Outside it was a typically grey, drizzly day in October in Manchester.
But inside Mayfield Depot, history was being made.
In scenes reminiscent of a James Bond film, the cavernous structure was dramatically lit and workers in bright orange overalls and hard hats scurried back and forth in hushed anticipation.
At 10am the procedure began, a concrete mixer churning out the familiar, thick substance that is the most-used building material in the world.
Fourteen truck loads was poured over a vaulted structure to create a suspended concrete slab that will be used, first as an indoor ice rink, and later a roller disco at Mayfield.
This is no ordinary concrete slab, however, it’s a ‘concretene’ slab.
The world-first material is the result of a partnership between scientists at the University of Manchester’s Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC) and engineers at Nationwide, a firm co-founded by Failsworth-born Alex McDermott.
It could change the way buildings are made for the first time in hundreds of years.
It could also be one of the biggest business success stories for Manchester and the UK – if we make the most of our head start.
And perhaps most importantly, it could play a major role in quickly reducing carbon emissions and slowing the pace of climate change.
In 2004, University of Manchester scientists Sir Andre Geim and Sir Konstantin Novoselov found it was possible to isolate a single atomic layer of carbon.
It is the world’s thinnest material, one million times smaller than the diameter of a single human hair.
It also believed to be one of the strongest [200 times stronger than steel] and most conductive in existence.
The discovery proved to be a crucial breakthrough for the use of graphene and resulted in Sir Andre and Sir Konstantin being awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2010.
At the Graphene Innovation Centre, experts are exploring how it can be used in hundreds of different scenarios in the modern world.
They then need businesses like Nationwide to take a gamble and invest in their ideas to see if they will work commercially.
Historically, new materials have taken around 25 years before they have become commonly used in products.
Carbon fibre, for example, has only relatively recently been used in everything from aircraft, to F1 cars and tennis rackets.
James Baker, CEO of Graphene@Manchester is trying to speed the process up.
“Normally, unis do great things but on a small scale,” said .
“Industries do big scale.
“And in the middle there’s this ‘valley of death’.
James wants graphene to be creating successful businesses and employment in Manchester in the short-term.
He believes concretene could be one answer.
‘We call it our secret sauce’
If concrete were a country, it would be the third largest carbon emitter in the world behind only China and the US, producing around 8 per cent of global CO2 emissions annually.
The climate emergency and discussions at COP26 later this month are likely to inform legislation which will require the global construction industry to drastically reduce its carbon footprint in future.
Alex McDermott, a former University of Manchester Civil Engineering student, first heard James give his pitch to industry about the potential of graphene and concrete around three years ago.
They have been working together ever since.
The firm he co-founded, Nationwide, has pumped ‘millions’ of pounds into developing concretene.
This is now the fourth trial pour but the first of a suspended concrete slab, the same kind used in high-rise buildings.
The 54 by 14 metre mezzanine floor will use 30 per cent less concrete than a traditional mix, with no need for steel reinforcements.
It will also set faster – it could be ready for use within 24 hours compared with up to 28 days for traditional concrete to reach its full strength.
“This is a very special thing for us,” said Alex.
“We’ve got the potential to save more CO2 than a small country.
“This can be used in 99 per cent of the world’s concrete, you don’t have to change the machinery.
“It looks like any other concrete – it’s a game changer.”
Asked how concretene is made, Alex said the graphene is mixed in through a solution.
But he stayed tight-lipped on any further details because Nationwide has a patent pending.
“We call it our ‘secret sauce’!” he joked.
If the patent is successful, the firm would then licence it for use and share the profits with the University of Manchester.
The potential income is astronomic.
If trials continue successfully, Alex predicts concretene could be used in the skyscrapers being built around Manchester city centre in three years.
But there are still some ‘big hurdles’ ahead, says Alex, including lobbying the government for more investment and support.
“We’ve got to get it accredited for use in the next two-and-a-half years,” said Alex.
“We need around £10million, we need the government to get on board.
“The Chinese are spending ten of millions on this – we’re ahead at the moment but if we don’t get funding we’re going to get left behind.”
Nationwide, based in Wiltshire, is a relatively small firm, with 75 employees.
Asked why bigger players haven’t jumped at the chance to back innovations like concretene, Alex said: “The construction industry is like dinosaurs – nothing ever changes.
“Concrete has been the same for a 1000 years… because it’s so good, it does it’s job.
‘We’re acting on a promise to the city’
The engineering first is the latest step in the development at Mayfield, where a public-private partnership is also building the first city centre park for 100 years.
Work around the River Medlock is ongoing with bosses hopeful of an opening at the end of summer 2022.
Mike Harrison, delivery director, said the Mayfield Partnership was in a ‘unique position’ to support the concretene project.
“Mayfield was at the start of the Industrial Revolution and it’s really great for us to be part of the next revolution in the construction industry,” he said.
“Mayfield is committed to placemaking which is authentic.
“We don’t believe in greenwashing, we’re acting on a promise to the city.
“In a way we would quite like to be a disrupter of the norm.
“Look at the way we’re also cleaning up the river, the Environment Agency are really pleased.
“It’s what we want to do.”