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December 2016

Electric Vehicles: The Future is Light

Categories: Low Carbon

By James Baker, CEO, Graphene@Manchester

• The growth in both the demand and supply for electric vehicles is creating new opportunities and challenges for manufacturers.
• Heavier electric vehicles are driving demand for lightweight ‘2D’ materials, such as graphene, for use in batteries and other components.
• ‘Light-weighting’ has the potential to bring significant benefits to manufacturers.
• But more support is needed to effectively commercialise materials that already exist, and bringing together academia and industry can help in this goal.

Electric vehicle

In 2011 the UK government announced their intention to ban the sale of new conventional diesel and petrol cars and vans by 2040 in a bid to cut emissions. Since the plan was announced many large automotive manufacturers have responded, and some are now even discussing phasing out conventional internal combustion engines altogether.

For example, at the Detroit Auto Show in January 2018, Ford announced details of an £8 billion investment in electric vehicles over the next 5 years, following similar declarations by other large firms. New entrants to the market, such as Dyson, are also planning to launch competing electric vehicles, and it has been predicted that there could be up to 17 million battery-powered cars in use in the UK by 2040.

This level of growth was unexpected as recently as a few years ago and is likely being driven by a combination of factors. The Government’s policy on reducing carbon emissions has had an effect, but so too have recent private sector successes such as those achieved by Tesla in the USA. In a relatively short space of time public expectations of the quality, aesthetics and functionality of electric vehicles have improved dramatically, and the market for new models is growing. Policy-makers in the UK need to be prepared to understand and support changes across the automotive supply chain.

Powering the future

As a result of these market changes there is now a huge interest in the development of battery technologies, particularly efforts to improve the performance in terms of increased range and lower costs. This has led to significant investment on a global basis in countries such as China and the USA, with the Tesla Gigafactory being a well-known example. Through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund the UK government has also launched the Faraday Challenge Programme, which is providing investment into new battery technologies.

‘2D’ materials such as graphene have the potential to play an important role in improving the performance of batteries. 2D battery components feature strength, conduction properties and low weight characteristics that enable them to improve a range of battery specifications, from charging times to vehicle ranges. In addition, ‘light-weighting’ is also increasingly important in the strive to reduce emissions. Safe, high-performance vehicle components, that can be enhanced using multi-functional 2D materials to make them lighter, can build better vehicles and help reduce operating costs. This is a vitally important consideration given that heavier batteries are also being introduced alongside a general trend for increasing the weight of vehicles for other safety and functional reasons.

2D materials are also showing promise in other sectors including aerospace, where they have attracted the attention of entrepreneurs like Richard Branson who recently wrote a blog on the subject. To help advance this field the University of Manchester is working with the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) and stakeholders across the supply chain to develop a strategy for graphene in aerospace, which will be launched this year. This form of collaboration between industry and academia is helping to bring new materials to market.

Commercialising lightweight 2D materials

Effectively commercialising innovative materials for vehicle components is potentially a huge opportunity in a growing sector. Events, such as the Advanced Propulsion Centre’s (APC) ‘2D or not 2D’ meeting held in Manchester in January 2018, are key to bringing together users, academics and supply chain actors to discuss how these exciting technologies can be converted into real products and applications. In addition, commercialising lightweight materials has been highlighted by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership as an important opportunity for the North of England.

While such advancements are very exciting, the scale of the challenge shouldn’t be underestimated. It has traditionally taken many tens of years to bring new materials from the discovery phase into real product and commercial applications, involving supportive policies and cooperative industry engagement. Recent investments in the National Graphene Institute (NGI) at the University of Manchester, together with the Henry Royce Materials Institute, are providing exciting opportunities to develop further partnerships between industry and academia. In particular the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC), launching in 2018, hopes to accelerate the adoption of graphene and other 2D materials into products and applications in automotive, aerospace and many other markets for the benefit of UK manufacturers.

Graphene is still only a teenager (at just 14 years’ of age), but it is already starting to bring benefits and value in a number of simple products from light bulbs to sports equipment, and the pace of introduction of new applications is expected to significantly increase in the near future. Targets for a reduction in emissions have been set at a level which some believe is unachievable within the desired timescales. However by using this teenage material, and similar innovations, to build electric vehicles that feature a combination of improved battery technology and lightweight mechanical components, we can help create a whole new vision of what can be achieved in the transport sector.

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