It’s All in the Name

 

If you´re wondering why an agriculturally based country such as New Zealand should be very highly regarded around the world for its expertise in nanotechnology, there´s a clue in the name of the organisation at the forefront of this work – the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology.

Kiwi Alan MacDiarmid received the Nobel Prize in 2000 for his work on conductive polymers, or plastics that could conduct electricity. These materials have revolutionised our view of plastics, finding applications in many different technologies. Another big technological step on the way may well be the apparently very very small one involving tiny nanomaterials such as graphene.

Physicist Alan Kaiser has been involved with novel materials for most of his research life, studying conduct­ing polymers, glassy metals, superconductors, carbon nanotubes and other nanoscale materials. He was an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow for two years at the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart, Germany, and now returns there every year to continue the collaboration. Other collab­orations have included research groups in the US, UK and Australia as well as Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, with researchers of many different nationalities, from Slovakian and Polish to Israeli and Egyptian.

New Zealand´s role in this field has not gone unnoticed, with the MacDiarmid Institute well-recognised overseas as a leading research institution. As a consequence, both students and researchers have been keen to spend time at the Institute, whether on short-term sabbaticals or on post-doctoral fellowships.

“International collaboration is a key factor,” Professor Kaiser says, citing the advantages that can be gained from having a “critical mass” of minds and equipment focused on a research area. Being a part of the MacDiarmid Institute has helped in maintaining those contacts and building new ones. Post-doctoral fellow Dr Chris Bumby came from Oxford University to the MacDiarmid Institute to work on carbon nanotubes with Alan Kaiser. Their PhD student Shrividya Ravi is making thin networks of carbon nanotubes that show both high transparency and high electrical conductivity.

Often valuable connections and partnerships are provided by exchanges at conferences – particularly workshops, which tend to be a hot-house of ideas and argument, with sessions going on into the night as theory and experiment, reality and speculation are all canvassed.

“It´s a great opportunity to talk with other people in the field and bounce ideas around”, says Professor Kaiser.

A conference meeting led Dr Mark Baxendale, head of the Molecular and Materials Physics group at Queen Mary, University of London, to recently come to the MacDiarmid for a month to work with Professor Kaiser and Dr Bumby.

Professor Kaiser believes that investment in science and technology education and research pays large dividends in more than just the intangible contribution to knowledge.

“The countries that have done the best in the past few decades are those that have focused on science and technology. I can´t see much future for us if we don´t become involved in advanced technology.”

To do that, first we need to know how these novel materials work. And that’s where Alan Kaiser takes up his pencil.