Developing advanced materials for use in transport or energy generation applications tends to involve mining the ground for rare minerals and conducting exhaustive tests. But a new approach to designing high performing products in a more sustainable and less costly manner has been created using artificial intelligence and quantum mechanics.
Materials Nexus: discovering new products
The start-up company behind the idea is Materials Nexus, which last year secured £30,000 through the Transport Research and Innovation Grants (TRIG) programme – delivered by Connected Places Catapult on behalf of the Department for Transport – to develop modelling techniques to predict the properties of new materials.
Company chief executive Dr Jonathan Bean is a Cambridge educated physicist who set up Materials Nexus in 2020. “We wouldn’t have been able to start on our journey without the TRIG funding,” he says.
The company’s software solution uses datasets and machine algorithm learning to accurately and rapidly predict the composition of new sustainable materials, without the need for extensive laboratory testing or lengthy pilot production trials.
This summer, Materials Nexus secured funding from Innovate UK in partnership with manufacturer Less Common Metals on a project to remove a rare earth metal from magnetic materials for industrial applications. These include emerging transport systems that use magnetic levitation, such as hyperloop, as well as components for electric vehicles and wind turbines.
Pushing on with sustainability
“Society relies heavily on advanced materials to build new sustainable technologies for applications such as wind turbines and electric vehicles, plus precious metals to produce green hydrogen,” Jonathan explains.
“But mining and processing rare earth materials emits far too much carbon, greenhouse gases and toxic chemicals. We are working hard to discover more sustainable materials in a way that is commercially viable.
“Finding new materials that will help in the drive to net zero is a huge challenge, and developing new products often means a comprehensive testing process that can take several years. Our approach, on the other hand, uses technology to speed up the development lifecycle.”
Jonathan offers this advice for other companies looking to follow his lead. “Explore as many opportunities as possible and focus in on the best ones. Sustainability presents massive opportunities for the UK, but a shift in mindset may be required to achieve your potential.”
* Applications are open until 27 November to take part in the 2023 TRIG programme.