Finding the right chemistry
Associate Professor Rob Atkin is making an important contribution to the development of better and potentially greener industrial liquids.
As a former basketball player, Associate Professor Rob Atkin knows that executing an 'assist' can sometimes be as valuable to a team as scoring a basket. It is an important lesson for a researcher in a vast and rapidly expanding scientific field where every new discovery is a step towards a more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly future.
Atkin, a physical chemist, conducts research that contributes to the development of novel room-temperature ionic liquids, or molten salts. These are vastly under-exploited substances that can be used more effectively than existing liquids in a range of industrial applications, including lubrication, catalysis, heat transfer and electrodeposition.
"Table salt melts at about 800 degrees Celsius, so if you heat it up enough it turns into a liquid," Atkin outlines. "What we do is take similar salts, change the molecular structure and manipulate them so they have melting points below room temperature. Once you have something that is pure salt but is a liquid, it can do all sorts of interesting things."
As well as offering greater efficiency, these so-called 'designer salts' hold the promise of being cheaper and greener alternatives to conventional solvents – and as pure electrolytes have useful conductive properties. Atkin's focus is on gaining a better understanding of the basic science of this growing field, and identifying the fundamental relationships between properties and the molecular structure of ionic liquids.
"The Holy Grail is being able to match the properties of an ionic liquid to a particular application," Atkin says. "That might sound simple, but the catch is that there are theoretically billions of different ionic liquids – only about 3,000 of which have been described in literature.
"Because there are so many, our challenge is to work out what part of a molecule is important for a particular application then apply that information to designing the liquid to fit the purpose."
Atkin has completed several pioneering studies in his field, and is highly regarded for his work in atomic force microscopy (the measurement of matter in nanoscale) and neutron scattering, for which he has access to the ANSTO research reactor at Lucas Heights and the ISIS facility in the UK.
Atkin this year received a prestigious Future Fellowship from the Australian Research Council (ARC) and also leads a three-year $380,000 ARC Discovery Project investigating molecular scale engineering of solid/liquid interfaces. He heads the University's Ionic Liquids Research Group and is a principal researcher in the Centres for Organic Electronics and Advanced Particle Processing and Transport. His work is also aligned with the NIER (the Newcastle Institute for Energy Resources), a key partnership between the University, government and industry for developing sustainable energy technologies.
Atkin, who was awarded his PhD at the University of Newcastle in 2003, has received consistent ARC support since 2005 and was appointed to the University of Newcastle in 2007 on a research fellowship as part of a recruitment strategy to foster a new generation of outstanding young researchers.
"Gaining the fellowship was a huge boost for me because it allowed me to establish myself in the field and build a research team," he says.
"We are well equipped here and I think the main reason our research group has been successful and has continued to attract government support is that our projects are done well and produce good outcomes and quality papers."
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