The chemistry behind innovation

Posted on 11 May 2015 by Jonny Williamson

Jonny Williamson chats with John Conti- Ramsden, director of the Knowledge Centre for Materials Chemistry.

John Conti-Ramsden, director, Knowledge Centre for Materials Chemistry
John Conti-Ramsden, director, Knowledge Centre for Materials Chemistry.

It’s been estimated that upwards of 15% of the UK’s GDP comes from businesses that produce and process materials, combining to result in a total turnover of £170bn and exports worth £50bn.

Thanks to connections strengthening between research institutions and industry, a fundamental understanding of the atomic structure and interactions at the molecular level is helping to drive innovation.

A key figure helping to create these connections is John Conti-Ramsden, director of the Knowledge Centre for Materials Chemistry (KCMC). Officially launched in 2009, the KCMC aims to drive industrial growth for the UK chemistry-using industries through the development and application of cutting-edge materials research.

“Materials have a vast range of manufacturing activities and applications in the UK, and there’s an ever increasing number of opportunities given the growth of the nation’s industry,”Conti-Ramsden enthuses.

“Take a modern smartphone apart, for example, and you’ll find many of the materials used in its manufacture are relatively new; but you can’t just incorporate these materials, you first have to understand their properties, how they react and interact with each other and the user.”

An ongoing challenge, according to Conti-Ramsden, is that though chemistry and material sciences play a pivotal role across almost every industrial sector, people’s awareness of their importance remains relatively low.

An ongoing challenge is that people's awareness of materials chemistry remains relatively low.
An ongoing challenge is that people’s awareness of materials chemistry remains relatively low.

Companies who manufacturer a final product often want to discuss the item in its entirety, they don’t necessarily want to talk about the technology and materials that go into its assembly.

“It’s absolutely critical that when a new product is launched and celebrated, the same if not more focus is placed on the micro-innovations behind that finished item,” he says. “To raise the profile of materials chemistry, it’s obviously very important to discuss the role it plays as much as possible and embed it in people’s consciousness.”

The major areas of industrial growth for the UK – automotive, aerospace and construction – are clearly where this conversation needs to happen or continue to occur, particularly as the use of plastics and composites are helping to revolutionise the automotive and aerospace sectors.

“It’s also critically important that we raise the profile of materials chemistry with government and promote innovation,” the director adds. “What’s encouraging is that the number of manufacturers who recognise the importance of innovation in materials and the opportunities it provides is rising.”

The KCMC aims to drive industrial growth for the UK chemistry-using industries.

According to Conti-Ramsden, now is an ideal time to become actively involved in you aren’t already; though he warns that identifying the correct time for a manufacturer to become involved in the product development cycle can prove tricky.

“When you look at innovation for something like a hybrid fuel cell, you have to bring so many different elements together – new materials, innovation and technology – that it makes it quite complicated,” he explains.

“It centres on getting the right people and companies together at the right time so that they can develop a successful business proposition, not just for the end user, but for the developer and, critically, the wider innovation landscape.”

For those looking to engage with innovation, and materials chemistry specifically, at a deeper level, Conti-Ramsden highlights that there’s a wide range of opportunities that currently exist.

“Many universities involved in relevant research have become more aware of the need to engage with industry, so it’s always worth reaching out to those who seek to push the envelope and develop new technologies, applications, and markets.”

Conti-Ramsden predicts that one of the big trends of the next decade is going to come from the computational model – computational techniques to enable companies to operate more effectively, efficiently and predictably.

“There’s been a huge rise in interest in using the latest computational model to try and achieve these goals, and what’s finally starting to happen in terms of materials – though it’s already happened quite widely across the engineering and design community – is the application of these advanced techniques.”