Small science leads to big award

A University of Otago scientist whose breakthroughs in "tiny science"could help replace fossil fuels and prevent dental decay has taken out a top award in the Prime Minister's latest science prizes.

Dr Carla Meledandri was presented with a 200,000 prize by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in Wellington today after winning the 2017 Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize.

Dr Meledandri, is exploring ways to solve problems using ultra-small materials that look, act and react differently when reduced to the nano-scale.

Early applications of her award-winning science included silver nanoparticles to treat and prevent dental disease and finding ways to store and use clean energy technologies that have the potential to replace fossil fuels.

Silver nanoparticles developed in Dr Meledandri’s Dunedin lab were being incorporated into a range of breakthrough products designed to fight tooth decay and infection, through a start-up company, Silventum Limited, that she has co-founded, and a technology licensing deal with a multinational dental company.

Dr Carla Meledandri, of University of Otago, has been awarded the  2017 Prime Minister’s...
Dr Carla Meledandri, of University of Otago, has been awarded the 2017 Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize. Photo: Supplied

"In all cases with dental decay, the source of the problems is bacteria.

"Our technology treats the bacterial source of the disease, without staining teeth.

"It’s particularly exciting because of the growing problems with resistance to antibiotics, which are the usual treatment for bacterial infections.

"Our nanoparticles have a completely different mechanism that doesn’t allow them to become resistant,"she said.

The current focus of Carla’s fundamental science research is also at the cutting edge, in which she is developing nanomaterials for use in industrial applications such as gas capture and storage.

This could help mitigate global warming as it was estimated the separation, transportation and storage of gases accounts for up to 15% of the energy consumed globally.

She said environmentally friendly clean fuels, such as hydrogen gas, offered huge promise, but only if they could be stored safely, efficiently and cheaply.

Her research team was also investigating ways to capture and separate the greenhouse gas CO2 using nano materials, enabling its removal from the atmosphere.

Carla’s entrepreneurial eye and her commitment to partnering fundamental science with applications that solve problems were highlighted by the prize judges as standout strengths.

She credited the spirit of collaboration among New Zealanders as central to her success.

"It doesn’t exist other places in the same way—the connections, the opportunities to engage with other scientists and being able to establish a start-up company in a supported environment.

"I feel very privileged to be able to work in New Zealand and to have my Research Group’s work recognised in this way."

She intends to invest $150,000 of the prize money for further research into her group’s clean energy programme.

"I am particularly motivated by service-science where my chemistry can help solve a problem."

The 2017 Prime Minister’s Science Prizes were presented to winners at the Banquet Hall, Parliament Buildings, in Wellington today.

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