From menace to Mexico, physics education gets real and revealing crystal structures

Australian Institute of Physics, Media releases
Australian technology that saves the ozone layer and reduces greenhouse gases

3 December 2008

Three medals will be presented to leading scientists in Adelaide tonight.

Three CSIRO scientists will be awarded the Walsh Medal in Adelaide tonight for their work to destroy CFCs. Their approach – using a plasma reactor working at 20,000 degrees – is now in use in the US and Australia, and is earning carbon credits for Mexico.

University of Adelaide lecturer Judith Pollard will be awarded the Australian Institute of Physics’ Education Medal, in recognition of her achievements in improving physics education at universities in Australia.

Judith’s emphasis has been on making physics real for university students.

And Oxford-based Australian physicist David Cockayne will be awarded the biennial Harrie Massey Medal for his research in the development of electron microscopy techniques designed to reveal the structures of materials at close to the atomic scale.

In 1995, the use of ozone-depleting chemicals, like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in air conditioners and halon gases used in fire extinguishers, was banned in developed countries under the Montreal Protocol. But a big problem remained – what was to be done about the vast stockpiles of these gases, which are also extremely powerful greenhouse gases?

This evening, Tony Murphy, Tony Farmer and Trevor McAllister from CSIRO Materials Science and Engineering will receive the Alan Walsh Medal for Service to Industry at the Australian Institute of Physics 18th National Congress in Adelaide, for working out how to apply the PLASCON process to destroy these hazardous chemicals.

The toxic chemicals are pumped into a plasma gas, a gas such as argon which has become ionised and superheated to temperatures of around 20,000 degrees.

“The gas is hot enough to pull apart the waste chemicals into atoms that then recombine into simpler, safer molecules like carbon dioxide and water, and acids that can be easily neutralised,” explains Tony Murphy.

The Australian National Halon Bank has used the PLASCON process to destroy more than 1500 tonnes of CFC and halon gases from Australia and New Zealand. Similar plants have been built in the UK and USA.

And in Mexico, a PLASCON plant is being used to destroy another extremely powerful greenhouse gas, trifluoromethane, which has 11,700 times the potential effect on global warming of carbon dioxide.

“Since 2006, this plant has destroyed more than 180 tonnes of trifluoromethane each year – the equivalent of destroying some two million tonnes of carbon dioxide – and it is earning carbon credits for Mexico under the Kyoto protocol at a rate that far outweighs the cost of destruction,” says Murphy.

Other stories from the Congress:

  • The discoverer of pulsars: Jocelyn Bell Burnell
  • Australians use pulsars to map star systems
  • Ten times the power of Hubble, without leaving Earth
  • The world’s largest ice cube

For more information on these and other stories:

Visit the Congress website at
Contact Congress program chair Olivia Samardzic 0410 575 855
Or Cathy Foley, President of the Australian Institute of Physics, on 0419 200 544