A 2-D world: accelerating ideas into reality faster to create a more resilient and sustainable world

COVID-19 is turning the way we do research and innovation on its head, accelerating the journey from idea to reality.

The Manchester model of innovation – fail fast or learn and move on rapidly – has never been more important.

2D materials like the award-winning graphene, first isolated at Manchester, can lead the way to a more sustainable recovery in industries reeling from the pandemic, such as aerospace.

And COVID-19 has provided the unexpected impetus to transform the speed at which research and discovery is turned into products and applications – taking months rather than years – in some of the most rapid examples of commercialisation ever seen.

Recorded in August 2020


Lecture transcript

Hello. I'm James Baker, CEO of Graphene at Manchester. I'm delighted to be talking here today on the COVID Catalyst campaign.

Graphene - first discovered in The University of Manchester in 2004, by two scientists, using sticky tape and graphite. If you peel that, many, many times, you can isolate a single atomic layer of carbon - graphene.

So what? Since then, they got the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2010. But now, 16 years since that first isolation, we've seen a real acceleration of the products and applications using graphene and other two-dimensional materials.

Recently, we had the COVID-19 situation, and we went into lockdown. And there was a real concern that during the lockdown, clearly, we weren't able to continue the progression of applications and products because our labs were shut down.

But I'm absolutely amazed at the amount of innovation that's taking place, through engagement with partners, both existing and new partners, about how they might use this graphene and new advanced materials into their various products and applications.

And indeed, we've now adopted this new world of innovation online, using tools like Zoom and Teams to get people together to discuss free webinars, through discussions about how graphene can impact new products and applications in the marketplace.

As we're coming out of lockdown, we're now starting to move back to our labs and the Manchester model of innovation has never been more important. Post COVID, we're now seeing new factors increasingly important for customers and industry. Things like new supply chains, how they now actually might do a local supply chain for things like personal equipment, PPE, through to actually being used in local manufacture.

Sustainability is also a key driver going forward, with the target in the UK to be carbon neutral by 2050, and in Manchester by 2038. Sustainability and environmental impact is increasingly a consideration for industry when looking for innovation around products and new materials.

So the Manchester model of innovation, this whole design, make and validate, what we often refer to as make or break, or the acceleration from the discovery, through to products and applications, is core to what we do here in Manchester, and around advanced materials, graphene and 2D materials, in particular.

If I just talk about one particular case study, I look at aerospace. Clearly, if you look at COVID and its huge impact to people not flying, which has had a severe impact to the aerospace industry, with huge layoffs taking place across the sector.

However, going back to sustainability, there's also a drive to have more environmentally friendly aircraft by the mid 2030s. To do that, we'll probably need a drive away from conventional engines into maybe, hydrogen or electric hybrid aircraft.

But they also need to be lighter weight, so they can have longer range, with less fuel and less emissions and less noise going forward.

So graphene and 2D materials can play a key role in supporting that ambition of greener aircraft by the mid-2030s. But to do that, we have to operate very differently than we have done traditionally.

Traditionally can take many years from discovery through to prototype, through to production, through to mass production, and we now have to do that very differently and I see post-COVID a real opportunity to adopt advanced materials by working closely with the supply chain of aerospace, but also doing things in a much more aggressive way, in terms of make or break, adding graphene into a compositing example, to see how we optimise that mix.

If it fails, fail fast and learn, move on and rapidly innovate to go forward. So overall, I'm seeing some real challenges post-COVID. But actually I can see some real opportunities - aerospace being one example.

But also, we're working with partners who traditionally, we would have probably taken three or four months to talk to them, arrange a meeting face-to-face to come and visit. Now, through tools like Zoom and Webex, we're doing online tours.

We're actually talking to people across different time zones. One of our recent partners started during lockdown conversations and already we're working on the first projects, and we aim to launch the first product in Q1 of next year, 2021.

If we achieve that over six or seven months, that'll be one of the most rapid examples of commercialisation that I'm aware of, taking it from the lab, through prototype, into production in months, not years, will be a key measure of this post-COVID resilience going forward.

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