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UK ‘future tech’ development gets government funding boost

£65m in funding will be used to develop electric batteries, robotics and advanced healthcare treatments

The UK government is extending its Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund through a £65m cash injection that will be used to accelerate development of “future technologies”.

According to science minister Amanda Solloway, the funding will create high-skilled jobs, increase productivity and grow the economy as the UK recovers from the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

“This new funding will strengthen the UK’s global status in a range of areas, including battery technologies for electric vehicles and robotics, helping us develop innovative solutions to some of our biggest global challenges and creating jobs in rewarding careers right across the country,” she said.

Of this total, £6.5m will be allocated to five Advanced Therapy Treatment Centres (ATTCs) across the country to accelerate the availability of advanced healthcare treatments that use “genetic approaches”, such as stem cell transplants, to the NHS.

This funding will also support at least 50 apprenticeships, as well as provide additional training packages to health workers.

“The ATTC network is a fantastic example of effective government intervention… Bringing together companies, the NHS and regulatory bodies to make the use of cell and gene therapies easier, more cost-effective and more widespread both boosts the industry and brings these life-changing medicines to patients who need them,” said Matthew Durdy, CEO of the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult.

“The fact that 12% of clinical trials in cell and gene therapy take place in the UK, and half of those involve ATTCs, is a testament to the success of this highly respected programme.”

A further £15m will go towards building robots that inspect, maintain and repair nuclear power stations, satellites and wind turbines, as well as robotic solutions that can be used to address various problems arising from the pandemic, such as making contact-free deliveries to vulnerable people.

The largest chunk of funding – nearly £44m – will be given to the government’s Faraday battery challenge, an initiative led by the Faraday Institution to develop the next generation of high-performance electric batteries for various modes of transport.

Part of this funding will also be used to complete the UK’s first Battery Industrialisation Centre in Coventry, which the government claims will create “100 high-skilled jobs”.

According to the Faraday battery challenge’s industrial strategy challenge director, Tony Harper, the announcement builds on the UK’s progress over the past three years since the Industrial Strategy funds were launched in 2017, and will help accelerate this progress further after the pandemic.

“For batteries to play their full environmental and economic role in achieving net zero, we need to deploy at scale and build supply chains for today’s technology, shift from strong potential to commercial dominance in a new generation of batteries, and continue to build world-class scientific capability to sustain us into the future,” he said.

When asked what types of measures are being considered to ensure the UK government and British companies do not contribute to human rights abuses linked to the extraction of cobalt and lithium – minerals vital to the production of electric batteries – Harper responded that collective action would be required throughout the supply chain to ensure poor working conditions are not exacerbated.

“Transparency, traceability and accountability are needed throughout the supply chain and can be accomplished through building trust at all levels and between all stakeholders,” he said, adding that researchers were “developing the technological, economic and policy framework that would allow high percentages of the materials” in lithium-ion batteries to be re-used or recycled.

The institution also has a partnership with Cornish Lithium and others to study and assess the viability of extracting lithium from domestic sources as part of the Lithium for the UK (Li4UK) project.

“The study itself is almost complete (it runs until the end of October 2020) and has indicated that the UK does indeed have the potential to produce lithium in meaningful quantities,” said Harper.

“Mapping and sampling work indicates that there are areas with sufficient concentrations of lithium in the rock formations that could be commercially viable to extract in Cornwall, and also in Scotland. Advances in mineral extraction technology – from both hard rock and from geothermal waters – mean that we now believe there is the potential to commercially extract lithium from these deposits and thus to develop a domestic, environmentally responsible, lithium supply for the UK.”

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