A potential new revolution is looming that could prove Benjamin Disraeli’s statement that ‘what Manchester does today, the rest of the world does tomorrow’ to not only be true of the industrial age, but a prescient statement of the 21st Century.
Communication will be even faster for everyone. New touchscreen devices will spring up that are much thinner than today’s; that are flexible, bendable and operate at speeds up to now have been inconceivable.
Imagine rolling up your iPhone and placing it behind your ear like a pencil. Imagine transparent electronics, the ability to digitise just about everything from clothes to crisp packets. All will be within the realms of possibility (in theory), and, what’s more, it could all be achieved at relatively cheap cost.
So where does Manchester fit into all this?
The effusion beaming around the science world — and by extension the business world – revolves around the discovery in 2004, by Manchester University professors Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, that the basic, structural material element of graphite – the substance used to make pencils – can be isolated and utilised, the prospect of which was previously thought impossible.
This material, whose properties have left physicists giddy, is graphene, and researchers believe it could one day replace silicon – the semiconductor used to facilitate electrical currents in transistors, and is used to make computer chips – as the basis for all electronics.
What distinguishes graphene from silicone is its superabundant strength, transparency, and its extreme lightness and conductivity.
However the use of graphene is not restricted to hi-tech wizardry, its usage potential is limitless. It could be used in the construction of buildings, as a sensor to detect disease, to create more durable batteries, or even to store hydrogen in hydrogen-powered cars in vaster quantities.
"Graphene does not just have one application," Professor Geim told the BBC in 2011. "It is not even one material. It is a huge range of materials. A good comparison would be to how plastics are used."
Graphene is a sheet of carbon and is 200 times stronger than structural steel, which is difficult to digest considering that it is just one atom thick. It would take around an 11-ton weight – or approximately two or three coaches – balancing on a pencil to break through a single sheet (so say the scientists).
Samsung have already demonstrated a 25-inch flexible touchscreen using graphene and believe there will be a dozen products on the market in the next five years.
IBM and Nokia are also researching – IBM creating a 150 gigahertz (GHz) transistor, which, in layman’s terms, means that the electrical current travels around the transistor 150 times a second. An Impressive feat when compared to the quickest silicon transistor at around 40GHz.
With such lucrative prospects comes investment, and as part of the City Deals initiative announced in December last year, which Manchester was the first to secure in March, Manchester City Council have committed to make the city a lucrative place to invest.
The City Deals initiative will devolve certain powers to the council, such as letting the council keep a proportion of its National Non Domestic Rates (NNDR) – a tax on local businesses equivalent to Council Tax. Another key part of Manchester’s proposal was to develop markets in China, India and graphene technologies – the latter a chance for Manchester’s researchers to work with and obtain investment from private companies.
“The £1.2billion City Deal for Greater Manchester is an important step on the road to supporting growth. It allows our region to build new infrastructure and its ‘earn back’ model based around tax revenues, could be worth some £30 million a year,” John Holden, deputy director of research at New Economy, said.
“Manchester is well placed to promote and nurture growth through a number of projects that have been implemented to strengthen the regional economy and, in the long-term, bring it back to its full potential.”
The main thing here is to make Manchester more attractive to invest in. The National Graphene Institute (NGI) is one of the projects Mr Holden alludes to – and could prove to be the jewel in the crown.
It will be one of many hubs that will either benefit or spring up throughout the city: the Greater Manchester Business Growth hub will be strengthened and there will be a City and Apprenticeship and Skills hub.
“This kind of initiative is essential in tackling the high levels of youth unemployment that we’re currently experiencing,” Mr Holden added.
All this is designed to make Manchester the place to be, to show big business that there are more top-rate options in the UK than London.
On page 13 of the Greater Manchester Growth Plan it says: “Manchester needs to develop closer links between private investors and its scientific and engineering researchers.”
The NGI will do this, allowing companies access to world class facilities.
Mr Holden is optimistic about the implications of this: “The applications for Graphene – of which there are likely to be many – could have the potential to reach the global marketplace and significantly boost Manchester’s reputation and its international standing.”
To this end the £50m government fund received last year – the money that instigated the development of the institute – will help kick start the process to commercialise the material and bring opportunities for growth.
Speaking to the Guardian in November last year, professor Novoselov said that they had received more contact from big businesses in the few weeks after the announcement of the fund than in all the years previous.
“We welcome the significant contribution made by the Government through the grant of £38m from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council,” Ivan Buckley, Project Manager at the NGI, said.
“We [the university and council] are working very closely together on how graphene can be commercialised to help with the further economic development of Greater Manchester and the North West Region and, ultimately, the UK.
"The City Council is not currently investing any tax revenues in the development of graphene but is working with the university on identifying other suitable funding sources.”
So, it seems that Manchester could be at the heart of another revolution.
Picture courtesy of © Nobel Media