Prize win for renewable energy breakthrough

Monash University Professor Doug MacFarlane has taken out the coveted $50,000 Victoria Prize for Science & Innovation in physical sciences. 

The prize is awarded to outstanding science leaders who significantly advance knowledge. Doug was singled out for developing new technologies for storing renewables – primarily hydrogen and ammonia – as transportable material.

It’s work that has been underway for quite a while – two decades, in fact. That’s how long he and his team of 20 students and postdoctoral fellows from Monash University have been fine-tuning the development of a class of new materials which offer significant advances in renewable energy solutions. These materials, known as ‘ionic liquids’ – salts that are liquid at room temperature – can be applied in green chemistry, electrochemical devices, biotechnology and medical chemistry.  

"It’s a wonderful honour to win this prize," says Doug. "The recognition it represents of all the hard work – of not just me but also the many students and collaborators over the past 21 years – is a tremendous encouragement to continue pushing the boundaries of science and technology."  

Professor Doug MacFarlane portrait shotDoug says that Victoria is in the midst of a technological boom, providing benefits to the renewable energy sector too. "The state has a strong culture of innovation and a keen awareness of how important renewable energy is, both as a global imperative as well as a business opportunity. We’ve seen a remarkable uptick in activity and interest in the past two years."

What was it, specifically, about his group’s innovation that made it prize-worthy?  

For Doug, the answer is in the science. "We’ve discovered broad new families of liquid salts and have been able to demonstrate how they could be used in a wide range of applications, especially in recent years in the field of renewable energy storage," he says. The ionic liquids are practical in that they provide unique properties that aren’t possible in other materials – in other words, the team have achieved breakthroughs in ammonia production not possible with ordinary solvents.  

"I believe the judges recognised the significance of our work as part of an important transformation of our energy mix in Australia, both domestically and also as a globally significant exporter, away from fossil fuels towards renewables," says Doug. He believes their work will open up alternative energy for all Victorians, but will also highlight Australia’s unique position as the global energy powerhouse of the future.

Australia, truly the sunburnt country, has enormous potential to generate renewable energy, Doug continues, as huge areas of our centre and north-west have the highest average solar energy generating potential in the world – outstripping areas such as Europe and most of Asia by as much as three times. Put a solar cell in those parts of Australia and it will generate three times more energy than the same cell based in Germany or Japan. "A 250km x 250km area covered in standard solar cells could generate the electricity supply of the world – that’s just the area of Australia’s biggest three or four cattle stations combined," he says.  

And yet, while our nation has the necessary potential to generate renewable energy, we need to be able to transform it into a fuel in order to export it, Doug explains, and the markets of India and East Asia are too far away to reach with high voltage cables. Hydrogen is one of the simplest fuels that can be ready-made with renewable electricity and it’s already becoming an export commodity. However, it’s not easy or efficient to transport, so ammonia is now recognised as an important alternative, creating major interest in the most efficient routes to generate it from nitrogen from air and water.

As to their next big research goal, Doug and his team are very much focused on making renewable hydrogen or ammonia practical as new energy export industries for Australia. Japan, he points out, is already looking to import hydrogen from Australia and sees ammonia as a better alternative in the longer term, while he predicts similar markets are likely to develop elsewhere in Asia.  

Doug’s advice to up-and-coming Victorian researchers looking to make their mark? "Develop a keen eye for what is important in the big picture and how your work can make a real contribution." He, for one, is certainly ticking that box in a big way.

About veski and the Victoria Prize

Each year, veski delivers a program of fellowships, awards and international networks to bring experts in science and innovative technology to Victoria. Typically, these are Australian expatriates and leading researchers with outstanding skills in the top five per cent of their fields.

Read more on the veski website