Today, we commence a month-long focus on research on advanced materials. To begin, materials scientist Professor Mark Blamire and engineer Professor Bill O’Neill discuss how research in Cambridge is helping to advance the material world.

The collaborations of research teams from the basic sciences with those responsible for the development of engineering advances and the manufacturing systems are an example of the kind that are essential if basic materials research is to have a positive impact on UK economic growth

Mark Blamire and Bill O’Neill

Everything is made of something, yet, during the past century, the scientific and technological importance of materials has not been widely appreciated. Indeed, even though historical materials breakthroughs such as the development of steel to replace wrought iron had enormous commercial impacts, the term ‘advanced materials’ was coined only comparatively recently.

Although much of the development underpinned by advanced materials remains invisible to the general public – for example the requirement for high dielectric constant gate materials for ultra-small transistors and advanced alloys to improve the efficiency of jet engines – a lot is now literally in one’s face such as scratch-resistant glass for smart-phone screens and optoelectronic polymers for displays.

In many cases it is not the material itself which is ‘advanced’ but rather the manufacturing processes required either to create it or to integrate it with other materials. Sapphire, for example, has been recognised and used for thousands of years but the ability to create and machine large, perfect crystals has enabled it to be used as the substrate for the growth of gallium nitride (GaN) films for light-emitting diodes and soon to provide even more scratch-resistance for the smart-phone. In Cambridge, this too is advancing, with the more economically viable silicon replacing sapphire for GaN growth.

The economic importance of advanced materials was recently highlighted by a key Government statement as one of the “eight great technologies” crucial for the UK’s future success. UK businesses that produce and process materials are essential to the UK economy. They employ over 2.6 million people, and represent 11% of the country’s Gross Value Added with a turnover of £140 billion per annum and exports valued at £46 billion in 2013.

Cambridge is at the forefront of UK materials research and is investing heavily in the area: the University’s West Cambridge site is now home to the brand new building housing the Department of Materials Science and construction is under way for the Maxwell Centre – designed as a research hub to promote partnership between the physical sciences and industry – and a bespoke facility to host the Cambridge Graphene Centre with additional spaces for large-area electronics

Materials activities, across many University departments, range from the most blue-sky basic research through to the translation of the results into industrial processes. For example what began a decade ago as basic studies of the properties of carbon nanotubes has evolved through the invention in Cambridge of a process for manufacturing macroscopic nanotube fibres into research programmes aimed at using this material as a structural reinforcement for body armour and as a potential replacement for copper as an electrical wire.

Cambridge has often developed networks of research interconnections that have led to the acceleration of research outputs and the rapid translation of cutting-edge research into high-level economic impact. The collaborations of research teams from the basic sciences engaged in the creation of new materials with those responsible for the development of engineering advances and the manufacturing systems required to produce new products are an example of the kind of collaborations that are essential if basic materials research is to have a positive impact on UK economic growth. 

Advanced materials have always played a central part in the success of products and systems. With the world marching towards even higher levels of personal and data interconnectivity, the demand for advanced materials and products is set to continue. The new infrastructural developments on the West and North West Cambridge site, is set to provide Cambridge even greater opportunities for establishing multidisciplinary research networks that are required to produce the advances in materials that are much sought after by UK and global industries.

Professor Mark Blamire is head of the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy; Professor Bill O’Neill is in the Institute for Manufacturing and Director of the Centre for Industrial Photonics.

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