Human beings and batteries are a bad mix: water and dust can cause disastrous short circuits in the cells that power electric cars, risking blazing fires. So the few people allowed into the vast clean rooms at Envision AESC’s factory in Sunderland must don a full body suit and go through an air shower first. Even the Guardian’s notebook is switched for paper that does not shed fibres.

Once inside, robots rule the lines. They cut rolls of electrode materials to size, layer them on top of each other and weld them to an accuracy not possible with human hands, before they are injected with electrolyte that will enable lithium ions to move one way and electrons another, powering motors of the Nissan cars made next door.

“It’s the precision that’s required to make batteries,” says Chris Caygill, the managing director of the plant. “Everything needs to be assembled to the level of millimetres.”

The hi-tech plant and a much bigger sibling that is under construction a few hundred meters away represent the great hope for the UK car industry. A huge wave of investment is surging as enormous factories around the world race to meet the huge increase in demand as countries start to ban petrol and diesel engines, starting from 2025 in Norway and 2035 in the UK and EU. The UK government-funded Faraday Institution counts 41 projects in western Europe that are either operational or planned.

Workers in the cell manufacture (clean room) area at Envision’s ‘gigafactory’ in Sunderland. Photographer: Richard Saker/The Guardian

Yet the UK’s place in that future appears far from certain. Only three of those projects are in the UK. The Envision plants account for two. The third is Britishvolt, a startup that has been strongly supported by the government, but which is now foundering.

This article, the third in a series on the UK’s battery ambitions, looks at the questions around whether the government is doing enough to kickstart the industry – and whether the UK has missed its chance to manufacture a key part of the zero-carbon economy.

The UK had a head start. The Sunderland plant has been producing batteries since December 2012, when it was opened by Nissan and partners to produce cells to power its pioneering Leaf electric car. The Japanese-headquartered company, Automotive Energy Supply Corporation (AESC), was bought by the Chinese conglomerate Envision in 2018.

Its expansion plans, which provided a big morale boost for the UK automotive sector, will eventually see employee numbers rise from the current 440 to 4,400 as it builds a second much larger plant in two phases. The capacity of the batteries it can make in a year will rise from 1.8GWh to 9GWh by 2024, and then 38GWh, enough to make roughly 600,000 car batteries a year.

Envision AESC chief executive Shoichi MatsumotoEnvision AESC chief executive Shoichi Matsumoto says he expects global battery demand to expand by six or seven times compared with the current market. Photographer: Grace Ramey/AP

The Envision AESC chief executive, Shoichi Matsumoto, says he expects global battery demand to expand by six or seven times compared with the current market. He is seeking investors to fund a huge program of battery factory construction.

“That’s why Envision has a very aggressive expansion plan,” he says, citing plans in the UK, France, the US, Japan and China. “Volume is very important to us.”

The scale of the Envision Pledge has cast the rest of the UK’s gigafactory efforts in an unforgiving light. Britishvolt this week considered entering administration as it ran short of cash, until a last-minute deal with mining company Glencore, an existing investor, gave it five weeks of breathing space. Projects at Coventry airport and a business park in Somerset are seen as promising by some investors, but have yet to attract investors such as carmakers or the big battery companies who dominate global supply, including China’s CATL, Korea’s LG, or Japan’s Panasonic.

Ian Henry, the director of AutoAnalysis, a consultancy, says it will be very difficult for the UK to win gigafactories without anchor customers. Ideally those customers would be nearby.

“It’s cart before horse,” he says, adding that there are no examples globally of “a battery factory which has been built and equipped to make tens of thousands of batteries a year without either any customers or any working products”.

At an individual car factory level, it is tricky to see where those anchor customers will come from. Vauxhall’s plants will probably be able to draw on parent company Stellantis’s European supply. BMW will initially move production of its electric Mini to China. Toyota in the UK is – for now, at least – focused on producing hybrids with smaller battery requirements. Most of the others are not big enough to sustain a large-scale gigafactory.

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The big question remaining is when Jaguar Land Rover, Britain’s biggest automotive employer, will show its hand. Its Indian owner, Tata, has held talks with the government over potential gigafactory investments, including potentially buying Britishvolt or taking on the site, according to multiple sources. Tata did not comment.

A worker inspects equipment in the clean room area at Envision's 'gigafactory' in Sunderland.A worker inspects equipment in the clean room area at Envision’s ‘gigafactory’ in Sunderland. Photographer: Richard Saker/The Guardian

David Bailey, the professor of industrial strategy at the University of Birmingham, says the UK is “lagging well behind EU countries” in terms of policies to encourage gigafactories.

“Unless the UK gets moving soon there is a danger it misses out,” he says. “There is a real role for government in terms of coordinating all this.”

The government has come under pressure from the Labor party over gigafactory investment. The shadow business secretary, Jonathan Reynolds, has pledged to back three more gigafactories on top of those already announced.

A government spokesman said: “The UK is one of the best locations in the world for automotive manufacturing and we remain dedicated to securing gigafactories across the country.” He cited planned investments by Nissan in Sunderland site as evidence of the UK’s “success”.

Sourcing more materials from Europe will be possible as the industry expands, but the ideal for Sunderland – and the promised land for the government – would be having enough gigafactories to sustain a full UK supply chain. That would bring new investments and jobs.

Envision says about 100GWh would probably do the trick. Standing in full overalls in the Sunderland clean room, Envision technical director Derek Benfield points to the precision thickness plastic laminate that holds apart the electrodes in the cells. The crucial material is currently imported from Japan.

“At what point does that scale of demand from us mean the supplier invests and manufactures in the UK?” Hey says. “We would love it to be made in the UK.”

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