The tech underpinning electrification


Electric planes, trains and automobiles: UK Research & Innovation shows the electric future of transport in cities

We are on the cusp of an electric revolution which will permanently change the ways in which we move people, goods and services around our country. The government has ambitions to make the UK a global leader in the manufacture of technologies which underpin this electrification. Will Drury, Challenge Director of UK Research & Innovation’s ‘Driving the Electric Revolution’ programme, discusses how the government intends to realise this ambition, as well as its potential impact on our roads.

The UK’s road and rail network could dramatically reduce carbon emissions and other pollutants. Congestion could be reduced through higher density use of road space enabled by automated vehicles, transport services and personal mobility. By investing in electrification now, mobility could be available when, where and – crucially – how we want it. Our aim is to catalyse the UK’s ability to deliver the next generation of electric vehicles, whether on land, sea or air, as well as industrial machines and energy generation systems that are key to the UK’s Net Zero climate change reducing ambitions.

To this end, we launched the ‘Driving the Electric Revolution’ challenge in August 2019, funded by £80 million from the government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). The funds, awarded to winning projects, will support the work being completed in the UK, appealing to trade industries overseas and securing our position as a global research, development and manufacturing leader in the electric revolution. The central purpose of the challenge is to aid the UK’s move towards electrification by investing in the core technologies which support it: power electronics, electric machines and drives (PEMD). It also seeks to accelerate the journey into the growth of PEMD supply chain in the UK.

PEMD are essential to creating greener technologies and PEMD supply chains are vital for keeping and attracting investment across sectors as they move towards a greener electric future. PEMD employs more than one million people in the UK in 45,000 businesses across all industries and currently generates revenue of around £100 billion a year, so investment is crucial to keeping and creating jobs here.

In the automotive sector alone, there is £12 billion opportunity for PEMD by 2025. £10 billion for power electronics including semiconductors, sensors and high-performance passive components, and £2 billion for electric machines, focusing on assembly and test, magnet manufacturing and electrical steel. This will help to protect the 30,000 internal combustion engine (ICE) jobs that may be lost with the global move to vehicle electrification.

Without building and investing in these supply chains, we will also be unable to capture the full economic benefit created by other ISCF challenges, such as the Faraday battery challenge and the Future Flight initiative, which enables the UK to build, use and export new, greener ways of flying through advances in electric and autonomous flight technology.

Driving the Electric Revolution will act as a catalyst, encouraging industries large and small to invest and collaborate with academia to establish PEMD supply chains, driving down costs and delivering a volume supply chain necessary to build low carbon technologies for businesses of all sizes to succeed in the global shift to clean growth.

The DER challenge will be delivered through four areas of activity:

Industrialisation Centres – £30 million investment in four national centres of excellence in PEMD, based in Strathclyde, Sunderland, Nottingham and Newport. The centres will support businesses and researchers to develop and scale new PEMD technologies and manufacturing processes. These centres are a game changer for the UK, bringing world-class technology research alongside world-class manufacturing research to provide a catalyst for growth.

Collaborative research funding – £20 million programme of collaborative research funding to help businesses create future supply chains in both the high volume and low volume PEMD supply chains needed across various sectors. These projects will develop innovative new processes for the next generation of PEMD technologies.

Filling gaps in the supply chain – £19 million for projects to fill gaps in the PEMD supply chain and deliver quick benefits to the UK’s economy.

Talent – £6m to support skills and training provision which will be focused on activity from school leavers and undergraduates, to experienced engineers and technicians looking to retrain to address the acute shortage of skills in PEMD.

The challenge-winning projects from the latest round of funding are due to be announced in Autumn 2020, and we can expect to see major advances in PEMD. These include plans to develop and help scale up UK manufacturing capability of electric machines used in motorcycles, boats and wind turbines, projects ensuring continued development of the silicon carbide and gallium nitride semiconductor supply chains essential to next generation electrification technologies, and developments to enable the UK to become a leader in the recovery and re-use of rare earth elements used in PEMD.

The benefits of the ‘Driving the Electric Revolution’ challenge are hard to overstate. Driving the Electric Revolution is cross-sector, encompassing everything from energy to rail and robotics to industrial processes. It is a crucial steppingstone in delivering the technology required to achieve our Net Zero targets. Last year total UK carbon emissions were 45.2% lower than in 1990 and 3.6% lower than 2018. Transport remains the largest source of carbon emissions in the UK, accounting for 34% in 2019. To reach Net Zero we must build a resilient PEMD supply chain to accelerate the reduction of carbon emissions from transport, energy and industrial sources. Without PEMD, Net Zero is not possible and without this challenge, PEMD manufacturing will not happen at scale in the UK.

By 2050, Driving the Electric Revolution will help address climate change, building new businesses, protecting legacy businesses, and developing supply chains worth £80 billion in GDP of the necessary clean technologies.