Green chemistry pioneer joins Academy of Science elite

Flinders University Professor Colin Raston’s contribution to innovation in chemistry has seen him elected as a Fellow of the peak Australian Academy of Science.

The Fellowship, which has been bestowed on some of Australia’s most eminent scientists, was bestowed on Professor Raston AO applying innovative green chemistry principals to achieve such seemingly impossible scientific outcomes as changing protein structures that partly ‘unboil’ an egg.

Professor Raston created international headlines and received an Ig Nobel prize for inventing the Vortex Fluid Device – a film flow chemical reactor that harnesses high shear forces, micro-mixing and reactions beyond diffusion to produce a range of industrial and experimental compounds, including biodiesel, folded proteins, carbon nanotubes, mesoporous silica and pharmaceuticals.

Since its breakthrough experiment succeeded in ‘unboiling an egg’, the VFD has been used to rapidly spin a range of chemicals in water soluble and other non-toxic liquids – significantly reducing the cost and environmental harm in a range of chemical processes.

Professor Raston’s research in flow chemistry has helped to pull focus on using new ‘green’ compounds such as carbon nanotubes and an organic polymer for medical applications.

He says that streamlining production of new functional fluorescent materials raises the potential for making less toxic drugs and more affordable cell imaging – even gene therapy treatments for major diseases such as cancer, and making materials for bone implants.

“The VFD is all about developing products that aren’t creating large waste streams,” says Professor Raston.

“It’s very important for the pharmaceutical industry, which uses very energy intensive processes that generate significant amounts of waste. This is a much cheaper green and clean technology.”

The Australian Academy of Science annually elects a small number of Australian scientists to join the Fellowship, with Professor Raston among 21 new Fellows who have all made significant and lasting impacts in their scientific disciplines.

Further research has shown the VFD has many possible industrial applications, from slicing carbon nanotubes (an important application for the computer industry) to exfoliating graphene from graphite into single sheets.

“Ultimately, we need to devise technology that doesn’t use heavy metals,” says Professor Raston.

“We want to make materials that are greener and cleaner, developing products and process that do not wreak havoc on the environment and that don’t generate waste.”

Professor Raston says he wants his legacy to be placing sustainability at the forefront of scientific research.

“Chemists need to be doing things a little bit better,” he says. “The aim is to produce technology that is benign by design.”

Flinders University research featured in a recent cover article in the journal ‘Reaction Chemistry and Engineering’ (Vol 3 Number 2 April 2018 Pages 121–228) with their progressive paper, entitled ‘Laser irradiated vortex fluidic mediated synthesis of luminescent carbon nanodots under continuous flow’ – which links “fundamental chemistry and engineering to create scalable, efficient processes”. Authors: Xuan Luo, Ahmed Hussein Mohammed Al-Antaki, Kasturi Vimalanathan, Jillian Moffatt, Kun Zheng, Yichao Zou, Jin Zou, Xiaofei Duan, Robert N. Lamb, Shujun Wang, Qin Li, Wei Zhang and Colin L. Raston.

The latest recognition of Professor Raston’s ground-breaking discoveries and continuing innovations in research have been applauded by Flinders University Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Robert Saint.

“This Fellowship underlines the global significance of Professor Raston’s work, and reinforces Flinders University’s position as a research institution working at the frontiers of scientific development,” Professor Saint says.

Professor Raston and the new Fellows were formally inducted into the Australian Academy of Science at the Shine Dome in Canberra on May 22. They will outline their work at the Academy’s annual flagship event, Science at the Shine Dome, on May 23.

Representing the nation’s top research scientists, the Academy’s Fellowship includes six Nobel Prize winners and such prestigious scientists as Sir Mark Oliphant, Professor Nancy Millis, Sir Douglas Mawson, Professor Frank Fenner and Sir David Attenborough.

From a base of 23 Founding Fellows in 1954, the Academy now has 568 living fellows, with Flinders University Fellows including Professor of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, John Miners; Strategic Professor in Plant Biology, David Day; Professor of Neurophysiology, Marcello Costa; as well as Emeritus Professor and former Vice-Chancellor Michael Barber.

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