Ionic Technologies: Funding ecosystem grows businesses

The Advanced Propulsion Centre UK (APC) is well known for its role in deploying UK government grant funding for research and development, scale-up and support of the automotive industry’s transition to zero tailpipe emissions and net-zero vehicles.

But we at the APC are not just about funding, we’re as much about the connections and collaborations we foster to really add value.

One such example is the success story of an SME from Belfast.

Ionic Technologies, a 2014 spinout company from Queens University Belfast (formally Seren), has developed new techniques to recycle permanent magnets using a ‘revolutionary’ process for the separation and recovery of rare earth elements from mining ore concentrates and waste magnets.

By 2035 all new cars sold in the UK will be electric or hybrid. Many of these vehicles will have permanent magnets in their motors. By 2030 the UK has a target to deploy over 50 GW of offshore wind turbines: this will require over 32 million kilos of magnets. Rare earths are a vital component of permanent magnets and, right now, the UK has no direct supply of them and is reliant on imported magnets from China.

But as more vehicles and wind turbines come to their end of life, there is an opportunity to recycle those rare earth elements.

The APC has long presented our insight into critical materials and a robust magnet supply chain in the UK, together with views on how the sector needs to transition its product lifecycle thinking  to deliver on its net-zero targets.

To support businesses in this field, such as Ionic Technologies, the APC has a number of targeted interventions via its funding competitions that help move innovation from the lab to pilot, and then to scale.

In this case, unique recycling technology that can hydro–metallurgically extract, separate and refine rare-earth oxides from spent magnets.

Ionic Technologies’ aim was to progress its technology towards the recycling of permanent magnets, with a view to enabling commercialisation. Its journey through APC funding streams demonstrates how the different interventions can support businesses at various points:

Technology Developer Accelerator Programme (TDAP)

TDAP provided both business and technology development support, involving strategy mentorship, leadership training, IP strategy advice, and investor readiness training.

The overall result of its work within TDAP helped enable an important investment during the programme: Ionic Technologies was purchased by Australia-based multinational, Ionic Rare Earths (IonicRE) accompanied by significant investment in the UK to take the technology towards scale.

Scale up Readiness Validation (SuRV)

Moreover, Ionic Technologies has since received further funding to progress its technology from the lab bench to a continuous pilot process – accelerating the scale-up of the technology, and completing a new pilot plant at its new facility at the Titanic Quarter in Belfast.

The company was awarded a grant of £1.72 million from the Automotive Transformation Fund (ATF) Scale up Readiness Validation (SuRV) programme, which APC delivers on behalf of the Department for Business and Trade (DBT), to develop the demonstration-scale magnet recycling plant; a significant step towards securing the UK supply of critical rare earth metals for electric vehicle manufacture.

Making connections

Through the support from APC, Ionic Technologies benefitted from engaging with key supply chain stakeholders – as a direct result of networking at events.

One such stakeholder was Ford UK which, across the Irish Sea, has invested heavily in its Merseyside Halewood plant making electric motors – itself a beneficiary of ATF capital investment that has kick-started the transition from an ICE-based facility to one manufacturing e-drives for EVs.

The new relationship between Ford UK and Ionic Technologies has led to linking up the electrification supply chain and building up UK capability.

Spurred by a recent additional UK government investment, from the Circular Critical Materials Supply Chains (CLIMATES) programme, Ionic Technologies has executed landmark partnership agreements with Ford, Less Common Metals (LCM), and British Geological Survey (BGS) to create a UK rare earth supply chain from recycled magnets.

In this new partnership, Ionic Technologies will produce high purity, separated rare earth metals at its commercial plant in Belfast, which it will supply to LCM for alloy production, and which could eventually be converted into magnets for Ford’s EV production at Halewood.

LCM, having also received ATF feasibility funding through the APC, is to investigate developing local-UK magnet production, which has helped to bring it to the position it is in today.

The ecosystem of funding, collaboration and expertise has paved the way for this new project, creating a circular value chain in magnets in the UK, demonstrating the value strategic interventions for the benefit of the UK’s automotive industry, jobs, and supply.

We visited Ionic Technologies’ site in Belfast to find out more – watch the report from technology and energy journalist David James.

Our Road to Net Zero podcast is all about how the UK automotive industry is transitioning to net zero. In a series of interviews, we highlight key issues and developments, interesting projects and technologies emerging from one of the UK’s most innovative sectors on the road to net zero.

Hear from transport and energy journalist, David James, and Ionic Technologies’ Managing Director, Thomas Kelly, as they discuss the potential benefits of recycling magnets.

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