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Nanotechnology: getting to grips with the future

Northern Ireland is among those leading the way in nanotechnology, and has just landed a £42m grant to develop new manufacturing techniques. But what is it, who is involved and what will it mean for us as a whole? Emma Deighan finds out


Economy Minister Gordon Lyons at Seagate in Derry

Economy Minister Gordon Lyons at Seagate in Derry

Lorcan Doherty




Economy Minister Gordon Lyons at Seagate in Derry

Smart Nano NI is a consortium of eight tech firms and educational establishments that will benefit from a £42.4m cash injection from the UK Research and Innovations (UKRI) Strength in Places Fund.

The collaboration is a mix of top elite manufacturers here led by data company Seagate Technology in collaboration with Analytics Engines. Causeway Sensors, Cirdan Imaging, Digital Catapult NI, North West Regional College, Queen’s University Belfast, Ulster University and Yelo are the other NI names that will be part of the nanotech revolution here.

The money allocated brings the total figure pumped into the nanotech sector here to £63.9m and will put all eyes on NI’s capabilities within the field.

Nanotechnology is defined by Smart Nano NI as a process that, “deals with structures, devices, and systems that are controlled by products at the scale of molecule and even atoms and are an invisible but essential component in every single aspect of modern life in terms of data storage, medical research, transport systems, energy production and environmental science among many others.”

It says the average person already encounters nanotech in a range of everyday products, but its capabilities are limitless and have the power to revolutionise medicine including areas of diagnostics, disease treatment and more.

It will also play a transformative role in IT, transportation, energy, food safety and environmental science as well as data storage “where it goes far beyond microprocessors and physical storage devices allowing vast and complex amounts of information to be captured and analysed”.

The consortium aims to deliver 100 new prototypes, six new products for NI based companies and a 30% gain for industrial partners.

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Smart Nano NI says the most recent cash fund, which will support and complement the activity proposed under the Belfast Region City Deal’s proposed Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre and will “scale up capacity in device manufacturing which will result in not only supporting existing jobs but creating hundreds more across the sector”.

Speaking to Ulster Business a spokesperson for the consortium said: “The Smart Nano-Manufacturing Corridor will create the capacity in Northern Ireland to take innovations in photonics (light-based) technology from design, to prototyping and demonstration of mass nano-manufacturing of the resulting products.”

It says that the creation of around 540 high value tech jobs and research positions will be part of the project as well as sustaining 170 in the “corridor area within 10 years”.

Queen’s University said £11m of the funding will support its efforts in what is a “once in a generation opportunity for Northern Ireland”.

Professor Robert Bowman, who is leading the project at Queen’s, said: “At Queen’s, we have developed world leading research and a unique cluster of expertise in nano technology and manufacturing. Our work involves materials engineering of photonic components at the microscopic level.

“Imagine small Lego blocks but hundreds or thousands of times smaller, with different functions, combining several together to make a device; but then doing it in batches of hundreds, then doing thousands at a time on wafers. Smart manufacturing procedures will enable these devices reach into many applications.

“With our industry partners, we aim to create the next generation of nano-photonics devices. We will establish a supply chain for these chips into the healthcare, optical communications and data storage sectors and this will stimulate yet more research and education opportunity for Queen’s.”

The university academic said the opportunity for NI is global with the project allowing Queen’s and its partners to “seize opportunities in growth areas where NI has international strength and capability.”

Smart Nano NI’s Dr Mark Gubbins agrees, adding that the project will “advance Northern Ireland’s niche capability around smart nano manufacturing and world-leading knowledge in photonics to create a self-sustaining local industry”.

Smart Nano NI’s members are already working with high profile names using nanotech, this includes Yelo’s work with the likes of Amazon and Google while consortium member Causeway Sensors is using a portfolio of unique, self-assembling nanostructure technology to engineer a beachhead product that addresses a £700m antibody therapy bioproduction market that is growing by 10% year-on-year.

Meanwhile Analytics Engines will bring expertise in data management, machine learning and AI to the delivery of industrial digitalisation methods for nano-manufacturing.

Seagate Technologies, from its Springtown facility, supplies recording heads for 25% of the world’s hard drives. Its technology will enable more efficient cloud computing and have a vital role in this multi-billion pound market.

And “Ulster University, Queen’s University Belfast and North West Regional College will be bringing their research expertise to bear through this programme of inter-disciplinary research so it is very positive for NI as a whole to be able to leverage world class research in this way,” a Smart Nano NI representative, said.

Hundreds of jobs are expected to be created as part of the project, pumping £220m into the local economy but perhaps even more promising are spin off opportunities for many other businesses here. Targets for commercialisation with 75 NI-based SMEs engaged with Smart Nano NI have been identified.

“It will enable businesses across a range of sizes that have potential to innovate, to adopt new technologies in order that those clusters will become nationally and internationally competitive,” a spokesperson said.

Economy Minister Gordon Lyons welcomed the funding and the opportunities its paves the way for. “I wish to congratulate and acknowledge the outstanding team behind this achievement,” he said.

“Securing this funding through UKRI Strength in Places is a major boost for our economy and our post-Covid recovery journey and is a testament to the power of collaboration and the calibre of Northern Ireland companies.

“It will create new commercial opportunities, will drive economic growth and help tackle productivity challenges, and invigorate our manufacturing sector.”