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Taking a peek inside the UK’s National Graphene Institute

Photo of Tony Ling

Look, no dust – National Graphene Institute architect Tony Ling showing off the PVC blackboards (Courtesy: Physics World/James Dacey)


By Matin Durrani in Manchester

Do an Internet image search of the word “physicist” and you’ll come across countless pictures of physicists posing in front of blackboards covered with bewildering looking equations. That’s because blackboards are traditionally a common sight in physics labs and research centres – in fact, they’re everywhere at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, where my Physics World colleagues Hamish Johnston and Louise Mayor are right now.

But over at the UK’s new £61m National Graphene Insitute (NGI), which I toured earlier today, blackboards are very much verboten. It’s the chalk dust you see, which is a no-no for health-and-safety bosses at the University of Manchester, where the NGI is located. Incidentally, Manchester is also currently home to Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, who shared the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics for isolating graphene for the first time.

The NGI is designed to bring researchers from academia and industry together to help to turn research into graphene and other two-dimensional materials into commercial products. I decided to come along to the NGI as Manchester is playing host to this year’s Graphene Week conference. It’s an annual event organised by the EU’s multi-billion-euro Graphene Flagship project, which is designed to build up Europe’s strengths in graphene, and the NGI is just round the corner from the conference venue.

The institute is housed in a remarkable building, which boasts some unique architectural features as Tony Ling – the NGI’s architect from Jestico + Whiles – pointed out on my tour today. These include it being the only lab in the world with clean rooms on two different floors connected internally by a lift, a wildflower garden on the roof terrace, as well as offices and other open areas that have no air conditioning but are instead cooled through natural heat flows.

Novoselov, who was involved in designing the building, wanted blackboards to be installed in corridors to allow researchers to swap notes and exchange ideas. But his request was vetoed – chalk dust can be dangerous – and so Ling instead decided to coat huge swathes of the lab’s corridors with shiny black PVC, which you can write on with special “chalk pens”.

Apparently the UK chancellor George Osborne wrote on one of the walls earlier this year when he was given his own tour of the building, but unfortunately his scribblings were removed by over-eager cleaners not long after they appeared. So instead I asked Ling to write his own comments, which you can see in the picture above.

You’ll be able to find out more about the building in a special film we’ll be releasing shortly based on our tour today – so stay tuned for that. I’m now off to a special drinks reception at the Graphene Week conference sponsored by the journal 2D Materials, brought to you by IOP Publishing, which publishes Physics World.

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