OPINION: Although New Zealand has some great sportsmen, entertainers, writers, diplomats, economists, businessmen, doctors and so on, our real geniuses are chemists.
That's right. Our only three Nobel Prize winners were research chemists. The atom-splitting Ernest Rutherford leads the trio, Maurice Wilkins helped untangle the structure of DNA and most recently Alan MacDiarmid invented material for making bendable TV screens and circuit boards.
Lesser New Zealand chemists have also been busy over the years. They have invented new ways to extract salt from the sea, gold from ore, power from geothermal sources, and steel from iron sands. Our scientists have extended the chemistry of natural gas and concrete; invented new wood, dairy, meat and fish products; stopped some diseases in their tracks, turned wasteland into farmland, animal waste products into pharmaceuticals, developed synthetic fuels and new insights into medicine, forensics and environmental science.
Unnoticed and unsung, our chemists daily check the quality of water, air, soil, food, industrial, engineering and farm products, and our body fluids. Their science never stands still as research chemists extend the boundaries of chemistry. They're looking for new chemicals, new materials and new chemical applications.
There is always something new and exciting on the research horizon. At the moment the chemical graphene is attracting a lot of attention. Last year chemists wrote more than 3000 research papers about graphene and the chemical has generated more than 400 patent applications.
This almost miraculous chemical forms sheets or nets of the thinnest, lightest, strongest and stiffest substance on Earth. A hammock made of graphene will support the weight of a cat yet weigh only 0.8 milligrams - less than the weight of a cat's whisker. The cat would appear suspended in midair because its honeycomb-patterned hammock only one molecule thick is so fine it would be invisible to our eyes. Graphene conducts heat and electricity and might one day replace the silicon chip. Victoria University chemists are on to it.
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