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With help from the EPSRC IAA Follow-on Fund, Dr David Fairen-Jimenez is commercialising a novel technology to turn the empty spaces between molecules into a revolutionary new storage solution.

For the past 20 years, scientists have tried – and failed – to find ways of taking a group of promising porous materials from the lab to the real world. If they could, they believe these metal-organic framework materials could be used in many industrial applications, from vehicles to carbon capture and storage.

“They are very interesting porous materials with an extremely high surface area – up to 8,000 m2 – which we can use to store gases because the gas molecules interact with the surface,” says Dr Dr David Fairen-Jimenez of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology. “That means these materials could be used for various so-called 'holy grail' applications such as natural gas storage.”

But finding a way of transforming materials that are mainly empty space into a form that industry can use has, until recently, seemed impossible. “Every synthesis of these materials to date has been as a powder. In the lab this works beautifully but to move to industry you need to shape the powder,” he explains. “The problem is that because these high surface area materials are very empty, when we try to shape them using external pressure, the structure collapses and we lose up to 90% of the porosity.”

Then, in 2013 while working on another project, Fairen-Jimenez's first PhD student came across a solution almost accidentally. “We developed a new way of shaping these material using a sol-gel process. We start with a solution and end up with a gel, and by doing this we can shape the material in a single step without losing any performance,” he says.

After being turned down for an EPSRC First Grant Scheme, Fairen-Jimenez successfully applied to the IAA Follow-on Fund and the idea took off. “When I found this small pot of money the timing was perfect,” he says. “We had proof of concept in one metal-organic framework, so we used the funding to show that we could extend this to other materials and to extend the idea by studying specific applications for specific markets. The grant was very useful because by 2015 we'd set up a spin-out company, Immaterial Labs.”

Since then, Immaterial Labs has attracted £1m funding, including three Innovate UK projects and is poised to take the idea into production. If all goes well, they hope to win £3.5 via the next phase of Innovate funding and attract venture capital funding to allow them to design a pilot plant.

For Fairen-Jimenez, the major challenges have been commercial as well as technical. Having progressed from milligram scale to being able to prepare hundreds of grams of material, reaching the tonne scale required remains challenging. And he found the prospect of setting up a company daunting.

“We had lots of questions about how to spin-out the technology. It was the first time I'd been through the process, so it was extremely challenging,” he admits. “We were starting down a path without knowing the purpose, which is unusual because when you write a research proposal you have an idea of what you want to implement, but in this case it was more unknown territory.”

To help overcome these challenges, Fairen-Jimenez has found Cambridge Enterprise and the i-Teams programme invaluable. Through participating twice in i-Teams, which brings together the University's brightest students and researchers to develop commercially viable strategies, he found the ideal CEO. “i-Teams was important because one of the team members, Dr Andrew Marsden, became CEO of the spin-out,” he says. “As an academic more interested in fundamental research, I don't have time to move completely to industry so having this support was vital.”

And because the IAA Follow-on Fund made a major difference, he would recommend other researchers considering commercialising their work to apply: “It's a small amount of money but for early career researchers it's very important. It was easy to apply for – writing the proposal didn't take a lot of work – and every little helps.”

Fairen-Jimenez is excited and optimistic about what's next for Immaterial Labs. “It's been very rewarding to be able to solve challenges and achieve results that nobody else could,” he concludes. “Ours is a simple idea, a simple technology; I like solving complex problems with clever ideas.”