Q&A - Dr Martin Kemp

Materials World magazine
2 Apr 2012
Martin Kemp

Dr Martin Kemp, NanoKTN Theme Manager of Engineering Applications, says the UK leads the world in research, but needs to push development. Materials World finds out more.

What is your background?

I worked for Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA)/QinetiQ in Farnborough for more than 20 years, initially as a research scientist. Subsequently, I moved into polymer composites and led research on detection and mitigation of impact damage in carbon fibre reinforced composites. I then took on responsibilities for marketing DERA to the automotive sector. In my role as Department of Trade and Industry Global Watch Promoter for Western Europe in Performance Engineering, I gained an excellent overview of technology development and commercialisation in different European countries.

What are the major drivers behind R&D in the UK?

From the physical sciences perspective, the drivers are increasingly challenge-driven. Government policy can have a strong influence, alongside the emphasis on carbon reduction targets and the low carbon economy. Research topics include clean energy, low emission vehicles, energy-efficient buildings and energy harvesting devices. Advanced manufacturing is getting more attention in areas such as net shape manufacturing, joining, additive layer manufacture and composites. Security and defence is an on-going priority, with internet security and anti-terrorism. Certain universities are also setting research directions by investing in centres of excellence or research programmes.

How successful has R&D been in the UK compared to other countries?

We have seen great successes, such as the isolation of graphene at the University of Manchester. This development has prompted the UK Government to commit £50 million into this field to make the UK a world leader. However, linking these initiatives at the outset with industries that can commercialise the outcomes is equally important. National priorities are something the UK has not had – but this is changing as key areas are now being targeted. Other countries that have pursued global leadership have fared well, for example Taiwan’s focus on displays and Germany’s on manufacturing.

What are the most promising projects being undertaken in the UK and abroad?

Interdisciplinary projects show huge potential, under the banner of ‘Internet of Things’ for example, linking up the physical and cyber worlds to get more ‘intelligence’ to tackle issues such as reducing energy consumption and environmental pollution. The Catapult Centres – a UK network of six technology and innovation hubs to transform the UK’s capability for development in specific technology areas – are one crucial aspect to commercialisation of the new science being developed at universities and from industrial research. One concept not often seen in the UK that occurs elsewhere is the development by an applied research centre, such as the Fraunhofer Centre in Germany, of a complete pilot plant to manufacture a certain product. When fully commissioned, it is shipped out to the end customer.

In your field, what is being done to promote UK R&D?

Nanotechnology is an industrial revolution, but one that is largely hidden from the consumer because its applications are primarily within the product supply chain. Promoting science and technology with ubiquitous reach is a real challenge. The approach has been from both ends of the supply chain. To the end users, we focus on the benefi ts and commercialisation issues, which include cost, scale-up and integration issues. To the spin-outs and technology developers, we assist in the funding arena with investment, grants, research collaborations and brokering links with endusers and potential customers.

Can investments in R&D be justified in this ‘age of austerity’?

Competitiveness is achieved through cost-cutting or product improvement. In the high added-value sectors that the UK specialises in, product enhancement only occurs by research and design improvements.

Given a blank chequebook for R&D, what would you invest in?

I would invest in technology demonstrator devices, taking the basic research and either scaling up or manufacturing a prototype and proof of concept. Two examples I have been working on are next generation batteries and thermoelectrics. Both represent huge potential markets, with the need to replace nonsustainable materials. But, being devices that have integration of multi-component issues, a single small R&D programme is unlikely to have much impact – although a concerted national initiative would.

Who has developed the most successful model for R&D?

A national innovation strategy can stimulate focused R&D. Germany and France still have national research centres and the results are demonstrated by the nuclear industry in France and the solar cell industry in Germany. In Germany, Fraunhofer is dedicated to solar energy that led research in photovoltaic (PV) science and manufacturing. The government offered homeowners a major subsidy on solar panels, and PV manufacturers took the technology to the home market. This was a springboard to capture a global market and Germany now owns one third of it.

Where do you see R&D going in the future?

I would like to see the UK leading the world in clean energy technologies – not just selling intellectual property, but manufacturing devices and exporting around the world. To achieve this, a major investment is needed in manufacturing in its broadest sense – undergraduate and postgraduate courses, plus major Government research programmes in advanced manufacturing.