New Zealand’s nanotechnology revolution is underway, with controlling and manipulating materials on the atomic scale becoming increasingly big business.

The city of Queenstown is set to host the AMN8 conference in February 2017, a biennial series of meetings that focus on the latest research in advanced materials and nanotechnology. It will bring local scientists together with some of the world’s leading material and nano scientists with the aim of breeding inspiration for ideas and creating the collaboration to help execute them.

Work in the burgeoning field in New Zealand is undertaken under the umbrella of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology. Set up in 2002 as a Centre of Research Excellence, the government-funded research centre has no traditional buildings or staff faculty. Instead it’s a network of some of the country’s best scientists in universities and Crown Research Institutes leveraging their strengths to undertake research that drives innovation and economic growth. This includes new knowledge in electronic and photovoltaic materials, nanoporous materials, and functional nanomaterials with real-world applications in fields from energy and medicine to sensing.

Thomas Nann, director of the MacDiarmid Institute, oversees the work of the institute’s more than 50 scientists and 100 PhD students. He told The Spinoff that MacDiarmid’s reputation and different approach were the main attraction.

“The big strength is the collaboration. 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.”

Nann believes the possibilities of these tiny objects is vast, and the institute is already punching above its weight. Despite its unusual set-up, a recent article in the journal Nature ranked the MacDiarmid Institute fourth in New Zealand behind its leading universities based on its output of research papers and awarding of grants.

The institute’s work ranges from the manipulation of silver on nanoscale in the hope of finding a non-toxic alternative ‘contrast agent’ for use in MRI scans; to using photonics, the study of light for energy, to sort livestock sperm at a low cost.  

Dr Justin Hodgkiss is building upon the 1970s work of New Zealand scientist Alan MacDiarmid – after whom the institute is named – in modifying polymers to act as electric conductors. His hypothesis: that these polymers could be synthesised as an ink that could be printed onto a piece of paper to develop an easy, affordable solar cell.

Hodgkiss nods to the institute’s entrepreneurial and outward-looking approach to research as a real game changer in terms of producing not just innovative ideas, but commercial success. The intellectual property on any of the research belongs to the scientists and universities themselves, and the institute itself is a conduit to helping build a true knowledge economy.

He 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.

“That’s a powerful message. It means an economic transformation through science and really focussing our efforts on educating and empowering tech entrepreneurs.

“We see our role to support our people to succeed in that space. And if they succeed, New Zealand succeeds.”


(via The Spinoff)

Featured image: Thomas Nann, director of the MacDiarmid Institute (Credit: The Spinoff)