School of Chemical and Physical Sciences

2009 News

Sea ice researchers visit Antarctica

16 December 2009

Malcolm Ingham, Keleigh Jones and Meghan Halse from the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences were among a group of seven from Victoria University who recently returned from a research trip to the Antarctic.

The group spent 15 of their 30 days living in a 'container camp' situated on the sea ice in McMurdo Sound. The containers are both living quarters and dedicated laboratory space.

The container camp

Dr Ingham and student Keleigh Jones, who were measuring the internal structure of the sea ice, said the trip had been very successful.

"We were able to make similar measurements to those we had trialled in Alaska last year. This gives us useful comparative results from Northern and Southern Hemisphere sea ice."

Meghan Halse and Robin Dykstra (from the School of Engineering and Computer Science) were continuing the NMR measurements on sea ice that Paul Callaghan's group had began on earlier visits.

The trip was coordinated by Tim Haskell from Industrial Research Ltd.

Inquisitive seals visited a team from NIWA, who were making oceanographic measurements through a hole in the floor of their container.

Victoria success in Science Honours

19 November 2009

Dr Richard Tilley (left) and Prof John Spencer

Victoria University scooped three of the most prestigious awards at the Royal Society’s Science Honours dinner last night.

Dr Richard Tilley won the Easterfield Medal, Professor Ken McNatty the Pickering Medal and Professor Colin Wilson won the Hutton Medal.

Victoria Vice-Chancellor Professor Pat Walsh said that the success was a credit to Victoria’s researchers.

“The three medal winners are outstanding researchers. They are leaders in their fields and are making world-class contributions,” said Professor Walsh.

“Our staff and students are immersed in the science capital of New Zealand and it is pleasing to see their success at the highest level.”

“It is fitting we have won the Easterfield Medal because Thomas Easterfield was one of Victoria’s four founding professors and played a leading part in New Zealand science, establishing chemistry at Victoria and later the successful Cawthron Institute.”


Dr Richard Tilley in the Transmission Electron Microscope suite

Easterfield Medal - Dr Richard Tilley

Dr Richard Tilley was awarded the prestigious Easterfield Medal which is awarded by the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry and the Royal Society of Chemistry in Britain.

Dr Tilley, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, studies nanoparticles—in particular synthesising them for a variety of uses.

“We focus on making nanoparticles in solution, changing their shapes and properties so we can make the most of this technology,” said Dr Tilley.

“By combining nanoparticles with quantum dots we can make a special light-emitting nanoparticle which could be used for biological imaging such as finding and illuminating cancers in the body.”

He has also worked with magnetic nanoparticles which are used in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to identify tumours and cancers in the body. His group is working with the Malaghan Institute, the largest independent medical research organisation in the country, to make the technique better and cheaper.

“It’s a tremendous honour to receive the Easterfield Medal. It’s very humbling because everyone in my group has worked very hard.

“We’ve also been part of wonderful collaborations with organisations like the Malaghan Institute as well as companies and academics in Britain and Japan.”

In recent years, Dr Tilley has won two sizeable research grants—a $1.3 million and a $1.8million grant from the Foundation of Research, Science and Technology (FRST).

One of Dr Tilley’s postgraduate students, John Watt, won the 2009 MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year.

Visit Dr Tilley's Nanoparticle and Quantum Dot Research Group website.

Prof Alan Kaiser Honoured with the Shorland Medal

12 November 2009

The Shorland Medal, named in memory or Dr Brian Shorland, is awarded for the significance and originality of a personal, life-time contribution to basic or applied research in New Zealand. It is presented by the New Zealand Association of Scientists.

Prof Kaiser receiving his medal from Dr Wayne Mapp, Minister of Research, Science and Technology

Professor Kaiser is recognised for his long history of research into the electronic properties of several types of novel conducting materials, ranging from conducting plastics to glassy metals and magnetic materials to superconductors. A particular focus has been in developing an understanding of the the processes of conduction . 

Most recently he has researched graphene and carbon nanotubes which both have great potential for carbon-based electronics. Graphene is a layer of carbon atoms only one atom thick, which until recently was not thought to exist in nature. Carbon nanotubes are tiny tubes of rolled-up graphene.

Alan's publications have been widely used by other authors and he has received many invitations to present his work at international conferences. He has also helped develop New Zealand’s international science links and collaborated with researchers worldwide.

Previous Wellington winners of the medal are: Dr Graeme Gainsford, X-ray crystallography (2008), Dr Kenneth MacKenzie, ceramic chemistry (2003), Dr Hugh Bibby, geophysics (2002) and Prof Brian Halton, organic chemistry, (2001).

Brian Shorland was a patron of NZAS and the editor of NZ Science Review. His main research interests were in nutrition and lipid biochemistry, and he was formerly the Director of the Fats Research Laboratory at the DSIR.

Brian was an extremely dedicated scientist. For the 10-15 years before his death, he was an Honorary Fellow in the School of Biological Sciences at Victoria University. Brian came into work nearly every day right up until the week of his death, when he was in his 90s.  

Biomineralisation - A/Prof Kate McGrath and Dr Conrad Lendrum on Radio

12 November 2009

Hard biological structures like teeth, shell and bone are formed via biomineralisation and the process is widespread in nature.

Conrad Lendrum from Industrial Research Limited and Kate McGrath from Victoria University, both from the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences and the MacDiarmid Institute, would like nothing more than to be able to replicate the process of biomineralisation in the lab, but as Ruth Beran finds out, that may not happen for some time yet. (Text - Radio New Zealand)

Listen to the interview on Our Changing World, Radio New Zealand National.

