Advanced materials

The government’s eight great technologies, selected in 2012, are areas in which the UK has:

  • a combination of science strengths and business capabilities
  • world-leading research, with a wide range of applications across a spectrum of industries
  • the potential to be at the forefront of commercialisation.

STFC scientists are actively researching in all of these areas, which are big data, agri-science, satellites, robotics and autonomous systems, synthetic biology, regenerative medicine, energy storage, and advanced materials.

Material science is important to the economy - UK material-related industries have a yearly turnover of £197bn. A lot of the technologies we take for granted have been possible thanks to new materials – in fact, more new materials have been made in the last 20 years than in the rest of history. Many of the current challenges we face — from energy to healthcare — will benefit from improvements and innovation in materials and from our ability to control their size, their atomic structure and the production process.

The case studies shown below are just a sample of the significant social and economic impacts of STFC’s advanced materials work, but showcase the strength of UK expertise in this area.

Graphene

What is Graphene?
(Credit: University of Manchester)

Graphene is a carbon crystal that is just one atom thick. Stronger than steel, lightweight, transparent and flexible, graphene is a ‘wonder material’ expected to revolutionise technology. Researchers are exploring its potential in optoelectronic systems such as solar cells, faster transistors, flexible displays and lasers.

STFC’s Dr Emma Springate, one of the research team, with the Artemis laser.
(Credit: Monty Rakusen Photography)

SuperSTEM2, an exceptionally sensitive instrument.
(Credit: SuperSTEM Consortium)

The modern world relies on silicon chips – they’re an essential part of computers and mobile phones, cars and even smart fridges. The reason that we use silicon in these devices is that it is a semiconductor. Semiconductors have small ‘band gaps’ (the energy required to free up an electron to conduct electricity), and are used to build field effect transistors that can be switched on and off, ensuring low power consumption when they’re in ‘stand by’ mode.

Graphene has remarkable strength and is an efficient conductor of heat and electricity. These two properties make it an ideal candidate to replace silicon for building electronic devices that are smaller, faster and use less energy. But graphene doesn’t have a band gap, and isn’t a semiconductor.

Experiments using the CLF’s Artemis system explored the potential of bilayer graphene – a new material made from two layers of graphene, which is predicted to behave as a semiconductor. Professor Philip Hoffman from Aarhus University in Denmark led the collaboration with researchers from Trieste, Chemnitz and St Andrews, who fired ultra-short laser pulses at the sample, boosting electrons into the conduction band. They followed this with a short, extreme ultraviolet wavelength pulse, which ejects electrons from the sample. The scientists collected these electrons and analysed their energies and movement.

Their results showed that it may be possible to improve the performance of bilayer graphene to the point where it could challenge silicon-based devices.

More research on graphene is taking place at SuperSTEM, where recently a collaboration with researchers from the Universities of Leeds, Manchester and Gottingen published an investigation into the electronic structure modifications incurred by free-standing graphene through two types of single-atom doping. SuperSTEM consists of a principal site facility hosting two aberration corrected scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM) instruments in a purpose-designed building at the STFC Daresbury Laboratory, along with four aberration-corrected STEM instruments located at the consortium universities and further instruments located at the partner universities.

 

NOTT-300

NOTT-300
(Credit: University of Nottingham)

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is the only way that we can continue to use fossil fuels such as coal and gas whilst still reducing our carbon dioxide emissions. Many different CCS technologies are being investigated, and CCS could create 100,000 jobs across the UK by 2030, contributing £6.5 billion to the UK’s economy. The global CCS market could be worth $5 trillion by 2050.

A collaboration between STFC, the Universities of Nottingham and Oxford and Peking University in China has developed a low-cost, advanced material that is able to capture both carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide, offering exciting prospects for combating global warming and atmospheric pollution. Use of ISIS and Diamond enabled the team to determine the crystal structure of the material, and to understand the mechanism by which it captures carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide.

The new material, called NOTT-300, is cheaper than existing technologies and is more environmentally friendly. As well as being completely reusable, its production does not involve the use of any organic solvents. NOTT-300 is gas-specific, capturing only carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide, and allowing other gases to pass through. In experiments it captures 100% of carbon dioxide, and this is expected to remain over 90% in real-world scenarios.

NOTT-300 also absorbs water vapour, and further work is needed to overcome this limitation. However, the researchers are already working with companies in the CCS industry to commercialise this product. As NOTT-300 is able to capture sulfur dioxide, it also has the potential to be used to prevent acid rain, and the considerable environmental impact it causes.

Safe hydrogen storage

Cella Energy on Horizon
(Credit: BBC)

A material first conceived by scientists at ISIS, the London Centre for Nanotechnology at University College, London and the University of Oxford, could make hydrogen-powered cars a reality. ISIS spin-out Cella Energy is developing the technology, which uses micro-fibres thirty times smaller than a human hair to store hydrogen safely. Conventional storage techniques for hydrogen gas require the use of either very high pressures or very low temperatures – both expensive, and hard to deliver at a garage forecourt.

Drivers expect to be able to fill their tanks quickly, and to travel as far as 400 miles before refuelling – neither of which is a possibility with current hydrogen storage technology. Cella Energy’s tissue-like material means that hydrogen gas can safely be handled in air. It can also be formed into microbeads, smaller than grains of sand, which can be pumped like a liquid and used in conventional combustion engines. This means it could be used as a petrol additive, or even as a fuel in its own right.

Cella Energy’s hydrogen fuels reduce emissions but retain the comfort of today’s fuelling experience
(Credit: Cella Energy)

The advantages of hydrogen as a vehicle fuel are obvious – it is carbon-free, and currently 25% of all carbon emissions are estimated to come from road transport. The only emission from burning hydrogen fuel is water, and it contains three times as much energy per unit weight as petrol. The global fuel cell and hydrogen energy market is projected to be worth over £114 m ($180 m) in 2050, with revenues in the fuel cell sector expected to grow by 26% per year over the next decade.

Cella Energy won the Shell Springboard Award 2011. Since then they have opened new labs at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions (such as carbon dioxide). As applicable to air travel as it is to road transport, Cella Energy’s advanced material could keep us moving, carbon-free, into the future.

Our Impact Report explains more about how we use our knowledge, skills, facilities and resources for the benefit of the United Kingdom and its people. Download the RCUK advanced materials timeline.

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000