Creating Graphene City

  • Graphene is a wonder material poised to revolutionise multiple sectors, from aeronautics, construction, electronics and medicine to sports and leisure
  • Attracting global attention, it represents a bright future for British industry with investors and innovators flocking to Manchester to develop its potential
  • James Baker, Chief Executive Officer for Graphene@Manchester, shares his insight.

There’s a huge buzz around graphene. Why is it so exciting?

Graphene is the start of a revolution in multifunctional 2D materials technology.

Graphene itself is a single atom-thick crystal extracted from graphite - a very familiar, every day material we use every time we pick up a pencil. Before 2004, it wasn’t thought possible to isolate graphene as a stable, stand-alone material, but in 2004, that’s exactly what scientists Novoselov and Geim demonstrated right here at The University of Manchester [they went on to win the Nobel Prize in 2010 for their work].

The isolation of graphene was just the beginning. It allowed scientists to explore the properties of this extremely thin material. It’s unusually electro-conductive, extremely flexible, stretchable and lightweight, but a single layer is 200 times stronger than steel. Graphene can be layered on top of graphene, or added to enhance other materials. Just imagine its potential.

Most exciting, this has paved the way for researchers to isolate other 2D materials, which can then be combined with graphene and each other. That’s where innovation that can seem the stuff of science-fiction lies! 

So where is graphene in terms of its development?

Is it currently being used? At this point, graphene isn’t new but it’s still only a teenager in terms of its development. It’s been around 14 years since its discovery and while some potential has been explored, it usually takes around 25 years to develop viable, marketable products.

Graphene innovations are already enhancing existing products. For example, layers of graphene are being applied to training shoes and mountain bike tyres, improving grip and longevity.

The National Graphene Institute in Manchester is all about exploring this early, innovative science and developing prototypes in wide ranging areas. It’s looking at how composites can be applied to the aerospace industry, while at the same time applying waterproof and conductive 2D to wearable tech. In the near future, we’ll be expanding into electronics and medical applications. 

Laing O’Rourke is about to handover the Graphene Engineering and Innovation Centre (GEIC). What does this mean for Graphene and 2D innovation?

Alongside the National Graphene Institute, the GEIC houses Graphene@Manchester, a £121m research and development campus in Manchester. The GEIC element will combine laboratory research with space for manufacturing and industry to take 2D to the next level, far quicker than our global competitors.  

The innovation process is like a game of snakes and ladders: ideas build up through painstaking work over time, but can suddenly reach a point where they fail, taking you right back to square one. The GEIC will be an accelerator for this: a place where we can quickly take “blue sky” ideas to the factory floor, test them out, gauge repeatability and interrogate how they work. We find out what does and doesn’t work, at speed.

Like California’s Silicon Valley has been for tech start-ups, we see Manchester as an innovation hub for graphene and 2D innovation. The GEIC will provide a collaborative environment for academics and businesses of all sizes to work together. More than just buildings, it’s about partnerships, PhD research, projects that will disrupt industry. It’s creating a Graphene City, here in Manchester.

James Baker joined the University in 2014, having spent 25 years in industry where, most recently, he was Vice-President of Technology Collaboration Programmes and Managing Director of the Advanced Technology Centres for BAE Systems in the UK.

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