Celebrating Matariki values in our research. » The MacDiarmid Institute
Celebrating Matariki values in our research.

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Celebrating Matariki values in our research.

2 May, 2022

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Deputy Director Māori, Dr Pauline Harris

MacDiarmid Institute Deputy Director Māori, Dr Pauline Harris, who was a member of the Government’s Matariki Advisory Committee advising on the new public holiday Matariki shares with us some of the values and principles of Matariki and how some of the sustainability research of the MacDiarmid Institute relates to the values of Matariki.  

Deputy Director Māori, Dr Pauline Harris, says the principles of Matariki centre around remembrance, honouring those we have lost since the last rising of Matariki, celebrating the present, gathering together to give thanks for what we have, and looking to the future and to the promise of a new year.  

She says many of the key values associated with the Matariki celebrations are embedded in the traditional practice of Matariki, however they remain just as important in our modern society; values such as Kotahitanga – Unity, Tohatoha – Sharing, Noho tahi – Coming together and Mana Taiao – Environmental Awareness, and that these values are also at the core of the MacDiarmid Institute. 

The sustainability focus of the MacDiarmid Institute aligns very closely with these values by the way the Institute comes together to collaborate, share and research to help solve some of the most pressing environmental problems facing the planet today.

Dr Pauline Harris Deputy Director Māori at the MacDiarmid Institute Victoria University of Wellington

Dr Harris said there were many examples of MacDiarmid Institute research which relate to the values of Matariki in particular mana taiao, the mana of the natural world.

Examples include our research into capturing carbon as well as cleaning up nitrates and other pollutants from the environment. Here we share some of examples of our work.

Helping to restore a Rotorua water catchment

The MacDiarmid Institute is working with Whakarewarewa Village to support their ambition to restore the Puarenga catchment, alongside local Councils and a number of other contributors. 

The catchment feeds the Puarenga Stream that flows through the Village, under the famous penny-diving bridge, and into Lake Rotorua. 

Deputy Director for Commercialisation and Industry Engagement, Associate Professor Geoff Willmott, says in recent times a number of agricultural and industrial pollution sources within the catchment have degraded the quality of the stream.  

The mātauranga held by our collaborators describes activities such as swimming and collection of kai which are no longer possible

Associate Professor Geoff Willmott Deputy Director for Commercialisation and Industry Engagement at the MacDiarmid Institute The University of Auckland

“The mātauranga held by our collaborators describes activities such as swimming and collection of kai which are no longer possible, as well as records of the appearance of flora and fauna.”  

He says the Institute is assisting Whakarewarewa Village through support for proposals that would fund:  

  • remediation; 
  • interpretation and planning based on the available information; 
  • connections to relevant experts inside and outside of the Institute; and 
  • planning for collaborative research projects using new ideas.

He says examples of that research could include new monitoring strategies to ‘fingerprint’ the water quality (with MacDiarmid Institute researcher Professor Mark Waterland), and deployment of innovative remediation strategies (MacDiarmid Institute researchers Associate Professor Robyn Fulton and Professor David Barker).

Capturing carbon dioxide

One key area of research in our Catalytic Architectures Research Programme studies new materials that can capture carbon dioxide. A new class of porous materials, called metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), is able to sieve out carbon dioxide from gas streams. The carbon dioxide can then be easily desorbed (or released) from the material, and the MOF materials recycled for another round of carbon capture.

Catalytic Architectures Research Programme Leader Professor Shane Telfer says that the Institute’s research is focusing both on the capture of carbon and using it as a feedstock for valuable products such as fuels and polymers and other things we use every day.

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The idea is to turn this carbon capture process into a cyclic system – like a circular economy.

Professor Shane Telfer Principal Investigator Massey University

“The idea is to turn this carbon capture process into a cyclic system – like a circular economy. There is the potential to combine carbon dioxide with green hydrogen to make methanol or to use electrochemistry to convert it to other compounds.”

He acknowledges that there is a big challenge to scale up production of the new materials, and that new engineering systems will need to be deployed so the materials can be effective on a large scale.

“But in the meantime, carbon capture is one part of the whole equation and one of many pillars (along with tree planting, geochemical storage and changing our agricultural processes) that we need to simultaneously deploy to meet the challenge of climate change.”

(You can hear Professor Telfer speak further about this on TodayFM)

Using computational modelling to help solve New Zealand’s nitrate problem

Dr Anna Garden, a researcher in our Zero Carbon Programme, is designing new catalysts that could selectively convert the nitrate pollutants in water into harmless nitrogen gas.

A theoretical chemist, Dr Garden uses modelling to ‘try out’ different elements and shapes for the catalysts, working to reduce the toxicity of potential additives.

“We don’t want to put more hazardous material into the environment in order to ‘clean it up’”, she says. “So experimenting theoretically can help us rule out toxic ones and helps lab researchers to focus on those that will be both most effective and least polluting.”

Dr Garden experiments theoretically with nanoparticle sized catalysts, which she says are important because they use far less material than bulk catalysts, and they also come in many different shapes, which, she says, can lead to really interesting reactivity.

“The edges and corners on nanoparticle catalysts are often highly reactive. These different sites can drive reactions in different ways, either towards desired products, such as nitrogen gas, or undesired by-products.”

Modelling these on a computer can reveal what types of nanoparticles lead to the desired products while minimising harmful products. This would take months or years of an experimental-lab scientist’s time.

“The computational approach gives a level of control over conditions that would be really hard to get experimentally. So you can investigate precise shapes and compositions of likely catalysts, and carefully understand all the variables, which can be challenging in the lab.”

You can read more about Dr Garden’s work here.

Cleaning up ‘forever chemicals’

Reconfigurable Systems Research Programme member, Dr Jack Chen, is investigating the removal of perfluoroalkylated substances (PFAS) from contaminated water.

MIPs in small column

Polymer beads for selective removal of PFAS from contaminated water

Perfluoroalkylated substances (PFAS) are synthetic chemicals made by joining carbon and fluorine atoms together. They possess unique properties such as the ability to repel both oil and water. Common products where PFAS are found include household furnishings, electronics, Gore-Tex jackets and the Teflon on non-stick fry pans.

The World Health Organisation defines PFAS as ‘highly resistant persistent compounds used for repelling oil, grease and water and protecting the surfaces of carpets and clothing; they are also found in fire-fighting foams.’ It says PFAS ‘have negative consequences for human health, although these are not fully established.’ Specific members of the PFAS family of compounds have been shown to be hazardous to human health, but since the PFAS family of compounds consists of thousands of compounds, progress on determining the risks of each compound has been slow.

PFAS are known as ‘forever chemicals’ as they don’t break down in the environment. They have also been found to bioaccumulate in wildlife. 

Dr Chen says it’s hard to say how much is in New Zealand because there hasn’t been enough research done.

We don’t produce any PFAS in New Zealand, but we do import them and use them in several industries.

Dr Jack Chen Associate Investigator Auckland University of Technology

 “We don’t produce any PFAS in New Zealand, but we do import them and use them in several industries. Another issue is that the current ‘disposal’ methods for PFAS involves either burying in landfill or shipping overseas for high-temperature incineration.”

Dr Chen is helping Ligar, a Hamilton company, develop technology to remove PFAS from water.

“We are working with Ligar to develop polymers that can selectively absorb PFAS and remove them out of contaminated water. The technology would be used to treat wastewater effluent from a company that might use PFAS. Once removed from water, we will explore non-incineration methods to breakdown PFAS into non-toxic products.”