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Innovative materials - the road to revenue

Fibre Glass

22 Mar 2016

Organised by the Knowledge Centre Materials Chemistry (KCMC) and taking place on 11 February 2016 in London, the Materials for the future: from chemistry to application event saw a range of experts from the materials sector, universities and agencies such as Innovate UK, SCI partner organisation, the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), and SCI come together to discuss innovative solutions and strategies to enhance UK productivity within materials technology.

The Knowledge Centre Materials Chemistry (KCMC) - funded in part by the government’s Innovate UK, as a partnership between the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) and universities - was founded seven years ago to provide industry with access to expertise in materials chemistry from the universities of Liverpool, Manchester and Bolton, and the STFC Daresbury Laboratory in Cheshire. Last year Bristol University joined its ranks. Composites, energy and atom-scale materials design are KCMC’s current focus and, in common with its two overarching bodies, it is in the business of bringing together academics, industry and government to get innovative science to the marketplace.

And with good reason. Despite a world-class science base in the UK, productivity has dropped in the past 8 years, from a 60-year period of linear growth.

At least part of the solution to the UK’s productivity problem lies in improving the country’s ability to exploit its science. According to Ruth McKernan, CEO of Innovate UK, speaking at KCMC’s network meeting Materials for the future: from chemistry to application: ‘Innovation is the key driver of productivity. Statistics show that innovation contributes up to 50% of all labour productivity growth, and firms that persistently invest in R&D do a lot better in terms of productivity and exports.’

Since 2007, Innovate UK has invested more than £1.5bn in R&D, which has been matched by industry. ‘This funding has helped over 5000 companies grow and added an estimated £7.5m to the UK economy’, said McKernan. Central to the agency’s strategy is to accelerate economic growth by encouraging scale-up, particularly in SMEs, and develop new funding models to make public funds go further. ‘By the end of 2020, we are looking to provide £165m ‘alternative finance’ to business,’ said McKernan.

In line with government thinking, Innovate UK is also committed to growing ‘catapults’ across its national network. These centres, of which there are now 11, including the recently announced Compound Semiconductor Applications Catapult to be based in Wales, are bringing together businesses, scientists and engineers to work side by side on late stage R&D. ‘If we really want to improve productivity in the UK, it has to be through partnerships at every level,’ said McKernan.

The opportunity for using new materials and composites in the future to replace metals in a range of industries is huge. According to figures published by US market researchers Lucintel, the global composites market - which includes applications in aerospace, defence, transport, construction, marine, oil & gas, and renewables - totalled some $50bn in 2013 and is expected to reach $80bn by 2020. The UK needs to position itself carefully if it is to get its share of the action.

The automotive sector is growing the fastest in this space, driven by the need to meet the 2020 CO2 emission targets. From 2019, the EU will be charging a penalty of €95 for every gramme of CO2 per car, emitting over the 95gCO2 per km limit. The industry is therefore looking to use lighter composite materials - thermosets, thermoplastics, glass fibres and carbon fibres - in structures, wheels and brakes, suspensions and clutches and interiors. Here the industry-led Automotive Council is playing an important role in bringing academics, industrialists and government together. But, as Alison Starr, Executive Director of the National Composites Centre in Bristol, explained: ‘it’s not that simple - for every component, there are a whole raft of materials that need to be produced.’

A significant part of the production costs of an item are the cost of materials, and these new materials don’t come cheap. Any company changing from metals to new materials will also need to change their production infrastructure, which also comes at a cost. ‘If the UK is to compete in this market space, it will need to find ways to reduce these costs’, she said. Crucially, she added, though the UK has a strong product research base, it has gaps in the manufacturing supply chain, specifically with respect to the manufacture of resins, fibres and textiles necessary to meet the expected level of demand in the sector. ‘Without this capability, UK companies would be beholden to other companies outside the UK to commercialise their product,’ said Starr.

Mark Selby, Chief Technology Officer at Ceres Power agreed. In the energy sector, he said, ‘there are a significant number of independent fuel cell technologies in the UK all playing to slightly different technologies but they are all going to Asia, the US or Europe to commercialise their technology and generate revenue from the science base - and this is a real challenge for the UK. It doesn’t help this particular sector that the UK government has no clear energy policy when it comes to materials.’

Earlier this year, Ceres Power itself attracted investment from Honda in Japan for use of its Steel Cell technology in power generation stack systems, but there is much more to gain for the UK from this knowledge base. ‘The potential markets of this technology - from commercial power generators, though powering data centres and auxiliary power units for cars to microCHPs for residential homes - are all $100m businesses and worth investing in,’ stressed Selby.

