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Graphene-based semiconductor named among top UK innovations

Several technologies including an AI-based forecasting and risk management tool, and graphene sensors many times more sensitive and energy efficient than established silicon technology are competing to be named the UK’s leading engineering innovation. 

The three exceptional innovations have been selected by the Royal Academy of Engineering as finalists for the 2023 MacRobert Award, the longest running and most prestigious award for UK engineering innovation. The MacRobert Award celebrates the engineering heroes behind world-changing technological innovations that demonstrate commercial success and tangible societal benefits, and the finalists were chosen following a rigorous and highly competitive judging process, chaired by engineering pioneer Professor Sir Richard Friend FREng FRS.

The three companies are competing for a gold medal and a £50,000 prize, with this year’s winner to be announced at the Royal Academy of Engineering Awards Dinner in London on 13 July.

Professor Sir Richard Friend FREng FRS, Chair of the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award judging panel, comments: “Engineering innovation is the driving force behind economic growth and a sustainable future and this year’s three MacRobert Award finalists are wonderful examples of UK engineering ingenuity in action, developing world-leading, commercially viable products that address many societal challenges.

“Harnessing the power of AI, nPlan’s machine learning platform is helping to de-risk some of the world’s largest construction and infrastructure projects, while Paragraf’s pioneering use of graphene offers—among other applications--a significant breakthrough in electric vehicle safety, and Ceres’ game-changing fuel cell will help accelerate decarbonisation and tackle climate change.

This year’s finalists are:

Ceres Power – Clean energy technology enabling a net zero future

Ceres is shortlisted for its pioneering clean energy technology, including fuel cells for power generation and electrolysers for green hydrogen. The solid oxide cell is based on common low-cost materials that, combined with an innovative deposition technique and a highly differentiated stack technology, delivers the sort of improved performance that will be crucial if the world is to decarbonise at the scale and pace required to tackle climate change. 

Ceres has a proprietary technology that is truly reversible. Running in one direction it can use multiple fuels to generate electricity highly efficiently when and where it is needed. Run in reverse, it generates green hydrogen at high efficiencies and low cost—an innovation the MacRobert Award judges praised as a huge breakthrough in the clean energy revolution.

Fuel cells are not a new technology, but exotic material sets, high operating temperatures or the requirement for hydrogen fuel have made them the preserve of space missions. Ceres has pioneered the use of commonly found materials: a gadolinium-doped ceria ceramic membrane as an electrolyte printed onto thin perforated ferritic steel sheets that operate at temperatures in the range of 500–600C. This is a ‘Goldilocks’ temperature for performance, fuel flexibility, cost and robustness.

The result is Ceres’ patented cell technology. One cell is enough to light a room but the 250 megawatts of capacity set to come on stream in 2024 could power half a million homes. Ceres’ licensing model has enabled it to establish partnerships with some of the world's most progressive companies, such as Bosch, Doosan, and Weichai, to deliver systems and products at the scale and pace needed to decarbonise power generation, transportation, industry, and everyday living.

nPlan – Artificial Intelligence (AI) helping to save billions lost to construction project delays

nPlan’s machine-learning technology accurately forecasts how long every element of a construction project is likely to take and represents the most dramatic step forward in decades for forecasting and de-risking large-scale construction and infrastructure projects.

Only one out of every seven construction projects finishes on time. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic the median project delay was approximately 80 days and by the end of 2021 it was over 214 days—an increase of 167%. When projects are delayed, costs balloon, undermining the business case for whatever is being built and putting contractors at risk of insolvency; the knock-on effects include protracted legal disputes, reduced project volume and lower economic growth. nPlan’s system identifies the hidden risks that drive delays, helping project owners and construction companies deliver major projects on time and on budget.

nPlan’s system ingests large volumes of past project schedules—over 600,000 and counting—and uses an AI technique known as deep learning to analyse the data which it then uses to produce individual time-based probability distributions for every component of a construction project. These distributions are also rolled up to accurately forecast the likelihood that any major project will be completed in a given timeframe.

