2005 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year

Professor Cameron Kepert

Cameron Kepert, a 34 year old professor at the University of Sydney's School of Chemistry, is at the forefront of a chemical revolution. Chemists are mimicking nature and becoming molecular engineers, constructing new molecules and materials with great precision.

Cameron has engineered materials that can grab a small target molecule and then signal the event through a change of colour, shape or magnetism. He has also developed another group of materials that contract as they are heated and are attracting so much interest that he and his colleagues are setting up a company to commercialise the patented technologies

His new materials are expected to find application in many fields including electronics, photonics, sensing, agriculture, and energy storage. For his remarkable early career achievements and leadership in chemistry and molecular nanoscience, Cameron Kepert has been awarded the 2005 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year.

Cameron was born in Perth in an environment that encouraged curiosity. "The house was full of Lego and Meccano," he says. "We were always building large structures." Now, as a chemist, he is doing the same but on a nano-scale, building 'large' molecular structures just a few millionths of a millimetre across. "We're taking molecular building blocks, and building them up into larger molecules and structures or materials, and trying to control the properties of these new structures," he says.

His first major breakthrough was to create 'switchable porous materials'. These materials are crystals with pores of just the right size and structure to only fit a target small molecule. When the pore is filled, the porous material can switch its properties - shape, colour, magnetism for example. Published in Science in 2002, the discovery has opened the way to molecular electronics, and to new ways of making highly sensitive chemical sensors.

The pore structures can even be designed to distinguish between right and left-handed molecules, and potentially to separate the two. Some pairs of molecules have the same chemical composition but one molecule is the mirror image of the other, leading each to take on different properties. This is a critical issue in the pharmaceutical industry, where more than half of the top drugs sold are either right or left-handed.

Another of the 'nanoporous' materials being developed by Cameron and his team could be used to create a safe, compact storage medium for hydrogen gas - urgently needed if hydrogen is to become the preferred fuel for cars.

In 2002 Cameron and his colleagues created another unique material - solids that contract upon warming.

A common form of failure in electronic components is thermal stress. As the electronics heat up they expand and break but the new materials have the potential to fix the problem. They could be designed to shrink and compensate for expansion or they could be designed to neither expand nor contract, and replace existing components. Cameron already holds two patents for this technology and is launching a start-up company to commercialise the invention.

Among his other patented inventions are modified clay nanotubes. These tubes can store and release bio-active chemicals. Cameron is working with a leading agrochemical company to develop this technology for the controlled release of herbicides and pesticides.

With a Federation Fellowship already under his belt, Cameron has attracted more than $8M in research funding since 2000, and has taken a leading role in promoting chemistry.

"It took millions of years for nature to evolve and build complicated molecular structures that perform very specific functions," says Cameron. "We're beginning to mimic some of those systems and build similar complexity into our chemistry. And in the next decade or two, the fundamental discoveries that we're making will transform the use of chemistry across society."

Autobiographical Details

  • 1970 - Born in Perth, Western Australia
  • 1991 - BSc (Hons) in Chemistry, University of Western Australia
  • 1995 - PhD in Chemistry, Royal Institution of Great Britain/ University of London
  • 1995-1998 - Junior Research Fellow, Department of Chemistry, University of Oxford
  • 1999 - Appointed as Lecturer in the School of Chemistry, University of Sydney
  • 2002 - Promoted to Senior Lecturer
  • 2005 - Promoted to Associate Professor
  • 2005 - Promoted to Professor
  • 2005 - Director, ARC Molecular and Materials Structure Network

Career Highlights

  • 2005 - ARC Federation Fellowship
  • 2004 - Le Fevre Medal, Australian Academy of Science (for the top research chemist in Australia under 40)
  • 2004 - Edgeworth David medal from the Royal Society of NSW (for the top research scientist in Australia under 35)
  • 2003 - Rennie Medal from the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (for the top chemistry research performed in Australia by a chemist under 35)
  • 2002 - Selby Research Award
  • 2001 - Young Tall Poppy Award (from the Australian Institute of Political Science)
  • 1995-1998 - Junior Research Fellowship, Christ Church, Oxford
  • 1992-1995 - Hackett Scholarship for overseas postgraduate study
  • 1988-1991 - Undergraduate prizes at the University of Western Australia including the Lady James Prizes in Physics and Chemistry, the A.R.H. Cole Honours Prize, and the Hackett Scholarship.

Research Contributions

  • Switchable porous materials: nanoporous materials that switch between different electronic states in response to the exchange of guest species. These materials have opened a new window into the area of molecular electronics and, notably, provide a completely new mechanism for molecular sensing.
  • Nanoporous materials with the ability to distinguish between right and left-handed molecules.
  • Nanoporous materials designed to store considerable volumes of hydrogen gas.
  • Molecular solids that display the rare phenomenon of contraction upon warming. Such materials have application in a wide range of areas, including in electronics, where compensation for the temperature variation of electronic components is required, and in mechanical componentry such as high precision instruments.
  • Molecular materials that display electrical conductivity and superconductivity. These materials have provided important fundamental insights in the field of molecular electronics.
  • Molecularly modified clay nanotubes that are able to release bio-actives from within their lumens. The application of these materials in the controlled release of herbicides and pesticides is being developed in collaboration with one of Australia's leading agrochemical companies.
  • He has attracted more than $8M in funding since 2000, has over 50 published papers, 2 book chapters, 4 patents and is cited in more than 1,500 publications.
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