Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre

By Emma Hughes
Published: Friday, 20 March 2015

Manchester is looking to lead the UK in its efforts to keep up in the global graphene race.

While the UK may no longer be the first country that springs to mind when thinking about technology innovation, its foothold in the graphene development industry is a sure sign that the tide is now turning.

This change has been documented in the Global Innovation Index, which consists of a ranking of world economies’ innovation capabilities and results.

The index ranked the UK in 14th place back in 2010, but also highlights a steady climb up to 2nd place in 2014, with Switzerland taking the top spot. The UK was ranked in 10th place in 2011, 5th place in 2012 and 3rd place in 2013.

UK Chancellor, George Osborne, has set his sights on the number one spot in the Global Innovation Index and has said that the investment the government is delivering in science will ensure that new scientific talent is nurtured and that innovation is promoted.

NGI’s Baker told IM that by creating the supply chain necessary for graphene material, products and applications, the UoM has the potential to create a "Graphene City" type opportunity which has "potential to strengthen the UK’s position in the Global Innovation Index." 

NGU2 

The Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre will be designed to complement the NGI (pictured).
Courtesy of the University of Manchester 

As a result of this plan, a second building is being developed as part of Graphene City, which the UoM says will be critical in the development of commercial applications and in maintaining the UK’s leading position in graphene and 2D materials.

Designed to complement the NGI, work on creating a £60m Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre, or GEIC, is now underway.

"[The GEIC] will further support the UK’s leadership position in the graphene and 2D materials research and development by the acceleration and development of graphene and 2D material applications," Baker told IM.

"It will provide a world class centre and capability for process engineering and scale-up of graphene and related 2D materials and applications in composites, energy, membranes, electronic and solution formulations and coatings," he added.

The GEIC will be 8,000m2 and is planned to open at the end of 2017.

Funding for the project will come from Innovate UK (£5m), the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s UK Research Partnership Investment Fund (£15m), and from Masdar, the Abu Dhabi-based renewable energy company owned by Mubadala (£30m). Additional funding will be provided by other research funds and institutions. 

The UoM and Masdar Institute, the research-intensive university that is a key pillar of the Masdar Initiative, have also begun identifying joint graphene application research and fellowship programmes, which will focus on industrial applications for graphene across a range of sectors.

"We are working closely with our partners on the GEIC and have set up an industry advisory panel which is supporting the design and potential operating model of the GEIC in 2017," Baker told IM.

"We currently have more than 20 industry partners who are supporting this and have potential to join the GEIC once opened," he added.

The GEIC facility will stimulate the commercial redevelopment of the UoM’s North Campus, creating a cornerstone for Graphene City and a wider advanced materials campus. The site is located just yards from Manchester stopping point of HS2, the UK’s next proposed high speed rail project, at Manchester Piccadilly Station and the further proposed HS3 link across the north, which was recently announced by the UK’s Chancellor.

NGU3 

Once constructed, the GEIC will join the NGI
(pictured) as part of the University of Manchester’s
"Graphene City".
Courtesy of the University of Manchester 

Finding that "killer" application

The developments taking place at the UoM are a clear sign that graphene, which was once considered a material that would only be seen within the confines of a scientific laboratory, is moving fast towards commercial realisation.

Indeed, over the past two years graphene conferences and publications have concentrated on the many potential applications for this "wonder material" across a range of markets and products.

"The pace of development is very fast and already you are seeing some simple graphene-enhanced products like tennis rackets, lubricants and mobile phones," Baker told IM. He added that one of the university’s partners is close to launching a graphene-enhanced LED light bulb and that we are also starting to see graphene appear in composites and inks.

However, Baker explained that some of the bigger applications are still a number of years away and it is "difficult to predict the 'killer’ application".

"You are seeing that those companies who are starting to engage with the NGI and the UoM are finding novel new properties or potential applications for graphene, which are much closer to market," Baker said.

"Key challenges still exist however in achieving scale-up and producing affordable, repeatable applications, which is essential if commercialisation will be successful." 

*Conversion made March 2015