The UK’s productivity has declined in the past eight years, from a 60-year period of growth. This trend needs to be reversed if the UK is to grow its economy. One solution is to exploit the country’s strong knowledge base in chemistry and materials. Graphene and the recently discovered family of two-dimensional materials, from the University of Manchester, is just one example of world changing materials science research coming from the UK but there are many others, notably in advanced materials and composites.
However, for the UK to see a growth in productivity, this capability needs to be translated into high-volume commercial products.
The good news, according to a meeting organised by the Knowledge Centre Materials Chemistry (KCMC) network, Materials for the future: from chemistry to application, in London, in February, is that the UK has put in place an infrastructure, a ‘potential conveyor belt to commercialisation’ said Ian Shott of the Chemistry Growth Partnership – to support innovation in materials. New institutions like the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC), the Sir Henry Royce Institute for Advanced Materials Research at Manchester University, and the Materials Innovation Factory at Liverpool University – all supported by the KCMC – together with the 11 ‘catapults’ across the UK, are allowing academics and industry to work side by side, with government support, to find ways of translating fundamental research into industrial scale products.
As just one example, the opportunity for using new materials and composites in the future to replace metals in a range of industries is huge. According to figures published by US market researchers Lucintel, the global composites market – which includes applications in aerospace, defence, transport, construction, marine, oil & gas, and renewables – totalled some $50bn in 2013 and is expected to reach $80bn by 2020.
For the UK there has been some ingress into this market. Phil Cartwright, chief technology officer for the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, explained that there are strong signals from the automotive and aerospace industries that they are moving to more lightweight materials, but this is less clear in the energy and construction sectors. Stronger direction from the government in its energy policy with respect to materials would help here.
The KCMC meeting identified other key areas that the UK needs to improve on if the country is to get a share of this market – significantly reducing material and process costs, and addressing the gaps in the manufacturing supply chains in resins, fibres and textiles. ‘It’s no good having an excellent product if you can’t get it to market in a cost-effective way,’ said SCI’s CEO Sharon Todd.
Crucial to the UK’s success will be its ability to accelerate innovation. And here the application of advanced computational modelling and data analytics research done at the STFC’s Hartree Centre in Cheshire, in collaboration with IBM, will be invaluable. Also important, said Chris Warkup, CEO of the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), will be a long-term commitment from the government in this space to provide industry with the confidence to invest. Moreover, he said, there is a danger that the current infrastructure has become too fragmented and would benefit from some simplification.
Finally, as John Grasmeder, Technical Director at leading polymers solutions company Victrex, pointed out, there is still more to be done in understanding the markets. ‘Marketing needs to be discussed before any technology is developed, otherwise a lot of time and money can be wasted, he said. Marketing requires people with the right skills in both science and marketing, and here there is a skills gap that also needs to be addressed.