The Australian billionaire building the Tesla of mining, in Oxfordshire

In the leafy Oxfordshire countryside, an Australian billionaire hopes to do for heavy industry what Elon Musk has done for cars.   At a factory known for building high performance Formula-E racing cars, engineers are building 17-tonne battery packs bound not for the race track but for mining trucks. Williams Advanced Engineering, which has its origins under the Williams racing company starting in 2010, plans to strip the engine and fuel tank from one of the leviathan, three-storey vehicles which carry hundreds of tonnes of rubble and fit a battery and motor to prove that even the largest vehicles can be electrified.

The project offers a window into both Britain's industrial future and the ongoing battle over how to clean up heavy industry: use the technology available today, namely batteries, or bet on the promise of emerging solutions such as hydrogen to clean up the planet's heftiest, dirtiest engines? The project is being led by Andrew Forrest, an Australian mining billionaire and environmental evangelist who bought Williams Advanced Engineering in March. Mr Forrest is said to want to break the grip of the incumbent mining machinery makers because they are moving too slowly.

He wants to replicate what Elon Musk has done in the car industry, spurring rivals to adopt battery technology with the success of Tesla. "The whole reason that we've embarked on this crackers project," says Alec Patterson, who's in charge of the mammoth programme, "is we're going to demonstrate that one, it's possible and then secondly, we're going to make it commercially viable." The challenge is keeping battery-powered trucks running day and night.

Mines can operate on slim margins, and parked up and charging trucks lose money. WAE hopes to crack the problem by using top-end cells and its Formula-E nouse to get charging time down to 30 minutes. While 200mph race cars in Monaco and 400-tonne mining trucks in the Australian countryside may seem to have little in common, fast prototyping and ambitious projects are the company's stock in trade, Mr Patterson says.

"We need the motorsport mentality of right first time, to hit the deadlines," he adds. The batteries are complex: 336 cells are in a pack and 36 packs make up a module, which measures about 1 metre by 1.5 metres. Eight modules will be loaded into a test truck to prove the concept.

Critics of battery power, such as JCB's Lord Bamford, say the weight and charging time mean hydrogen is a better fuel for big excavators. The gas is accepted by many as a solution to decarbonising everything from heavy goods vehicles to long-haul air travel, as well as mining gear and shipping. But for those who wish to act today, there is little to buy: the bulk of working hydrogen power plants in Britain supply taxpayer-subsidised buses.

WAE's experiment comes as Britain battles to maintain its position as a mainstream car maker in the electric age. Production figures show it is an uphill struggle, with the UK lagging at 15th in the world, according to the International Organisation of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers. Last year, Jaguar Land Rover, Nissan, Mini and Toyota plants churned out 86pc of the UK's cars, with the remainder split between smaller high-end producers like Aston Martin, McLaren, Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Lotus.

This year, those four will contribute an even bigger share after Honda closed its factory and Vauxhall stopped car production at Ellesmere Port. Those who are left manufacturing are racing to secure batteries for their cars. With Nissan producing its own, JLR is said to be looking to Europe for supply.

Mini's owner BMW is sending it cells.

Williams Advanced Engineering supplies the battery packs for the third generation of Formula E carsWilliams Advanced Engineering supplies the battery packs for the third generation of Formula E carsCredit: AP Photo/Lee Jin-man

The future of mass-produced batteries in the UK may not be a bright one: great hope Britishvolt has only signed tentative deals with Lotus and Aston Martin and is now on the hunt for a new chief executive after its co-founder quit the company earlier this month. But away from the mass market, British engineers' skills are in demand thanks to their experience with the highest quality batteries. WAE is supplying the battery packs for the third generation of Formula E cars for next year's season, taking over from rival McLaren Applied.

AMTE Power, a nine-year-old battery developer which is also based in Oxfordshire, is planning a 0.5GWh half-gigafactory in Dundee to make batteries for potential clients like BMW and Cosworth. AMTE has tested cells which can be charged fully in six minutes, it claims, further eroding the advantage hydrogen has over batteries. WAE is not the only firm betting on batteries for big applications.

Former Lotus engineer Ian Foley's company Equipmake is planning pure electric buses and wants to electrify existing diesel-driven models. Still, companies like these face an uphill battle. Hydrogen has the backing of established HGV makers such as Volvo and Daf.

US engine giant Cummins began testing hydrogen engines last year with a view to eventually rolling them out to its huge mining trucks, although none have a launch date for their products. There has been a lot of foot dragging from customers, says WAE's chief executive Craig Wilson. His company had had talks with miners that went nowhere even before the firm was bought by Mr Forrest's Fortescue.

"The difference between Fortescue and the others that we talked to was them doing something about it, others are just talking about it: can we do another feasibility study? Can we do another concept study to satisfy another board meeting?" he said. "We're doing this, we want to propose we build the first one, and then we're going to scale up to build the next 500. There will be limits for batteries, concedes Mr Wilson.

"Some large ship engines are like mini power stations, the size of them. So you can't replace those with batteries - the physics of it just doesn't work." Even in hydrogen-powered engines there will be a need for the best battery technology, he adds, as the most efficient vehicles use batteries to store wasted energy from braking and to even out power usage.

Either way, his engineers will keep developing new ways to deliver the horsepower to clean up industry.

"People like vehicles, they like automotive," he says. "It's interesting and exciting to be involved with."