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How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK

A symposium of world-leading experts in materials innovation met with regional leaders and parliamentarians to discuss the importance of this strategic, high-value sector.

By Spotlight

At the end of April, the New Statesman, in partnership with the University of Liverpool, gathered an online round table of parliamentarians, regional leaders, industry experts and figures from the world of academia to discuss the role of harnessing materials innovation in reaching net zero.

Opening the discussion, the New Statesman’s environment correspondent and the round-table chair, India Bourke, noted that achieving net zero would require “a combination of science, government and business”, and welcomed the fact that the range of guests reflected this need for close collaboration.

Matthew Rosseinsky, professor at the University of Liverpool’s Department of Chemistry and a fellow of the Royal Society, made initial remarks as a leading expert in materials innovation. “Targets are ambitious because net zero by 2050 will not only have to move away from fossil carbons but will have to change everything about how we use energy and materials,” he said. It is a massive physical science problem, he added, that involves transport, the built environment and every aspect of what and how we consume. “We’re going to need to create new materials, and not incrementally,” he told participants. “We’re going to need to do it very fast.”

Laura Harkness-Brennan, a professor of physics and the University of Liverpool’s associate pro-vice chancellor for research and impact, added to his point, linking materials science and innovation, and tackling the net-zero problem, to the new growth, investment and levelling-up agenda at the heart of current public policy debates.

“Universities working in partnership with industrial, commercial and third sector organisations is key to all of this,” she said. Harkness-Brennan highlighted how investment in the materials sector would bring high-skilled, high-productivity and high-waged jobs to places like Liverpool City Region, giving the example of the University of Liverpool’s Materials Innovation Factory, which enjoys a close relationship with industry and mayor local employers.

Steve Rotheram, Mayor of Liverpool City Region, thanked Harkness-Brennan and Rosseinsky for their introductory remarks. Liverpool City Region, he said, had been transformed over the past five years. “It’s because we’ve started to concentrate on areas where we have a world-class advantage,” he explained. “In materials science we’re respected globally, and everybody knows what’s happening in Liverpool in that field.” He outlined a pipeline of projects in the city region that were working towards the decarbonisation of energy-intensive industries, citing Glass Futures in St Helens as just one example.

The shadow minister for business and industry and Merseyside MP Bill Esterson then gave a contribution that focused on the potential benefits of technological innovation and research in areas like hydrogen, not only for saving the planet, but also in terms of the vast economic opportunities that can accrue to constituents like his. “This can really improve people’s lives. And it is about taking people with you,” he said. “Achieving a just transition is crucial.”

Lynn Gladden is executive chair of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the government’s main investment vehicle for this area of research. Gladden told attendees that reaching 2030 targets on emission reductions would require the rapid and widespread deployment of existing technologies. However, she was quick to add: “If we’re talking about reaching net zero by 2050, you want the new game-changing science and engineering, at the highest level of expertise and intellectual ability, to provide completely new solutions. Because, in reality, we will struggle to hit any of these targets, especially without new technologies.”

Gladden outlined a vision in which the UK could become a world leader in the creation of these green technologies, building their supply chains and fostering their core R&D and manufacturing ecosystems.

Providing a perspective from the private sector, Jonathan Hague, vice president science and technology at Unilever, told participants that “within industry there’s commitment competition happening” – meaning business organisations were trying to outdo each other on promises to reduce their carbon footprints. “Behind all that is a real challenge to achieve those commitments,” he said.

A whole new class of raw materials to replace bulk petrochemicals is needed: “Unilever is committed to net zero by 2039… we have to drive massive dematerialisation of all our carbon products while maintaining their performance and maintaining affordability. The only way we can do that is if we innovate and invent.”

To give the gathered experts a view from Whitehall, Jon Saltmarsh, deputy director of innovation and research at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, began by echoing the remarks of all the previous speakers and thanking them for their contributions. He described the example of the expansion of offshore wind as a prime initiative that had created a “virtuous circle”, where implementation had led to reduced costs and then even broader implementation. “It is products and inventions that drive productivity and growth, and they require new materials,” he told the group. “Heating existing housing stock in a net-zero, cost-effective way is a major issue, as is as the problem of intermittency on the power grid, and how we store large amounts of renewable electricity. Both of those are materials problems… and it’s in areas like that where organisations like the Materials Innovation Factory are so important.”

The conversation highlighted the centrality of materials innovation in achieving net zero in a whole range of industries and sectors, and participants at the round table were quick to stress how important initiatives such as the EPSRC Prosperity Partnership were in bringing together business and academia, facilitated and nurtured by central and regional government bodies. If the UK is to meet its ambitious targets and lead the world in its net-zero mission, this type of close collaboration will be crucial. Not only will this benefit humanity by demonstrating a path to a sustainable future, but it will also contribute to wider social goals by boosting growth in high-skilled, high-wage sectors and promoting prosperity in every region of the UK.

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