Better batteries for electric cars; smartphone testing for diseases & clean water; Nobel Laureate who transformed fuels, plastic and drugs; and more

Conferences, Media releases, RACI Centenary Chemistry Congress

Thursday 27 July 2017, at the RACI Centenary Chemistry Congress, Melbourne Convention Centre

Today at the Centenary Chemistry Congress

If you’d like to attend the conference, or arrange an interview—contact Suzannah Lyons on

We’ll be tweeting news and interesting content from the Congress from @RACI_HQ and using #RACI100.

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Sniffing out rhino horn and ivory

Shari Forbes from UTS is creating an electronic nose to sniff out smuggled ivory and rhino horn. Dogs are our front-line defenders for smelling out drugs and explosives at our ports and airports. But we don’t have wildlife detector dogs. So, she’s creating sensor technologies mimicking a dog’s nose.

Shari is in awe of how good dogs are. “Dogs are still better detectors than any instrument we have now, or will have in my lifetime. For example, a dog can sniff out a teaspoon of sugar diluted with three Olympic pools of water.” Her first detector is still a few years away.

From Chernobyl to farms: minimising the impacts of radiation

There’s still a lot we don’t know about how radioactive substances spread in the environment and what effects they have on us and other organisms, particularly in the longer-term.

Dr Gabi Voigt has worked as a radioecologist for over 30 years, including more than 10 years with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Her research has ranged from analysing the impacts of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster to investigating how radioactivity transfers through farm animals.

It’s a field she’s passionate about: “What interests and inspires me is the broadness of nuclear applications from human health to the environment; from energy to safeguards. The technology can help so many people and can bring peace to the world! And that, I find fascinating.”

Gabi is also the Global President of Women in Nuclear, an organisation working to support the advancement of women in the nuclear sciences.

A chem lab in your phone: using your mobile as a diagnostic tool

The mobile phone in your pocket could be used for medical diagnostics and environmental testing if Associate Professor Conor Hogan and his team from La Trobe University have their way.

This could be potentially life-changing for people in developing countries and remote areas with limited resources, by making such chemical measurements more accessible and extremely inexpensive.

“There are two ways you can bring the cost of medical diagnostics down,” says Conor.

Firstly, you can use less expensive materials and fabrication methods to make the sensors, so Conor’s team have developed a microfluidic sensor printed on paper rather than using more traditional materials like silicon or glass. The second approach is to do away with the need for a scientific instrument to make the measurements, instead using your phone.

The combination of these two approaches can bring the cost of chemical analysis to negligible levels. “Scientists around the world are investigating ways in which to use mobile phones as a way of bringing health care to developing countries and remote communities,” Conor says.

“With mobile phone penetration now over 80 per cent in the developing world and close to 100 per cent worldwide, the idea is sensible.”

They’ve demonstrated the possibility of diagnosing disease or detecting harmful chemicals in drinking water using only a disposable paper based sensor and a mobile phone.

One approach uses a highly sensitive scientific technique known as electro-chemiluminescence or ECL where electricity triggers a light-producing chemical reaction.

The Nobel Laureate who transformed how our fuels, plastic and drugs are made

Now he’s tackling acid rain by getting the sulphur out of diesel

Robert Grubbs’ discoveries have enabled industry to produce plastics and drugs more efficiently and with less hazardous waste.

Robert was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2005 for his work on a chemical reaction called metathesis – where carbon atom groups change places.

Whilst the reaction was first described in 1971, Robert developed a catalyst which improved this reaction, and was stable in air, making this process more available to industry.

It’s now used daily in the production of pharmaceuticals and advanced plastic materials.

Now he’s developed a method to drastically reduce the sulphur content in diesel fuel more simply and cheaply.

Reducing the sulphur content in diesel will significantly reduce acid rain – which occurs when the diesel is burned and the sulphur turns into sulphur dioxide which reacts with water to form acid rain.

Professor Robert Grubbs is based at the California Institute of Technology.

Synchrotron light reveals better batteries for electric cars

Today the UK is expected to ban sales of petrol and diesel cars after 2040, following a recent French decision. And carmaker Volvo said it would only manufacture fully electric or hybrid vehicles from 2019.

The announcement reinforces the need for better batteries. Vanessa Peterson is on the case. She’s from ANSTO (Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation) and the University of Wollongong.

Vanessa is using neutron beams and synchrotron to watch exactly what happening to the ions as they move between the electrodes in rechargeable batteries.

Improving our understanding at this scale could be the key to both improving the capacity of these batteries—or how much charge they can deliver—and making them last longer.

For motorists that will mean electric cars that can drive longer distances with batteries that take longer to wear out