The UK is not, however, without success in the materials space. Victrex is a good example of a high growth SME from the 1990’s which has benefitted from support through KCMC in recent years and positioned itself carefully in the market. Now a world leader in high-performance thermoplastics, the company had a record year in terms of revenue and profit, and has a market value of £1.5bn.

Victrex's key product, PEEK (polyether ether ketone) is available in powder, granule and products such as pipes and films for aerospace, automotive, oil & gas, electronics and medical applications. ‘We are particularly interested in areas where we can find value, such as in the manufacture of brackets and clips, explained John Grasmeder, Victrex’s Technical Director ‘[With such items] there’s a weight saving of 20-70% to be made as well as a cost saving of 40% and they are 30% faster to install [than ones made from metals or thermosets],’ he said.

Victrex’s new brackets are used in commercial aeroplanes manufactured by AirBus and Boeing - the 787, for example, has some 15000 clips and brackets - as well as in over 200m cars. ‘The success of this application’, said Grasmeder, ‘has created a new opportunity for us to expand to more load-bearing applications and environments that are more chemically and thermally challenging.’

However, to realise this opportunity Victrex has had to develop a new composite and a new process for using it, and whether its latest product adds to UK productivity will depend on whether it can be made in high volumes. ‘We now have to think about scale up and build a supply chain for our new composite,’ explained Grasmeder. ‘And there’s the added challenge of being able to predict the properties of our new composite in aggressive chemical and high temperature environments.’

‘There are internationally recognised standards and tests’, he said, but ‘we don’t know what happens beyond the test period, and this could represent too big a risk for our customers.’

Luckily, help is at hand - in the form of the Hartree Centre based in the Daresbury Laboratory in Cheshire, UK. The centre, which was founded in 2012 by the UK government in collaboration with IBM, is funded through STFC - the Science and Technology Facilities Council - and is the industrial gateway to UK high performance computing and data analytics research. Last year the government announced further investment to the tune of £313m to the centre which, said Adrian Toland, Business Development Manager at the centre, ‘will deepen the partnership between the Hartree Centre, KCMC and IBM.’

The focus of the centre is on data centric and cognitive computing to solve technical problems for industrial partners. The centre takes a collaborative approach to R&D, working with academia and industry, and ‘applies a flexible approach to IP, depending on partner needs,’ explained Toland.

A recent success of this model was witnessed earlier this year - with a project aimed at advanced digital design of drug therapies. This £20m UK government funded project with significant investment from pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer and GSK, set out to digitise the drug manufacturing process from API to final drug product. ‘Essentially what this has done’, said Toland, ‘is improve the knowledge value chain around manufacturing and shown that the UK is a much stronger manufacturing base for pharmaceutical companies.’

For Victrex, researchers at the Hartree Centre have developed the first quantum mechanical model of the PEEK molecule. When this is used in a simulated, aggressive environment of e.g. hydrogen sulfide in water, invaluable mechanistic data of what is happening to the polymer in that environment can be obtained. ‘Although this is at an early stage, we believe this technology has a significant role to play in future innovation, particularly in accelerating innovation,’ said Grassmeder.

‘Accelerating innovation’ has been identified as a priority area, alongside ‘securing competitive energy and feedstocks’, and ‘rebuilding the UK’s chemicals supply chains’ by the KTN’s Chemistry Growth Partnership (CGP). This chemicals industry-led group has its sights set on increasing the gross value added contribution of the chemicals industry to the UK economy by 50% from its 2013 value of £193bn to £300bn by 2030. ‘We will focus on SME engagement and value chain products in three strategic areas to accelerate innovation - industrial biotechnology, process intensification and high performance functional materials,’ explained KTN’s Steve Fletcher. ‘We need to improve how we manufacture things in the UK to improve productivity and make us more competitive; it won’t be a quick fix’.

The good news is that the UK has recognised its strengths and weaknesses in its capabilities to take products to market in this materials space and now has an infrastructure to support it. Government and private investment over the past few years has seen the establishment of centres like the National Graphene Institute (NGI) and the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC), together with the Sir Henry Royce Institute for Advanced Materials Research at Manchester University, and the Materials Innovation Factory at Liverpool University - all with industry and commercialisation in their sights. And KCMC is playing a valuable role in bringing all the players together to make the connections, to find out what industry needs and what universities can provide.

But there is still more to be done, crucially in marketing and understanding markets. As Grasmeder commented, marketing needs to be discussed before any technology is developed, otherwise a lot of time and money can be wasted. And marketing requires people with the right skills in both science and marketing, and here there is a skills gap that also needs to be addressed. There is also a need both for long-term investment from Government to give industry confidence to invest, and for a review of outdated regulations, which hinder progress.

Written by Kathryn Roberts

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