Ahead of February’s AMN8 conference, Charles Anderson talks to some of the scientists at the vanguard of nanomaterial innovation and entrepreneurship in New Zealand.
Look closely at the letters on this screen. Zero in on this full stop, right here. It’s small – to the human eye, at least. But that full stop still has billions of atoms within it.
Imagine zooming in on that tiny dot. Very soon you will arrive at a point where you can no longer see it. Keep going. Soon you will arrive at a point where it cannot be viewed through a microscope. Further. You arrive in a world that is only partly visible through the lens of an electron microscope. Keep going and the individual particles that make up that full stop on your screen will change.
There are 10 million nanometres in a centimetre. A sheet of newspaper is 100,000 nanometres thick. If a marble were a nanometre then one metre would be the size of planet Earth. This is a world where materials are so small they are made up of only a handful of atoms as opposed to billions. At that size those materials can take on curious characteristics. They might change colour. Pregnancy tests, for example, use gold nano particles which become suddenly visible as bright red when they come into contact with a certain hormone. Further than that, the material’s melting point might also shift. They might become magnetic. Materials at this size can also become much more reactive – to other chemicals or even electricity.
This is the space that spans physics, chemistry and biology. It is where Dr Renee Goreham’s work lives. It is this tiny world she encounters each morning in the Victoria University of Wellington’s Alan MacDiarmid lab. Past the scientists in lab coats and protective eye wear is a small back room. On a desk sit two small vials holding a sample of silver that has been manipulated on nanoscale. Its atoms and molecules have been tampered with. So this silver doesn’t look how you might expect it to. This silver has changed. It is glowing luminescent. It is magnetic and it can be altered with DNA strands so it can seek out certain cells in the human body.
This isn’t science for science’s sake. This is experimentation with an end game.
“It’s always more interesting if there is an application,” Goreham says. “There’s no point in doing it just because it’s interesting.”
That application for Goreham’s work is in magnetic resonance imaging or MRI scans. These scans use a magnetic field and radio pulses to give physicians an image of what is going on inside the human body. It is used to monitor everything from the development of cancer in an organ to the inflammation of blood vessels. But to function it also needs a “contrast agent” that is injected into the body and provides a clearer image on the scan. The most common agent is gadolinium – a rare earth metal. However, it is toxic and can give patients nausea and headaches.
Goreham’s proposed silver alternative, if proven to work and be stable, could replace gadolinium and change the way MRI scans are produced. And that could be a big deal.
Her work was recently funded by the National Science Challenge which seeks to use science as a means for New Zealand’s economic growth. But this is just one of the projects going on in the lab that Goreham works in. It is one of myriad that is going on around the country under the umbrella of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology.
The institute was set up in 2002 as a Centre of Research Excellence – a government-funded research centre that would bring scientists from around the country together. It would not have the traditional elements of an academic institute. There would be no buildings or traditional staff faculty. Instead it would be an amalgamation of some of the country’s best scientists in universities and Crown Research Institutes. The idea was to allow space for them to collaborate and work alongside each other in ambitious experiments. The hope was that the institute could give New Zealand direct economic benefits by allowing a space to create bold and novel businesses.
About 20 years ago Thomas Nann was working as a PhD chemistry student in Germany when a company contacted him out of the blue. It asked him what he knew about nanomaterials and whether he would be interested in joining them in their work.
“I had no clue what these guys were talking about but I read all these articles on nano stuff and more and more I was fascinated by it,” Nann, who is now the director of the MacDiarmid Institute, says.
Twenty years ago nanotechnology was still in its infancy. Controlling and manipulating materials on the atomic scale had been posed conceptually but it was still unknown what its practical applications might be. It is up to scientists, like Nann, to help find out.
It can be difficult to describe this fascination with a realm that is so theoretically and practically invisible. Nann points to the recently discovery of what scientists call “nanoclusters” – or groups of atoms. Individually these particles may act one way but when clustered together their properties can be completely different.
“We still don’t know what they look like or how they function,” Nann says.
Even with these tiny objects Nann describes the world and its potential as “vast”.
“We have only just scratched the surface.”
Nann is tasked with overseeing the diverse and complex work of the institute’s more than 50 scientists and 100 PhD students. He has worked across Europe and Australia but came to New Zealand because of MacDiarmid’s reputation and how it went about its work slightly differently.
“The big strength is the collaboration,” he says. “Having worked in Europe there is often a lot of competition – for funding or prestige. But because New Zealand is is so small everyone is very much aware that if we are not working together we are losing.”
