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Physical Sciences Research

Physical Sciences at James Cook University encompasses the fundamental science disciplines of Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Data Science. Our teaching and research programs are multi- and inter-disciplinary, enabling our graduates to build careers in many areas of science and technology within Australia and overseas.

JCU has many world-renowned researchers who undertake cutting-edge research in their field. The following research projects are just some of the areas of expertise within our group.

Professor Peter Junk

Inorganic Chemistry

Our research and professional interests involve many aspects of inorganic and organometallic chemistry of the main group and lanthanoid (rare earth) elements, in particular organometallic and amido complexes. These complexes have relevance to such areas as catalysis, new materials and organic syntheses. There is a strong emphasis on synthetic methods, reactivity and structural studies which involve a range of spectroscopic and structural techniques, in particular X-ray crystallography. Applied areas of research involve lanthanoid based corrosion inhibitors, rare earth imaging agents and synthesis of luminescent compounds. Much of this research involves collaborative links with colleagues both within and external to the department, and has been funded extensively by ARC Discovery grants.

Rare earth metal-organic chemistry has been one of the groundbreaking research areas of the last 30 years and we have contributed enormously to this very topical area, and with two current ARC Discovery Grants in progress this will continue to be an area of significant research output.

Murray Davies

Inorganic Chemistry

My research is on the d- block (transition metal) elements, with a particular interest in the preparation and characterisation of synthetic analogues of the active sites of metalloproteins and enzymes with the hope of mimicking their catalytic behaviour. The focus of this work is the preparation of mono- and dinuclear oxidase / oxygenase enzyme models (Fe, Cu) and the evaluation of these complexes as catalysts in the oxidation / oxygenation of alkanes and alkenes.

Mark Robertson

Chemistry, medicinal chemistry, green chemistry, pharmaceutical sciences

Dr Robertson is a synthetic chemist  with experience in working on medicinal chemistry projects including antibiotics, chemotherapeutics and treatments for epilepsy. His research interests include the use of flow chemistry and harnessing solar power as the thermal source to drive chemical reactions. Recent interests include the isolation and characterisation of natural products from marine and terrestrial sources.

A/Prof Michael Oelgemoeller

Chemical Engineering; Pharmacy; Medicine; Applied and Green Photochemistry

Insect bites from mosquitos or sand-flies are widespread in the Tropics and cause diseases such as dengue, Ross-river fever or malaria. Our Eradicate Insect-borne Diseases with Light activities cover prophylaxis, treatment as well as cure.

Following the ‘prevention is better than cure’ approach my group is producing potent natural insect repellents from local essential oils. At present, DEET is used as the most common ‘artificial’ insect repellent, but it is an irritant, unpleasant in smell, expensive and known to damage surfaces and fabrics.

For the treatment of insect bites, my team is producing anesthetics with reported activity levels higher than those of widely used ones. The multi-step process is realized in a continuous-flow operation without any isolation or purification of intermediates, thus allowing for on-site and on-demand manufacturing. The synthesis of antimalarials from natural compounds is likewise investigated using artificial and natural sunlight. In particular, my team is developing continuous-flow photoreactors for the manufacturing of the current frontline antimalarial artemisinin.

The activities or the group are embedded in the Centre for Biosecurity and Tropical Infectious Diseases (CBTID) and supported by the Fonds Pacifique and the Far North-Queensland Hospital Foundation.

A/Prof Michael Oelgemoeller

Chemical Engineering; Pharmacy; Medicine; Applied and Green Photochemistry

Recently, (micro)flow photochemistry has emerged as a new synthesis tool that successfully combines the small dimensions of microreactors with continuous flow mode. My group is investigating a series of homogeneous and heterogeneous photoreactions. The research also involves the construction of novel LED-driven microchips and their implementation in the synthesis of platform chemicals.

Flexible and inexpensive microcapillary reactors have also been designed and fabricated as part of this research area. Through bundling of microcapillaries, this innovative reactor concept allows for rapid, resource- and space-efficient reaction optimization, scale-up and parallel synthesis. We have designed and successfully tested a parallel microcapillary reactor for the first time.

