The importance of Manchester’s “Graphene City”

By Emma Hughes
Published: Friday, 20 March 2015

Graphene has continued to generate a buzz in both research and mining communities over the past year as companies search for that killer application that will bring the nano-material out of laboratories and into the commercial mainstream. Emma Hughes, Special Projects Editor, looks at how Manchester is leading the charge in the UK.

The UK has fallen behind its European neighbours in the development of new technology innovations. In fact, a report penned by technology entrepreneur Hermann Hauser in late 2014 said that the UK is still "playing catch up" with other countries.

According to Hauser, other areas of the world, such as Germany, have more established support for spin-outs and these schemes are better funded.

It might come as a surprise to some, then, that one of the UK’s largest cities is leading the way in the research and development (R&D) of one of the most talked-about discoveries of the 21st Century.

Graphene, the thinnest, lightest, strongest, two-dimensional material known to humankind, was first isolated by The University of Manchester (UoM) in 2004. Since then, a tumultuous amount of interest has snowballed behind this "wonder material".

The reason nanotechnology researchers are so excited is that graphene opens up a whole new class of materials with unique electronic, optical and mechanical properties. 

Today, 11 years since UoM researchers first proved the existence of graphene, a total of £121m ($179m*) has been invested in creating what the university hopes will become a "Graphene City".

The National Graphene Institute

Construction of the first building in Graphene City began in June 2013 when BAM Construction broke ground on what would become the National Graphene Institute (NGI), a hub of graphene R&D.

To date, the NGI has received £61m in investment, with £38m in funding from the UK government via the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and £23m from the European Regional Development Fund.

The building which houses the institute, and is set to open in early 2015, will see university scientists and commercial partners working side-by-side on future applications using graphene.

"[The NGI] will support the development of applications and business opportunities through partnership with industry, the commercialisation of intellectual property and the provision of highly skilled people with both scientific and entrepreneurial skills," James Baker, the NGI’s business director told IM.


Building the £61m National Graphene Institute was "no easy task".
Courtesy of the University of Manchester

NGI specifications

With a total area of 7,825m2, including 1,500m2 of cleanrooms as well as laboratory and office space, the NGI will undertake collaborative research into graphene and related 2D materials in partnership with industry. 

According to BAM Construction, actually constructing this space was "no easy task", as there were several unique specifications to bear in mind.

Since the NGI will house scientists working on highly-sensitive experiments, one important consideration was minimising vibration, which could affect test results. BAM overcame this issue by designing and constructing two structurally independent frames under one roof. 

"The structure is not overdesigned but it needs the mass to achieve the vibration criteria," explained BAM’s construction manager, Tony Grindrod. "The vibration control has pushed the structural design towards a heavy concrete frame".

Inside the NGI, two high technical specification cleanrooms have been fitted according to International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) standards 5 and 6. These are located on separate floors.

A "clean lift" linking these two cleanroom areas has been fitted with an integrated fan filter to avoid contamination and to remove the need for researchers to de-gown between the two spaces.

For gas, specialist chemical supplies and standard electrics and ventilation, which are all required in the research rooms, "the scale and sophistication of the institute’s mechanical and electrical systems wouldn’t have been possible without a forensically-detailed BIM model," Grindrod said.

"It has been an indispensable resource in securing speed, efficiency and early clash detection within mechanical and electrical apparatus". 

NGI developments

While building the NGI has taken two years to complete, graphene developments in preparation for its opening have been multifarious. 

Baker explained that the UoM currently has more than 35 industrial partnerships working on graphene projects and applications.

"This has grown significantly over previous months and is expected to double over the next 12 months and following the opening of the NGI," he told IM.

In mid-November 2014, the UoM and the National Physical Laboratory signed a memorandum of understanding to help with the commercialisation of graphene, an issue that has been a dominant theme at graphene conferences and events over the past two years.

The agreement will see the two organisations working together on the development of graphene metrology, characterisation and standards vital to industry uptake, with a view to establishing a Joint Centre of Excellence.

In December 2014, Morgan Advanced Materials and 2D-Tech agreed long-term research collaborations with the NGI, joining more than 35 partners already working on graphene research and commercialisation projects with the UoM.

Earlier in that same year, Morgan Advanced Materials announced a separate joint development agreement with the UoM, aimed at scaling up a new process for manufacturing graphene.