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INTERVIEW: Collaboration key to success of UK EV business: Britishvolt

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New York — Britishvolt Chief Strategy Officer Isobel Sheldon said that going forward collaboration will be essential for success in the electric vehicle and broader battery sectors, as the company moves ahead with plans to build the UK's first EV gigafactory.

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"Know-how is the most important thing [for success in the industry]," Sheldon told S&P Global Platts in an interview.

Sheldon has nearly 20 years of experience in the space, ranging from roles at Johnson Matthey, Cummings and the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre, as well as previously running her own successful battery-focused business.

"You have to be very holistic if you want to do anything in the battery space, you have to collaborate," the chief strategy officer said. "I have access to companies [via deeply embedded relationships] ... trust is so important [along with] honesty and transparency."

On June 12, Britishvolt said it is eying two possible sites for its first UK 30+ GWh gigafactory, with south Wales in pole position. The battery industry is forecast to be worth GBP5 billion ($6.3 billion)) domestically by 2025, and demand for lithium ion cells across a number of industries, including vehicle electrification, is already increasing dramatically.

Sheldon said that Britishvolt will employ a "technology first approach" looking for ways of streamlining manufacturing processes and reduce costs, in order to create a truly sustainable local supply chain.

"Britishvolt is an EV story, an environmental story and a UK PLC story," she added.

Cell manufacturing essential

Like others, Sheldon said battery cell manufacturing is essential for the survival of the UK auto sector, an industry that has been battered firstly by Brexit and then by the coronavirus pandemic.

The UK auto industry has called for a dedicated restart package to help protect jobs, citing a survey showing that up to one in six jobs in the sector are at risk of redundancy.

"More than 6,000 UK automotive job cuts have been announced in June, a result of global lockdowns, closed markets and shuttered plants," the Society of Motor Manufacturer and Traders said June 23.

In a previous interview with Platts Britishvolt founder and CEO Orral Nadjari said that Europe, and particularly the UK, need to secure an EV battery supply chain in order to maintain a competitive edge in the sector.

Sheldon agreed that both Brexit and the pandemic offer favorable opportunities to the development and rollout of Britishvolt.

"Local supply chains are as important to business as they are to the environment," said Sheldon.

She detailed how materials such as the cathode (high nickel-based cathode materials), a significant part of next generation EV batteries, needs to be protected from moisture and as such long transit time from hot climates could be detrimental to the product before it is even placed into a battery cell.

As such, local refining is essential. One big concern for consumers us the range of an EV, the better the material is processed and constructed the better the longevity of the battery pack will be.

Another key factor on the design process is data, to understand how to improve battery technology. According to Sheldon what is more important than raw data is how knowledge is extracted from it.

"Three things are important [in the battery business]. Data, for improved performance, intellectual property and experience. I have seen a lot of people come and go in the industry," she said.

Sheldon explained that she would be leveraging her industry connections to create a unique business proposition at, one that offers a larger degree of flexibility around design.

She also said that she has a firm belief that the UK government is firmly committed to supporting businesses such as Britishvolt for the greater good of the industry.

Affordable EVs for everyone

Platts Analytics forecasts 2020 EV sales at 1.97 million units, down 11% on the year. By 2040, it expects sales of 46.7 million EVs. Even prior to the pandemic, Platts Analytics expected EV sales in 2020 to decline slightly year on year, almost entirely on account of a broader slowdown in China.

The battery market has begun to focus on how to recycle raw materials such as lithium as a source of raw materials going forward, with the EV transition gathering pace and all major automakers now fully committed to the technology.

Earlier this month European battery cell maker Northvolt (no relation to Britishvolt) and aluminum producer Norsk Hydro initiated a joint venture, Hydro Volt, for the recycling of battery materials and aluminum for the Norwegian EV market.

Sheldon agreed that recycling is an "incredibly important" part of the story.

"A closed loop supply chain would be amazing. Are we there yet, no. Are we working towards it, yes," she said.

The biggest threat to the success of sustainable future could be the rollback of emissions standards, according to Sheldon. "Governments have got to stick to their guns on emission standards...earth is the only place where we know life exists, we need to protect that."

A bugbear on the demand side of the story is price points for EVs, and affordability, and Sheldon didn't shy away from the matter.

"I am fortunate enough to be able to afford to drive an EV. I want to be part of the story driving down the costs of owing an EV, so everyone can afford one," she said.