My group is a leader in this emerging technology and has developed a number of innovative microreactor systems for photochemical transformations in the past. In collaboration with the Clinton Health Access Initiative and the Austrian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine (AITHM), we are furthermore investigating the synthesis of anti-malarial compounds through continuous flow photooxy­genations. My group is also collaborating with Vapourtec (UK) on applications of the advanced UV-150 flow photoreactor module.

A/Prof Michael Oelgemoeller

Chemical Engineering; Pharmacy; Medicine; Applied and Green Photochemistry

This research area investigates the large-scale, solar synthesis of fragrances, flavours and pharmaceutical precursors. Additionally, many starting materials are available from biomass, in particular agricultural waste material. Our research results thus help to reduce our dependency on fossil fuel derived chemicals.

We have recently realised the semi-technical syntheses of two commodity chemicals that are of particular interest for the agricultural industry. My group operates a modern CPC reactor (ca. 70 L) equipped with a number of accessories and two flatbed reactors (ca.10 L). The reactors can harvest diffuse and direct sunlight and are thus less dependent on weather conditions as concentrating systems, which makes them advantageous for operations in central Germany.

We are also collaborating with the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) in Cologne on the usage of concentrated sunlight.

The neglect of organic photochemistry by the industrial R&D community has left a diverse structural pool of possible new lead structures almost completely unexplored. My Group at JCU has developed a series of useful photochemical transformations, which are applied to the synthesis of novel bioactive compounds. In particular, the photodecarboxylative (PDC) addition to phthalimides has been utilized in the synthesis of pharmacologically active alkyl- or arylmethylidene isoindolinones. Members of this important target family possess cardiovascular, anti-cancer and anaesthetic properties. An alternative approach deals with photochemical macrocyclizations. The focus of this research area is to study photoinduced cyclization reactions of peptides and peptide analogues. The aims are twofold: (I) to identify new candidates for encapsulation, molecular recognition or sensoring and (II) to synthesize novel γ- or β-turn peptidomimetics. Interesting biologically active target families are benzodiazepines and pyrrolames. An additional research area deals with the photochemical release of pharmaceuticals, in particular photodynamic therapy (PDT) anti-cancer drugs.

The presence of pharmaceuticals in the aquatic environment and their possible effects on living organisms is emerging as a global environmental concern. These persistent organic chemicals are only partially eliminated during conventional wastewater treatment and have been detected in the effluent of wastewater treatment plants. Novel, cost-efficient and climate-smart water treatment technologies are thus urgently needed. Target pharmaceutical analytes are selected based on prescription data and incorporate different pharmaceutical classes. The pharmaceuticals are then degraded by treatment with semiconductor particles and both UV-light and sunlight. Degradations are monitored by a suite of analytical tools, especially HPLC and LC-MS. An additional approach deals with the development of novel Integrated Photocatalytic Adsorbents (IPCAs), i.e. hybrid materials of conventional adsorbents and titanium dioxide. IPCAs combine the advantageous properties of both substances and merge them into novel ‘capture & destroy’ materials. Likewise, we have developed porphyrin-TiO2 hybrid materials that overcome the poor absorption characteristics of the semiconductor within the solar spectrum.

A/Prof Michael Oelgemoeller

Chemical Engineering; Pharmacy; Medicine; Applied and Green Photochemistry

Aquaculture is one of the fasted growing industries in the world. One of the major concerns of the aquacultural industry is biosecurity. Species of the genus Vibrio have been recognized as the most significant pathogens in aquaculture of marine fish and have been linked to food poisoning and mass mortality of breeding stock. The same microorganism currently prevents the closed life cycle farming of tropical rock lobster, which is regarded a lucrative aquaculture product.

We are investigating Advanced Oxidation Process (AOPs) involving singlet oxygen as a promising ‘soft’ technique for water sterilization. While UVC treatment is performed industrially, it suffers from several disadvantages in terms of operation costs and safety hazards. We are investigating water-soluble or solid-supported dyes, for example porphyrins. Process optimization and after treatment re-growth methods are used to evaluate detoxification efficiency up to industrial demonstration scales. Toxicity tests on farmed marine species and feedstock are also conducted.