The Henry Royce Institute is the national organisation based in Manchester that is leading on advanced materials research and applications.
To achieve this mission, the Royce Institute brings together world-leading academics from across the UK, and works closely with industry to ensure commercialisation of fundamental research.
Our path to innovation runs the risk of hitting a roadblock. And one potential obstacle to progress is the lack of brand new materials.
There is a lot of talk about the great strides we have made in our information age which has delivered amazing devices such as the all-conquering smart phone or the 'internet of things', a phenomena that is set to kick-start a new industrial revolution all underpinned by digital connectivity.
But our obsession with functionality and the advanced processes behind manufacturing will not bring the transformation changes we should be achieving.
The American economist Tyler Cowen argued in his influential pamphlet headlined the 'Great Stagnation' that economic growth has slowed in the US and other advanced economies as a direct result of falling rates of innovation. Cowen argued that the 'low-hanging fruit' generated in the wake of the original industrial revolution have now been plucked and fully optimised.
So how do we reach those higher branches? The real breakthroughs for our economic and social development will only be achieved once we have introduced new materials into the world with bespoke capabilities. Wonder materials that have never been fashioned before by nature or humankind.
Scientists and engineers have lamented at the fact there has been no new materials revolution since the post-war era of the last century. This was a heady time when we achieved great advances in plastics, semi-conductors, new alloys and other composite materials.
But that may soon change. In 2004 two academics at The University of Manchester isolated graphene, the world's first two-dimensional material - and that discovery sparked real excitement because its potential applications could open up a panoply of possibilities once thought impossible just a few years ago.
Pioneers like Richard Branson, boss of Virgin Atlantic, has recognised the potential of graphene and wants this advanced material to be urgently adopted by the instinctively cautious aerospace industry. He recently said:
Just as aluminium and carbon fibre provided huge step-changes for the industry, graphene could be the material that drives the next wave of much-needed innovation.
And one entrepreneur who is firmly placing materials engineering at the heart of his own innovation revolution is Elon Musk, the visionary behind Tesla electric cars and rocket-making company SpaceX. Lightweight materials and new battery technology are among the critical advances being developed in Musk's high profile business empire. Little wonder he hired Apple's former alloy expert Charles Kuehmann to lead on materials engineering at both companies. On his Linked-in profile, Kuehmann hints at what may lay ahead as he describes himself as being responsible for
delivering materials innovations that enable the commercialization of space and a multi-planetary civilization.
Golden Age for Materials Science
The sky's the limit for UK innovation - and not just because the home of graphene is right here in Britain. Research teams from across the country are on the brink of a wide range of breakthroughs which are set to usher in a new golden age for materials science.
For example, new biomaterials are set to help recreate tissue and bone in our bodies as we look to conquer illness and disease; highly efficient energy-storing materials that will create 'super-batteries' to hold power far longer than has ever been previously possible; new types of metals to build oil rigs that can resist the corrosive forces of our seas or material to build reactors that will be able to resist temperatures equivalent to the sun. Even materials for advanced 3D printing technology used in manufacture that may even one day produce our future food.
In their Global Research Report (June 2011) (PDF), which focused on materials science and technology, authors Jonathan Adams and David Pendlebury said:
Fundamental discoveries in physics dominated the first half of the 20th century, whereas discoveries in molecular biology, such as the structure of DNA, dominated the second half. The 21st-century may well bring forth a new era, one of revolutionary discoveries in materials research that result in far reaching changes for society and how we live.
To break through the 'innovation roadblock' materials development needs to lead and inform product development. The good news is, we are entering a period when materials science and engineering is about to experience a renaissance - offering disruption and transformational advancement at a scale not seen for a generation or more.