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Innovate UK

The fuzzy edged world of Advanced Materials

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The Advanced Materials programme at Innovate UK sits within the Enabling Technologies team and contributes to many sectors, from aerospace to chemicals production to electronics - it underpins nearly 1/3 of all UK manufacturing, and the market for value-add materials is set to increase from €100bn in 2008 to €186bn in 2020 and €316bn in 2030 [1].

Bulletproof super hard glass based on structured nanocrystals
Bulletproof super hard glass based on structured nanocrystals

Time to refresh our Advanced Material strategy

Our previous strategy has come to an end, and so we’ll be refreshing it in the coming months.

Advanced Materials is a broad church, and attempts to categorise exactly what is and isn’t an advanced material often fall into the space of “I know it when I see it” rather than following any strict definition or boundaries. This keeps my job interesting!

Looking at what tech does not what it is

As Paul pointed out in his blog post on Emerging Technologies, most people don’t care what a technology is - they care about what it does for them. As a member of the general public and a user of technology, I feel the same way. As a Technologist for Advanced Materials at Innovate UK, however, I also need to keep an eye on new “stuff” that shows promise, even if I may not yet be able to pinpoint what exactly it will do for me.

I am interested in how a material behaves and what new functions it will bring to current and future technologies. And these technologies can vary from high-tech sportswear and medical textiles to mobile phones and jet engines.

Jet engine under maintenance
Jet engine under maintenance

Can the Advanced Material be manufactured in a sustainable way?

We have to look at whether a new material can be manufactured, and that this can be done in a sustainable way. (If a new wonder material requires the equivalent of unicorn-riding virgins distilling it from the morning dew found on a rare flower growing only on the southern faces of the Italian Alps, we may need to think carefully about the scale-up and long-term market for it.)

The advanced materials strategies in countries such as the USA, Japan and Germany are inextricably intertwined with their manufacturing strategies. In the UK, we must look more closely at where in the value chain we can best work and extract profit and productivity from.

Our Advanced Materials strategy

Our Advanced Materials strategy therefore tries to cover:

  • what can new “stuff” do: are there gaps in the current landscape, in the various sectors important to the UK, in the societal grand challenge areas, where advanced materials may contribute and solve a problem?
  • what’s new and promising: has the research base discovered a material or class of materials which has the potential to transform multiple applications and sectors and become a true enabling technology?
  • how to contribute to sustainability and security of critical raw materials: can a new material replace one which is difficult to source, or which is environmentally or economically unsustainable?
  • can we exploit these new materials faster: why wait for someone to “discover” a new material that solves your problem? - why can’t you use computer modelling and simulation to design a material tailored to your requirements? And then further use software to do your first pass at lifetime testing of a new product made from your material?

We’ll be taking all of this into account in our Advanced Materials programme in the next few years and this will be reflected in our new strategy. In the meantime, we’ll continue to speak to the community, both academic and industrial, to keep an eye on both what’s coming up from the research base and what new challenges companies are facing. We’ll keep flexibility in our plans and refine as we go.

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[1] Technology and market perspectives for future Value Added Materials, European Commission Final Report from Oxford Research AS 2012

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