’Cooking with Lego’: molecular engineer wins national prize

Credit: Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science/Wildbear

Credit: Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science/Wildbear

A Queensland scientist who describes his research as a cross between cooking and playing with Lego has been recognised in this year’s Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science.

The University of Queensland’s Associate Professor Jack Clegg - a chemistry and nanotechnology expert - has won the 2018 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year.

UQ Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Høj said Dr Clegg’s work could reduce pollutants and lead to technological breakthroughs in electronics.

“Dr Clegg has made game-changing contributions to chemistry, developing new materials with profound applications for science and industry,” Professor Høj said.

“This is incredibly well-deserved, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Dr Clegg’s research will transform our world.”

Dr Clegg researches ways to program the miniscule forces between molecules, known as ‘intermolecular interactions’.

He said his work could lead to new technologies by controlling the self-assembly of molecules into more complex materials.

“I often say that my work is a cross between cooking and playing with Lego,” he said.

“It involves ‘tuning’ and manipulating the relationships between simple building blocks, working to program them to come together and create very complex materials.

“Through these processes we can now create a new generation of flexible crystal materials for use in electronic and optical devices, giving them better functionality, robustness and adaptability.

“There’s also the potential to vastly increase the energy efficiency of molecular separations - in processes like water purification - as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.

Dr Clegg hopes that his research will spark a greater interest in chemistry.

“Even though chemistry is so fundamental, it doesn’t get the credit it deserves in the public domain - despite its role in economic development and underpinning our standard of living - so I’m hoping this award plays a small part in changing that conversation.”

Dr Clegg is the third UQ scientist to be awarded a Prime Minister’s Prize for Science in three years.

Professor Kerrie Wilson won the Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year in 2016, and Professor Jian Yang won the same award in 2017.

Dr Clegg’s award is named in honour of Sir Malcolm McIntosh AC, who was the Chief Executive Officer of CSIRO from 1996 until February 2000.

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