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Small, but perfectly formed

Think of it as anti-bling: John Watt can make precious metal really, really small.
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Palladium should be the hero metal of the 21st century. It’s best known as the active ingredient in catalytic converters, cleaning 90 percent of the toxic gases from vehicle emissions.

There’s a problem, though: it’s expensive and inefficient. A kilogram of palladium costs around $11,000—and, says John Watt, it quickly gets “gummed-up”.

But Watt, a PhD student at Victoria University, has solved that problem. He’s found a way to create palladium nanoparticles. It’s simple in theory: the smaller you can make each piece of palladium, the greater its surface area, and the more effective it is at cleaning toxic fumes.

The other way to increase surface area is to make those little nanoparticles in very intricate shapes. “Palladium wants to grow in spheres and boring shapes like that. We want as much surface area as possible, so our process causes the palladium to grow in star shapes. That way you get the efficiencies twice over: once by reducing the size down to nano scale, and then again by changing the shape.”

The result, he says, is that he can produce palladium nanoparticles that can do the work of that kilogram of palladium for around $25. The research has obvious commercial possibilities and Watt is currently working with a British company to commercialise his nano-sized palladium.

He has some local help in getting to market, too. In March, Watt will be awarded the inaugural Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize, which includes a cash prize of $150,000. Two-thirds of that is earmarked to support ongoing work, which will be handy, as Watt is just getting started. “My goal in front of me is to get our technology commercialised.”

And then? “Form a framework for commercialisation in New Zealand.” Watt may work in nanoscales, but he certainly sees the big picture.