Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

PM's Science Prize awarded to wireless pioneers

Professor Grant Covic, left, and Professor John Boys of Auckland University have won this year's prize for engineering wireless charging technology for electric cars and other devices.
Professor Grant Covic, left, and Professor John Boys of Auckland University have won this year's prize for engineering wireless charging technology for electric cars and other devices.

Two University of Auckland professors whose technology stands to change the world have won this year's Prime Minister's Science Prize.

Professors John Boys and Grant Covic, who were presented their $500,000 prize at a ceremony in Wellington this afternoon, are pioneers in wireless or inductive power transfer technology, now known globally as IPT and used throughout the world in a range of applications.

The revolutionary system they developed has opened up startling possibilities for the electric car industry and created the most successful deal for any New Zealand university or crown research institute start-up company.

Essentially, IPT makes it possible for power to be transferred without cables, instead transporting the current between across the magentic field between two close points.

This could allow an electric car battery to be charged by a pad it simply had to stop over, or to re-power to a pacemaker without any invasive wiring.

At least 70 per cent of the world's LCD screens and other electronic equipment requiring computer chips are manufactured on systems using the prize-winning technology.

Vehicle brands such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi, also rely on it, while theme park rides and roadway lighting in traffic tunnels throughout the world, including Wellington's Terrace tunnel, are powered and controlled by the innovation.

After striking upon the phenomenon while working on another project two decades ago, the scientists presented their new system to many companies before Japanese firm Daifuku finally decided to invest in it.

For the company, the professors created the world's first fully controllable IPT system combining high efficiency and high power.

On the back of the technology, Daifuku has become one of the world's largest automated, clean room manufacturers and is a preferred supplier to electronic manufacturers such as Intel and Samsung.

In the late 1990s, the team's focus turned to inductive power and charging systems for electric vehicles, automatic guided vehicles and robotics.

In May 2010, a company, HaloIPT, was spun out to develop the technology further for electric vehicles and, in late 2011, it was sold to Qualcomm, a US Fortune 500 company.

The resulting return to Auckland Uniservices, the university's commercial arm, was more than 50 times the original pre-seed investment.

In the past four years alone, their work has attracted more than $20 million in research funding.

Income is also flowing from license fees, which are set to increase rapidly from 2015 as new inventions are commercialised.

The next frontier for the engineers is developing in-road wireless charging, eliminating the need for plug-in battery chargers and enabling cars to recharge as they travel along highways.

They aim to lower the cost and battery weight, increase the power and make cars more efficient while using green energy, such as solar or wind.

"We've been told the idea of inductive power systems in roads is too way out to have any real chance of success," Professor Boys said.

But both professors believe that within five years the technology will be able to recharge electric vehicles from in-road systems over short stretches of selected highway and buses will be able to recharge as they drive over extended bus stops or lanes.

"We spend part of our time listening to the commercial world and solving their needs for today, but the most significant technology shifts happen because they allow us to do blue sky research, providing what they need before they recognise they even need it," Professor Covic said.

Their prize money would enable blue sky research alongside partners so New Zealand remained at the cutting edge of IPT.

"It's a journey of discovery," Professor Boys said.

"One stone might have a fairy princess under it and the rest might have frogs but you don't know until you've turned them all over so you need to look in every possible direction."

OTHER WINNERS

Dr Benjamin O'Brien - winner of the Prime Minister's MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize

Dr O'Brien, chief executive at StretchSense Limited, is recognised as a world-class bioengineer in the field of electroactive polymers (EAPs), materials designed to change in size or shape when stimulated by an electric field.

His outstanding achievement in the field was the invention of the dielectric elastomer switch, which allows electronics to be directly embedded into artificial muscle devices, giving them life-like reflexes.

Dr O'Brien helped build a computer which demonstrates this capability, showing that artificial muscles can be made to compute and "think", and paving the way for the development of smart, life-like prostheses and soft robots that can adapt to changing environments.

Last year, Dr O'Brien co-founded a spin-out company from the Biomimetics Lab, called StretchSense Limited, to commercialise his research.

The company is at the forefront of soft stretch sensors - soft pieces of elastic material that transmit information about how much they are being stretched - which, when integrated into clothing, can provide precise and unobtrusive measurement of body motion.

The technology has the potential to be used in healthcare, rehabilitation, sports training, prosthetics, animation and gaming, as well as allowing interactions with portable electronic and augmented reality devices.

In the future, Dr O'Brien's technology could replace conventional data entry and enable the next generation of wearable technology that listens to body language and is emotionally responsive.