Gold Medal for Orienteering Lecturer

Dr Turner inside the Olympic stadium

2 November 2009

Physics lecturer Gillian Turner recently won a gold medal at the World Masters Orienteering Championships.

Held in Sydney alongside the four-yearly World Master Games, Gillian took first place in the sprint orienteering event, crossing the finish line at Sydney Olympic Park.

“It was quite magic to race around the Olympic village and through stadiums that had been filled at the 2000 Olympics as part of the 2.4 kilometre course,” said Gillian, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences.

“I’ve been Orienteering for thirty years and had come close to winning a medal before, so to get the gold was simply brilliant.  I was very proud to have the New Zealand flag carried in behind me at the medal ceremony.”

Gillian has taught orienteering at school level for many years and is part of the Wellington Orienteering Club. 

Her family has taken part in the sport for many years—her husband Malcolm Ingham was also at the Master Games—and her daughter Elizabeth is one of New Zealand’s elite orienteering athletes.  Elizabeth, who studies at Victoria, recently won a Blues Award for her success in the sport.

Gillian says Orienteering is a perfect mix of athleticism and intellectual challenge.

“It combines cross-country running with all the fun and challenge of a treasure hunt with map reading.  It’s seen as an intellectual sport—a number of Victoria staff members are involved in orienteering.

“In the sprint event in particular, you can’t afford to make a navigational mistake.  You have to maintain absolute concentration and focus, and you’re constantly making decisions.

“The sport’s taken me all around the world and I’m delighted with winning the gold in Sydney.”

Marsden grants support world-class research in School

19 October 2009

Vice-Chancellor, Professor Pat Walsh, says the world-class research of Victoria academics has been recognised and supported by Marsden Fund grants announced last week.

Victoria University received 16 research grants equating to almost 15% of total funding, one of the University's best ever results.

"Our success in science has been acknowledged with a high percentage of Marsden funding coming from science-based proposals. Our staff and students are immersed in the science capital of New Zealand and are contributing to outstanding research.”

In the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, Professor Denis Sullivan was awarded a full Marsden grant of $549,000 over three years for his proposal titled “Pulsating white dwarf stars: unique astrophysical laboratories.”  

Dr Eric Le Ru was awarded a Fast-Start grant ($300,000 over three years) for his work on the optical properties of metallic nano-particles for ultrasensitive molecule detection.

Calculating the electric field on the surface of a pumpkin-shaped silver nanoparticle

Prof Sullivan will collaborate with Dr Judith L. Provencal (University of Delaware, USA) and Dr Michael H. Montgomery (University of Texas, Austin, USA).  

“White dwarfs are dying remnants of stars like our Sun that are slowly cooling their way to oblivion. These objects are incredibly dense and stable because gravitational collapse is prevented by the temperature-independent quantum pressure produced by the motion of the electrons. White dwarfs cool slowly because the energy they radiate into space is not replenished by internal nuclear reactions.

The aim of this research is to apply newly developed and improved observational and theoretical techniques, termed asteroseismology, to recently discovered pulsating white dwarfs, in order to advance our understanding of the physics of these stars. This work is important as white dwarfs are the evolutionary ashes of the vast majority of stars.

Dr Le Ru has a research background in the experimental and theoretical aspects of plasmonics and SERS, Surface Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy.

“Emerging single-molecule detection schemes that use surface-enhanced spectroscopies urgently need better models for predicting the electromagnetic properties of metallic nanoparticles of arbitrary shape. This project aims to satisfy exactly that need by developing fast and reliable numerical tools, and applying them to a vast parameter space in terms of nano-particle shape, size, and composition.”

Scientists from SCPS join Sciblogs

16 October 2009

Drs Shaun Hendy and Aaron Small have joined Sciblogs, an initiative of the Science Media Centre, which aims to promote accurate, bias-free reporting on science and technology.

Shaun's blog is titled A Measure of Science and Aaron's The Scientist NZ.

The Science Media Centre was set up in June 2008 by the Royal Society of New Zealand with funding from the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology.

School research excellence recognised by prestigious journal

8 October 2009

Two separate groups from the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences and the MacDiarmid Institute have recently published papers in one of the most prestigious physics journals, Physical Review Letters.

Revealing the dark side of molecules

Authors from left, Chris Galloway, Pablo Etchegoin and Eric Le Ru, photographed at Prof Etchegoin's inaugural lecture (see story below).

Researchers Chris Galloway, Pablo Etchegoin and Eric Le Ru have published a paper titled "Ultrafast nonradiative decay rates on metallic surfaces by comparing surface-enhanced Raman and fluorescence signals of single molecules."

The study introduces and demonstrates a new experimental technique that probes the ultra-fast light emission dynamics of molecules on metal surfaces.

Dr Le Ru says “It makes it possible to indirectly measure processes occurring in a single molecule on timescales in the range 10-100 femtoseconds - a feat unthinkable with current time-resolved spectroscopic techniques.”

These processes of light emission are well understood for molecules in solvents, where most processes occur on a picosecond to nanosecond timescale.

When molecules sit on a metallic surface however, everything speeds up dramatically. The timescales become inaccessible with conventional methods - a problem exacerbated by the fact that most of the emitted light is directly absorbed in the metal, and is therefore undetectable. Theoretical predictions abound for understanding processes in these extreme circumstances, but experimental evidence has remained elusive.

“The method we developed in this work, exploits the subtle differences in how two optical processes - fluorescence and Raman scattering - are modified by the metal surface. By comparing the intensities of the two processes for a single molecule, ultra-fast decay rates became accessible to our experimental techniques.”

Several emerging ultra-sensitive optical techniques make use of the light emission of molecules in close proximity to metal surfaces. Applications could be found in analytical chemistry, forensic science, art, archaeology and biology.

