Shining the Spotlight

Shining the Spotlight

James Hires2 Bw SmallIn this edition, we shine the spotlight on James Baker, Business Director, The Graphene Institute, University of Manchester.

What is your role?

My official role is the Business Director for Graphene at the University of Manchester, The Graphene Institute, where my focus is to develop industrial collaborations and partnerships to take this wonder material ‘graphene’ into commercialisations, make it into products and applications, and to create value.

The opportunities for graphene are huge and that’s the excitement. Graphene is a potential solution to almost every problem in every marketplace, hence the challenge for me is to identify and work with the right partners to bring some of those applications to reality. Not all will be realised but the opportunity is to make a difference in a number of those markets and produce products.

Tell us about Graphene

Graphene is a 2D material which was isolated in 2004. It was discovered after scientists at The University of Manchester separated one atomic layer of graphite using simple sticky tape. I use the term that it’s ‘eleven years young’, as it’s still quite early in its development cycle but I also use the term that its ‘eleven years old’ in that whilst it was discovered in 2004, carbon is everywhere; it’s in the ground, it’s in the body, it’s in the air. Its application is everything you can think of as it offers many beneficial properties including strength, thermal management and filtration. Though it’s not fully developed, we are starting to see basic prototypes and examples. Some near term applications of graphene are in the form of an additive. We add a very small amount of graphene to a composite or into an ink or a paint. If you want an increase in mechanical strength, or an improvement in thermal conductivity, adding graphene as a small element to another material will improve its property.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

What I really enjoy is the industrialisation of graphene and the work that goes on in the university, engaging with industry to accelerate new products and applications. The most exciting thing that has surprised me is what I call ‘the ambition of UK universities’ who are making great leaps forward, benefiting and advancing science and technology. The University of Manchester is doing extremely well with a £1bn development programme for new buildings, infrastructure and equipment, £120m for the development of graphene, £230m for advanced materials and another £300m for a new engineering campus. This will ensure that there is a very good future scientific base for infrastructure in the UK.

What’s your background?

I’ve worked at the University of Manchester for just over a year now but I have an industry background, which is a big change to academia. I’ve spent 25 years in industry, primarily in aerospace and defence, and the last 15 years working for BAE Systems, where for 10 years I ran their Advanced Technology Centres in the UK. Having worked in technology for the last 10 years, I see my current role as an extension of this but what it has given me is a different perspective on science and technology.

What are you most looking forward to? Any predictions for the future?

The great thing is that although the really big applications of graphene are medium and long term, we are already seeing some in the marketplace in a very short time scale. For example, with one partner, we’ve just launched a graphene based LED lightbulb. This contains a small amount of graphene within an LED light product which is more efficient, has a longer life and you can hold it as it doesn’t get hot. The exciting bit for me with this product is when you start to apply an engineering thought process, as the potential is there to develop a whole new range of lighting products. Graphene is starting to enable a whole series of more disruptive innovations, doing things in a non-conventional way to produce new products or applications.

Another recent success but for the aerospace sector is that we recently flew the first graphene coated UAV. We flew a small drone up in Lancashire that had a graphene coated wing, which was a world first flight of a functional graphene coated component. We’re now looking to develop this very rapidly over the next 6-12 months and to complete a full flight trial this year. The excitement with graphene is that it has this multi-functional property. The drone project was investigating three things. The first was drag reduction, so by having a different surface coating results in a different airflow to improve the resistance and efficiency. The second is thermal management, so if you could get heat distribution across the wing more effectively, this could for example, carry out the de-icing function for the wing which would remove weight associated with it. Ultimately, we are looking to achieve lightning strike protection, the ability to dissipate energy around the wing without the need for copper. It was a very initial prototype flight trial which is on the route map to develop a fully integrated product for the the aerospace market.

The future for graphene

The future for graphene is almost boundless. I think what is happening today is although graphene started this, where science is going is this whole family of two dimensional (2D) materials. It started with sticky tape and graphite to produce a single layer of carbon graphene. What has now been applied is the same science to a whole family of other 2D materials, but what that is actually starting to mean is that you can effectively create a multi-functional material from the bottom up. You create 2D layers stacked up together, a bit like lego bricks, layer on layer, to produce a new material that you could not find naturally in nature but effectively you are designing a material that will possess all these amazing functions. If you start looking to the future with that in mind, the possibilities are endless in terms of the applications and benefits.

The future for me

My ambition - we set ourselves a vision of creating ‘Graphene City’. This vision between the University and the city of Manchester, is a one-stop shop for the development and exploitation of graphene. Graphene City brings people together to create an infrastructure of scientists, engineers, innovators and producers all working together in the same space. The vision is really about trying to attract partners, businesses and industries to come to Manchester to set up their development and to start building factories in the UK. The opportunity is broad but the challenge we face is engaging with the broader UK community through partnerships, collaborations on projects and working with organisations in a more concurrent joined up way. This is the focus of my role.

If you were stranded on a desert Island, what three items would you take with you?

The first one would have to be a graphene based iphone or ipad because it’s very strong, flexible and graphene can also act as a supercapacitor or battery. So you could have a device that could be charged by the sun continuously and you’d never need to recharge it. As it’s flexible, you could wear it around your wrist, fix it to your skin, fold it up like paper and have a permanent communication with the outside world. The second item is a working graphene membrane, as the theory of graphene is that it acts as a membrane that will only allow water to cross through. You could take it into the sea, put a small amount of pressure on it, providing a permanent, endless supply of drinking water. The third one has to be a bar so I could have a nice glass of wine, while relaxing and looking at my phone. With graphene,  the future possibilities are endless.

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