UK materials – creating a global leader

Materials World magazine
,
1 Apr 2018

James Tallentire* and Gary Peters explain how the Henry Royce Institute attempts to develop and secure a world leading advanced materials sector in the UK. 

The Henry Royce Institute, based in Manchester, UK, is sticking to its roots for inspiration – namely a Mancunian spirit – to disrupt, where necessary, in a bid to inspire collaboration and innovation.

The Institute has been awarded £235m by the UK government – via the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) – to drive research in materials science and ensure this new knowledge is fast-tracked to commercialisation. 

To achieve this, it has brought together academics from across the UK. As well as the University of Manchester, founding partners include the universities of Sheffield, Liverpool, Leeds, Imperial College London, Oxford, and Cambridge, plus the UK Atomic Energy Agency and the National Nuclear Laboratory, UK.

They are supporting a research portfolio of nine themes – 2D materials, advanced metals processing, atoms to devices, biomedical and chemical materials design, energy storage, materials systems for demanding environments and for energy efficient information and communications technology, and nuclear materials.

A national nexus

Baroness Brown of Cambridge, chair of the Royce, believes these nine strands provide an opportunity for the UK to stake a claim ahead of the rest. She says, ‘My ambition for the Royce, in the long term, is to have helped develop and secure a world-leading advanced materials industry based in the UK.

‘To make our aspiration a reality, we are bringing people from academia and industry together to ensure we translate today’s new material developments rapidly into companies big and small – developing UK supply chains and creating jobs and economic growth.’

By providing this national nexus, Royce is, according to the likes of Baroness Brown, promising to challenge the status quo and give the UK a competitive advantage in advanced materials. 

However, the Royce is also emerging at a time when the focus on materials creation is fluctuating.

‘Throughout history, our horizons have largely been determined by the materials we have had to hand. Stone Age, Iron Age, Bronze Age – these are epochal terms we all take for granted,’ explains Professor Phil Withers, Chief Scientist at the Royce.

‘Growth in the materials industry in the mid-20th century was driven by drop-in substitution as new materials such as plastics came to the fore, resulting in the formation of important materials-based industries. But the focus has now shifted, from simple substitution, to the creation of custom materials having tailored functionality, such as materials for data storage.’

According to Withers, the most ‘significant and transformative’ opportunities are now enabled by materials ‘optimised into integrated solutions’. This, therefore, requires a more coherent framework ‘beyond the remit of materials commodity suppliers or even individual research teams’. 

He believes the result is that industry will have to rethink how it creates new materials. He adds, ‘Design, chemical processing, modelling and testing have all traditionally been conducted separately by different departments. But the future will be about the interdisciplinary design, as we work in collaboration to realise the value from advanced materials systems in the UK and beyond.

‘[There are also] aspects such as big data, machine learning or Industry 4.0 as a means to the accelerated fruition of new materials and gaining a better understanding of existing ones.’

Looming deadlines

While much of the talk is invariably focused on the future, there is a desire, and requirement, to hit the ground running and realise some of the grand proclamations. 

For example, the Royce worked on the project to establish the Faraday Institution, in October 2017, to create a go-to destination for battery technology in a bid to power the UK’s electric vehicle revolution. 

With a government-imposed deadline of banning all new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2040, following concerns that rising levels of nitrogen oxide pose a lethal risk to public health, the UK needs to radically boost research and development in battery technology, Withers says. 

Hence, the development of the Faraday Institution, which was launched as part of a £246m government investment programme. The scheme is also supported by the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.

For the Royce, the link is that energy storage is one of its core themes. ‘This is just the kind of collaboration we were hoping to support, the bringing together of the Royce and the Faraday to enable UK academia and industry to tackle this challenge,’ says Withers.

Andrew Hosty, CEO of the Royce, adds, ‘The Faraday is a superb example of how British scientists and engineers are willing and able to work collaboratively to deliver solutions to national and global challenges through partnership and an eco-system of expertise.’

A national meeting place

While it all sounds very impressive, the Royce needs physical evidence, as well as words. 

To that end, work has begun on a new hub building, at the heart of the University of Manchester’s campus, to provide a meeting place of minds from across the country.

At 46m high, the building will provide research into a range of disciplines, including investigations into:

  • Biomedical materials for regenerative medicine and prosthetics
  • Materials to support the nuclear energy sector, both fission and fusion
  • Materials systems for demanding environments
  • 2D materials that, for example, can be used in inks for printable electronics, enhanced composites, in fuel cells and super capacitators that outperform traditional batteries

‘This new building will not only provide a centre for scientists and engineers to lead on research, but will also help businesses to apply this new knowledge into technologies for commercial use,’ says Hosty.

Royce scholars

An important part of the landscape is attracting people to materials science and engaging their interests at an early age – an oft-repeated phrase that is seemingly troubling all industries.

As such, the Royce is investing in education, with a strong focus on EPSRC Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs), a national programme that supports the training of cohorts of new engineering and science PhDs. The institute recently appointed David Stanley as its CDT Development and Coordination Manager and in this post he will be working with current CDTs and those organisations proposing new centres in the area of advanced materials.

Withers explains, ‘We are aiming to engage with a wide range of CDTs whether they are run by existing Royce partners or elsewhere.’ He adds, ‘We want to look at how we can add value to the work of each so that they retain their independence and individual character – but also to help students engage in a wider community and gain access to a range of activities and facilities.’

No doubt there’s plenty of work ahead, not least with finishing the construction of the building and advancing the key research themes. However, hopes are high. ‘These are very exciting times for advanced materials in the UK. I believe a brave new world awaits our community and the Royce is ideally placed to act as a catalyst in exploiting the opportunities it brings,’ adds Baroness Brown.

Milestones: Year 1 and 2, April 2016 to March 2018

  • £235m grant approved and awarded via the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, UK
  • Website launched with 70+ pages of equipment being showcased, available to all
  • £105m hub building designed – contract signed and ground work near completion
  • £81m of new equipment approved. More here: bit.ly/2GzQTB7

*James Tallentire is Marketing and Communications Manager at the University of Manchester, UK