The full citation and link is Phys. Rev. Lett. 103, 063003 (2009)

The paper has also been selected for publication in the Virtual Journal of Biophysical Physics Research and the Virtual Journal of Ultrafast Science.

Dr Michele Governale

Dr Michele Governale, newly arrived in the School, describes his research published in Physics Review Letters.

Electrons like it faster

There is more to life than simply increasing its speed, according to the Indian peace noble-laureate Mahatma Gandhi. For electrons in ‘quantum pumps’ however, going faster may in fact achieve some remarkable results.

Just as a conventional pump moves a liquid along a pipe, a quantum pump causes an ordered motion of electrons through a nano-scale conductor, such as a quantum dot.

“Other investigators have looked at quantum pumps, either for weakly interacting electrons, or in the so-called adiabatic regime, when the electron flow is slow. In this paper, we developed a systematic technique to study pumping when the Coulomb interaction between the electrons becomes relevant - beyond the slow adiabatic regime.”

When applied to a quantum dot (with magnetic contacts) the new theory predicts that as the pumping action gets faster, the electron and spin currents will "lag behind" and acquire peculiar phase shifts. As a result, phenomena such as spin pumping with no net charge current appear, which are not observed in the slow, adiabatic regime.

Applications of the research may be important for seemingly unrelated areas, such as biophysics, where quantum pumping has been proposed as a model for ion pumping across a cellular membrane.

The full citation and link is Phys. Rev. Lett. 103, 136801 (2009)

Making a difference through physics - Prof Pablo Etchegoin's Inaugural Lecture

Professor Pablo Etchegoin

29th September 2009

In his inaugural professorial lecture Pablo Etchegoin outlined how he navigated the world of science before finding an area where he could make a difference.

Argentinian-born physicist Professor Etchegoin is developing a way to detect single molecules, the ‘entities’ that make up most things around us.

“We’re working towards being able to pick up a speck and confirm whether it is, for example, dust or cocaine.  So our research has implications for the detection of illegal drugs and forensic science in general. 

“It could also help identify diseases earlier because by the time you see morphological changes in cells through microscopes, it may be too late.  The tool we are developing could help by showing changes on the molecular level earlier.

“The technique is still a bit ‘too sensitive’ and sometimes difficult to control but we’re getting there; we hope to make it a standard tool.”

Professor Etchegoin notes that in many respects the study of science is unpredictable.  Since doing a PhD in physics 20 years ago, he has studied a range of topics from semiconductors to areas of chemistry, and even some biology before finding his niche.

“As a scientist, your research adapts over the years as you change roles and focus.  A university you move to may concentrate on different areas of research; lab availability can also influence the work you undertake.

“If you told me 20 years ago that I would be doing the research  I am at Victoria, I wouldn’t have believed it at all.”

Victoria University Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research, Professor Neil Quigley, says Professor Etchegoin has established an impressive reputation as a physicist working on world-leading research.

“Since arriving at Victoria five years ago, Professor Etchegoin has contributed immensely to the first-class research our scholars are doing in the area of physics. His research has the potential to become a standard scientific tool with benefits for wider society.”

Professor Quigley says Victoria’s Inaugural Lecture series is an opportunity for new professors to provide family, friends, colleagues and the wider community with an insight into their specialist area of study.

“It is also an opportunity for the University to celebrate and acknowledge our valued professors.”

Professor Etchegoin has worked as a Fellow of the National Commission for Atomic Energy of Argentina, studied at the Max-Planck Institute in Stuttgart, and later in Cambridge University as a Marie-Curie Fellow of the European Union and been awarded the T. K. Sidey Medal from the Royal Society of New Zealand for his work in electromagnetic radiation.

Find our more about Prof Etchegoin's research.

Printable Solar Cells - Drs Richard Tilley and Justin Hodgkiss on Radio

10 September 2009

Dr Justin Hodgkiss

A team of New Zealand scientists were recently successful in gaining $5.7 million in funding from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology to create high efficiency, printable solar cells that could be incorporated into roofing materials. If successfully created, these solar cells could provide the total average energy requirements for each household.

The team is headed by Ashton Partridge from Massey University who specialises in conducting polymers, and a collaborator in the project is Richard Tilley from Victoria University of Wellington, who is working on quantum nanodots.

Printing photovoltaic cells in bulk would mean their price could rival that of other non-renewable energy sources. However currently, printable solar cells are not quite efficient enough to be price competitive. In order to improve their efficiency, scientists need to know the physics of how the materials in the solar cells are actually working and that is what one of the other collaborators, Justin Hodgkiss also from Victoria University of Wellington and the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, is trying to determine.
(Text and photo - Radio New Zealand)

Listen to the interview on Our Changing World, Radio New Zealand National.

Science Fair project in Te Reo Māori

1 September 2009

Judges Dr Pauline Harris (left) and Dr Ocean Mercier examine the project completed by Meremaihi Jackson (left) and Mereana Makea, both 11.

In a first for the NIWA Wellington Science and Technology Fair, held at Victoria University last weekend, an exhibit was entered and judged entirely in Te Reo Māori.

Students Meremaihi Jackson and Mereana Makea made a hot air balloon from tissue paper and fuelled it with varying amounts of methylated spirits soaked into a cotton ball. 

“We were going to do our Science Fair project in English, but our teacher said maybe we could do it in Māori. We thought that would be cool! We knew most of the words to use, but we just looked up the ones we didn’t know, using a dictionary or the internet.”

Their teacher, Dianne Grigsby, approached the Chief Judge of the Science Fair, Dr Gillian Turner of Victoria University, who was excited about the idea and was able to find two suitably qualified judges - Dr Pauline Harris is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences and Dr Ocean Mercier is a Lecturer in the School of Māori Studies. Both have PhDs in physics and are fluent in Te Reo.

