Ahead of the 2019 Party Conference season, James Baker – Chief Executive Officer of Graphene@Manchester reflects on ‘where next’ for the wonder material graphene and whether this is actually just the start for a game changing family of 2D materials.
- A whole new family of graphene-inspired materials could soon transform how we make and build things forever.
- Manchester scientists have recently developed a new method to synthesize 2D materials, so the possibilities seem endless.
- To be ‘Graphenes-ready’, the UK’s innovation sector needs to prepare the manufacturing base and its supply chain.
Graphene is 15-years-old and – like many teenagers – is already proving disruptive. But a whole new family of graphene-inspired materials is soon to transform how we make and build things forever. The question is, are we ready to capitalise on this innovation revolution?
Where it all began
It all began when this single layer material was first isolated at The University of Manchester in 2004 by professors Sir Andre Geim and Sir Kostya Novoselov, who were later awarded Nobel Prizes. Their success has been galvanising and researchers worldwide have followed the trail blazed by Manchester and have criss-crossed the Periodic Table on intrepid quests to find other similar nanomaterials.
They have succeeded to a point where we now have distinct categories of 2D materials, such as a group of single-element graphene analogs called Xenes or a large set of metal carbides dubbed MXenes (pronounced ‘Maxines’). And why stop there? Manchester scientists have recently developed a new method to synthesize 2D materials, so the possibilities seem to be endless.
The ‘Graphenes’ family
These many graphene-inspired 2D materials, which I broadly label the ‘Graphenes’ family as a convenient shorthand, are all very exciting in their own right, each offering distinct advantages in terms of conductivity, filtration or sensor capabilities. But far more importantly is the way we can use various types of 2D materials as building blocks to create ‘designer materials’ with truly novel features that don’t occur naturally and offer specified qualities.
This opens a brave new world of possibilities that advanced materials can provide to industry in terms of new features and benefits in products and applications. Already, in a relatively short space of time, graphene is being adopted into a range of manufactured products as a game-changing additive to various composites.
One of the most recent has been the BAC Mono R supercar. This iconic British marque is made by Liverpool-based Briggs Automotive Company Ltd and is the world’s first production car to fully incorporate graphene-enhanced carbon fibre into every body panel. Another step forward has been the use by inov-8, the specialist British-based sports shoe brand, who have worked with graphene scientists at Manchester to develop rubber outsoles that deliver the world’s toughest grip. They have successfully launched a range of G-Series branded footwear that has taken the market by storm.
And, in the near future, I would expect to see aircraft wings enhanced with graphene to make them lighter but also to provide lightning protection – so eliminating the need for separate copper-based lightning protection – saving further weight and complexity.
These examples, however, are just the beginning of a revolution as we begin to move away from adding graphene to existing composite materials to the creation of a whole new generation of completely novel materials. These ‘designer’ materials, I believe, will be based on the Graphenes 2D family and their impact will be epoch-making.
A new age
Historically, game-changing materials have defined their time, for example the Iron Age, the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and more recently the ‘Silicon Age’. In a recent speech at the Manchester Science and Industry Museum, Prime Minister Boris Johnson remarked on the city’s pioneering spirit, which has led us to “… stand on the cusp of the Graphene age”. To paraphrase Mr Johnson, I would like to suggest we’re actually looking at the ‘Graphenes age’ which is, in fact, now fast approaching.
One of the reasons why the ‘Graphenes Age’ will arrive so quickly is because Manchester’s own Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre – which complements the University’s more research-focused National Graphene Institute – is fast-tracking innovation by taking a ‘fail fast, learn fast approach’. This method focuses on short-term pilot projects and echoes the advice from Apple’s innovation genius Steve Jobs on being prepared to make mistakes, admit them quickly and get on with improving the innovation. The Manchester model therefore departs radically from the mainstream innovation model, because rather than trying to pick – and spend time and money – on a potential winner, we could instead spend much less time on running say, 10 plausible projects all at the same time, but at a much earlier stage of their development. As we learn from our failures, we select or combine innovations that look to be winners.
This more agile approach should work well for the innovation eco-system now being led by The University of Manchester, which features a ‘science value supply chain’ that runs seamlessly across academia and commercial end-users.
Preparing for innovation
As a result of this new Graphenes Age, I expect there will be significant impact across the advanced manufacturing value chain, including design and engineering; materials supply; equipment/tool-making; additive and automated manufacturing systems; testing and support services. So, to be Graphenes-ready, the UK’s innovation sector needs to prepare the manufacturing base and its supply chain. As such, I recommend:
- UK government supports new capital investment: innovation funding should be offered to help companies ensure our current manufacturing infrastructure can deliver world-leading Graphenes-ready production capability.
- National Industry Strategy: such an approach would support the concept of ‘Place’ as identified in the current national industry strategy – and creating a world-leading manufacturing hub in the most relevant city-region. I would obviously recommend the best fit would be Greater Manchester as the home of graphene.
- Local Industry Strategy: should the national government make investment available to support a Graphenes-ready programme then civic leadership in Greater Manchester should be the first in the queue to make a bid. I would suggest such a bid would call for a ‘Graphenes-ready’ pilot manufacturing hub in the region that could form part of the Graphene City eco-system. This could be similar to the Made Smarter scheme which is already piloting Industry 4.0 adoption in the region, so maybe we could have a complementary “Graphenes Smart” scheme which supports Graphenes-ready manufacture in the region
- Funding for fast-track innovation: give innovation hubs – such as the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre – more access to ‘rapid innovation’ funding to enable rapid prototypes and developments. This could be achieved by having a rapid innovation stream within the Industry Strategy Challenge Fund that introduces and adopts the ‘fail fast, learn fast’ approach. Also, we need to increase attractiveness to commercial funding, such as venture capital investment.