12 November 2013
Building for the future: Interview with Nathan Hill, National Graphene Institute
Research into graphene won Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov the Nobel prize in physics. But the story has not ended there, as Nathan Hill told Tim Fryer.
The Government has part funded a new National Graphene Institute (NGI). This will be housed in purpose built facilities on the University of Manchester campus, but for all that this will not be ready until the beginning of 2015, the NGI is very much up and running.
Director of Strategy and Business Engagement for the new organisation is Nathan Hill, who explained: "What it is important to realise is that the NGI isn't just a building. It is a national institute for translational research and development for industry hosted at the University of Manchester."
So was Manchester selected because of its formative role in graphene development? "I think that is understating it. If you just gave two Nobel prize winners an Institute to go and sit in the corner of then you are not really doing anything for the UK – it has got to be more than that," commented Hill. "Clearly, being the home of the initial isolation of graphene puts us in a very special position. But that doesn't on its own say that we should be the place where graphene is commercialised.
"The reason why Manchester has been chosen as the hub for the NGI is that we have by far the largest set of research groups in the country working on all fields of graphene development: in life sciences, in chemistry, in physics, in engineering and of course in condensed matter physics - the place where it originated and where there are even more exciting, novel two dimensional materials being worked on now. So there is a pipeline of discovery, a breadth of different areas of application of the technology and an engagement with industry with over 20 industry partners already."
The purpose of the NGI is to provide leadership in research, materials, processes and applications, while also managing intellectual property and venture finance. Hill said: "So it is the science, the technology and the commercial aspects. But very specifically our model is about partnership, it is not about doing everything in one building, it is about working collaboratively in the UK, in the EU and internationally."
An early example of a strategic partnership has been with Bluestone Global Tech, who signed a £5m collaborative research partnership that will see the Chinese/American supplier of CVD (chemical vapour disposition) graphene set up its European manufacturing base in Manchester as well as participating in some of the research at the NGI. Graphene's potential applications are many and diverse, but the agreement with Bluestone, whose interests are in mobile touchscreens, demonstrates that electronics is of key importance.
Hill observed: "Within electronics there is a lot of work is going of producing things like transistors and diodes from monolayer graphene, it is a big but far-flung goal, whereas there are other applications within electronics which will probably hit market earlier. We already know of the use of graphene as a replacement for Indium Tin Oxide (ITO) for touchscreens and that is getting pretty close to market now. There is big activity in sensors, both physical sensors and chemical and bio sensors and you can see early applications in that. So I think one needs to think of electronics in the broad sense and not get carried away with the desire to create graphene based chips – that is going to take a bit longer."
The NGI building will be a 79,000sqft premises over five floors and will include cleanrooms, lab facilities, a small amount of office space and seminar rooms and 8000sqft as a collaboration space for industry. Hill added: "The emphasis is on piloting the materials and developing applications. Some of that needs cleanroom space and some needs clean lab space and we have all of that available."
Funding has come in part from the Treasury who committed £50million to graphene research and specifically £38m for the NGI building. A further £23million has come from the European Reconstruction Development Fund (ERDF), and the combined £61million covers the cost of the building and equipment. The total budget for the NGI's activities is £100million and the balance will come from industrial partners and further research grants.
But is £100million enough when there have already been major investments in places like Singapore, US, Japan and Korea? "It is easy to say that this is a British disease - we invent something and everyone else commercialises it," claimed Hill. "The truth is that there is no monopoly on graphene, you can't stop other people working on it even though the original science was done here. What we can do is take a sensible approach to deploying the money we have to commercialise graphene.
"Is £100m enough? Of course not, but everyone wants three times the resources. It is now at the stage that industries, like the electronics industry, need to step in and say 'we see the potential for this and we want to work in partnership with you, let's set up programmes that start to commercialise it.' I don't believe that it can all be done by expecting governments to fund things. It is still a novel material but it is on the horizon now. Partners are now approaching us and asking to enter partnerships with us to develop graphene for particular applications."
While the NGI is part of the EU's Graphene Flagship and also has partnerships with many other academic and industrial partners, Hill does not see the NGI as having a co-ordinating role in the development of graphene. He commented: "I think science thrives by having plurality and by people competing. Scientists are competitive in the same way that we as business people are competitive and so they race to deliver results and that provides the spark for science. It is for the funders - research councils, innovation finance, the EU and industry - to make sure that they don't fund the same thing too many times though. We are a hub, a sort of focus for national activity, but it is not our role to tell anybody what to do."
Hill started his career at Oxford Instruments where, as a Managing Director, he worked on thin film and bulk superconductors and semiconductor materials and devices. He has set up three companies, one of which, Qi3, has worked extensively with CERN, the European Space Agency, the Technology Strategy Board and UK Research Councils. His most recent business is Qi3 Accelerator - a syndicate of angel investors with over a dozen investments in engineering and manufacturing companies.