Dr Mercier has been a Science Fair judge for the last 5 years and was impressed with the girls’ project. “They clearly appreciated the concept of buoyancy vs. air temperature involved in the experiment, which is tricky at the best of times. I liked the way they had videoed the balloon rising and could show us on a laptop. They were enthusiastic and very conversant in Te Reo.”

The girls attend Otari School in Wilton and are part of the immersion strand, where they learn in and speak Te Reo every day.

The project won a Victoria University of Wellington Faculty of Education special prize. 

Drs Mercier and Harris commented that the physics lexicon in Te Reo had only been developed over the last 10 years and they were pleased to see the use of the language being normalised.

Listen to a short interview with Dr Mercier on Waatea News (starts from 58 seconds), Radio New Zealand National, on 9 September.

John Watt on Radio

28 August 2009

John talks about his palladium nanoparticle research to Ruth Beran.

Listen to the interview on Our Changing World, Radio New Zealand National.

John Watt from SCPS is the MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year

28 August 2009

A Victoria University PhD student has been named the 2009 MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year for his research removing toxic pollutants from vehicle emissions.

27-year-old John Watt’s studies focus on using infinitesimally small nanoparticles of the precious metal palladium to remove toxic gases from a car’s exhaust system. 

Award recipient John Watt using the electron microscopy facilities at the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, Victoria University.

Victoria University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Pat Walsh, said that Mr Watt’s research was world-leading.

“Our staff and students are immersed in the science capital of New Zealand and are contributing nationally and internationally. John Watt’s work is one example of research excellence that could make a real difference.

“His research could result in a cheap and effective way of removing pollution from our streets. A British company is currently examining how suitably the palladium particles can be used.

“Being awarded the MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year is a superb achievement and is a tribute to John’s research and the support of his professors.”

Mr Watt was presented with the 2009 MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year Award by the Minister of Research, Science and Technology, the Hon Dr Wayne Mapp, at a function in Auckland on Thursday night.

The awards are named after Victoria University alumnus and Nobel Prize winning scientist, the late Professor Alan MacDiarmid.

Mr Watt has created nano-size palladium particles which achieves much better performance than conventional palladium and are significantly cheaper. Conventional palladium costs up to $11,000 a kilogram, limiting its use.

As well as Mr Watt, Victoria had two other winners in this year’s Young Scientists of the Year Awards, from a total of five finalists.

Kerstin Burridge developed textiles that combine wool with gold to create a real world Golden Fleece. She grew tiny particles of gold on wool which produces textiles ranging in colour from light pink, through to purple, grey and gold.

Professor Walsh said that her study was something that would have great benefits for the New Zealand textile industry.

“Universities add significant economic and intellectual benefits to society and Kerstin’s research reflects this. 

“Victoria has a strong research association with Crown Research Institutes and the private sector, and I look forward to Kerstin advancing her work. It could be something we’ll soon see on catwalks around the world.”

The five finalists from Victoria University.
From left: Dmitri Schebarchov, Matt Gerrie, Kerstin Burridge, Fern Kelly, John Watt.

Dr Matthew Gerrie’s research looked at innovative techniques that improve the accuracy of eyewitness identification of offenders. He used infrared eye tracking technology to record eye movement patterns, giving insight into how witnesses make decisions.

“Dr Gerrie’s work helps to reduce wrongful convictions based on inaccurate eye witness identifications from police line-ups,” said Professor Walsh.

“His efforts as manager of Innocence Project New Zealand (IPNZ), part of a world-wide organisation that investigates and overturns wrongful convictions, and his research fits well with the University’s aim to be critic and conscience of society. The identification of offenders is an incredibly important area of justice.”

Find out more about about nanoparticles.

Listen to John's interview on Morning Report.

SCPS hosts record number of entries at this year's Science Fair

28 August 2009

The 2009 NIWA Wellington Regional Science and Technology Fair has again been a resounding success, with nearly 600 intermediate and secondary school students taking part.

The Fair, sponsored by the National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research (NIWA), is open for public viewing today and tomorrow morning at Victoria University of Wellington. Prizes will be awarded tomorrow, Saturday 29 August, starting at 1pm.

Chief Judge Gillian Turner, from the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences at Victoria University said, “this year’s record number of entries covered a huge range of original and innovative topics from energy alternatives to the colour of egg yolks, windbreaks to natural dyes. The judges were impressed at the high level of scientific investigation undertaken by students from year 7 upwards, and were hard-pressed to choose the eventual prizewinners from so many excellent entrants.”

Top prizewinners were:

 Zofia Arthur, a Year 8 student from Queen Margaret College, won the $700 Royal Society of New Zealand Wellington Branch prize for best overall exhibit  with her project “Need a break? Get a windbreak”.  Zofia was also judged first in Class 2.

Thang Tran, a Year 13 student from Wellington College, won the Victoria School Excellence Scholarship of a first year university fees scholarship.  Thang’s project was “The effect of temperature on Vitamin C”.  Thang was also judged first in Class 5.

Nika Thomson, a Year 12 student at Sacred Heart College,  won the Victoria University Faculty of Science prize of a first year university fees scholarship for an outstanding Class 5 (Years 11–13) exhibit.    Nika’s project, “The effect of exercise on insulin requirements of Type 1 Diabetics” was judged second in Class 5.       

Details of the main prizewinners, and the first prizewinner in each class are posted at:

Public viewing:
Laby Building, Kelburn Parade, Victoria University of Wellington
9am – 5pm, Friday 28 August
9am – 12.30pm, Saturday 29 August

1pm, Saturday 29 August, Maclaurin Lecture Theatre 3, Kelburn Parade, Victoria University of Wellington.

