Graphene may well change the world but will it change Manchester?

Graphene City

I spent Thursday at the National Graphene Institute in Manchester at SME and Investor events. While the key applications of graphene appear to be composites, composites and more composites, there was a mood of optimism that graphene is now entering its teenage years and approaching some kind of maturity. Hopefully that will break the teenage addiction of most nanomaterials to the materials science equivalent of a X Box in the bedroom, the hope that dumping them into composites will make things stronger and lighter (though not necessarily cheaper).

The event ended with the kind of discussion that I’ve witnessed multiple times, about how to create a replica of Silicon Valley as a nanotech valley/polder/ridge/gulch, or in this case a Graphene City. It’s an interesting philosophical debate, but if anyone had figured out how to do it – and there have been scores of failed attempts over the past forty years – then it would have been done.

“Graphene City will be a district built around the people who will form the world’s first labour market highly skilled in 2D materials. Large firms will want to locate where they can access skills and world-class collaborators. Start-up companies and SMEs will face lower risks when they know they can recruit the people they need.”

One of the reasons that it won’t be done is that most of the people involved in graphene are far too nice – at least in contrast with Bill Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor and founder of one of the first semiconductor companies in what was to become Silicon Valley.

In addition to being a brilliant physicist, Shockley was a petty-minded tyrant who drove most of his talented engineers to leave the company and set up rival operations out of spite and anger. While Shockley became increasingly obsessed with proving that Afro-Americans had lower IQs than those of European descent, his former employees got on with setting up companies like Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel.

The other reason is that while there is a critical mass of people and facilities in Manchester working on graphene, and increasingly other 2D materials, the applications seem simply too diverse to sustain a non-academic cluster. Once the science is done, it’s done, and companies need talent to apply and engineer materials so that they can scale up for specific markets. In the case of G2O it’s the water industry, and for others it may be semiconductors or displays, or composites, or medical devices. In each case there needs to be a very strong case made to locate businesses close to the home of graphene, otherwise they will locate close to existing hubs of application expertise or end markets.

The University of Manchester is addressing this with the GEIC, and perhaps just over the Pennines there is a model that works.

Advanced Materials City

Friday meant the launch of a Northern Powerhouse meeting at the Advanced Materials Research Centre in Sheffield. Yes, the Northern Powerhouse is still very much alive, although as John Mothersole, CEO of Sheffield City Council commented, the Westminster government will have its hands full for the next few years with Brexit, so it is for the region of create its own destiny.

The Bessemer Society, where I chair the Northern region, will be holding events in both Sheffield and Liverpool early next year, as we try to understand how the AMRC has been so successful at involving a wide range of high tech companies, and recently onshoring McLaren.

The CEO of the AMRC, Colin Sirett talked through the history of the AMRC, moving from an abandoned industrial wasteland to one of the world leading high tech engineering centres and this holds lessons for graphene city.

The AMRC was established in 2001 as a £15 million collaboration between the University of Sheffield and aerospace giant Boeing, with support from Yorkshire Forward and the European Regional Development Fund.

The success of the AMRC was based on three pillars, Firstly the vision and dogged determinism of the creators, Keith Ridgeway and Adrian Allen, who also managed to bring in Boeing as an early lead partner giving confidence to other companies to join. Secondly the close cooperation with the University of Sheffield which has resulted in an engineering education centre spanning apprenticeships to PhDs. Most significantly, the AMRC benefited from significant support from Sheffield City Council and the Sheffield City Region.

This has resulted in an integrated strategy involving skills, industry and infrastructure and as a result the AMRC is going from strength to strength.

Mega Cities

I was feeling cautiously optimistic about 2D materials as I headed back to Manchester on Saturday for a reception at the Chinese Consul General, Dr. Sun Dali’s residence to mark the beginning of the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China. As the only non-Chinese guest it was a fascinating experience, especially the state of the art karaoke machine which features in many Chinese celebrations.

“Once you conquer the Chinese market then the rest of the world is easy”

After spending time discussing advanced materials with a number of delegates I realised the huge gap in ambition between the UK and China. China can build a high-speed rail line in three years, and then upgrade it from 300km/h to 400 km/h whereas the UK version will take 30 years, and the total investment in the AMRC and all of Manchester’s graphene buildings is insignificant by Chinese standards.

While explaining G2O’s business model, I began to understand why licencing models aren’t attractive to Chinese investors. “Never mind licencing” one Chinese entrepreneur told me, “just partner with a Chinese company to manufacture it and you’ll sell a hundred million units a year. Once you conquer the Chinese market then the rest of the world is easy.”

Designed in Manchester, Made in China could be the fastest way to scale the adoption of 2D materials.

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