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2008 Advanced Materials Report

The contribution of materials and engineering to the shaping of society has remained consistent over time. Whereas in the past materials were relatively simply, today technological developments, relating to the composition and structure of materials at an atomic level, endow them with exactly the desired properties to allow them be manipulated as required.

These materials, termed advanced materials, are as likely to define the future as simple materials have defined the past. All sectors globally are now dominated by a multitude of advanced materials.

Advanced Materials research and development has become multidisciplinary. It incorporates the convergence of key enabling technologies such as of chemistry, physics and biology, which coupled with advanced engineering capability improve the competitiveness of technology based enterprises and pave the way for prosperity and employment in modern industrial societies.

The economic power of highly developed industrial societies greatly depends on successes in materials technology, since many important innovative impulses can only be accomplished on the basis of new materials.

Examples are medical engineering, the provision of energy conserving resources and the environment, new vehicle concepts for achieving mobility compatible with the environment or large-scale integrated components in information and communications technology. In view of growing world market potentials for R&D-intensive products, materials technology has a considerable influence on maintaining and expanding a leading technology position and thus on the creation of jobs.

Materials underpin everything we do. Manufacturing and construction are entirely dependent on materials in some form. Materials technology affects most economic activities. The quickening revolution in information and communications technologies would not be possible without a wealth of novel functional materials.

The current innovations in advanced materials and engineering are often the driving force for industrial product developments. Industries such as aerospace, automotive, chemicals, medical devices and ICT benefit significantly from advancements in these materials. Moreover, the industries that are significant to Northern Ireland – aerospace, automotive, medical devices, food, energy etc. look to Advanced Materials and Engineering to enhance their capability.

This MATRIX Foresight Panel reviewed current research in the field of Advanced Materials and Engineering at an NI, national and international level. Based on current global trends and existing competencies within NI, five focus areas where NI has the potential to make advances that would have high commercial impact were identified. The Panel objectives are not simply to augment mainstream advanced materials and engineering themes but to recommend innovative steps where NI can achieve a step change in advanced materials and engineering thinking with the potential to offer significant economic impact.

A multidisciplinary opportunity

NI has Advanced Materials capability which is seen to underpin all sectors ranging from Agrifood to Aerospace. However, the quantity of R&D in NI is not sufficient for the range and size of sectors within the region. The analysis of the industrial and academic strengths shows that a rich focus area for NI is the convergence area between traditional material sectors and a focus on the interdisciplinary and multidiscipline areas of advanced materials.

Specifically these areas would be:

  • Biomaterials;
  • Nanostructured Materials;
  • Multifunctional Materials (including catalysis);
  • Composites; and
  • Computational Science.

In these areas NI is demonstrating established competency to be globally significant in these areas and to create a niche leadership focus within the UK, Europe and the world.

Additionally, there is an emerging global sector, which utilises the multidisciplinary skills of these focus areas to produce new break-through solutions to existing common themes in all sectors. This emerging sector presents a grand challenge to Advanced Materials and Engineering in NI and is called Cleantech.

The focus areas for Northern Ireland Advanced Materials and Engineering

Cleantech encompasses a broad range of products and services, from alternative energy generation to waste water treatment to more resource-efficient industrial processes.

There is a compelling need across sectors for a greater focus on environmental and energy considerations. Cleantech is the collective term for the development and bringing to market of products and processes that will allow society to sustain and improve global living standards by increasing the efficiency of existing energy and materials use, while identifying new and sustainable sources of both.

Key conclusions

There are a number of conclusions that emerge from the analysis detailed above. These conclusions can be summarised as:

Key recommendations

The analysis of capabilities across the sectors reviewed within the capabilities study for Northern Ireland resulted in the identification of key capabilities required to deliver real benefits to the advanced materials  sector.  The actions to be taken are:

Northern Ireland must develop a sustained funding mechanism that allows for the establishment of an industry-led R&D capability of international standing. This funding mechanism will be of sufficient magnitude and timescale to attract international industrial partners and will focus on the equipment, human capital and the ongoing support of these resources. The funding mechanism will specialise in the cradle-to-grave evaluation of advanced materials with a focus on Cleantech. The output of this mechanism will be;