Prof Jim Johnston wins Bayer Innovator Award

25 August 2009

Professor James (Jim) Johnston has won a Bayer Innovator Award, in the Research and Development Category. Jim received his award from the Hon Dr Wayne Mapp, Minister for Research, Science and Technology at a dinner in Auckland last night.

Professor Johnston is internationally recognised for his research and development of new innovative materials and chemical process technology platforms. He successfully bridges the gap between university research and industry needs, by providing enthusiastic leadership together with the proactive instigation and pursuit of industry-focused programmes. He uses innovative thinking and modern nanoscience and technology to develop new high value products from New Zealand natural raw materials and environmentally beneficial eco-chemical process technologies.

His current research focuses on nano-composite materials including the innovative use of gold and silver nanoparticles as novel colourants for high quality NZ wool in high value markets, and novel nano-structured calcium silicate materials for a platform of industry and consumer applications.

These world firsts have been protected by patents and are commanding intense interest from New Zealand and international companies, who are working with him to secure exclusive access to these new knowledge-based products and technologies and their commercialisation.

He also proposed the idea and leads the development of an innovative continuous wet air oxidation technology to process problematic organic waste streams into useful feedstock products. This is being progressed to commercialisation internationally.

New - Kim Hill interviews Melanie Johnston-Hollitt about the Square Kilometre Array

22 August 2009

Dr Johnston-Hollitt is the leader of the radio astronomy group at Victoria University of Wellington, and chair of the New Zealand Square Kilometre Array Research and Development Consortium. She was interviewed on Radio New Zealand National's Saturday Morning with Kim Hill programme.

Visit the Square Kilometre Array website.

Listen to the radio interview.

Find out more about Melanie's work in radio astronomy.

Harnessing Wellington’s wind

First published in Victorious, August 2009

Wellington has a less than flattering reputation for its wind, but the capital’s breezy conditions are perfect for Victoria University researchers investigating the possibility of commercialising micro wind turbines.

Kent Hogan and Chris Bumby with the micro turbine on the roof of the Laby Building.

Dr Chris Bumby, Foundation for Research, Science and Technology (FRST) Post Doctoral Research Fellow, says three micro turbines will eventually be erected on the roof of the Kelburn Campus’ Laby Building to assess how much electrical power these rooftop turbines generate as a function of the incident wind speed.

“All three turbines should be in place by September. Our aim is to quantify how much power these very small turbines (less than 1.8m diameter and 1kW peak power) can generate in a Wellington rooftop setting.”

The Turbine Team

Potentially, says Chris, such micro turbines could be mounted upon residential house rooftops and connected to the national grid. When the turbine generates more energy than a household is using, that excess energy could be exported into the national grid to be used by someone else. 

The year-long study, a joint project with Meridian Energy subsidiary Right House, will focus on turbine performance in high wind conditions, as well as noise and vibration issues.

“We want to see how the power generation efficiency of the turbine changes when you place the turbine on a gusty roof and connect it to the electrical grid as opposed to a conventional battery charger.”

Ultimately, the electronics module that enables the micro turbines to be connected to the grid could be commercialised for domestic use.

Chris says Wellington is an ideal location in which to trial the micro turbines, because it is one of the windiest cities in the world.

“The consistent wind speeds in Wellington make this a good city to study the possibility of maximising energy generation at high wind speeds.”   

Because the project is still in the early stages, data is not readily available but Chris is confident the project will yield interesting research.   

“Micro turbine wind generators are not new technology, but the concept of using them in a grid-tied residential setting is novel and controversial. A key problem in many European cities is the lack of wind at house rooftop height, but Wellington has rather a lot of wind.”

Along with Right House, which supplied the turbines and cabling, the project has received financial support from the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (ECCA) and the Royal Society. Kent Hogan, the Head of Physics at Onslow College, has been awarded a Royal Society Teaching Fellowship to work full-time on the project for 12 months.

SCPS chemists talk about their novel inks, on Our Changing World, Radio New Zealand National

13 August 2009

Scientists at Victoria University are using the colour-changing properties of quantum nanodots to create novel materials for ink-jet printing. Some of these inks are invisible in ambient light, but fluoresce and change colour under UV light, and could potentially be used for security labelling to protect against counterfeiting.  Other inks change colour depending on how light is refracted through the material.

Ruth Beran visited Jim Johnston, Aaron Small and Andi Zeller in their lab at Victoria University to find out what a quantum nanodot actually is, and to see some inks of a different colour.

Listen to the interview on Our Changing World, Radio New Zealand National.

Read the full article in Vic News.

$1 million bequest to MacDiarmid Institute

5 August 2009

Nanotechnology will be receiving a major boost in the future thanks to a $1 million bequest planned by an anonymous donor.

The donor has confirmed the $1 million bequest to the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a Centre of Research Excellence formed as a partnership between four New Zealand universities and two Crown Research Institutes.

The bequest, through the Victoria University of Wellington Foundation, will support post-graduate scholarships at the Institute and encourage students to continue in science. The donor says that they are thrilled to be able to support the leading edge research of the Institute and hope the future scholarships will encourage advanced study in science.

The MacDiarmid Institute is New Zealand's premier research organisation in materials science and nanotechnology. The Institute is hosted by Victoria University of Wellington and supported by its partners the University of Canterbury, Industrial Research Ltd, Massey University, the University of Otago and the Institute for Geological and Nuclear Sciences.

Dr Richard Blaikie, Director of the MacDiarmid Institute, said that the bequest was an incredibly generous contribution. “I’m delighted they wish to support the work of the Institute. The bequest will benefit young scientists, future research and, ultimately, the nation as a whole.”

