PM Science Prize winners announced

By AG Staff with AAP 12 October 2011
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This year’s winners of the PM Science Prizes include chemists who rewrote the textbooks on plastics.

TWO AUSTRALIAN SCIENTISTS WHO who effectively designed a way to custom-build plastics have been jointly awarded the $300,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science. They will be recognised, along with other winners – a plant physiologist and a physicist – tonight at a gala dinner, which will be attended by the prime minister and Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt.

Professors Ezio Rizzardo and David Solomon invented revolutionary chemical theories and processes which have influenced the production of polymers, mainly in plastics.

Their work is expected to improve the component materials of tyres, lubricants, paint, computers and many other products by influencing the way polymers are produced. It is already used in most university chemistry departments.

Polymers are long chains of molecules which are connected like beads on string. The two scientists found a way to regulate the speed at which the molecules attach to the end of the chain.

Changing the face of polymer science

Using this process, the scientists found they could control both the order and the type of molecules which are added. In plastic which had been produced traditionally, the molecules were all the same and the reaction which strung them together was rapid and uncontrollable.

Professors Rizzardo and Solomon have already received praise from their peers for their discovery. The Director of the Materials Research Laboratory at the University of California, Professor Craig Hawker, said the impact of their work could not be overstated.

“It is rewriting the book on polymer synthesis, dramatically impacting many diverse and important areas of academic research,” he said in a statement. “Their creativity reaches out far beyond the stellar science.”  Craig said he could see no limits from what could flow from this work.

Professor Robert Gilbert of the University of Queensland said the prize-winning pair had done something rare in science.

“They have created a paradigm shift in the way that polymers can be made,” he said in a statement.

Professor Rizzardo is a fellow at the CSIRO, and Professor Solomon is based at the University of Melbourne. The two men met when Professor Solomon advertised for a postdoctoral fellow to assist him in a small polymer research group he was setting up.  

Australia’s science leaders 2011

Four other scientists have been awarded prizes and receive $50,000 each.

Stuart Wyithe from the University of Melbourne has been awarded the Physical Scientist of the Year Award for work on the physics of the formation of the universe.

Min Chen, based at the University of Sydney, will receive the prize for Life Scientist of the Year for her contribution to knowledge of chlorophyll and cyanobacteria. She discovered a new form of chlorophyll in the cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) at Shark Bay. The new form absorbs far red light and its discovery has potential applications in solar energy and agriculture.

The award for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools has gone to Brooke Topelberg, who teaches at Westminster Primary School in WA. And Jane Wright, the science coordinator at Loreto College in SA has been recognised in the equivalent category for secondary schools.