Computer firms are hoping to gain an edge to their research through a new $40 million centre which opened yesterday. Three private groups and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology put up $10 million each for three out of nine proposed research groups making up the Advanced Materials Research Institute at the university. It will work on improving materials as diverse as cement and polymer composites to help regional firms develop, said institute director and head of the physics department, Nelson Cue Xientang. There were about half a dozen top local companies supplying multinational computer firms with magnetic recording heads used in disk drives, he said. A project with SAE Magnetics would look at better materials, said the firm's research engineer, Raymond Cheung Chi-yue. 'The trend is towards smaller and smaller heads of higher and higher storage density,' he said. The heads are coated with tiny layers of materials atom by atom, and the company would look at new atomic combinations of elements to improve storage capability, he said. 'We supply IBM, Samsung - in terms of technology we are one of the key players in the world. But it's very competitive,' he said. Another project would consider the crystal structure within cement to be able to produce it for specific uses, said Professor Cue. 'It's not a new material but it's a way of controlling and tailoring its properties,' he said. Executive director of liquid crystal display firm Varitronix, Dr York Liao, said the Centre for Display Research under the institute was looking for a 'perfect' plastic version. It would be lighter and cheaper than glass ones - but after 15 years global research, no one had come up with a display in which the liquid chemicals did not eat away the plastic, he said.