Article - Issue 80, September 2019

Lessons from Graphene City

Scott Steedman CBE FREng

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A decade on from the discovery of graphene at the University of Manchester in 2004, the city is becoming a world centre for research, development and product innovation in this exciting new field of materials engineering. Could Manchester become ‘Graphene City’ and provide the focus for a new industry? Earlier this year, the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC) opened for business on the university campus. The GEIC offers facilities and a team of engineers to support manufacturers scale up production and to accelerate commercialisation of this ‘wonder material’.

Dr Scott Steedman FREng

Scott Steedman CBE FREng

Graphene can be manufactured as a powder or in flakes and can be used in so many ways. Blended or infused into, for example, insulation foam, rubber or a sheet of composite material, graphene can alter the strength, electrical conductivity or thermal properties of the host material. Graphene is already enhancing a wide variety of products from running shoes to aircraft wings.

It is, however, one thing to create these materials in a laboratory, but quite another to do it at factory scale. How will engineers design and make new products that benefit from graphene’s special attributes? How can manufacturers store and transport blended and mixed graphene? How stable are the resulting materials? How can we test their properties? For small and medium-sized companies, it is expensive, time-consuming and risky to invest in their own facilities to answer these key questions, which is where the GEIC comes in.

The GEIC, led by industry, is modelled on Innovate UK’s Catapult Centres. Like the Catapult Centres, the graphene centre provides factory scale facilities where large and small companies can experiment with production methods. The National Graphene Institute (NGI), a few hundred metres away, is a hub for graphene research. With over £200 million of investment committed to the NGI and the GEIC, more than 340 people work on graphene projects. Both bodies sit alongside the new home of the Henry Royce Institute, the UK’s National Institute for Materials Science Research. Due to open next year, the ‘Royce’ already has a community of 900 academics and over £300 million of facilities.

The university’s vision is that companies interested in commercialising graphene will come to Manchester from all over the world. In Graphene City they will have access to the knowledge they need, from world renowned researchers to production engineering experts, with facilities to match at every stage. Graphene City is a bold vision and could bring the best of UK science and technology research within reach of companies large and small. Six months after opening, the centre is already ahead of its plans to attract leading industry supporters.

The main difference between the GEIC and Catapult Centres is that the GEIC is smaller and focused on a specific industrial outcome, the commercialisation of graphene, rather than covering a broad area, as the Catapults do in fields such as high value manufacturing, ‘future cities’, or the digital economy. This focus should enable the GEIC to build a portfolio of projects that develop their own momentum. As the resident engineering teams develop their expertise, so will their ability to respond rapidly to new ideas.

Could the GEIC become a model for other universities, strengthening the ecosystem in the UK to support new and emerging technologies? Other leading universities, such as Sheffield, Warwick and Strathclyde, have also established similarly successful models for close engagement with industry. One key difference in Manchester is that the GEIC is building its in-house engineering team on an industry-style career path. In this way the GEIC’s approach can avoid the employment constraints of PhD, post-doctoral or project-based hiring. There is more flexibility for short-term, rapid turnaround projects, which makes it easier for companies to try out new ideas.

The GEIC, building on the strength of the NGI and the potential of the Henry Royce Institute, could make a formidable contribution to the UK’s innovation infrastructure. Other universities, institutes and research centres have their own success stories to share. Early engagement with engineers from industry is clearly one of the keys to success. The Royal Academy of Engineering is well placed to lead the community in promoting the benefits of industry and academia working together.

Scott Steedman CBE FREng

Editor-in-Chief

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