Separation science investigates ways to separate out specific molecules from other substances, and then accurately measure them. These specialised detection and measurement techniques have applications in areas like food quality control, water and environmental monitoring, and many fine chemical manufacturing processes.
Analytical chemist, Professor Brett Paull, wants to see Tasmania become an internationally recognised hub for analytical chemistry, developing new technologies and training people to use them. Through its Australian Centre for Research on Separation Science (ACROSS), the University of Tasmania is well on the way to achieving this. Brett has recently been awarded an ARC Training Centre for Hyphenated Analytical Separation Techniques (‘HyTECH’) based here in Tasmania.
As well as refining and improving these techniques, research at the University of Tasmania also includes working on ways to miniaturise analytical equipment to make it more portable.
Pharmaceutical companies, for example, have vast labs full of expensive equipment for tasks like this but in manufacturing plants they need smaller instruments that are easier to handle, that give instant results, and can be used by workers and engineers, not just by chemists.
Brett was Director of ACROSS at the University's Sandy Bay Campus from 2014 to 2019, and from 2015 to 2020 he was director of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Training Centre for Portable Analytical Separation technologies (ASTech).
“The focus of ASTech was on portable analytical technologies and making it possible to take these instruments out of the lab,” Brett said. “The large complex systems in laboratory are great and do advanced and powerful work, but there is a lot of interest in miniaturising them and making them portable.”
Brett’s latest research program will create a centre for excellence in the field of hyphenated technologies, which are those that involve combining two existing techniques, such as coupling chromatography with mass spectrometry. Having such a centre based at the University will also open up more opportunities for higher degree research and staff training out of the local facilities.
As well as partnering with the University of Queensland and Deakin University, the plan has the support of four of the world’s leading manufacturers of scientific instruments: Shimadzu (Japan), Thermo Fisher Scientific (USA), AB Sciex (USA) and Trajan Scientific and Medical (Melbourne), all with a direct interest in the development of new technologies.
“There is a lot of linkage to industry and industry funding here,” Brett said. Fundamental research is absolutely critical – you can’t do anything without that core understanding – but we also get funding that enables us to apply that knowledge in practical ways.
A lot of our tech is being taken directly to commercial environments. Our innovative analytical technologies have led to the filing of a significant number of patents in recent years, several of which have been taken up by partners and fully commercialised.
Estrella is a senior research fellow with ACROSS who specialises in the development and application of new analytical technology and methodology, based on chromatographic techniques coupled with mass spectrometry, across a wide range of application areas. And with 25 years’ experience as an analytical chemist, she is also skilled in training other researchers in the use of this equipment.
Vipul is a Discovery Early Career Research Fellow and lecturer whose research combines analytical chemistry with 3D printing technology to create miniaturised analytical devices. His work has a view to the development of commercially viable products and technologies, which could have big implications for a range of industries.
The training centre will seek to build partnerships with local organisations like the Derwent Estuary Program and Norske Skog to ensure the practical requirements of technology end-users are always a consideration. And ongoing partnerships with industry giants like Pfizer help create direct career pathways for University of Tasmania postgraduates.
This level of integration provides opportunities for our researchers to not only develop their excellence in research, but to work on real world challenges directly with industry partners. This integration is increasingly being recognised by government, research institutions and external partners.
“Where we are with technology currently, we already have relatively advanced separation science capabilities, but what we are aiming for with this centre is an order above all that,” Brett said.
Professor Brett Paull is an Analytical Chemist at the University of Tasmania.
Discover more about Australian Centre for Research on Separation Science and projects underway in Tasmania.