He receives $200,000 as part of his prize.

Fenella Colyer, Head of Physics at Manurewa High School - winner of the Prime Minister's Science Teacher Prize

Mrs Colyer strives to demystify science for pupils at Manurewa High School by tailoring teaching programmes to match individual student abilities and interests.

She has been credited as a driving force behind a 30 per cent increase in the past two years, in the number of Maori and Pasifika students studying physics, with their pass rate rising to 81 per cent, which exceeds the national average.

She has also encouraged more female students into physics, with her NCEA level two physics class being almost 60 per cent female.

In total, nearly one third of students at the decile two multicultural secondary school now study physics.

Mrs Colyer has created resources, experiments, written more than 70 power point and video tutorials and rewritten an ICT touch screen Sparklab programme, replacing the American content with New Zealand learning modules.

In the past two years, 13 of Fenella's students have won major awards at the regional science fair, others have been selected to attend university science symposiums, summer schools or overseas forums and three have won gold awards at the Royal Society of New Zealand's science CREST competition.

Mrs Colyer was awarded a National Excellence in Teaching Award in 2009 and this year received a significant and meritorious service to the community for fundraising and organising sponsorships that enable students to attend science-related activities and courses.

The prize she receives today includes $150,000.

Dr Siouxsie Wiles, Senior Research Fellow and leader of the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab at the University of Auckland - winner of the Prime Minister's Science Media Communication Prize

In an effort to combat infectious diseases, which kill 14 million people worldwide each year, Dr Wiles makes bacteria glow in the dark so that we can better understand how to prevent and fight microbial infection.

Dr Wiles has become one of New Zealand's go-to scientists for media comment, regularly posts blogs and creates YouTube videos, has written for New Zealand and overseas newspapers and contributes to several radio and television programmes.

For Dr Wiles, communication is a fundamental aspect of being a scientist, and she believes it is an important way of encouraging young people to see a career as a scientist is an attainable goal.

She has published more than 40 peer reviewed papers and has won many awards, and is also a regular public speaker to both academic and community groups such as Rotary and Zonta.

"Over the last few years Siouxsie has been instrumental in the science communication movement in New Zealand," New Zealand Science Media Centre manager Peter Griffin told the Herald.

"From her work handling media queries to her public talks to the pioneering science animations she produces, Siouxsie has shown what is possible when you treat science communication as an integral part of your research career."

Dr Wiles really cared about how science was understood and perceived, Mr Griffin said.

"She's a battler against pseudoscience and is brave enough to speak up when controversial science-related issues are making headlines.

"If we had more scientists as engaged in science communication as Siouxsie Wiles, science and the public would be much better off for it."

She receives 100,000 as part of her prize.

Tom Morgan, Marlborough Boys' College - winner of the 2013 Prime Minister's Future Scientist Prize.

The Year 13 student wins the $50,000 prize for his original and detailed project in the area of vitamin-rich foods.

His research shows that oyster mushrooms have the potential to be enriched with Vitamin D for people at risk of osteoporosis and those who do not get adequate sunlight exposure.

Tom investigated whether the concentration of ergocalciferol, or Vitamin D, in oyster mushrooms changed when the mushrooms were exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light, over different periods of time.

The project, titled "YoUVe Got Mushrooms" could help address Vitamin D deficiency, which is linked to osteoporosis, a major cause of suffering and disability in many countries.

Vitamin D was usually extracted from food and measured using sophisticated laboratory equipment, in the form of High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) and mass spectrometry.

With no access to such equipment, he had to find an alternative, and an extensive search of the literature showed him a spectrophotometer technique which he adapted and extended using a laboratory titration technique.

The result was an inexpensive method of measuring the ergocalciferol concentration of oyster mushrooms using simple apparatus available in many laboratories.

Tom then grew oyster mushrooms in the dark for six weeks and then exposed them to UV lights for varying periods.

His results showed a strong correlation between the length of time the mushrooms were exposed to UV light and their concentration of Vitamin D.

The judges of the prizes said Tom's work showed an "impressive commitment" to researching and understanding his topic, particularly in the development of his laboratory techniques.

His vision, ingenuity and drive had opened opportunities for others to rapidly investigate ways to improve Vitamin D concentrations in foodstuffs.

Tom's results support previous findings that UV-irradiation has commercial potential, providing opportunities for growers to develop Vitamin D enriched mushrooms that could deliver health benefits for segments of the population.

- NZ Herald

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