Potential projects 2021/ 2022

Please contact academics to discuss alternative projects. They may be able to tailor projects to your particular interests.

Associate Professor Luke Connal:

Development and 3D printing of functional materials

Areas: 3D Printing, Electrochemistry, Functional materials

A 3D printer has been developed by the group that combines unprecedented three-dimensional control and material flexibility, to culminate in a new process for 2D patterning and 3D printing of polymeric, organic, semiconducting, or metallic materials into complex shapes. This new technology offers a unique advantage of in-situ quality control through the use of electrochemistry, while being environmentally friendly. The aim of the project is to further develop this method by doing a systematic parameter variation study for the already printable materials and gaining a better understanding and control of the printing mechanism. A range of printable materials can be further expanded with conductive, semiconducting, and stimuli-responsive materials being just some of the examples. The development of the printing method will culminate in a printed electronic device that will aim to provide a sustainable alternative to the conventional manufacturing methods currently being used industry wide.

Artificial biomaterials: strong and self-healing polymer materials

Areas: Polymer chemistry, biomaterials, self-healing,

Biomaterials, for example bone and skin have a remarkable capacity to self-heal. These natural materials are hydrogels, however synthetic hydrogels cannot perform the same task as they are inherently weak and not usually self-healing. We will develop a new class of hydrogels that can provide the same function as natural tissues. In collaboration with the A/Prof Li at the ANU Medical School the Connal group is developing new bioinspired materials for applications as skin, ligament and cartilage replacement therapies. We have prepared a range of new polymer materials that display high strength and are also self-healing. This project will develop these materials for biological applications, for example as an artificial skin (below).

Doctor Nick Cox:

Methods for Protein Structure Analysis by Electron Paramagnetic Resonance (co-supervisor Prof. Thomas Huber)

Areas: Physical and Biophysical Chemistry

Proteins are the key targets for pharmaceutical intervention. Most function at relatively low concentration in a crowded cellular environment, which can affect structure and dynamics. This project will magnetically label proteins for new electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) experiments to study a protein’s structure and dynamics at low concentrations and in-cell, and then compute informative models from the measured EPR distances. These experimental/computational hybrid method offers new and unique capabilities for structural studies of large and/or conformationally flexible systems including those not amenable to established methods, such as Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR), X-ray crystallography and cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM).

Advanced Optical Spectroscopy of the Chlorophylls (co-supervisor Dr. Robin Purchase)

Areas: Physical and Biophysical Chemistry

Chlorophylls are the key pigments in oxygenic photosynthesis. There are four variants:  chlorophyll a, b, d, and f. To split water, almost universally, nature uses Chlorophyll a. However, there are a few very peculiar photosynthetic species that contain chlorophyll d and/or f. Of particular note is Chroococcidiopsis thermalis, which uses chlorophyll f and/or d to drive the chemistry of photosynthesis (see Science, 360 (2018) 1210-1213).  Chlorophylls f and d are only a little different from chlorophylls a and b. But how does this affect their function? Why does nature strongly favour chlorophyll a? What are the consequences of the differences between the chlorophylls for photosynthetic function? Using our unique optical spectrometer, this project aims to address these key fundamental questions.

The Photosystems of Chroococcidiopsis thermalis (co-supervisor Dr. Robin Purchase)

Areas: Physical and Biophysical Chemistry

The hardy cyanobacterium C. thermalis became famous for surviving the desiccation and radiation experienced on the outside of the international space station.  It can also grow under a wide range of temperatures and light conditions. With the increasing threat of climate change, understanding how photosynthetic organisms adapt to extreme conditions is a key field of research.  We have two projects that relate to C. thermalis.

Project 1 focuses on photosystem II (PSII) of C. thermalis. PSII is the key enzyme enabling the oxidation of water.  We have found that PSII in C. thermalis has some very unexpected characteristics.  This project involves a more detailed optical survey and analysis of this protein complex so as to understand its function. The results can be modelled using a simple, well-established exciton model.

