers.

“Those really premium brand volumes aren’t significant, but added together they're meaningful volume,” Hoare said.

Britishvolt is also looking beyond that. “The sports business is actually remarkably broad,” said Hoare, referencing BMW’s M Sport and Mercedes' AMG sub-brands as examples of where companies might want to fit a more expensive but more energy-dense and higher-performance battery instead of a cheaper mainstream version, much in the way that today an M car will have a straight six in place of a four-cylinder engine. “We offer something very differentiating."

The two battery types are both classed as lithium ion but are very different in composition. The sports car battery chemistry is NMC, standing for nickel, manganese and cobalt – a reference to the battery’s cathode material and by far the most expensive element. Britishvolt plans to use the 811 variant, named for being eight parts nickel, one part cobalt and one part manganese. High-nickel variants give longer range but are more expensive.

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For commercial customers, Britishvolt will make LFP batteries (for lithium iron phosphate). These use cheaper cathode materials and are lower-maintenance, but the cost/ease trade-off is reduced energy density, meaning you lose range or need bigger packs.

Tesla uses LFP for some standard-range Model 3s and it’s popular in China for both cars and commercials, but Britishvolt is targeting just the CV side.

“We think for commercial vehicles, it’s extremely relevant," said Hoare. "It’s isolated from cost exposures from cobalt and nickel and it’s more stable on pricing."

Britishvolt works with the UK’s government-funded Faraday Institute on modelling new battery chemistries, but it doesn’t own the rights to those so far.

“Some of the NMC formulations are sourced from cathode manufacturers,” Hoare said. “What we do is we put all the other ingredients together, about 15 parts.”

He describes it as making a cake: “You can make an awful one, but if you know what you’re doing, you can get onto the Great British Bake Off.”

Britishvolt also needs to source raw materials. One element is already locked in: cobalt. In August, it reached an agreement with mining firm Glencore for a long-term supply of the key cathode material. Much cobalt is mined in horrible conditions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but Britishvolt described Glencore’s as “ethically produced and low-carbon”.

The company reckons its batteries will be some of the most low-carbon available, thanks to a promise to only use 100% “green” electricity from local windfarms and an interconnector from Norway, where hydroelectric power generation is prevalent.

This has become a key factor as the European Union demands greater transparency into the production process of batteries sold within its region. EV batteries will require a “carbon footprint declaration” from July 2024; then it will get tougher with a “carbon intensity performance class label” from 1 January 2026; and then a maximum carbon footprint threshold will come in from July 2027.

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Britishvolt will have a tough rival down the road in the form of Envision, which will build a battery plant next to the Nissan Sunderland factory with a promised output of 11GWh from 2024 and eventually rising to 38GWh.

This factory will supply batteries for Nissan’s planned crossover replacement for the Leaf, due in 2024, but Envision has said that it's also looking for other customers in the UK.

The fourth phase of Britishvolt’s plan is to build solid-state batteries – considered the holy grail because the solid cathode material makes them safer, more energy-dense and faster to charge. But that won't come until 2028. First, it needs customers to approve the ‘A samples’ of its standard cells (effectively prototypes), persuade them to buy them and start producing batteries.

The £1.7bn goes a long way to ensuring that will happen.

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Strider 24 January 2022

Terrific article, Nick. Even the FT hasn't revealed how thin BV's IP is. I've always suspected they will start as an integrator. Some fascinating phrases in here, like it working with the Faraday Institute but doesn't own any rights 'so far'. Surely, if it was going to, that would be baked into the contract? And 29 'active engagements' - rightly put in speach marks by yourself. Having worked in automotive innovation IR and coms for 30 years, I'm very familiar with how little 'active engagement' can mean when you are desperate to show investors, government and prospects that your business is on plan.

It would be interesting to ask Graham Hoare about their strategy for Rules of Origin, which must be both a challenge and an opportunity. Buying-in high-value components must help them flex to mach the requirements of customers here and in Europe. 

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