The donor said that they realised a bequest is an important way to help future generations after witnessing the private support for universities in the United States.

Visit the MacDiarmid Institute website.

Mary Kirchhoff and Emma Dangerfield discuss green chemistry.

24 July 2009

Listen to the interview on Our Changing World, Radio New Zealand National.

Green chemistry is the design of chemical products and processes that
reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances.

Green chemistry is a science-based approach to pollution prevention that is also profitable. Life-saving pharmaceuticals can be produced while minimizing the amount of waste generated. Plastics that biodegrade can be synthesised from plants and reactions can be run in water rather than in traditional organic solvents by applying green chemistry principles to chemical products and processes.

Mary Kirchhoff is the Director of the American Chemical Society Education Division. Previously, she spent three years as Assistant Director of the ACS Green Chemistry Institute. Mary was in New Zealand as a keynote speaker at the biennial Chemistry Education conference.

Sea ice research takes student to Norway

8 July 2009

Sean Buchanan has just returned from Svalbard, Norway, where he attended a Polar Field Course run at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS). The university is in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen at 78°N and is proud to be ‘the world's northernmost higher education institution’. Sean’s course fee and travel was fully funded by a research grant and by UNIS and is great background for his MSc project studying sea ice with Dr Malcolm Ingham.

Sean in Norway, modelling his survival suit, designed to keep you 'warm, dry and afloat for days if required.'

As sea temperatures rise and fall each spring and autumn, the ice melts and re-forms. Sea ice has a lower salinity than seawater and Dr Ingham’s group is interested in the structure of the ice and in particular how brine pores in the ice are distributed. The pores vary in size from less than 1 mm in diameter, to long thin pores which can be several centimetres long.

The electrical properties of the ice are a useful way to find out what’s happening in the ice structure. Very cold ice has the smallest pores and therefore the lowest electrical conductivity, since the ice itself conducts electricity only poorly, and the conducting brine is trapped in individual pores. As the temperature increases, the pores grow in size and interconnect and the conductivity of the ice increases.

The conductivity is not the only physical property that depends on the detail of the ice structure. Back at Victoria, Sean is looking at how the electric permittivity of the ice changes with temperature. He has an experiment running in a freezer in which he measures changes in the impedance of a capacitor in artificial sea ice as it forms under controlled conditions. He is hoping to relate the changes in the electric permittivity to changes in the network of brine pores, as the temperature of the ice changes.

Sean describes the course in these emails and photos from Svalbard:  

June 16th

Hi guys. It is 11am Tuesday morning here and I have a gap between lectures. A chance to write home! Today we have been given a quick overview of the past and present arctic climate. This afternoon’s lecture is on the paleoclimate.

Yesterday was the safety course. We first went for a swim in the Fjord wearing survival suits - these are jumpsuits with a hood which zip up around your face, rubber boots at the other end and mittens on the hand. The idea is you can stay warm, dry and afloat in one for days if required. We jumped off the pier wearing them and tied ourselves together. It was very warm and comfortable and I could have slept right there! It was difficult to get back out of the water. We will be wearing these when we go out in the Fjord in boats later in the week. 

Course participants were trained to use rifles in case of polar bear attack

In the afternoon we went to the rifle range and fired large calibre game rifles. I could hit the target at 35 m fine when lying but it was hard when kneeling. We were given lots of advice on polar bear encounters.  Apparently in their 15 year history here, UNIS groups have only ever shot and killed one polar bear, so dangerous encounters are very much avoidable.

The other people doing the course are really nice. They mostly have backgrounds in biology and oceanography. Many Scandinavians, Americans and Canadians.


Continue reading Sean's emails or read the student blog from the Polar Course

View more photos of the trip

Find out about the International Polar Year and the University Centre in Svalbard

Malaysian student becomes world champ

22 June 2009

Nadiah Ali, a student in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, won the world nanoparticle counting championships in Christchurch recently.

Nadiah competed against other nanoparticle researchers from England, South Africa and New Zealand at a competition using IZON’s apparatus, to be the first to correctly count 100 nanoparticles in a test solution.

Nadiah regularly uses the apparatus to detect and measure nanometre sized particles as part of her Masters research work with Dr Richard Tilley’s Nanoparticle and Quantum Dot Research group at Victoria University. The instruments use a nanopore to detect and measure particles as they pass through holes in a membrane.

The competition was part of Izon Science’s launch of the world’s first commercial nanopore technology device.

Find out more about nanoparticle and quantum dot research at Victoria University.

Watch a video of the competition

Visit the IZON Science website

PhD funding for young Māori nanotechnologist

17 June 2009

Dave Herman discusses the size of the Earth with children from the Gifted Kids Programme, on their visit to Victoria University last week.

Dave Herman, of Ngati Ruanui descent, was recently awarded a Te Tipu Pūtaiao fellowship for PhD study with Dr Richard Tilley’s group at the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences (SCPS) at Victoria University.

Dave completed his undergraduate degree at Victoria - a BSc in Biomedical Science. Although he loved all the topics covered in the course, he found his grades were better in chemistry than biology, so taking chemistry to honours level was a natural choice. Dave worked in Dr Tilley’s group for his honours research project, and became captivated by the nanoparticles they were making. He was keen to continue with in the group for his PhD and was quick to point out that SCPS “is such a great School”.

Nanoparticles measure 1- 100 nanometres across, and although invisible to the human eye, can be visualised using the Transmission Electron Microscope facility onsite. Dave describes the tiny particles as mimicking the shapes of the objects we can see on a macro scale. Triangles, hexagons, octahedrons and his own specialty - donut-shaped particles – can all be made in the lab and then observed under the microscope.

