THE North-East will continue to play a leading role in the development of "miracle" material graphene after the government agreed a multi-million pounds funding package.
Graphene is an ultra-light carbon material arranged in a honeycomb lattice, that is incredibly strong but as thin as a human hair. It can conduct electricity a million times better than copper and is more transparent to visible light than any other known conductor. It is also stronger and more stretchable than other conductors.
The North-East has played a key role in the development of the material since it was isolated by scientists at Manchester University in 2010.
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The potential uses for graphene are vast, ranging from solar cells and electric vehicle batteries to coatings to make incredibly durable consumer gadgets. But these ideas depend on the creation of a large-scale, sustainable and cost-effective production process. The Government is determined to ensure the UK is at the forefront of an industry tipped to be worth about £400m by 2020.
Earlier this month, a team from Durham University won the Times Higher Education award for Outstanding Contribution to Innovation and Technology for developing a cleaner way to produce graphene. The Chancellor, George Osborne, yesterday named Durham University among those that will get extra funding to find potential commercial uses and to refine production methods. Mr Osborne said the £21.5m investment would help to take the technology from the lab to the factory floor.
The University of Cambridge has been awarded about £12m, London's Imperial College will receive £4.5m, with Durham sharing the remaining cash with Manchester and Exeter Universities and Royal Holloway College. The taxpasyers' cash will be matched by £12m from companies including Airbus, BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Dyson and Philips Research.
Mr Osborne said there had been "enormous competition" for the graphene research to be done elsewhere in the world, rather than the UK.
He explained: "We had to act very quickly to step in and say we're going to provide funding here in Britain for that activity. That's an example of actually actively backing a winner to keep it in the UK."
The Chancellor said there were several ways in which the UK could become an attractive location for scientific research, including more financial backing from the government, protecting spending on science, and more investment in big capital science projects. He added that Britain's universities - the "jewels in the crown" of the UK economy - needed to be protected.
North-East industry has also been at the forefront of the graphene revolution. This year, chemicals company Thomas Swan and Co, based in Consett, County Durham started a £625,000 four-year collaboration with Trinity College Dublin to develop a process for making graphene on an industrial scale.