Physics and chemistry in PM’s Prize limelight

Four physicists and a chemist have taken out the top awards in this year’s Australian Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science.

The Prime Minister’s Prize for Science was shared by Emeritus Professor David Blair and Professors David McClelland, Susan Scott and Peter Veitch for their critical contributions to the first direct detection of gravitational waves.

The Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation was presented to Professor Thomas Maschmeyer for translating fundamental research into pioneering technologies poised to transform commercial waste recycling and the functionality of energy storage devices.

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The OzGrav four: (top) David Blair and David McLelland; (bottom) Susan Scott and Peter Veitch

Blair, from the University of Western Australia, McClelland and Scott from the Australian National University, and Veitch from the University of Adelaide, are all members of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav).

They also are part of the international LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which in 2015 made the first direct gravitational wave detection – confirming Albert Einstein’s century-old prediction.

A second detection followed that same year, then a third, in 2017, from the collision of two neutron stars, solved a 50-year-old mystery confirming that these mergers are the source of previously observed high-energy gamma ray bursts, and of heavy metals such as gold, platinum and uranium in the Universe.

Such was the impact of this work, that the three US founders of the LIGO project were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics.

“One of the most pleasing things about receiving this Prize, is that Australia’s role in one of the greatest achievements in the history of physics has now been forever recorded in the history of Australian science,” McClelland says.

“Our team represents many Australian researchers and graduate students who have made an extraordinary contribution to the first detection of gravitational waves.”

Scott notes that over the past few decades there were many scientists who either didn’t believe that gravitational waves existed or felt that they were simply too small to ever be detected.

“We had enormous technological difficulties to overcome – everything had to be about a thousand times better, including the shapes of the mirrors, the frequency of the lasers, the acoustic wringing of the mirrors and the vibration isolation,” she says.

Maschmeyer, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Sydney, was recognised for not one but two innovation success stories.

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Professor Thomas Maschmeyer at the University of Sydney.

His Catalytic Hydrothermal Reactor (Cat-HTRTM) can turn low-value waste residues into stable and distillable oils in 20 minutes or less, while his revolutionary zinc-bromide gel batteries promise to make renewable energy cheaper, safer and more deployable.

“One of the really exciting things about being a scientist is the journey of discovery: indulging my deep passion for gaining an understanding of our environment and how things work,” he says.

And, he adds, it is “extremely important to invest into the ecosystem of innovation in Australia. One never knows where or when the rewards of research and innovation will come from, but one can be sure that they will come.”

Five other awards were presented during an online public event this evening in Australia.

The Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year was awarded to Professor Mark Dawson from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre for pioneering research in the field of epigenetics and its impact on human health and disease.

Xiaojing Hao from the University of NSW, who is a world leader in thin-film photovoltaics, a field focused on the direct conversion of sunlight into electric power, received the Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year.

The Prize for New Innovators was won by Justin Chalker from Flinders University for his invention of a novel class of polymers synthesised directly from elemental sulphur – a waste by-product of the petrochemical industry – and renewable plant oils.

The Prime Minister’s Prizes for Excellence in Science Teaching in Schools were awarded to Sarah Fletcher (Bonython Primary School, ACT) and Darren Hamley (Willetton Senior High School, WA).

Further information about all awards and winners can be found on the Prime Minister’s Awards website.

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