He points to the upcoming AMN8 conference in Queenstown in February which bring those local scientists together with some of the foremost material and nano scientists in the world. The hope, Nann says, is that it breeds inspiration for ideas but also creates the collaboration to help execute them.
He says a recent article in the journal Nature seems to back up the work MacDiarmid is doing. The article ranked the country’s scientific institutes based on its output of research papers and awarding of grants. The MacDiarmid Institute was ranked fourth behind New Zealand’s universities. The journal assumed that MacDiarmid was in the same realm – a long standing institute made of bricks and mortar.
In the late 1970s a group of scientists from the United States, Japan and New Zealand started experimenting on a group of polymers. They discovered that with certain modifications that these polymers could act as electric conductors. The New Zealand scientist was Alan MacDiarmid, after whom the institute is named. For their work they received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. It is also the same science that Dr Justin Hodgkiss finds himself building upon.
He is working on understanding how these conductive polymers could be applied into solving real world problems. Imagine, for example, if these polymers could be synthesised as an ink. Imagine if that ink could be used as a solar cell. Imagine if the cost of developing that could be far less than present technology. You could print the ink onto a piece of paper and develop an easy, affordable solar cell.
“Personally I find it quite motivating to have these science problems when there is a real world motivation,” Hodgkiss says.
It is a motivation that could end up changing the way we can distribute electricity – particularly in the developing world where countries often do not have easy access to an energy grid.
“This work forces you to engage with some of the problems like economics in a way that you wouldn’t do if you were just buried away in your lab.”
It is the sort of work that Sir Paul Callaghan, the founding director of the institute, was referring to when he declared that New Zealand should be a place “where talent wants to live”.
Part of that was taking science out of the labs and into the lives of New Zealanders. The challenge was to take an entrepreneurial and outward looking approach to the institute’s research and its broader possibilities.
“That’s a powerful message,” Hodgkiss says. “It means an economic transformation through science and really focussing our efforts on educating and empowering tech entrepreneurs.”
Hodgkiss admits that solar cells embedded in printable ink might be some way off before becoming a potential commercial success. However, as part of his role with the institute he works with other scientists to figure out how they can better engage with the business community to give them and their research the best opportunity of being put into the marketplace.
“Scientists are comfortable talking with other scientists but talking with investors and business people is outside their comfort zone,” he says. “This is a big shift from the past where they only spoke to each other or to get government grants.”
That means training opportunities and networking with people who might see potential in pushing the science that MacDiarmid investigators are working on into a commercial reality.
The institute does not have any financial stake in this work. It doesn’t own the intellectual property on any of the research – that belongs to the scientists and universities themselves.
“We are purely a conduit,” Hodgkiss says. “This whole area of commercialising science can get messy and slowed down if too many people are trying to claim their piece of the pie. It’s the success stories we’re after.”
And they are already out there.
Engender, started by MacDiarmid investigator Cather Simpson, uses materials science and photonics, or the study of light for energy, to sort livestock sperm at a low cost. It already has investment from a venture capital firm who wanted a solution to a problem that was facing the agriculture industry and artificial insemination.
Hi-Aspect was a research project led by Juliet Gerrad at the University of Canterbury to explore how proteins assemble in the body. But rather just understand the structure of how the process occurred she wanted to change it and see how it could be applied. The result was the development of a stretchy material that was stronger than collagen and could form a scaffold for other molecules, like vitamins or healing ingredients, to stick to. It could potentially be used in everything from moisturiser to a new generation of dressings that could help wounds heal quicker. This project has also found commercial funding.
Hodgkiss is personally involved with AuramerBio, a company that develops sensors using antibody technology to target particular molecules. The research has any number of applications and Hodgkiss says the challenge was finding a focus for it. AuramerBio recently received a grant to apply its research to methamphetamine detection.
These are just some of the companies that MacDiarmid investigators have helped create. Hogkiss says that as more come online it will create a critical mass that can only accelerate as more and more success comes.
“In the last couple of years we have started a number of spinoff companies that if it wasn’t for the centres for research excellence, might not have formed at all. For scientists, seeing their peers doing this they start saying that ‘I can do this too’.
“With training and support, why not.”
Because that is the goal, Hogkiss says. Creating a large team of New Zealand’s best scientists all working together to create a network of innovative, commercial success.
“We see our role to support our people to succeed in that space. And If they succeed, New Zealand succeeds.”
This is part of a series of articles for the Spinoff about and from AMN8, The Eighth International Conference on Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, in Queenstown from February 12-16 2017. For details on public events in Christchurch, Wanaka, Queenstown and Nelson, click here. This content series is sponsored by the conference’s hosts, The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.