Individuals managing these projects can now make decisions informed by hundreds of thousands of past programmes. nPlan’s pioneering innovation has proved it can save as much as 3% of the cost of a billion-pound project by providing an accurate assessment of delay risk and is set to supersede more traditional methods of project forecasting that suffer from the subjective biases and limited experience of the individuals inputting into them or narrow reference class data. 

Paragraf – Bringing commercial scale graphene electronics to the world

In a breakthrough that will potenatilly have implications across sectors, Paragraf has produced the first real commercial use of graphene in electronic devices, rather than as a structural additive in composites.

Graphene has long been heralded as the future of electronics since its discoverers won the Nobel prize in 2010. However, it has taken years of development of materials and processing to bring it to practical use. Paragraf has made a monumental contribution to unlocking the material’s true potential by developing a practical method for growing single layer graphene onto a useful substrate to achieve semiconductor-grade purity and defect levels.

This graphene is already present in a wide variety of vital applications via Paragraf’s graphene magnetic field sensors, which are 30 times more sensitive, 1,000 times more energy efficient, and able to operate more reliably in a wider range of conditions than established silicon technology. This includes in gas-turbine aero-engines at high temperatures, in quantum computing at ultra-low temperatures, and in high radiation environments such as in space. The technology is also finding various applications within electric vehicles as part of the safety system monitoring battery performance to reduce the likelihood of critical faults.

The judges shortlisted Paragraf as an example of a leading UK effort to industrialise graphene-based semiconductor devices. This was made possible by an in-depth integration of multi-discipline engineering, from cutting edge material science to electronic engineering, combined with the in-depth understanding of compound semiconductor methods which has resulted in this truly transformative innovation. The sector is thriving globally and there is scope for rapid growth and associated jobs in the UK and much further afield.

“This year’s MacRobert Award finalists continue a proud tradition of UK engineering innovation and illustrate the breadth of engineering talent in this country that we should celebrate and nurture.”

Dr Caroline Hargrove CBE FREng, Chief Technology Officer at Ceres, commented: “We are thrilled to gain the recognition of the Royal Academy of Engineering, which is testament to the hard work and dedication of our team as evangelists for the power of engineering and science to change our world.

“As a licensing company, innovation happens everywhere in Ceres – it’s in our DNA from the way we do things to the technology we provide. Partners are relying on us to do the deep technology innovation, to continuously improve performance of our core cells, so that it becomes increasingly economical to deploy this clean technology to decarbonise our energy systems and enable a net zero future."

Dev Amratia, co-founder and CEO of nPlan, says: “It seems like only yesterday that my co-founder Alan Mosca and I were told businesses would pay millions for technology like this but that it was impossible to build. Now we’re celebrating being shortlisted for the MacRobert Award for engineering innovation—it’s been quite a ride!

“Our AI continues to learn from construction and infrastructure plans every day so the insights we’re able to provide to project teams across the world are only getting more valuable. It’s a hugely exciting time for the business commercially, but it’s really the societal value we can create by solving this problem that gets us out of bed in the morning and pushes us to innovate again and again.”

Simon Thomas FREng, CEO of Paragraf, says: “Many said commercialising graphene for the electronics industry was a pipe dream but after years of hard work and outstanding engineering achievements across the team, we’re now seeing our graphene Hall sensors used across a broad variety of applications, each with vitally important functions for industry and society as a whole.

“This recognition shows just why so many industry-leading businesses are now coming to us with the electronics issues they’re facing and asking how graphene can solve them, from leading battery manufacturers and automotive giants, to quantum computing specialists. Ten years ago, that simply wouldn’t have seemed possible and it’s down to the sheer strength of engineering skills here at Paragraf.”

Previous winners of the MacRobert Award have transformed the world we live in. The first award in 1969 was won jointly by Rolls-Royce for the Pegasus engine used in the iconic Harrier jets, and Freeman, Fox and Partners for designing the Severn Bridge. From the CT scanner to the first television graphics system and the Raspberry Pi mini-computer, MacRobert Award winners have demonstrated the sheer capability of UK innovators to develop world-leading, commercially viable products across all sectors of engineering. The 2022 winner, Quanta Dialysis Technologies, has made portable, high-performance dialysis a reality.


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