Making materials from the tiniest amounts of our natural resources could help tackle the biggest problem facing us: climate change.

That's according to Associate Professor Nicola Gaston and Associate Professor Justin Hodgkiss, the newly-appointed co-directors of the Victoria University-hosted MacDiarmid Institute.

Since the late Sir Paul Callaghan founded it in 2002, the institute has spun out 14 new companies - including Callaghan's Magritek - and delivered graduates to others, among them home-grown aerospace manufacturer RocketLab.

Long-time MacDiarmid researchers Gaston and Hodgkiss will lead a team of nearly 80 of the country's top materials scientists and engineers, along with more than 200 PhD postdoctoral students.


Gaston, a former president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, said materials research was at the heart of sustainable economic development.

"Materials research is inherently about the responsible use of resources," she said.

"This includes the fundamental work to understand how to make specific materials more energy efficient, in computing hardware or in energy generation and storage, and extends through to the practical design of materials to avoid toxic or scarce elements."

Gaston said MacDiarmid scientists also often worked at the nanoscale, allowing science solutions to be based on tiny, almost infinitesimal amounts of the world's natural resources.

This meant there was a much greater surface area per volume, and that materials researchers could then modify the structures of these large surfaces to develop new capabilities and technologies – to make a material antibacterial, or make it absorb more light.

"The whakataukī that best captures our purpose is: ahakoa he iti, he pounamu," she said.

"We invest in the development of fundamental knowledge, and so enable ourselves and others to be smart about what resources we use to make the materials needed for technology development.

"It's about minimising the material impact we make on the world."

Hodgkiss - founding inventor of early stage biosensor startup, AuramerBio Ltd - said that materials research in the institute was already creating hi-tech solutions to combat climate change.

They included renewable energies, new battery technologies, efficient computing technologies, and fresh water testing and remediation.

"The challenges we will face in the coming decades, driven by population growth, increasing per capita energy use, and the price of changing from the status quo, call for scientists to put better options on the table."

Victoria's Pro Vice-Chancellor for Science and Engineering, Professor Mike Wilson, welcomed the new appointments.

"The two new co-directors have a clear vision for the future of the institute, placing fundamental materials research firmly at the centre of the world's most urgent long term challenges, by further developing the Institute's strengths around materials for energy and electronic technologies, to focus on sustainability."