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How Cambridge is fuelling electric vehicles in run-in to 2030

The electric car of the future is all about data
The electric car of the future is all about data

For some, it is too little too late, while for others, it is too much too soon.

The government has declared that the era of the internal com`bustion engine (ICE) will end on December 31, 2029, after which date all petrol and diesel new car sales in the UK will be banned.

At Cambridge Consultants, Nathan Wrench, commercial director, head of sustainability innovation, would have preferred an earlier date.

“2023 would have really shaken things up,” he says. “As it stands, because there are so many ICE cars out on the roads it’ll take 20 years before we get away from the sort of cars we are currently driving on the roads. Probably no one with any sense will buy an ICE car after 2028. They’ll go out of fashion, and that’s probably what the politicians are hoping for.”

Nathan believes the ICE ban is actually the trigger for an even more profound change – the abandonment of the personalised car in favour of a mix of shared cars, busways, trains, electric bikes, and even electric scooters.

“Simply exchanging ICE cars for BEVs [battery electric vehicles] is still to rely on an inefficient, wasteful system that costs vast sums in infrastructure, distorts the built environment and kills nearly 2,000 people a year in the UK alone,” he says. “The bicycle is the future of transport, and the e-bike is the future of the bicycle.

“This sounds flippant and irritates a vocal minority of the population, but micromobility and active travel and the electrification of mass transport are equally as important as the headline-grabbing car-centric policy.

“It’s about moving 10kg of metal around on an ebike instead of two tonnes of metal for a car.”

Nathan Wrench, head of sustainability innovation at Cambridge Consultants. Picture: Keith Heppell
Nathan Wrench, head of sustainability innovation at Cambridge Consultants. Picture: Keith Heppell

There is also a knock-on effect on the supply chain – a Tesla has 19 moving components, an ICE car has several hundred. But one door closes, and another one opens, as they say – though in this case many doors will open, the most obvious being for electric battery power.

“This is a new industrial revolution and it has to happen faster than the original one,” says Nathan , “and we’re experiencing that across the entire supply chain.

“OEMs will be fine but if you’re a Tier 2 manufacturer, making fuel gauges or petrol tanks... how are you going to survive? They’ll have to pivot.

“There’s a human angle too. This kind of change does bring uncertainty, and therefore fear – and there’s plenty of that around at the moment. We need to focus on the opportunities here – Elon Musk has done wonders for the environment by himself, and he’s richer than any oil man alive.”

There may be fewer moving parts, but the demand for rare metals is going to increase. Is that good for the environment?

“Rare metals are an interesting topic,”says Nathan. “Small batteries are better than large, of course – so the e-bike wins again.

A more familiar sight in years to come
A more familiar sight in years to come

“The fossil fuel industry has been successful in equating battery manufacture with environmental impact – cobalt equals child labour, for instance. I believe this is gas-lighting pure and simple. Australian cobalt doesn’t rely on child labour. Well-run systems allow for good labour conditions under stable governments: let’s not rely on the fossil fuel industry for a moral compass.”

That there is no child labour in Australia is not a very high bar for environmental stewardship, and it should be noted that, while rare-earth metal prices may be stable, their use presents environmental concerns because the ores that rare-earths are extracted from are often laced with radioactive materials such as thorium. Separating the materials requires huge amounts of carcinogenic compounds like sulphate, ammonia and hydrochloric acid. Processing 1 tonne of rare-earths can produce up to 2,000 tonnes of toxic waste.

Vehicle manufacturers are aware of these issues and many have made statements about either the elimination or reduction of rare-earths in their electric motors. Renault’s Zoe has utilized a wound rotor configuration to replace magnets with copper windings. Bentley has eliminated magnets or copper in their rotors. BMW’s new fifth-generation drivetrain has also ditched rare-earths and Audi has opted for an aluminum rotor induction motor for the e-tron.

Nathan is keen to suggest that climate change should be the front-and-centre issue in all political and economic activity.

“It’s rather as if ‘climate’ is being treated as one more department to spend money on – so it’s balanced against the competing claims of health, transport, defence, education, welfare. It would be better to view climate change as the prism through which all other policies should be viewed.”

Dr Charlie Wartnaby, chief engineer, IDIADA Automotive Technology UK. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Charlie Wartnaby, chief engineer, IDIADA Automotive Technology UK. Picture: Keith Heppell

In Cambridge, work on electric battery technology, self-driving cars and navigation systems continues. There is a sense of quiet optimism among many, including Charlie Wartnaby, chief engineer at global engineering company IDIADA Automotive Technology UK - the UK base is in Milton.

The ban on petrol and diesel cars from 2030 does not exclude hybrids, so long as they can operate for ‘substantial’ distances on pure electric power. Such hybrids will get a stay of execution until 2035 – though what constitutes ‘substantial’ has yet to be defined. After 2040 sales of hybrid vehicles will be banned too.

“Of course the 2030 date can only spur electric drivetrain development further. A lot of funding has been announced to develop the electric powertrain supply chain and charging infrastructure – the Automotive Transformation Fund – and also, via the Faraday Battery Challenge, R&D funding for electric vehicle battery work.

“Business-wise, IDIADA in the UK has been very busy: we do not seem to have taken a hit from the pandemic.

“We are planning to build a major new facility near Oxford called CAVWAY, a proving ground for connected and autonomous vehicles, but also for ADAS testing and other vehicle work requiring a track.”

Meanwhile, at Sawston-based Echion Technologies, CEO Jean de La Verpilliere is developing superfast charging Li-ion battery materials. In August, it launched its latest pouch cell product, which charges in six minutes.

He said: “The government ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars in the UK after 2030 is good news for the UK battery industry. The ball is now in our court to be ready and competitive by then so that consumers get all the benefits of the transition without paying more or having a degraded user experience.

“I strongly believe this will be achieved via the use of cutting-edge technology, which UK companies like Echion are developing and commercialising. I hope that the government and UK financial system will fund and invest in the deep R&D which is needed to get us there.

“I also note that the door was left open to the sale of hybrids, which is probably a wise precaution.

Jean de La Verpilliere, CEO of Echion Technologies, with the battery pouch. Picture: Keith Heppell
Jean de La Verpilliere, CEO of Echion Technologies, with the battery pouch. Picture: Keith Heppell

“The speculation on the price of lithium and other rare metals is not an issue: the production capacities for all key battery materials are already ramped up world-wide and I do not anticipate a problem on the supply side. On the contrary, having more demand means that economies of scale can be made when manufacturing the cells and batteries, leading to a lower price.

“For Echion, progress has been really good recently on the business development side. Following successful demonstration of our 3 Ah pouch cell in August we have embarked into a series of customer trials and we are starting to get some really feedback. We will announce a partnership with a major industry player in the next few weeks.”

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