Designing materials from the molecule up

Demands on manufactured materials are changing and companies must collaborate across industry and with chemical scientists to develop new, high performance materials from the molecule up says John Conti-Ramsden from the Knowledge Centre for Materials Chemistry

Growing understanding of the molecular properties of materials is allowing the design and manufacture of new materials that fulfil the rapidly advancing requirements of a range of industries.

We’re able to produce superior polymers with a high strength to weight ratio for the automotive manufacturers, new high efficiency energy storage materials in batteries and fuel cells, and innovative plastics that are able to act as sensors for point-of-care devices in healthcare.

These advances all require an in-depth knowledge of fundamental chemistry. For example, in the chemical interactions between polymer and fibre in composites and in the design of catalysts for electron transfer in fuel cells. A fundamental understanding of the atomic structure and interactions at the molecular level is driving innovation in materials manufacturing where manufacturers are working closely with chemists.

15% of the UK’s GDP comes from businesses that produce and process materials

But it isn’t just materials manufacturers that are calling for new materials. Advances in other sectors, such as electronics, often require simultaneous advances in material science in order for novel components to function efficiently.

For example, materials are being developed for power electronics to allow new gallium nitride semiconductors to function when in situ inside a device. We’re seeing a range of manufacturing sectors working with materials chemists to develop an overall product performance specification from the bottom up.

Making a material difference

The UK is a fantastic place to develop and manufacture new materials, and the impact of this trickles through to the wider manufacturing industry.

Advanced materials are one of David Willetts’ ‘eight great technologies’ and government financial support for research and development is generous.

High-performance materials have a real potential to generate revenue. Fifteen per cent

"Advanced materials are one of David Willetts’ ‘eight great technologies’ and government financial support for research and development is generous."

of the UK’s GDP currently comes from businesses that produce and process materials and advanced materials are the building blocks of tomorrow’s fuel-efficient aeroplanes, low-energy electronics and nanomaterials for healthcare products. Investing in developing materials will drive growth in a range of manufacturing sectors with high growth potential.

Businesses in the UK that produce, process, fabricate and recycle materials form a critical element in the high value manufacturing supply chain. We’re lucky to have an excellent knowledge base in the UK where manufactures can collaborate with academic experts in materials chemistry, to develop entirely new materials and improve existing advanced materials.

Sharing risk for more reward

The development and uptake of advanced materials is not without its challenges.

Fear of change can hold industries back that should be embracing new techniques to stay ahead of the game.

Add to this the timescales of development and the perceived cost advantage of products from overseas, and embracing these new technologies can be daunting.

But it mustn’t be. If we encourage the businesses developing materials, there are advantages to the developer, to the manufacturers who incorporate them, to the end users, and to the economy as a whole.

A key part of this is working together. We need to bring together the academic expertise with the businesses commercialising these technologies. We need to link these to government support programmes and eventual purchasers.

Demonstrating how this can be done, the Knowledge Centre for Materials Chemistry (KCMC) recently brought together the manufacturer Nanoco and researchers from the University of Liverpool.

Nanoco has spent years developing semiconductor quantum dot fluorescent nanoparticles and needed to extend their lifetime with retained optical performance.

Materials scientists and chemists worked to modify the nanoparticle structure and support process development. Nanoco is now integrating this technology into development programmes with applications including LED lighting and displays, solar cells and bio-imaging devices.

As this example illustrates, materials manufacturers do not innovate best in isolation. Competing internationally and realising growth potential will require continual development of existing products, the introduction of novel properties and a holistic approach to materials and components.

To stay on the leading edge manufacturers must work with other companies and relevant academic experts.

There is a role for everyone to play here. Materials innovators need to recognise that they stand to benefit from the experience of others. Academia must share its expertise to ensure it translates into valuable products.

And end users must inform themselves about the innovations in the UK that could bring advantage to their business and engage with them to help ensure their eventual product solves real world problems.

There’s a huge amount of expertise in the UK, in universities and in companies, and by connecting these strengths and fostering collaborative research and development we can link up the materials manufacturing supply chain and get the fundamental chemistry right before taking new materials in to new markets.