the UK’s automobile trade might stage a revival by recycling uncommon earths

the UK’s automobile trade might stage a revival by recycling uncommon earths


The supposed closure of Ford’s Bridgend engine plant in 2020, with the lack of 1,700 jobs, has despatched shock waves by way of Wales. Plaid Cymru chief, Adam Worth, has described it as “one of many worst acts of ‘industrial vandalism’ seen within the UK for many years.” Ford representatives have stated that the corporate must “make its engine manufacturing base appropriate for the autos it produces sooner or later.”

With electrical autos (EVs) commanding a rising share of the worldwide automobile market, many together with Professor David Bailey have said that the “manufacturing of electrical motors was far more vital to securing Ford Bridgend’s future” so as to keep aggressive within the international automotive trade.

Engine manufacturing is essentially the most useful a part of making a traditional automobile. An unlimited quantity of information, talent and analysis and improvement is required to make extremely subtle inside combustion engines.

Ford is the biggest producer of those engines within the UK – and about half of its output comes from the Bridgend manufacturing facility. Consultants have noticed that the electrification of vehicles “is arguably extra of a risk to the UK automotive trade than Brexit.” However there’s nonetheless an opportunity for the UK to stage a revival.

Alternative knocks

There may be already some EV manufacturing going down within the UK, by Nissan in Sunderland and Aston Martin in South Wales. There are additionally new services being established to fabricate EV batteries and the supplies required to make them, from Port Talbot to Coventry.

However there have been setbacks: critically, the UK is not a headquarters for any main auto producer, not to mention one main within the EV house. It’s troublesome to construct up sustainable operations when selections are made abroad.

That is evident in Jaguar Land Rover’s choice to chop UK manufacturing of its Discovery mannequin, whereas subcontracting i-Tempo electrical manufacturing to Magna Steyr in Austria. With out with the ability to depend on any favour from an indigenous automobile maker, the UK should take its personal steps to change into the very best place to make EVs.

With the UK authorities eager to attain web zero carbon emissions by 2050, there’s a chance for the nation’s automotive trade to develop and deploy EV know-how and change into a world chief – however this wants to start out now, or the prospect can be misplaced.

Provide and demand

There are two key components for achievement – provide and demand. In fact, there should be sufficient demand for merchandise manufactured within the UK, and the nation should be capable to export to these markets. However the UK should even have good entry to the provision chains that present the elements and supplies wanted to fabricate EVs.

Many commentators already lament the impact that Brexit is having on the UK automotive sector. Much less apparent, is how this may increasingly have an effect on the provision of important supplies wanted to develop and manufacture EVs. World issues in regards to the provide of those supplies is rising – and organisations, together with the Worldwide Power Company, are investigating.

Gasoline of the long run.

The UK doesn’t have native provides of many of those supplies – however as a member of the European Union, it is part of the bloc’s broader technique. After Brexit, the UK should take into account its technique in isolation. Some have warned that the UK could possibly be “held to ransom” over provides of those important supplies.

China has a close to monopoly on the provision of uncommon earth supplies corresponding to Neodymium, which is used to make the highly effective magnets utilized in essentially the most environment friendly EV motors. As tensions between China and the US escalate, there’s an opportunity China might use its energy over uncommon earth provide for leverage, which might trigger important shocks to Western automobile producers.

Some producers have been spooked by this prospect and are exploring uncommon earth-free engines – although presently these designs are much less environment friendly. However a much less environment friendly motor would require an even bigger battery to offer the identical vary (all different issues being equal) and larger batteries will place strain on different important supplies provide chains – corresponding to Cobalt and Lithium.

Recycling uncommon earths

To succeed then, the UK wants a novel promoting level – some benefit that different nations wouldn’t have. It wants entry to those key sources. Regardless of their title, uncommon earths aren’t truly scarce. However there’s a have to develop processing routes and new cleaner strategies for producing these supplies.

The UK might change into a world chief within the provide of those supplies – not by way of mining and extraction, however by way of recycling and processing. The UK already has analysis and improvement organisations main initiatives investigating the reuse and recycling of battery supplies. An identical capability to recycle uncommon earth magnets would safeguard the UK’s provide chain and assist stabilise the value of supplies used to fabricate EVs.

A big collaborative EU mission, with a major UK presence, SUSMAGPRO, will deal with a few of these challenges. However for UK automotive it’s important that extra of this functionality is embedded within the cloth of UK trade to help the provision chains that can energy the EV revolution.

Saving South Wales

There are already encouraging indicators that the talents and capabilities exist in South Wales to help the transition in direction of producing electrical drivetrains. Certainly, the UK’s solely producer {of electrical} steels – Cogent Energy Ltd – relies in Newport.

There may be additionally a longstanding base for smooth magnetic supplies analysis at Cardiff College College of Engineering, and important new funding is being made to develop this space additional. That is complemented by analysis and services at Swansea College and the College of South Wales, with specialism in metal processing.

Regardless of important closures, hope will not be misplaced for the UK’s automotive trade. However the time to behave is now.


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September 2022