Dave’s research will explore the synthesis and applications of new magnetic nanoparticles which he hopes will have different novel features. Iron nanoparticles are naturally magnetic and can be made biocompatible through some clever chemistry, which gives them a range of interesting properties. Potential uses include the purification of contaminated waterways and as contrast agents for medical imaging. Existing expertise within Dr Tilley’s group and established collaborations with other local researchers will enable the new materials to be tested in house. 

Dave’s Māori heritage drives his enthusiasm for promoting nanotechnology to those outside the established science community. He is actively involved with Te Rōpū Āwhina Pūtaiao, the on-campus whanau (family) for Māori and Pacific students studying science at Victoria. Through Āwhina, he plans to visit marae and schools and involve young Māori as much as possible in the work he is doing.

Find out more about nanoparticle research at SCPS here
Find out more about Āwhina here
Find out more about The Gifted Kids Programme here

Star study explores new planets and ancient lore

15 June 2009

It’s not your run of the mill stuff, says Dr Pauline Harris of her research interests.

Pauline has just been offered a three year post-doctoral fellowship from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology’s Te Tipu Pūtaiao fund, to research two very different areas, between which she forms a unique bridge.

She describes the first part of the research project as ‘planet hunting’. Working in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, she will use a technique called gravitational microlensing (where stars act as naturally occurring lenses) to search for new planets outside our solar system. Astronomers have already found 300 such planets using a range of techniques.

Pauline is fascinated by the idea of what may be found in the universe “out there” and is looking forward to working with Prof Denis Sullivan, after completing her Masters and PhD at the University of Canterbury.

Part two of the project connects the science of astrophysics with her Māori heritage in a fascinating way. She will research, collate and document Māori star lore - Tatai Arorangi, including traditional practices related to the moon, planets and comets. Knowledge of the moon and stars allowed early Māori to navigate and measure time. It has become more widely known in recent years with the growing popularity of festivals such as Matariki, the Māori New Year.

Dr Harris’s research will help create a comprehensive database of star names, constellations, stories, waiata (songs), whakatauki (proverbs) and mahi whai (string games), based on mātauranga Māori (traditional Māori knowledge). She hopes that by making this knowledge widely available, it will become a living knowledge and will not be lost.   

Pauline has co-authored research papers and two books, but is ambitious to publish a book of her own. She is also keen to upskill in celestial navigation. At the moment on a dark night, she says she’d just get lost!

Find out more about gravitational microlensing and the MOA (Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics) project here

SCPS students to meet world’s best scientists

12 June 2009

Two Victoria University PhD students have won the right to present their findings into nanotechnology at the prestigious 2009 HOPE Meeting to be held in Hakone, Japan in September.

Chemistry doctoral students John Watt and Fern Kelly are among five New Zealanders who will be presenting at the meeting which is aimed at fostering young researchers from the Asia Pacific region.

Organised by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JPSS), the five-day meeting features a number of Nobel laureates and other distinguished scientists, including Dr Leo Esaki, who won the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize in Physics.

John Watt, whose research looks at the properties of nanoparticles, says he is thrilled at the opportunity to meet some of the world’s best scientific minds.

“The HOPE Meeting is a chance to listen to some of these great scientists and to hear about what’s going on with researchers from around the Asia Pacific region. It also gives me a chance to explore post doctoral opportunities in Japan.”

Held annually since 2007, HOPE Meetings allow around 100 young researchers from the Asia Pacific region to expand their cultural perspectives, while forging a new era of collaboration within the region. The programme includes dialogue with distinguished scientists, exchanges with other participants and cultural lectures and activities.

Five New Zealand students will be representing New Zealand, including two from Canterbury University and one from Otago University.      

Victoria University also had two students attending last year’s HOPE Meeting, the first time New Zealand participated in the event.

The Ministry of Research, Science and Technology (MoRST) is funding the students’ return airfares to Japan, and their accommodation is provided by the JPSS.

Prof Denis Sullivan talks about dying stars

11 June 2009

Prof Denis Sullivan with the 1 m telescope described in the podcast

White dwarfs are the dying remnants of stars like our sun. They are slowly cooling because the energy they radiate into space in the form of photons and neutrinos from the star’s surface and core is no longer replenished by internal nuclear reactions. Denis Sullivan, at Victoria University, is using a 1m-telescope at the Mt John Observatory to observe white dwarfs to study how stars decay, but also as a method of verifying the existence of the neutrino-based mechanisms within their core.

White dwarfs were first identified as unusual stellar objects in the early part of last century. Their luminosity, temperature and mass implied that they were compact objects, very dense and with high surface gravities, and internal matter at extremely high pressures and temperatures. During the 1930s, relativity theory helped to determine that all stars that have a mass similar to that of our sun – which applies to 98 percent of all stars - turn into white dwarfs at the end of their lives. More massive stars either form neutron stars or supernovas when they die.

Listen to the interview on Our Changing World, Radio New Zealand National.

Winning against the odds

21 May 2009

IF THE CAP FITS: Helen Woolner is graduating from Victoria University after becoming a mum at 16. Photo: KENT BLECHYNDEN/ The Dominion Post

Helen would like to acknowledge the amazing support she has received from her family and friends, from staff in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences at Victoria, from the Awhina whanau and so many others besides. She freely admits she wouldn't have made it without them.

Article by By TIM DONOGHUE and MATT CALMAN - The Dominion Post, 20 May 2009.

Nine years ago, Helen Woolner was 16, pregnant and about to ditch school.

But she battled on, attended a Porirua school for young mums, and tonight graduates from Victoria University clutching a bachelor of science degree and a dream of a career in forensic science.

