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Much of popular media has a tendency to feed on doom-mongering and focus on the negative. In recent years, I have felt as though the fight to contain the worst consequences of climate change and pollution might be a hopeless endeavour. I was pleasantly surprised that after attending the Materials Research Exchange I returned feeling inspired, rejuvenated and incredibly hopeful for the future. Not only because of the exciting novel materials being developed, but also because I hadn’t expected the carbon net-zero target and the war on plastic pollution to be such a central feature of the two days.

Learning about tokamaks, the reactor invention that has brought us another step closer to the nuclear fusion revolution, was completely mind blowing – a revolution that promises a safe, low waste and sustainable source of energy. Despite the connotations its name inspires in most people, nuclear fusion, unlike nuclear fission, doesn’t produce high-level radioactive waste and cannot lead to runaway reactions or catastrophic meltdowns. Plus, it uses such small quantities of such a plentiful fuel (deuterium), it could potentially power the entire world for 30 times longer than the remaining lifespan of the sun. However, it is still exactly that, potential, there’s a long way to go before it can reach its promise. How close are we? That isn’t clear, but what is clear is that the answers will come from breakthroughs in fundamental material science and engineering.

Other pursuits that were heavily discussed felt much more imminent, such as the drive towards an all-renewable transport network and the push for a circular plastic economy. The presentations from the UK Circular Plastics Network were refreshing. Rather than being anti-plastic, they acknowledged the great benefits and contributions plastics have made to our society and will continue to make, whilst also being deservedly critical of not only the damage plastics cause, but the industrial and social structures which support it. As the UKCPN suggested, from now on, I am going to try to think and talk in terms of the ‘supply-loop’ instead of the ‘supply-chain’. For a net zero plastic waste and net zero carbon future, we, as a society, need to make the fundamental shift towards circular economics. While this is clearly no small challenge, as a scientist and engineer, it feels all-the-more achievable to me when I see it being tackled with a realistic and evidence-based approach.

The other surprising attitude that stood out to me at the event was the acknowledgement of the power of collaboration. All players were represented, from pure science researchers, to translationally focussed academics, budding start-ups and established industry partners, as well as the myriad of funding bodies, technology catapults and research & technology organisations (RTOs). The most interesting technologies I’ve worked on or have come across have originated at the interfaces between disciplines. I heard a fascinating talk from Dr Veronika Kapsali, who came from a background in fashion design and went on to develop a new class of adaptive breathable textiles during her materials engineering PhD, from which her and her colleagues launched a successful start-up, Inotek Ltd.

Long gone are the days when one lone man, (and it mostly was rich men who were privileged enough to spend all their time doing experiments and writing papers), could make the breakthroughs which change the world. The game-changing successes of recent decades have developed from the work of hundreds, often thousands, of people across institutions and disciplines. Decoding the human genome and proving the existence of the Higgs Boson were only possible because of large scale international collaborations and the development of huge instrumentation, like CERN. This trend doesn’t appear to be slowing any time soon. The greatest STEM successes of the future are sure to be awarded to those who are not only the best in their field of expertise, but who are most able to utilise collaborative, multi-disciplinary and diverse spaces.

I felt really inspired to bring this outlook back to eg technology, to look at ways that we can aim for a net-zero plastic waste and net-zero carbon future in our product design and development processes and in our work with other collaboratively minded groups.

If the Knowledge Transfer Network run the event again, I will be sure to attend, if only for the injection of inspiration.

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