The University of Newcastle, Australia

Using science to make a positive difference

The detrimental impact that traditional energy production is having on our environment continues to increase. For Professor Thomas Nann, Head of School for the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, finding innovative ways to harness – and safely store – renewable energy underpins his ongoing research.

Image of Professor Thomas Nann

With more than 25 years working in physical chemistry and research, Professor Nann aims to find new solutions to the energy challenges our world is facing.

“As a researcher, I work across several different areas and disciplines. The common denominator of the majority of my research projects is nanomaterials.

“Nanomaterials are characterised by mesoscopic properties, that cannot be found in their macroscopic equivalents. For example, nanomaterials can be luminescent (glowing), magnetic, catalytic, or showing other physical properties, whereas their bulk counterparts don’t.

“I’m trying to study and exploit these properties in order to improve certain fields of application. One area of application that I’m very interested in is energy – in particular renewable energies.

“The biggest challenge as we transition to a renewable energy economy is to match energy supply and demand. Almost all renewable energy vectors are intermittent – for example, the sun only shines during day and the wind doesn’t always blow.

“In order to match energy supply and demand, storage options are desperately needed. I use nanomaterials to build new types of batteries and solar fuel conversion systems (photocatalysis) to respond to this market pull.

“Australia is in a unique position to have the potential to be one of the first countries in the world that can transition to a 100% renewable and sustainable economy due to the abundantly available renewable resources and relatively low population.

“My work aims to provide high performing and cost-efficient energy storage solutions. As a result, I’ve already submitted two patent applications in this area and am trying to commercialise these inventions,” said Professor Nann.

In addition to his work in the field of renewable energy, Professor Nann’s other major application field is nanomedicine – using nanomaterials as contrast agents for imaging (for example MRI), radiation detectors, and drug delivery systems.

“Early and accurate diagnostics can save lives. We develop more sensitive and selective contrast agents that allow for the detection of, for example cancer, at an earlier stage.

“Nanomaterials have the potential to improve medical diagnostics in an unprecedented way, because they can be made multifunctional,” said Professor Nann.

What excites Professor Nann the most about science and his work is the real and positive differences he can make to people’s everyday lives and supporting others to do the same.

“I’ve had the privilege of training many undergrad and HDR student, as well as mentoring Postdoctoral and early career scientists. I always enjoy working with these wonderful people and seeing how they too, can make a difference to the world,” said Professor Nann.