NCI-supported CSIRO researcher Amanda Barnard has won the Foresight Institute Feynman Prize.

Dr Barnard is both the first Australian and the first woman to receive this prestigious award.

Using the power of the NCI supercomputer, Dr Barnard – who leads CSIRO's Virtual Nanoscience Laboratory – has pioneered the theoretical investigation of how the structural diversity of nanomaterials impacts their performance in everyday applications.

"Using entirely theoretical and computational methods, Dr Barnard has spearheaded understanding of the structure and stability of carbon nanostructures," announced the Foresight Institute.

"Although she has made numerous important contributions to the modelling of graphene, nanotubes, and diamond nanowires, it is her work on diamond nanoparticles that has had the greatest impact in the area of molecular nanotechnology."

A few years ago, Dr Barnard's work led to the fundamental discovery that diamond nanoparticles have unique electrostatic properties such that they arrange themselves spontaneously. The resulting structures could be useful in a number of fields, including self-cleaning surfaces and sustainable fuel cells. The discovery has already spurred the development of a brain tumour chemotherapy treatment at UCLA. 

"In the past the community has focused on simulations of individual nanostructures, which are only representative if experimental samples are perfectly monodispersed," Dr Barnard says.

"Samples of nanostructures cannot be purified, and even the best attempts to make uniform samples still contain distributions of sizes and shapes: some degree of structural diversity is inevitable.

"Although it is tempting to continue to strive for perfect samples, where all the particles are the same, this is not economically sustainable on a large scale, and so manufacturers are more inclined to accept mixtures and develop devices with larger fault tolerances.

"By predicting how imperfections at a molecular level impact on performance, we can design products with less susceptibility to faults from the outset."

A single prediction for just one substance requires hundreds of individual calculations – and each structure requires gigabytes of computer memory. Only the NCI supercomputer can handle such tasks within a reasonable time, says Dr Barnard.

Dr Barnard was also the recipient of the Prime Minister's Prize for the Physical Sciences (also known as the Malcolm Macintosh Prize) in 2009.

Read more about Dr Barnard's work.