Thirty five years after RMIT gave him his first job, Professor Ivan Cole has returned – and brings with him a determination to make a difference through science.
Cole has a confession to make; he’s a second-generation scientist.
The RMIT professor’s desire to use science to improve the lives of individuals and communities was incubated from an early age.
“My father was also scientist and we had books lying around the house like Science for the citizen,” Cole says.
“Since I was a child, partly from my father’s example and partly because of these books, I have been convinced that we can use science to make the world a better place.”
It’s a conviction that drives him today. As Director of RMIT’s Advanced Manufacturing and Fabrication Enabling Capability Platform he oversees a range of research and innovation examining the transformation of materials into products.
One of the biggest potential breakthroughs he is currently working on is nanodot technology. Cole and his colleagues are using it to test whether water is safe to drink.
The nanodots are so tiny that they can be arranged and embedded on a fingernail-sized sensor that can detect heavy metals.
These cheap and sensitive sensors could also help prevent unnecessary suffering.
“In water, heavy metals (including arsenic) can result in reduced growth, cancer, organ and nervous system damage and – in extreme cases – death,” Cole says.
“On one of our sensors, you can have 10 nanodots all monitoring different heavy metals and testing the water for dangers to human health.”
The sensors could be used to test drinking water in the home, schools and even hospitals in Australia or more polluted water systems in China.
Part of the sensors’ beauty is their simplicity.
Shining light on the sensor causes the nanodots to fluoresce. The sensor is dipped in water and placed under a cup-sized device. If the colours change it indicates the presence of heavy metals.
“It would give you red or green lights to determine whether the water is drinkable,” Cole says.
Now that basic science is complete and they have entered the testing phase, he expects the sensors to hit the market in three to four years.
“That’s quick for science!” he says.
Cole should know. His celebrated career has seen him win numerous international awards and accolades.
The airline industry, in particular, is grateful to Cole for cracking the mystery of why some planes corrode when others don’t. It’s all connected to aerosol deposition, or how aerosol particles collect and settle on surfaces.
Now that he’s back at RMIT after a long stint at CSIRO, Cole hopes to augment the impressive work already being done here for even greater impact.
“RMIT has fantastic facilities and fantastic scientists who do really good work.
“My vision is that if we all come together we can magnify this work and its impact on local and international communities.”
Story: James Giggacher