Blog: Accelerating UK Materials Innovation

Allan Cook, Chair of the Materials Innovation Leadership Group and David Knowles, CEO, Henry Royce Institute

The development of a National Materials Innovation Strategy is now firmly underway, and we are in the process of drawing on the UK’s research community across industry and academia, to seek out the key opportunities in materials innovation necessary to allow the UK to accelerate and excel in a challenging, dynamic global technology market.

New and improved materials have a significant impact on our lives. Next generation materials for batteries are transforming electric car production, developments in semiconductors mean more efficient electronic devices and catalytic coatings for electrolysers are at the heart of the embryonic “green” hydrogen economy.

Advanced Bioprinting is allowing us to sculpt biomaterials into 3D biological constructs that replicate human tissues and organs. Skin, bones, blood vessels and even mini-organs have been 3D printed – while these are not yet approved for human use it will surely be a matter of time before this process will be acceptable.

Of course, developments in materials science will also drive innovation in our ability to extend the useful life of and recycle a growing range of materials – from plastics to metals – in a much more sustainable manner.

Materials Science is a field that has delivered a vast range of product innovations and has the potential to deliver much more. Covering the design, production, in-service performance and recycling of materials from the nano to the human-scale, it also sees new material combinations creating properties that are completely different to the individual constituents.

Above all, materials research, development and innovation offers solutions that could solve the enormous challenges we face in areas such as energy, health, electronics and sustainable use of our global resources.

So with so much already happening why do we need a new National Materials Innovation Strategy?

Firstly, materials underpin manufacturing, and the UK is one of the largest global manufacturing nations, contributing £203 billion every year to GVA and supporting 5 million jobs. 84% of this manufacturing takes place outside of London and the Southeast.

Secondly, although it is acknowledged that advanced material’s research is a UK strength, we must improve our approach to commercialisation. The National Material Innovation Strategy will be aimed firmly at placing much more emphasis on closing this gap to ensure that the UK is a front runner in embedding materials innovation into our manufacturing, energy and health sectors.

Thirdly it will break down the barriers between historic sectors and research, development and commercialisation activities – creating greater coherency and accelerating the material development cycle. Importantly, sectors which have commonalities will come together to discuss their materials needs, which in turn will potentially give rise to those key opportunities for the UK.

And finally, we need an urgent consensus on where and when we invest – public and private time and funds – in materials. Such investment is not just needed in materials R&D, but in scale-up facilities, skills and education, regulation and Standards.

Ultimately, a National Strategy for Materials Innovation is needed to deliver a coherent approach across Government, academia, industry and the wider materials technology community. A clear strategy which delivers key focus areas for investment in materials, and also has the potential to unlock industrial and regional growth.

The process of strategy development will provide us with a top down view and form the key priorities to address – with circularity, sustainability and the continued digital revolution (Materials 4.0) cutting through all of the opportunity areas. The ultimate aim is to accelerate the delivery of high impact technical solutions from the materials innovations identified.

Cluster Working Groups

The Materials Innovation Leadership Group, after considerable debate and discussion, has agreed on the following cross-sector clusters which will be aligned into working groups:

  • Packaging, Fashion and Consumer goods (high volume FMCG)
  • Foundation Industries (steel, glass, ceramics, cement, paper, pulp)
  • Chemicals and decarbonisation (catalysis, coatings, formulation, materials processing,/reprocessing – incorporating circularity/end of life, carbon-reduction, precision chemicals)
  • Energy  (nuclear, oil and gas, hydrogen, renewables, traditional power, large-scale energy storage & infrastructure)
  • Electronics (Solar, ICT, data industries, quantum technologies, calorics)
  • Life Sciences (pharma, medtech, agritech and food)
  • Equipment & Machinery (structural engineering, defence, analytical equipment)
  • Transport (aerospace, space, marine, automotive, rail)
  • Built Environment/Building & Construction (large-scale infrastructure, domestic housing)

Defence has a significant demand for materials innovation and sits in most of these clusters; it will therefore be represented across several of them in order to ensure we take account of the sector’s many and varied needs.

Each Working Group will have a Sponsor to represent the Cluster, to ensure visibility and bring confidence in the conclusions.  At this point in the Strategy process, the Working Groups will focus on the required applications and classes of materials, and potential solutions to industrial needs (and in turn consumer and industrial buyer needs) and not specific materials, indeed at this stage the idea is that these groups would almost be “materials agnostic”.

The discussions will also be framed to consider materials innovations that might support ongoing important challenges such as degradation and corrosion – in other words, they will look at major industrial challenges as well as key applications.

This process will give rise to a series of materials opportunities – and decoupling the Strategy from sectors will form the next iteration of our work.  It will ensure that materials developments proposed are viable and sustainable across the economy, rather than sitting as a potential innovation in one sector only.  That is not to say sectors will not have an important say – of course their needs will be at the heart of the opportunities we define.

Such innovations will require a detailed Action Plan, which will be an important consideration in ensuring the Strategy’s recommendations are expedited.

The Strategy will also be aligned into key UK policy missions, so that we make sure that the brilliant material science foundation we have in the UK can, through innovation, evolve into new products and services that meet national priorities.

This process will prioritise material innovations which will deliver maximum benefit for the country, with the following key Policy drivers:

  • Achieving net zero
  • Developing a high-wage, highly skilled workforce
  • Strengthening the UK as a global technology leader
  • Rebalancing the UK economy
  • Supporting national resilience and security
  • Enabling healthy, happy lives

In view of the UK’s ambitious 2050 commitments and continued global uncertainty, we know that we must move ahead at pace and deliver next generation materials in a sustainable manner with less reliance on the availability of critical resources and in much shorter timescales than achieved previously.

On a final note, this Strategy is cognisant of the UK’s Critical Minerals Strategy and the important work that is going on in this arena. Government and other key stakeholders will be invited to input to the materials technology requirements which will be identified in the National Materials Innovation Strategy.