Project 2 looks at Photosystem I (PSI), which uses light energy to catalyse the transfer of electrons across the photosynthetic membrane.  These electrons are ultimately used to produce the energy carrier NADPH.  This project aims to characterise how PSI from C. thermalis responds to far-red light and answer current questions as to how chlorophyll f is involved in the key photochemical steps.

The mechanism of biological water splitting

Areas: Catalysis

Biological water splitting – the process via which plants use sunlight to generate fuel (sugars) – underpins all life on earth. It is performed by a single cofactor in nature, a tetramanganese-pentaoxygen calcium cluster embedded in the Photosystem II supercomplex. Using Electron Paramagnetic Resonance (EPR) spectroscopy and related techniques we have been able to identify the sites of substrate water binding and important structural changes which facilitate substrate binding. We are now poised to examine the formation of the last intermediate and the mechanism of O-O bond formation.

Redox non-innocent first row transition metal complexes

Areas: Inorganic Chemistry and Organometallic Chemistry

Metal complexes possessing redox active ligands open up vast new applications in the chemical and materials sciences, particularly in catalysis. The ability to control and tune metal-ligand reactivity is fundamental to expanding the current scope of catalytic processes, and developing more selective and efficient synthetic pathways to ensure a sustainable society. We use electrochemistry combined with Electron Paramagnetic Resonance (EPR) to study the properties of such complexes. EPR is the paramagnetic analogue of NMR - we detect unpaired electron spins to characterize the three-dimensional and electronic structure of a molecule. EPR and related double resonance techniques allow us to elucidate changes in the localization of electron density (metal or ligand centred) following reduction or oxidation, and thus predict likely routes of chemical reactions/catalysis.

Professor Yun Liu:

Solid-state energy storage materials and devices

Areas: Functional Materials Chemistry

In this project, you will first synthesize metal oxide materials using a solid-state reaction, then investigate its chemical composition-structure-property relation using various start-of-the-art techniques, with a special focus on their applications in solid-state energy storage. During this study, you will gain the knowledge and skills in Materials Chemistry, prepare you to be ready for research in relevant field.

Semi conductive metal oxides: synthesis and photovoltaic effect

Areas: Inorganic Chemistry and Organometallic Chemistry

Description: this project is targeting some narrow bandgap metal oxides for potential applications in bulk photovoltaic applications. You will synthesize these materials, establishing the relation between chemical composition, processing condition, structure and property of these materials.

Doctor Philip Norcott:

Synthesis of organic molecules capable of unlocking hidden NMR signals.

Areas: Organic Chemistry, Synthesis

The research in our group is grounded in organic synthesis and the development of new synthetic methods to study new forms of reactivity. Currently we are investigating several classes of organic molecules which can activate H2 at room temperature without any external catalyst. We use this reactivity to activate an unusual form of hydrogen - called parahydrogen - which creates a 'hyperpolarised' NMR signal thousands of times greater than normal. A hyperpolarised NMR experiment can achieve the same signal-to-noise in a matter of seconds which may ordinarily take hours or even days of acquisition time. Students will have the unique opportunity to be trained in organic synthesis and hyperpolarised NMR in tandem.

Professor Thomas Huber:

Making Better Proteins with Un-natural Amino Acids

Area: Biological Chemistry

Genetic code expansion is a powerful tool to extend the chemical diversity of proteins. Over the last decade, this method has been widely applied to modify proteins with over 100 non-canonical amino acids to study protein structure and impart new function. Because changing the function of proteins often requires precise tuning of the physico-chemical properties within active sites, genetic encoding of unnatural amino acids with xenobiotic groups is particular appealing. This project will engineer new aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases to genetically encode un-natural amino acids with unusual chemical properties and apply them to produce valuable designer proteins for medicine, biotechnology and synthetic biology.

Continuous Molecular Evolution

Area: Biological Chemistry

Protein design makes heavily use of directed molecular evolution, a technique which introduces random mutations and selects for improved variants. The major disadvantage of this method is its high time and labour cost when multiple rounds of selection are performed. With recent development in targeted mutagenesis through CRISPR-CAS9 mediated systems, it becomes possible to perform continuous directed evolution over thousands of generations, thus comprehensively explore and optimise the functional space of proteins. This project will make further improvements to targeted gene mutagenesis and apply continuous molecular evolution to enhance specific binding of proteins to their respective targets.