  • the creation of innovative solutions to specific sectors in Northern Ireland that will enable Northern Ireland companies to demonstrate global leadership in the move to a sustainable basis for production and use;
  • the international recognition of this mechanism by institutions such as IMEC10, CCMR11, UK programmes, European Programmes, Tyndall and other leading materials centres.
Northern Ireland must create expert networks in specific focus areas of advanced materials which will be decided by DETI. These expert networks will be industrially-led and will be driven over distinct timescales to create Northern Ireland specific roadmaps that integrate with global roadmaps and allow companies/institutions in Northern Ireland to engage in meaningful collaborations around specific projects. These expert networks will be sustained through a funding mechanism that is predominantly industry led, but recognises the need
for academic excellence, and creates an international standing reputation for Northern Ireland in the selected areas.
Framework conditions are the elements that make an environment conducive for the research, development and uptake of new technologies. They are not technology-based, but refer to general issues such as incentives, funding, skills etc. Throughout all interviews and
workshops conducted in this Foresight study, a number of framework conditions were continuously raised. It would be inappropriate to exclude these from this Foresight report as a number of these were specific to advanced materials. The primary ones for consideration are:

  • The need for an advanced mechanism of knowledge transfer of advanced materials and Engineering solutions to industry
  • The need to integrate new business model skills into the science/engineering disciplines as the Cleantech is not only changing products but also mechanisms of delivery
  • The need for a continuous scientific forum in Northern Ireland where the independent quality assurance in scientific advice to economic policy making can be delivered
  • The need to reassert the significance of the STEM subjects in Northern Ireland

The panel

Jim McLaughlin


Jim McLaughlin

Professor Jim McLaughlin, OBE, a physicist and Fellow of the Institute of Physics, has developed significant initiatives within research, technology transfer, outreach and teaching since 1985.

Brian Meenan


Professor Meenan is Professor of Biomedical Materials and Head of the Biomaterials & Tissue Engineering Research Group (BTERG) at the Nanotechnology and Integrated Bioengineering Centre (NIBEC).

David Andrews

Centre for Competitiveness

David Andrews worked for the Northern Ireland Centre for Competitiveness, which helps private, public and voluntary sectors to be more competitive, enabling them to grow, excel and be sustainable.

Donald Fitzmaurice


Donald spent 15 years at University College Dublin teaching chemistry and researching. He then joined ePlanet Ventures where for 10 years he focused on early stage investments in disruptive information and energy technology companies.

Dr. Fahad Fallaha


Dr. Fallaha holds a BSc and PhD from the University of Birmingham in England and his 33 year career with DuPont has seen most of his work in the UK, the US and frequent projects in Europe.

Gavin Campbell


Gavin Campbell
Gavin Campbell has worked at Short Brothers PLC and Bombardier Aerospace since graduating with a BSc in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Ulster in 1985.He is a visiting Professor in the Faculty of Computing and Engineering at the University of Ulster and is a Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Ian McAuley

Alpha Environmental

Ian McAuley has twenty years of experience gained in the electronics sector in Northern Ireland and has also spent time working in the United States and France. Ian holds a BSc and PhD in chemistry from the University of Ulster in Coleraine.

Norman Apsley


Norman Apsley OBE

Norman Apsley joined the Northern Ireland Science Park Foundation in 2000 as its first Chief Executive on return from England where he was involved for some thirty years in applied research and the commercialisation of research.

Rob Hardeman


Rob Hardeman

Dr. Rob Hardeman holds the post of Senior Director at Seagate’s manufacturing facility in Springtown, working on technology transfer with external suppliers and partners, together with management of major capital projects. He is Visiting Professor at the University of Ulster (NIBEC), an elected Fellow of the Institute of Physics and a Chartered Engineer.

Robert Bowman


Robert is both leader of ANSIN and Director for the Centre for Nanostructured Media at Queen’s University, Belfast. He has 23 years’ experience in the fabrication, characterisation and device fabrication of advanced functional materials.

Steven Bell


Professor Steven Bell was a Founder/Director of Avalon Instruments, which manufactures Raman spectrometers and acted as Technical Director until its recent purchase by Perkin-Elmer Inc. He is Director of Research at IMM and Chair of Physical Chemistry at QUB.

Vyvyan Howard


Vyvyan Howard is Professor of Bioimaging, a medically-qualified toxico-pathologist and the current leader of the Nano Systems Research Group. He has held the Presidencies of the Royal Microscopical Society and the International Society for Stereology and was the General Editor of the Journal of Microscopy from 1985-91.