The UK’s position in materials is perceived as being relatively weak, but improving in several respects. There are strengths in polymers, catalysts and biocompatible materials, and in the underpinning colloidal science. The UK has leading companies in coatings and hard materials, and real strengths in producing some nanoparticles and in creating catalysts. Much innovative work is underway in academia. Some firms, including several small and medium firms, some being new start-ups, are particularly active, though major users are not prominent. In Europe generally, SMEs are the driving force in the use of new materials.
Which UK Industries Will Lead the Way in Using Nanomaterials?
In the UK, the aerospace, biomedical and defence sectors are likely to drive the applications of nanomaterials. In this context, the area of nanomaterials, most applications do not depend on a large electronics industry, so the UK’s relative weakness there is not a major issue.
Strengths and Weaknesses of the UK’s Strategy to Commercialise Nanomaterials
The UK’s science base is seen as excellent, but may be jeopardised by a threatened brain drain, and slow translation into commercial products. The UK’s academic community in biomimetics has a large potential for commercial development, which needs to be catalysed. Skill shortages are a problem in this area as others, with recruitment problems in core physical sciences. Multidisciplinary research will drive new materials development in the future. Future industries based on novel materials will require professionals with an interdisciplinary perspective working in multidisciplinary teams.
Are Industry and Academia in the UK Working Together?
Most UK companies are in the early stages of deciding what their strategy will be in nanotechnology. As a result, most research in universities is speculative. Links between the research base and industry are underdeveloped. The Research Councils do not require that individuals commercialise their research, and offer them little help to do so. Better linkages are required if the UK’s research strengths are to be reflected in development. 59
Which Drivers of Change in the UK Are Especially Important?
Two drivers are particularly important:
• Access to materials technology,
• The roles of local and global markets and competition.
Access to Materials Technology
Access to materials technology is important because it underpins innovation in manufacturing, medicine, construction and some services industries. A central issue is the ability to make new materials. It will be important to set priorities. The UK has some clear strengths and larger companies - especially chemicals, pharmaceuticals and other medical companies - that can use new materials. It will be important for such companies to examine the potential environmental impacts of various materials, alongside purely commercial considerations.
Roles of Local and Global Markets and Competition
The second important driver is the roles of local and global markets and competition. The probable routes to market are either through existing world class players, or new companies with the potential to supply niche markets. The new products will need to move through, and gain acceptance by, supply chains. They will need to be convinced that nanotechnology can deliver benefits as compared to other approaches and demands for investment.
Other Industry Applications for Nanomaterials
Some applications, apart from the obvious, could be in such fields as housing, security, transport, communication, space technology and the health sector. There are links with sensors and drug delivery systems. By 2006, we could expect demonstrators to be showing key aspects of applications of novel materials in healthcare, IT systems, and in new processing technologies.
What Will UK Success in the Field of Nanomaterials Look Like?
By 2006, UK industry will play a role in commercialising achievable consumer products, such as those in processing drugs and fine chemicals, cosmetics, durable and self-cleaning surfaces, informatics, novel decorative effects and functional coatings. Demonstrators should emerge from the new Interdisciplinary Research Collaborations, or other developments. Such demonstrators will help to establish the viability of new nanotechnology products and of the IRCs themselves.
The Role of Demonstrators, R&D, and Support from Government and Industry
Demonstrators will also be useful for introducing companies in the UK to the new technologies they will need to maintain their competitiveness. R&D will have increased substantially, with government and industry support. Strategic investment in commercially viable areas will be in place, with long-term benefits for UK industry firmly in mind. Critically, industry and the utilities (water industry, the National Health Service, transport and so on) must be prepared to buy innovative UK products, or development will be arrested before it starts.
Turning Nanomaterials into Commercial Products - the Long-Term Picture in the UK
While in the longer term, nanotechnology products are liable to become cheaper and easier to produce, the cost of putting basic manufacturing techniques in place is likely to remain high. It is anticipated that the UK could have a significant presence in some of the new markets. For a success scenario, the number of these markets, and the scale of the UK’s presence, should both be growing. This will require investment, the ability to formulate novel materials and development of know how to undertake processing.
Which Factors Will Determine UK Success in the Field of Nanomaterials?
To make this scenario a reality, it will be important to attain a critical mass of commercialisable research in some areas of novel materials, linked to sustained industrial pull-through in applications. Since the span of applications and of the novel materials themselves is very wide, choosing specific areas to focus on can be difficult. Here we can expedite the process of focusing research and entrepreneurial interest on promising avenues for progress by preparing roadmaps and similar tools for benchmarking and identifying where technical opportunities coincide with the UK’s industrial strengths, capabilities in research and commercialisation, and market opportunities.
What Will Be the Indicators of UK Success in the Nanomaterials’ Sector?
If we achieve this scenario, we can expect to see developments such as:
• In a matter of months, existing roadmaps for nanotechnology would be considerably improved or surpassed. These roadmaps would enable innovators and entrepreneurs to form more soundly based views of the sustainability and profitability of various applications, and allow researchers and educators to identify training needs and infrastructure requirements. The European context of UK activities in the area would be firmly established.
• In a slightly longer timescale, but still months rather than years, there should be well grounded position statements for Research Councils and other bodies to identify major research areas in terms of costs, timescales, resources required.
• Also in the very near future - less than a year - there should be new incentives for helping the creation of SMEs and spin-offs.
• Following the above, within two years we could expect to see a national infrastructure for novel materials research - including commercialisation facilities - being established, with appropriate levels of investment and training provisions. (Sustech in Germany is in many ways a model for this.) A related step, which could already be in place within six to 18 months, would be the identification and establishment of centres of excellence in the field, including industrial centres.
• Results that should then follow could include, for example, the generation of seven commercialisable new products and processes by 2006, with clear paths to the market, and three demonstrator projects for applications already in place. New manufacturing processes employing novel materials should be developed in the relatively near future, say two to three years, and a significant market share in the product and process innovations should be evident.
What Does the UK Need To Achieve this Success?
• Production of roadmaps and analyses of key research areas requires that an impartial but knowledgeable body marshal and co-ordinate relevant area experts.
• Industry needs to move new products through development, to apply novel materials in processes and ultimately to achieve significant market share. Policymakers and relevant information bodies need to ensure greater industrial awareness and understanding of the scope for nanotechnology to enhance products and performance.
• Funds should be set aside for building the infrastructure and demonstrators: this will need to involve inputs from the DTI, Research Councils, and industry.
• Appropriate incentives and early stage assistance for industry, SMEs and spin-offs in the area are mainly a matter for the Treasury, though attention can be paid to seed corn funding and similar mechanisms.
• Traditionally conservative buyers in service industries need to be willing to purchase innovative products.