Professor Tony (Anthony) Hill:

Non-Classical Pincer Ligands for Catalytic Applications

Area: Catalysis / Supramolecular Chemistry / Energy, Environment and Green Chemistry / Functional Materials and Interfaces / Organic Chemistry / Inorganic and Organometallic Chemistry / Synthesis

Projects within the Hill group are primarily of a synthetic nature involving the acquisition of skills in the synthesis, manipulation and characterisation of air-reactive compounds using IR, MS, UV-Vis, multinuclear and multi-dimensional NMR spectroscopies, crystallographic and computational methods.“Pincer” ligands involve three meridionaldonors and have proven to be highly effective scaffolds for supporting homogenous catalytic processes. The vast majority are however based on classical donors, e.g.,phosphines, amines etc. We are developing new pincer frameworks that include unconventional donors, e.g.,s-silyl (–SiR3) and s-boryl (s-BR2) groups in the equatorial position. Boron and silicon are exceedingly electropositive elements and exert a superlative transinfluence activating substrates. More unusual, however, is the ability of hydride ligands to migrate between these elements and the metal centre and in doing so, the polarity of the hydrogen switches from M–Hd+to Si–Hd–or B–Hd–.This polarity reversal is potentially useful in mediating hydrogen transfer/storage for the catalytic activation of small molecules (CO2, N2, SO2, HCCH).

Big and Small Chains of Carbon

Area: Catalysis / Supramolecular Chemistry / Energy, Environment and Green Chemistry / Functional Materials and Interfaces / Organic Chemistry / Inorganic and Organometallic Chemistry / Synthesis

Hypothetical linear carbyne “C¥” is predicted to be the strongest one-dimensional element and expected to show unparalleled thermal and electronic conductivity – It has, however, never been isolated. We have an interest in synthesising smaller linear chains of carbon which have metals appended to either end, LnMCxMLn(x = 4,6,8,10) as models for molecular scale electronics. One challenge involves installing main-group elements (B, Si, Se, P etc.,) within the chain to moderate the reactivity and physico-chemical properties. At the other end of the scale, we are studying compounds in which a single atom of carbon is held between two metal centres LnM=C=MLn. In most cases the M=C=M spine is linear but we have recently isolated the first examples where the carbon is bent and displays nucleophilic character.

Unusual Carbyne Complexes

Area: Catalysis / Supramolecular Chemistry / Energy, Environment and Green Chemistry / Functional Materials and Interfaces / Organic Chemistry / Inorganic and Organometallic Chemistry / Synthesis

Carbyne complexes featuring a metal-carbon triple bond LnMC–R are generally limited to those in which the substituent ‘R’ is an organic group (alkyl, aryl) and these are important catalysts for alkyne metathesis. Examples where the substituent is a main group heteroatom are scarce because conventional carbyne synthetic routes fail. We have developed routes for synthesis of a wide variety of carbyne complexes with unusual properties involving p-block element substituents starting from bromocarbyne complexes. These easily undergo nucleophilicsubstitution of the halide, either spontaneously or in palladium(0) mediated catalytic processes. Alternatively, facile lithium/halogen exchange with BuLi affords lithiocarbynes which in turn react with a range of electrophiles. Using these strategies we have isolated examples of carbyne ligands based on B, Si, Ge, Sn, Pb, P, As, Sb and Bi, e.g.,the tris(carbyne)silane shown.

