Testing new technologies in the computer not the real world: 2009 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year

Media releases, Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science 2009


Amanda Barnard

Every new technology brings opportunities and threats. Nanotechnology is no exception. It has the potential to create new materials that will dramatically improve drug delivery, medical diagnostics, clean and efficient energy, computing and more. But nanoparticles—materials made small, just a few millionths of a millimetre in size—could also have significant health and environmental impacts.

Amanda Barnard hopes to predict which nanoparticles will work most efficiently and which could be dangerous. Using supercomputers, she’s making the particles in the virtual world and testing how they interact in various environments before they get made in the real world. Her peers told her it couldn’t be done. But this young scientist proved them wrong and now leads the world in her field of nanomorphology—predicting the shape, structure and stability of nanoparticles.

For her early career achievements in modelling nanoparticles Amanda Barnard receives the 2009 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year.

Amanda didn’t know what she wanted to do when she left school. She tried various artistic pursuits before turning to a physics degree at RMIT.

Nanoscience caught her attention. “The rest of the course was covering well known ground. But there was so much that was unknown in nanoscience—so much to discover,” she says. A first class honours degree led to a PhD which she completed in just 17 months, creating an analytical theory and computer model that predicted and explained the various forms of nano-carbon at different sizes. It was the first study of its kind that was recognised by both the theorists and the experimentalists and resulted in 17 journal publications and a book chapter.

The study opened the way to a distinguished postdoctoral fellowship at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, then to a senior research fellowship at Oxford where she investigated how the stability of nanoparticles relates to safety and the environment, and wrote a commentary on nano-hazards for Nature Materials. This topic was revisited in her Nature Nanotechnology commentary earlier this year.

As you take a known substance and turn it into nanoparticles its properties change. Nanoparticles of gold for example are usually red or purple but can be almost any colour.

So are nanoparticles safe? Amanda has been looking at titania nanoparticles which are used in photovoltaics in solar cells, sunscreens, and on self-cleaning surfaces. There are questions about the potential toxicity of these particles, as exposure to UV light creates free radicals. Amanda has created predictive ‘maps’ of how the particles will behave at various sizes or shapes, and in various thermal and chemical environments. She will be able to predict what happens when these nanoparticles wash away into our rivers and oceans.

Amanda is now pursing these questions back in Australia. She returned in 2008 with the help of a University of Melbourne Future Generation Fellowship. She is now a Queen Elizabeth II Australian Research Council Fellow and heads CSIRO’s Virtual Nanoscience Laboratory.

Amanda’s work requires serious computing power so she is a significant user of the National Computational Infrastructure at Australian National University. With nearly 12,000 high performance processors and 36 terabytes of memory this supercomputer can speed through her simulations.

Her current projects illustrate the breadth of application of her modelling.

For instance, she has helped create a way of delivering chemotherapy drugs using diamonds. Nanodiamonds are non-toxic but have reactive surfaces that can carry drugs. They also cluster together, so the release of the drug is slow and sustained. Using her theoretical knowledge of diamonds and the national supercomputer she found that an electrical charge would gently break the particles apart, so changes in pH could be used to influence delivery.

Now Amanda is part of an international consortium developing a chemotherapy patch using nanodiamonds. The team has already shown in animal trials that twenty times less drug will be needed—reducing the side-effects of chemotherapy.

In other projects she is exploring the properties of fluorescent biolabels for use in cancer diagnosis, regenerative medicine and gene therapy. She is also modelling the reactive properties of metal nanoparticle as next generation fuel catalysts. She hopes to make predictions that will ultimately improve both their stability and their performance.

And she is starting to bring human elements into her work, by creating models that explore how the benefit and risk profile of a product affects our willingness to purchase that product. How much risk will we accept? What combination will deliver optimal economic and environmental sustainability?

All this is just the beginning. Thousands of products are on their way. Amanda’s tools are going to play a critical role in helping us safely reap the benefits of nanotechnology.


2003                Doctor of Philosophy (Physics), RMIT University

2001                Bachelor of Science, First Class Honours (Applied Physics), RMIT University

Career highlights, awards, fellowships and grants

2009-               Leader of the Virtual Nanoscience Laboratory, CSIRO Material Science and Engineering

2009-               Queen Elizabeth II Fellowship, Australian Research Council

2009                Mercedes-Benz Australian Environmental Research Award, Banksia Environmental Foundation

2009                Young Scientist Prize in Computational Physics, International Union of Pure and Applied Physics

2009                JG Russell Award, Australian Academy of Sciences

2009                Future Summit Leadership Award, Australian Davos Connection

2008                L’Oréal Australia For Women in Science Fellowship

2008                Alumnus of the Year, RMIT University

2008                Inaugural Future Generation Fellowship, School of Chemistry, University of Melbourne

2005–2008      Extraordinary Junior Research Fellowship, Queen’s College, Oxford, UK

2005–2008      Violette & Samuel Glasstone Fellowship, Department of Materials, University of Oxford, UK

2004                Innovation Award (Student Category), RMIT University

2004                University Research Prize, RMIT University

2003–2005      Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellowship, Center for Nanoscale Materials, Argonne National Laboratory, USA

Research highlights

Recognised how nanomorphology influences the environmental stability of nanomaterials, and their reactivity in terms of nano-hazards

Developed a new technique for investigating the shape of nanomaterials as a function of size, temperature or chemical potential, able to include experimentally realistic structures and chemical environments

First researcher to report investigations into the effect of shape on size-dependent phase transitions in nanomaterials

Discovered the first example of anisotropic (facet-dependent) surface electrostatic potential in a homoelemental nanomaterial, resulting in dipolar or multipolar interactions in a non-polar material

Over 80 first-authored peer-reviewed journal publications, as well as books and invited book chapters on nanocarbons, nanoparticle stability and nano-hazards

Commentaries on nano-hazards for on nano-hazards for Nature Materials and Nature Nanotechnology

Associate Editorship of the Journal of Computational and Theoretical Nanoscience, numerous Guest Editorships and Memberships of Editorial Advisory Boards of scientific journals

Photo credit: Bearcage Productions

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