Our research

Our research covers topics waste reduction, mechanochemistry, bio-based chemicals, alternative solvents, pollution elimination, water purification, catalyst development and reduction of toxic chemical use.

Water in beakers

Reducing waste from fresh produce 

Globally we throw out millions of tonnes of food every year. In New Zealand alone, estimates suggest that food represents over 10% of total landfill waste. Waste from the food supply chain harms the environment and puts pressure on our natural resources.

Ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns, halving per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer level, and reducing food losses along production and supply chains by 2030 are some of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Our research aims to support these objectives through the development of new technologies which minimise waste along the food supply chain.

With the support of the Marsden Fast-Start Fund, we study the underlying biological mechanisms that plants use to generate ethylene, a plant hormone which signals plant growth and development (including ripening). Our team also use their knowledge of the ethylene-forming enzyme to guide the development of new chemical agents, for use in regulating the ripening of fresh produce.

Mechanochemistry

Mechanochemistry is an emerging division of chemistry which explores reactions that occur in the solid-state. Due to the absence of organic solvents during these processes, this is an inherently green chemistry technique.

Our research investigates the mechanochemical synthesis of valuable organic molecules to eliminate solvent waste from related chemical pathways. We also study the mechanochemical destruction of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and pharmaceutical waste, to help alleviate the need to landfill or incinerate these environmentally problematic waste streams.

Bio-based chemicals

The society-reliant $4 trillion global chemical industry is almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas). New resources have to be identified that can eventually ‘drop-in’ and replace these finite reserves.

Our research involves incorporating compounds from abundant biopolymers like lignin, cellulose and chitin, into synthesis processes to produce new bio-based compounds with a wide variety of applications.

Alternative solvents

There is extensive use of volatile organic solvents throughout the chemical industry. Such solvents are often extremely hazardous and account for the majority of the waste produced in many chemical processes.

Our researchers explore the development and use of volatile organic solvent alternatives, including water, deep eutectic solvents and ionic liquids. We aim to find less hazardous solvents and design more environmentally benign chemical processes through exploring applications ranging from chemical synthesis and material processing to selective extraction processes for the recovery and use of bio-based compounds.

Pollution Elimination

Our research aims to develop new methods of eliminating pollutants from the environment. Key targets include water purification including the removal of pesticides, endocrine disruptors, nitrates and agriculturally derived pathogens, as well as soil remediation. To accomplish this, we are preparing new catalysts, materials and methods for the selective removal and/or degradation of pollutants.

We are also developing methods for the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, particularly from agricultural sources.

Reduction of toxic chemical use in pharmaceutical synthesis

Production of many pharmaceutical and bioactive compounds involves the use of hazardous compounds as reagents, catalysts or solvents.

Our researchers are working to develop alternative routes for the synthesis of pharmaceuticals and bioactive molecules, which avoid the need to use these compounds. This work includes the use of benign reagents and combinatorial chemistry for pharmaceutical synthesis.

Catalyst development

Catalysts are materials that are added in very small amounts to speed up a chemical reaction without being incorporated into the products. They can be recovered and used over and over again. Catalysts reduce the energy input required to make a reaction proceed and they also increase the purity and yield of the target products.

Our researchers are developing new catalysts for a range of industrially important reactions such as oxidations that utilise hydrogen peroxide and hydrogenation reactions of unsaturated organic compounds.