Professor Colin Jackson:

Allosteric inhibitors of an important drug target

Area: BIological chemistry

The enzyme heparanase catalyses the hydrolysis of heparan sulfate in the extracellular matrix and its activity is an essential part of inflammation, angiogenesis and modifying the environment of cells. It is therefore a major drug target for the treatment of cancer, as well as COVID-19, where heparanase activity has been shown to contribute to pathogenesis. In this project you will use structural biology and computational chemistry to help design allosteric inhibitors of heparanase: molecules that bind at sites remote from the active site and change the activity by preventing the enzyme adopting catalytically relevant conformations. We have already engineered heparanase to express at high levels in bacterial systems and solved the structure, so the project is set up for you to focus on the drug design and analysis of the protein:inhibitor interactions. This project will involve collaboration with industry partners (Beta Therapeutics) and partners within the Centre of Excellence in Peptide and Protein Science

Designing new enzymes for medical and industrial uses

Area: Biological chemistry

Enzymes are the most powerful catalysts on earth, capable of accelerating the rates of reactions by up to 1017-fold. However, the enzymes we observe in nature have evolved for specific reactions - they are not as efficient (in general) when it comes to “new” reactions that might be essential for the catalysis of new biosynthetic reactions to make molecules that are important in industry or medicine. Natural enzymes are also limited by the 20 naturally occurring amino acids and the suite of available natural cofactors. In this project, we will design novel enzymes, using structural and computation tools, that can utilize novel synthetic cofactors and unnatural amino acids. These will be used to make chemical building blocks for the pharmaceutical industry in a “green” process and to convert agricultural waste, such as lignin, into high value commodities for industry. This project will involve collaboration with partners within the Centre of Excellence in Peptide and Protein Science.

Engineering an insulin biosensor for diabetes monitoring

Area: Biological chemistry

Diabetes is a chronic metabolic disorder that can cause serious complications without proper monitoring and management strategies. These strategies are currently based upon the use of electrochemical glucose monitors, however, these provide only immediate readings and are not effective at predicting blood sugar fluctuations that are at the root of diabetes complications. Insulin monitoring would provide this much-needed information, however, no insulin sensor is currently commercially available. In this project, we will design a protein-based insulin biosensor to fill this gap. Using computational protein design and molecular biology techniques, we will engineer the binding domain of the human insulin receptor, a transmembrane protein, to express as a soluble unit that can bind insulin outside of the environment of a cell membrane. This construct will then be used as the bioreceptor in an electrochemical sensor. This project will involve collaboration with the ANU Our Health in Our Hands Grand Challenge teams in the College of Engineering & Computer Science and the Research School of Physics.

Professor Zongyou Yin:

Area: Catalysis

This project is to develop new advanced nano-to-atomic materials as the catalyst (photocatalysts, or electrocatalysts) to catalytically convert CO2 with water to valued added liquid fuels. The research involved in this project is to explore and understand some interesting catalysis processes, which include, but not limited to, the selectivity of the reactants’ (CO2 and H2O molecules) adsorption onto solid-catalyst’s surfaces, charge transfer paths in/on catalysts, reduction/oxidation activation energy, reaction pathways, and the end product selectivity, etc.

Area: 2D Materials

This project is to synthesize and characterize new advanced two-dimensional (2D) oxides, with the thickness in Z direction down to a few nanometers and even single layer. In order to explore and understand the physical/chemical properties of such 2D materials, some advanced characterization techniques, such as electrochemical impedance spectroscopy for materials energy levels, doping, conductivity, real-time nanoscopy mapping for local surface potential, and surface plasmonics and photoresponse, will be performed.

Area: Machine learning

This project is to explore the data-science and materials informatics for the potential catalysts in the applications of energy conversion (water splitting to H2 fuel, CO2 reduction to carbon based valued resource, and/or N2 reduction to ammonia, etc.). The literature based database and experimental database will be combined together for the machine learning to predict what kind of new materials are promising for the advanced energy conversion technologies.


Doctor Christoph Nitsche/ Professor Colin Jackson:

Area: Biological

Fragment-based screening has been developed to enable the identification of small and simple molecules that bind to any site of a drug target of interest, and economically samples chemical space. High-throughput crystallographic screening can directly determine the interactions between fragment hits and drug targets. Informed by structural data, hits can be elaborated to larger compounds of higher affinity using established synthetic approaches like linking, merging, and growing, which is guided by computational simulation. This project will focus on enzymes that are relevant for drug discovery against infectious diseases.