Looking on from the galleries at the Michael Fowler Centre will be former teachers at the He Huarahi Tamariki school for single parents in Porirua, Susan Baragwanath and Juliet Bellingham. Miss Woolner, 25, is the third university graduate from the school and the first with a science degree. It has had 800 pupils since opening in 1994.

She said her fifth form year at Porirua College included a lot of wagging and then pregnancy. "I could not go back to Porirua College so I enrolled at the school. [Ms Baragwanath] told me school would not be a holiday camp. It wasn't."

She continued studying as her son Tinei was born in 2000 and daughter Ronesia followed 18 months later.

She enrolled at Victoria University in 2005 with financial support through scholarships from the university, industry and her community. Her dream now includes a job as a forensic scientist, and she has started her master's degree in chemistry studies this year.

The first of three graduation parades walked from Parliament to Civic Square yesterday, some of nearly 2000 students to graduate from the university this week.

Joy Isihanua travelled to Wellington because there were no universities in her native Solomon Islands. She graduated yesterday with a degree in international relations and political science and is looking forward to returning to the warmer climate of home. "It was difficult given the language and the culture and the weather of course. It has motivated me to finish my degree in three years, so I'm very happy."

Writer Lloyd Jones, author of Mr Pip, received an honorary doctorate yesterday. Library fines of "about $20" meant he was unable to get his political science degree in the 1970s, despite passing his papers.

Read more about the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences here
Read more about Awhina here

School signs MOU with NIMS, Japan

21 May 2009

Dr Richard Tilley, for the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for 'Research and Development on Functional Optical Nanomaterials' with the NIMS (National Institute for Materials Science) Quantum Beam Center, Japan.

A potential research tie-up had been discussed after an initial meeting at the Particles 2008 International Conference, held in Florida. The agreement was formalised in April this year at a NIMS-NZ workshop on nanomaterials.

This is the first MOU with a New Zealand research institute for NIMS, and both sides are looking forward to working together.

Dr Richard Tilley, Senior Lecturer, Victoria University (left) and Dr. Yoshihiko Takeda, Senior Researcher, NIMS

Read more about NIMS here
Read more about Dr Richard Tilley's research group here

Success for PhD students

1 May 2009

Five PhD students from the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences are through to the second round of the MacDiarmid Young Scientists of the Year Awards.

The Awards are presented annually by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology to celebrate the achievements of the country’s top emerging researchers and scientists and raise the profile of science nationally.

For the first stage, candidates submit a CV and a short summary of their research. The second stage sees their communication skills appraised. They submit a poster and prepare either a short essay or video clip, to showcase their research to a secondary school audience.

The MacDiarmid Young Scientists of the Year Awards, in association with principal sponsor Fisher & Paykel Appliances, have been held annually since 2004 when the late Alan MacDiarmid, agreed to lend his name to the awards. The competition itself began in 1999. 

Victoria University has a total of nine entrants in the second round and wishes
Evan Blackie, Kerstin Burridge, Fern Kelly, Dmitri Schebarchov and John Watt every success.  

Read more about the awards here

Teacher Fellows come back to school

24 February 2009

Paul Holmes, a science and chemistry teacher from Wainuiomata High School, is working with Jim Johnston and Thomas Borrmann for 6 months as a Royal Society of New Zealand Appointed Teacher Fellow.

I asked Paul what it was like to share his name with the broadcaster, affectionately known as the “Cheeky Whitey.” He replied, “One of the funniest situations crops up regularly at hotels, when I arrive to check into a room booked for me by someone else, like my wife. The hotel staff are always expecting the celebrity and his entourage, and when I turn up, I’m met with either disappointment or relief.”

Paul is enjoying working in the lab and will be investigating the absorption properties of nano-structured calcium silicate. He says it’s a pleasant change not to have his day governed by the ringing of bells!

Paul is from England and moved to New Zealand in 2000. He graduated from Leeds University in 1994 with a degree in colour chemistry and dyeing, and has been teaching for 10 years. He bikes to work from Alicetown and enjoys playing the trombone and scuba diving.

Paul on his mountain bike, taking the long way home!

Kent Hogan is working in SCPS for 12 months as a New Zealand Science, Mathematics and Technology Teacher Fellow. The fellowships allow “teachers (to) return to the classroom rejuvenated and inspired …and pass that inspiration and enthusiasm on to their students.”

So what will Kent be doing to achieve this ‘rejuvenation and inspiration’?

He will be working mostly with Chris Bumby, investigating some wind turbine models. They will monitor electrical characteristics and wind conditions to work out how effective each type of turbine is. Importantly, especially for potential urban-sited turbines, the noise levels will also be monitored.

John Hannah and Howard Lukefahr (who have graciously given him space in their office) will be including him in some of their projects and he has signed up to do some computing papers.

Kent is Teacher in Charge of physics at Onslow College in Johnsonville, where he has worked since 2001.

Kent at the International Young Physicists Tournament in Croatia in 2008

Sarah Wilcox

Nanotechnology research could aid paper exports

17 February 2009, Victoria News

Researchers at Victoria University have discovered ground-breaking new ways to capitalise on New Zealand's increasingly valuable paper export markets using nanotechnology.

Dr Aaron Small and supervisor Professor Jim Johnston investigated cost-effective methods of printing or coating nanoparticles onto paper and packaging materials. Nanoparticles are tiny particles 10,000 times thinner than the average human hair. 
By adding a simple step to the end of the paper making process, their finding makes possible the development of new magnetic, electrically conductive or optically active specialist paper products.

While nanoparticles are already used to coat materials such as fabric or clay particles, this is the first time the technology has been used with a New Zealand-grown and produced material such as Kraft board fibres (Pinus radiata), which are exported as newsprint grade paper internationally.

See full article

Hear Radio New Zealand National interview