Super sponge chemist soaks up latest accolades

Pioneering synthetic chemist Dr Justin Chalker’s focus on combating environmental disasters has seen him made a finalist for the 2018 prestigious Australian 2018 Eureka Prize for Outstanding Early Career Research.

Flinders University College of Science and Engineering senior lecturer Dr Chalker, from the Flinders Institute for NanoScale Science and Technolology, has also been made the STEM Tertiary Educator of the Year in the South Australian Science Excellence Awards in 2018.

“I am passionate about using novel chemistry to help solve grand challenges in sustainability,” says Dr Chalker, a former Rhodes Scholar and 2016 SA Young Tall Poppy of the Year.

Dr Chalker received both nominations after leading research into the application of industrial waste to soak up oil and diesel spills which cause environmental destruction and devastate marine life around the world.

The bonus is that the novel polymer which absorbs oil in water or on land is itself made from sulfur, a common waste byproduct from the petroleum industry.

“Chemists are in a unique position to discover cheap and effective solutions to curb the damage caused by large oil spills, like the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico,” Dr Chalker says.

“In this case, we’re also working to help prevent and remediate the smaller and frequent spills that occur every year around the world.

“In many cases, these spills occur in areas with limited economic resources, so cost-effective solutions are critical.”

Dr Chalker is at Cambridge University this week on a viva and Endeavour-funded scholarship to further develop the polymer which can act like a sponge to remove crude oil and diesel from sea water, providing an easily accessible disaster recovery product for authorities grappling with environmental damage caused by oil spills.

Dr Chalker, his team at Flinders University, and international scientists set out to find a viable solution to oil spills after an earlier discovery of a waste-derived polymer to reduce mercury poisoning in artisanal goldmines.

“Our polymer is multi-functional. It is highly effective at capturing both mercury pollution and cleaning up oil spills. Finding multiple applications for this new polymer is important, so we can maximise impact.

“As well, because the polymer is derived entirely from industrial by-products, it is inexpensive and scalable,” Dr Chalker says.

The polymer is potentially cheap to make, as its key components are sulfur and canola oil, with used restaurant cooking oil also suitable. The polymer sponges absorb oil from seawater and can then be squeezed clean for reuse.

“In the coming years our team will work with a variety of government agencies and environmental advocates to help end the threat of oil spills and mercury pollution.”

American and Oxford-educated, Dr Chalker came to Flinders in 2015 as Lecturer in Synthetic Chemistry with the support of an ARC Discovery Early Career Research Award.

When Dr Chalker isn’t researching organic chemistry in the laboratory, he wants to educate and inspire students looking to also make a difference.

“One of my motivations for teaching is to share the thrill of discovery,” he says.

“In class, this involves revisiting classical and daring experiments that built the foundation of the chemical sciences.

“We also examine the latest cutting-edge research so that students can have a glimpse into chemistry and biochemistry as it is currently practiced,

“I am also a strong supporter of undergraduate research, so that students can learn science by doing science. I am proud that many undergraduates have contributed to our broader research initiatives as co-authors on publications. These research experiences empower students to think, learn and discover something genuinely new.”

The SA Science Excellence and 2018 Tall Poppy Awards were announced on 10 August.

The overall winners of the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes, be announced in Sydney on 29 August , included ANU nano-material researcher Dr Mohsen Rahmani who won the 2018 Macquarie University Eureka Prize for Outstanding Early Career Researcher category awarded for outstanding scientific research conducted by an individual or teams of early career researchers.

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