Materials science solutions for global problems

5 April 2023

Prof Darren Martin in front of UQ Andrew N. Liveris Chem Eng Bldg

Professor Darren Martin FTSE.

Professor Darren Martin FTSE is a translational materials scientist and mentor based in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Queensland (UQ). Elected to the Academy in 2020, Darren is globally recognised for his breakthroughs in polymer science and nanomaterials research and has successfully commercialised his research after protecting his ideas through a number of patents.

Darren discovered a love for materials science while studying at Lismore High in northern NSW over 35 years ago.

“Originally, I wanted to be an industrial arts or a manual arts teacher, but when I was in Year 11, my Year Master at the time, Mr Squire, had very intuitively picked up on the fact I was naturally curious about materials. He told me about an excellent degree in materials science available at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and encouraged me to apply.”

“I took his advice and, fast forward to 2020, I was awarded both the UTS Chancellor’s Award [given to top UTS alumni annually] and the UTS Faculty of Science Award for Excellence. I guess Mr Squire was right and I have thanked him many times since!”.

While Darren has won many awards for his work over the years, he has expressed that the “real satisfaction” has come from mentoring the next generation of Australian academic entrepreneurs and the enjoyment associated with building functional, diverse teams.

“The ability to build teams surrounding the development of new and better materials sometimes feels like a superpower – it takes time, sometimes decades, but I believe you can truly enable solutions to many of our wicked societal problems with teams of materials scientists and engineers working together,” said Darren.

Together with Stony Brook University’s Distinguished Professor Benjamin Hsiao and CSIRO’s Dr Stuart Gordon, Darren is currently working on the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) Convergence Accelerator-funded Nanomaterials from Upcycling and Renewable Technologies Used to Rejuvenate Earth (NURTURE) project. The 30-week NSF Convergence Accelerator program funds teams to solve societal challenges through the merging of innovative ideas, approaches and technologies across disciplines, expertise and organisations. In 2022, only two out of the 16 teams awarded featured Australian partners.

By converting organic waste like crop residues or manure to produce a myriad of sustainable, nature-based products including safe and cheap fertilisers, biogels and wetting agents, the project aims to deliver scalable, zero-waste processing platforms and advance food-water systems resilience.

“Materials science is such a powerful enabler for solving global problems such as climate change, the food and clean water crises.”

Prof Darren Martin and Dr Hima Haridevan - NSF Project assessing conversion of Cotton Ginning Waste

Cotton ginning crop residue is one of many feedstocks Darren and his team are currently assessing in the NSF Conversion Accelerator project (with CSIRO and Stony Brook University), and where Hima is working in his team as a Research Fellow.

“But you can’t solve these problems alone. To achieve successful outcomes and technological breakthroughs, you must be brave, find willing collaborators from diverse disciplines and perspectives you have a good dynamic with and trust.”

Darren is no stranger to collaborating with a wide and diverse group of partners and stakeholders. In a landmark partnership with the Dugalunji Aboriginal Corporation (DAC) in North West Queensland, Darren and his team at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) developed innovative medical gels from spinifex, a native grass found abundantly across northern Australia. Spinifex grass has unique resilient properties that can withstand extreme heat through the application of Traditional Indigenous Knowledge. As one of the technology’s inventors, Darren worked with the Australian National Fabrication Facility (ANFF) to determine how to extract spinifex’s cellulose microfibres – or incredibly small, biodegradable fibres – using a gentle, environmentally low-impact nanotechnology processing method.

“My takeaways from this 14-year journey have been two-fold. Firstly, these partnerships are hugely collaborative and can also be very high-tech. Associate Professor Colin Saltmere and his large team at DAC run a highly sophisticated outfit. Secondly, the key concepts embedded in Traditional Knowledge like custodianship of knowledge for Country, for people and for perpetuity can truly fit into a more sustainable commercialisation model of today. We all stand to learn a lot from this!”

The application of thousands of years of Indigenous Knowledge and spinifex harvesting practices has enabled the creation of employment opportunities for the local Aboriginal communities, new potential treatments for arthritis and osteoarthritis, as well as more efficient drug delivery to the body. This work has been widely recognised and a portion of royalties is allocated to a UQ Indigenous Education Fund prioritising remote Indigenous education in STEM and nanotechnology.

Read more about Darren’s work in Cosmos Magazine.