The MacDiarmid Institute’s New Direction


Prof Kate McGrath The MacDiarmid Institute was founded twelve years ago around a vision of doing science collaboratively. New Zealand may not have been as big or as well-resourced as other countries, but our size and culture of openness made it an ideal place to pull multidisciplinary groups together to tackle unique science challenges. Some of the most exciting new science was emerging at the intersections of biology, physics, chemistry, engineering and maths, and we were well placed to take hold of it.   

  So in 2002, the experiment began. The value that the Institute has brought to New Zealand’s economy and culture over the last 12 years was confirmed this year, when its bid for another six years of funding was successful. This was a landmark in the Institute’s history. Professor Kate McGrath, Director of the MacDiarmid Institute, reflects on the process it has taken to get here. “When you’re learning how to collaborate, you can’t just jump in and do it,” she says. “First you need to learn how to think about problems in a different way, to work with people with different expertise and knowledge.” Once researchers began to trust each other and get a feeling for how to work together, research projects started to emerge that combined their strengths, and tackled harder problems that required a multidisciplinary approach. “We developed a sense of trust, community and respect,” says Kate. “The question then was, what should be done with it? What great challenge can we achieve together?” The Institute’s researchers worked collectively to decide on the new direction. “The big change for us,” Kate explains, “is that our new approach is outcomes-focused. Instead of just asking fundamental questions for the sake of science, and measuring success by the number of papers researchers produce, we’re asking those fundamental questions because we’re trying to achieve something for the world.” “When you talk to any researcher, there’s a part of them that wants to change the world,” says Kate. “That’s the part that drives us—the fire in the belly.”   The new contract begins on the January 1 2015, and with it, a new research programme covering the following themes:  

Functional Nanostructures With millions of years of evolution on their side, biological systems are masterpieces in nanotechnology.As techniques and capability in nanotechnology have improved, scientists have been able to witness and learn from the incredible mastery of natural systems, and to combine biology with knowledge of inorganic materials and technology.

  This science programme combines the Institute’s rich knowledge and capabilities in biological systems and nanotechnology. The result will be: ·      New materials with bizarre juxtapositions of behaviours Imagine a living biological cell that also acts as a chemical or DNA sensor. These sensor cells could be inserted into the body to reveal how cells function in their natural environment. They could detect viruses, early signs of cancer and a host of other things—the ultimate undercover agents. ·      New Tools for Physical Measurement Biological systems are difficult to study—they are often extremely complex and hard to pin down. MacDiarmid Institute researchers will focus on developing new tools, like lab-on-chip technologies, to unravel the secrets of the master nanotechnologist—nature. ·      New Knowledge By harnessing the powerful tools and techniques of nanotechnology, researchers will learn how biological cells work and what happens when they go wrong—the key to finding cures for diseases and building new materials inspired by nature.  

Materials for Energy Capture and Utilisation The immense and growing demand for clean energy ranks as one of the biggest challenges facing the planet today. This theme is all about re-thinking the way we generate, store and use energy through a range of fundamental and highly-applied projects.

  “At the moment around the world we have hubs where we create, store and transfer energy,” Kate explains. “A very small number have to supply all the energy demands for a massive area around them. That’s a very static distribution system. With developments in wireless technology we can start looking at more dynamic-type distribution systems.” The MacDiarmid Institute has some of the leading expertise of photovoltaics (solar energy devices) in the world. This work will focus on understanding the fundamental physics and chemistry of photovoltaics. The ultimate outcome would be solar devices that could be used anywhere—you could wear them, have them in your phone, embed them in the windows or paint them on the walls.  

Materials for High Value Technologies Almost every electronic device you own contains transistors, the basic components of computers. The more transistors on a chip, the more powerful it is, and every year this amount increases. But imagine if there was a completely new fundamental component to build devices—one that remembered information and used the magnetic properties of materials to dramatically increase the speed and functionality. That is the kind of output researchers are aiming for in this theme. Research will focus on new optical, electronic, magnetic and superconducting materials, and on new devices that use these properties.