The Chinese telecommunications equipment giant Huawei will unveil an investment in the ‘wonder material’ graphene this week in a deal that will deepen scientific collaboration between Britain and China.
Xul News has learnt that Huawei will announce that it is ploughing millions of pounds into a research project being led by The University of Manchester’s National Graphene Institute.
The project, which will examine prospective applications of graphene to the information and communications technology sectors, will be among a series of partnerships signed during the state visit to Britain of President Xi Jinping, the Chinese President.
Sources said on Sunday that Huawei’s alliance with the National Graphene Institute, which is likely to be announced on Friday, would be among the more significant deals struck during Mr Xi’s five-day trip.
George Osborne, the Chancellor, has frequently used Autumn Statement and Budget announcements to commit more funding for graphene research.
Insiders said he and other ministers were likely to trumpet this week’s investment as a sign of their commitment to creating a “northern powerhouse”, which they will hope will alleviate some of the criticism over Government policy towards the struggling steel industry, where thousands of jobs are being shed.
A glut of cheap steel from China is among the factors which have diminished the competitiveness of UK-based steel-makers, and ministers will be expected to demonstrate that they have held meaningful talks with the Chinese delegation in the coming days.
Graphene, which is just a single atom thick, was discovered by two scientists at The University of Manchester in 2004, and has already spawned a number of independent companies focused on exploiting it commercially.
Two hundred times stronger than steel, it is eventually expected to be utilised across a wide range of industries, such as fuel cells, aeroplane wings, water purification technology and – significantly for Huawei – more flexible and durable mobile phones.
This week’s collaboration will deepen Huawei’s commitment to the UK, just months after it was cleared of posing a risk to national security following an audit of its operations conducted by the professional services firm EY.
Huawei is one of an emerging breed of Chinese companies which have become genuine challengers to established Western rivals, and is now the world’s second-largest telecoms equipment-manufacturer.
However, it has been dogged by – consistently denied – allegations that it is a front for China’s People’s Liberation Army because of its founder Ren Zhengfei’s past as an engineer in the country’s armed forces.
The company plays an important role in the provision of the UK’s critical communications infrastructure, and has partnerships with the likes of Openreach, the national broadband infrastructure network owned by BT Group, and EE, the mobile communications network operator.
Huawei has in recent years seen expansion in Australia, India and the US blocked by governments which have voiced fears that the Chinese company could be aiding cyber-attacks on technological infrastructure elsewhere in the world.
In an attempt to overcome concerns about its governance and operations, Huawei established a separate UK board of heavyweight business people, which is now headed by Lord Browne, the former BP chief executive.
It also operates a cyber-security facility in Oxfordshire which works with GCHQ, the Government intelligence agency, to ensure the integrity of the equipment it sells in Britain.
In a report commissioned by Huawei earlier this year, it said it was on track to exceed a commitment made in 2012 to invest at least £1.3bn in the UK by 2017, and that it now supported 7,400 British jobs.
Unlike most large Chinese enterprises, Huawei is entirely privately owned, with thousands of its employees its only shareholders.
A decade ago, it failed with a bid for Marconi, the struggling British manufacturer, the bulk of which was eventually subsumed into Sweden’s Ericsson.
A Huawei spokesman declined to comment on its impending partnership with the National Graphene Institute.