With new ideas and emerging technology breaking through every day, what can we expect in the future? Innovate UK KTN’s Director of Ideas, Dr Steve Welch, discusses some of the most exciting areas of R&D that we can expect to make an impact in 2023.
R&D is the engine that keeps our various industries from stagnating. From solving minor issues, to existential ones, every year Innovate UK KTN witnesses enormous progress as projects we support are able to commercialise.
In 2023, we can expect to see further leaps and bounds, and there are a few specific research areas that will be worth keeping an eye on.
With our ability to make precision microstructures and nanostructures, we’re able to build a new type of material, what are call ‘metamaterials’.
The tiny structure of metamaterials allows us to control how light interacts with them. This level of control has huge potential for replacing and shrinking traditional optical systems, all due to their precise, tightly knit structures.
Now, to manipulate the path of visible light is one thing, but the utilisation of metamaterials extends to the unseen…radiation, meaning metamaterials have great potential for making the hostile environment of outer space safer for human travellers.
The KTN is supporting this innovative research by working collaboratively with the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory to explore ultra-lightweight materials that can survive the natural space environment.
Space-based tech, what we call the geospatial industry, has a vast number of applications. A critical example being tracking the impacts of climate change. Satellite Vu is a British company that has developed a high-powered thermal imaging camera that can be mounted to a satellite and detect and map thermal radiation on Earth. This is massive for tackling climate change because we can prioritise our insulation efforts, making the fight against climate change that much more efficient.
The successful commercialisation of algae science is already cleaning up our waterways, and 2023 will see more water companies taking it up.
Wild swimming is a growing trend, but you automatically know not to swim in a river if you see a lot of algae in it. Algal blooms are caused by an abundance of phosphorus in the water which is what the algae live off.
The cause of this issue is that the way we remove phosphorus from wastewater is by dosing it with iron-based chemicals. The problem is, they’re not very efficient, they’re also quite caustic and end up leaving the effluent – the cleaned-up sewage that gets ejected into our waterways – really high in iron.
British company, I-Phyc, is successfully harnessing algae and its love of phosphorus to remove it from our wastewater before it is ejected into the effluent. The process causes no pollution, is carbon-negative, and the phosphorus can even be harvested and reused.
This algae-tech can also be used to treat run-off at farms, and the used-up biomass can be applied directly to the farmland as fertiliser. Algae’s hunger doesn’t stop at phosphorus, it also has the ability to capture other contaminants such as ammonia.
Notably one of the most dynamic and fast-moving areas of research and development, medical science is always moving forward.
Vivan Therapeutics has developed a fascinating way to genetically recreate cancer tumours in fruit flies, and then test endless variations and combinations of different cancer treatments, to determine what combination of medicines will give the patient the best chance of fighting their specific form of cancer.
Utilising the properties of quantum mechanics, such as quantum entanglement, quantum technology is a fast-evolving area of engineering. You may have heard of quantum computing, but there are far more applications beyond this.
As we see the UK roll out the next generation of broadband infrastructure, we will have increasing issues with slow Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi simply is not able to keep up with ultrafast full fibre speeds, so it will soon start becoming a bottleneck, stopping you from achieving the download speeds you’re paying for.
The Quantum Communications Hub is developing a replacement for Wi-Fi with quantum technology. With quantum, lab demonstrations are showing speeds exceeding 1Tb/s.
Robotics and AI
Most sectors within the UK are suffering some form of skills shortage, a knock-on effect of the major productivity issue we have. On the other hand, there are equally critical jobs out there which are hazardous and require an immense amount of training, such as cleaning the inside of fuel tanks. Then there are jobs that need doing but are simply not safe for humans, such as handling radioactive waste.
The simple solution is to automate, and we’ve seen an enormous amount of progress in robotics and AI over the last decade.
There are so many projects already commercialised, or that will be commercialising in the near future, so it’s hard to point to just one, but there will certainly be an uptick in robots and AI in 2023.