Scientists SOAR

15 August 2017

We visit the lab to catch up with Chemistry's Associate Professor Deanna D'Alessandro to find out about her research in materials science and how her SOAR Prize is enabling wider impacts.

The Faculty of Science boasts three Sydney Research Accelerator (SOAR) Prize recipients in the early or mid-stages of their career.

Associate Professor Deanna D’Alessandro from the School of Chemistry is at the forefront of developing new materials that have enormous potential to further technologies used for environmental sensing, energy conversion and storage, and defence.

It has been a little over six months since the commencement of the inaugural SOAR Prize that supports our researchers to enhance their research efforts, so we caught up with Deanna to get up to speed on her soaring developments.  

Deanna placing a test tube in a rack in the lab.

SOAR Prize recipient Associate Professor Deanna D'Alessandro from the School of Chemistry.  

“Inorganic chemistry and materials science are such important areas of science that have incredibly strong prospects for the future. We are likely to see a huge need for skilled graduates from these sciences to fill and inform the jobs of the future, and research in these disciplines will bring solutions and applications that address the crucial energy, environmental and technological hurdles we face,” said Associate Professor D’Alessandro.

The mission of Deanna’s research is to lead the fundamental understanding and development of materials that can provide the basis for these applications and solutions, and how we can use them in different industrial, technological and commercial settings.   

SOARing to accomplish the mission

“The day to day research I’m conducting focuses on nanoporous materials called porous metal organic frameworks (MOFs). They are essentially like big sponges with a super high surface area. To put this in perspective, one teaspoon of an MOF has a surface area the size of a football field.

“We make these frameworks synthetically to give us control over the exact structure we need for our specific purposes, but they are made mainly of carbon and nitrogen along with various metal ions.

“The nanoscale holes in these frameworks are the parts of the structures we are most interested in.”

It is these miniscule holes that can be used for a variety of purposes.

“One use is to capture and separate gases, in fact MOFs have been used as carbon dioxide capture materials. The ultimate goal for our research in gas capture is the development of industrially-viable materials that can be readily integrated into industrial processes to capture and sequester greenhouse gases.”

Deanna’s research in this area has very obvious benefits for finding tangible solutions to this critical environmental problem.  

“Another aspect of our day to day research, and the area that my research group has particular expertise in, revolves around the electronic and conductive properties of MOFs. Usually MOFs are not great at conducting electricity – they insulate, but we can create conductivity in these incredibly interesting nanoscale holes of MOFs.

Smart applications for wider impact

Potential applications include devices for sensing, electrocatalysis, molecular electronics, solar energy conversion and electrochromism.
Associate Professor Deanna D'Alessandro

“Our work is enriching our fundamental understanding of the properties of MOFs and how we can benefit from these properties. In the next 18 months, we will bring about the translation of our research into applications, devices and membranes to be used in industry. The opportunities for advances at a fundamental and applied level are immense, with potential applications including devices for sensing, electrocatalysis, molecular electronics, solar energy conversion and electrochromism. MOFs are also incredibly lightweight and could be used in space applications where lightweight materials are needed,” she said.

One application that Deanna’s research group is exploring revolves around ‘smart glass’ that uses electrochromism to change the colour of the glass. An electrical current is used to initiate a colour change and the palette available will enable colour matching to the environment.

“We are working on the fundamental tools to develop particular applications of smart glass that have huge potential for use in defence materials and camouflage.”

Deanna’s SOAR Prize is helping her to build her international profile in the field of materials science, foster collaborations, and provide opportunities for up-and-coming researchers.

“Multidisciplinary collaboration has been a crucial factor for my research and developments. It’s incredibly exciting to be immersed in the cross-over of very different areas of expertise that leads to new discoveries, such as our emerging work with my colleague Professor Cameron Kepert in the interplay between magnetism and electronics that may have applications in spintronics.”

These collaborative findings will have significant implications for the experimental and theoretical understanding of systems which exhibit novel magnetic and electronic phenomena. New findings can also lead to widening opportunities for new research.  

SOARing towards personal and professional goals

Deanna, seated in the lab.

Deanna is mentoring young women in materials chemistry.  

“Building the capacity of our postdoctoral opportunities is a very important goal, as is attracting women to complete their PhD in materials chemistry. I’m hoping to be a mentor and an example for other women thinking about moving into the field of materials chemistry. I have had some wonderful mentors and supervisors, but there were very few women to guide me in my career, so I am cognisant that building my profile, developing leadership skills and modelling to young women that being a mother and a scientific academic are achievable in parallel.  

“A really wonderful aspect of the SOAR Prize is the addition of a professional coach. I’m learning how I can improve my effectiveness as a scientist and as a leader, and also how I can balance my professional and personal roles.”

The SOAR Prize seeks to tackle the issue of gender equity and half of the awardees are female researchers.

One of Deanna’s aims for participating in the SOAR Prize was to strengthen the applied aspects of her research to improve her positioning in seeking new external funding opportunities. The result?

“I am about to commence a Future Fellowship from the Australian Research Council and I feel incredibly reassured that the work we are doing is more widely recognised as an area of national importance.”

This ARC fellowship will enable Deanna to further develop electroactive nanoporous materials. Using a combined experimental, theoretical and computational approach, her project expects to provide new insights to understand biological photosynthetic systems and porous semiconductors. An expected benefit will be the development of devices for applications in energy storage and conversion, including electrochromic devices, electrocatalysts and battery materials.

“The SOAR Prize is a fantastic incentive to retain and develop researchers such as myself, and I would encourage my colleagues to grasp this opportunity and use it as a launch pad,” Deanna said.

Who are our other SOARing stars of Science?

Associate Professor Chris Ling is designing and building new materials into lithium-ion batteries to improve their performance.

The power-to-weight ratio of lithium-ion batteries has led them to dominate consumer electronics and early electric vehicles. Chris hopes to design and build new materials into these batteries that will improve their performance – making them smaller, safer and more powerful – with a particular focus on large-scale automotive and renewable energy storage applications.

Associate Professor Tara Murphy is conducting radio observations of gravitational wave events.  

The discovery of gravitational waves earlier this year is undoubtedly one of the most exciting scientific discoveries of the century, says astrophysicist Tara. It will open up new windows to astronomy and explaining the universe. Tara will collaborate with the international team that discovered gravitational waves to conduct radio follow-up observations of gravitational wave events and develop a pipeline to automatically process datasets for all future follow-up observations. 

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