Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Australian Chemists Make an Impact

By Jenny Bennett

Australians have featured prominently in lists identifying the most cited chemists of the past decade.

2011 is the International Year of Chemistry (IYC 2011). It marks a worldwide celebration of the achievements of chemistry and its contributions to the well-being of humankind. The year also coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize awarded to Madame Marie Curie, and is a fitting opportunity to celebrate the contributions of women to science.

Published to mark the International Year of Chemistry, a list of the Top 100 Chemists in the world in the past decade has been compiled by scientific data company Thomson Reuters. These rankings were based on the highest citation impact scores for chemistry papers published by individual chemists between 2000 and 2010. Probably the most useful measure of impact is the number of times a published paper is used and thus cited by other researchers in their subsequent published papers.

Ranked number 18 in this record is Dr Ezio Rizzardo of the CSIRO, the only Australian chemist to make this list. During this period, Rizzardo published 52 papers, and had an average of 91 citations per paper. His most significant work describes a new way of making polymers.

Polymers are chains of molecules that are the building blocks of materials used in a staggering array of everyday things, including plastics, adhesives, paints, engine oil additives and water purification membranes. Rizzardo’s process is called the RAFT polymerisation procedure, and it enables the production of polymers that could not be made before, with all sorts of useful applications. There are now about 500 patents taken out by others based on this breakthrough invention.

Rizzardo’s technology allows the development of new materials with controlled structure and architecture, and has resulted in new products in fields like drug delivery, paints and coatings, and additives to promote fuel efficiency. Future aspirations include plastic solar cells to replace very expensive silicon ones, and polymer-made capsules to carry medicines to finely targeted spots in the body.

While polymerisation has dominated Rizzardo’s career, it appears that the field of nanotechnology is the main event in the world of chemistry. Sixty of the top 100 chemists within the list identified nanotechnology/materials chemistry as either their main focus or a significant research topic.

Materials chemistry involves the study of materials with a view to enhancing their performance or decreasing the cost or time of their manufacture. It overlaps with many subjects, including physics, engineering and other areas.

In keeping with this theme, Thomson Reuter has also produced a register of the top 100 materials scientists, and three scientists from Australia appear in this list. Rachel Caruso of the University of Melbourne and CSIRO came in at number 21, with her papers each being cited an average of 72 times. Caruso’s research focuses on the synthesis of advanced porous materials, with potential uses in solar energy and the degradation of pollutants in the atmosphere.

The achievements of Caruso have special significance in keeping with 2011 being the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry being awarded to Madame Marie Curie (1867–1934), who began her career by endeavouring to isolate “radioactive” substances (a word she coined).

Curie was the first person to receive two Nobel prizes. She shared the first, for physics in 1903, with husband Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel for the discovery of the phenomenon of radio­activity, and won her second, in chemistry in 1911, for the discovery of the radioactive elements polonium and radium.

Notably, during World War I Marie Curie organised a system of portable X-ray machines to help treat wounded French soldiers. In the midst of her busy scientific career she raised two daughters. Her elder daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, became a Nobel Prize-winning chemist. Mother and daughter both eventually died of leukaemia induced by their long exposure to radioactive materials.

Jenny Bennett is Publisher – Chemical Sciences at CSIRO Publishing.