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Queen’s University has integral role in £60m Smart Nano NI Consortium

Queen’s University Belfast has an integral role in a Northern Ireland nano technology consortium, which has been awarded £60m to develop new technology for medical devices, communication and data storage.

£42.4 of the grant comes from the UK Research and Innovation’s Strength in Places Fund and the total project value, including leveraged funding from other sources is £63.9m.

The project presents a game-changing opportunity for Northern Ireland’s nano technology and manufacturing sector.

It also launches the necessary support to scale up capacity in device manufacturing, underpinning and develop hundreds of jobs across the sector.   

Of the funding, £11m will go to Queen’s. The Smart Nano NI Consortium is led by data company Seagate Technology in collaboration with Queen’s, Analytics Engines, Causeway Sensors, Cirdan Imaging, Digital Catapult NI, North West Regional College, Ulster University and Yelo. The eight partners form a corridor of expertise from Derry~Londonderry to Belfast.   

Lasting impact

The funding award was made after a highly competitive process with projects from across the UK. It will further consolidate Northern Ireland’s position as a global leader for excellence in the field of nano technologies as well as delivering a significant and lasting impact on our local economy.  

This is a once in a generation opportunity for Northern Ireland. The Consortium will accelerate the work of developing transformative advanced prototyping and smart manufacturing methods.

This will allow for the delivery of new technologies as researchers and industry partners work together to develop new sensors for healthcare and optical communications. Leveraging the vast wealth of Northern Ireland's research and industry knowledge, the Consortium will build capacity and new prototypes in the spheres of medical devices, communication, and data storage. 

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 times smaller, with different functions, combining several together to make a device; but then 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.” 

Professor Bowman added: “Smart Nano NI will provide additionality to City Deal investments. Smart Nano NI will create opportunities for academic partners and local industry to work together on major transformational R&D to deliver growth and to level up. For Queen’s, Smart Nano NI and the aligned City Deal project AMIC reinforce the importance of partnership, scale and focus. Projects like these that allow the University to seize opportunities in growth areas where Northern Ireland has international strength and capability.” 

New opportunities

Alongside technological development, Professor Nola Hewitt-Dundas from Queen’s University Belfast will examine the effects of the research on innovation, business growth and productivity. 

Professor Hewitt-Dundas said: “This project offers a step-change in advanced manufacturing. Smart nano manufacturing acts as a platform technology to create new opportunities for business innovation, improving existing products, generating new products and enabling firms to enter new markets. The benefits of this work will extend far beyond the consortium partners through productivity growth and the attraction of foreign investment. Our research will examine this economic impact and seek to identify ways to enhance the positive effects from the research”.

Professor Karen Holford CBE FREng FLSW, Chair of Research Committee at the Royal Academy of Engineering, also welcomed the news. She said: “The Academy is delighted to hear of the success of the Queen’s University Belfast participation in the UKRI Strength in Places Fund Programme, led by our Seagate Technology / Royal Academy of Engineering Research Chair, Professor Bowman.  

 “A core objective of the Research Chairs scheme is to strengthen the links between industry and academia by supporting exceptional academics in UK universities to undertake user-inspired research that meets the needs of the industrial partners. Smart Nano NI promises to be a major opportunity for the UK and for advanced manufacturing in Northern Ireland.”

Globally expanding field

Northern Ireland has a unique cluster of expertise in this globally expanding field. The collaboration between all the members located along the Derry Londonderry / Belfast corridor will enable the establishment of a Centre of Excellence. This will enable advances in the Life and Health Sciences as well as exploiting the potential of photonics and nanotech in other high-growth sectors through knowledge transfer.   

Smart Nano NI’s, Dr Mark Gubbins said: “We are delighted and honoured to secure this investment will which deliver significant benefits for the economic growth of the region and the “corridor” of businesses from Belfast to Londonderry ensuring a levelling up of shared opportunities. We can now advance Northern Ireland’s niche capability around smart nano manufacturing and world-leading knowledge in photonics to create a self-sustaining local industry. It allows us to capitalise on the combined expertise of our companies and the availability of trained researchers and resources across our academic institutions”.   

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