Monday, November 29, 2010
Scientist wins prestigious Humboldt Prize
Scientist Professor Peter Schwerdtfeger, whose research has helped explain the physics and chemistry behind the colour
of gold, has been awarded a prestigious Humboldt Research Award.
The award, also known as the Humboldt Prize, is given by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, in Bonn, Germany, to
academics whose new theories, discoveries or insights have had a significant impact on their discipline and who expect
to continue producing cutting-edge research in the future.
Professor Schwerdtfeger is Director of the Centre for Theoretical Chemistry and Physics at Massey University's Institute
for Advanced Study in Albany.
He plans to continue his work in little researched areas "beyond conventional quantum chemistry", including complex
interactions that underpin real life scenarios such as the recent Pike River mine disaster caused by a methane gas
explosion. "The reaction of methane with oxygen is not well understood and molecular dynamics simulation would help to
understand these complex chemical reactions," he says.
His work on the chemistry and physics of gold over the past 20 years has led to new understandings of what gives gold
its unique yellow colour. "The understanding of the chemistry of the elements changed substantially over the last three
decades, as chemists slowly realised that Einstein's Theory of Relativity cannot be neglected anymore for heavy elements
[like gold]," he says.
Professor Schwerdtfeger believes New Zealand universities need more money for fundamental research if they are to attain
the level of excellence needed for top international rankings. "We have some really outstanding people here, but they
struggle to get their research financed at adequate and internationally competitive levels."
The German-born scientist gained a degree as a chemicotechnical assistant at the Chemisches Institut in Stuttgart,
Germany, in 1973, a chemical engineering degree from Aalen in 1976, and a PhD in 1986 from the University of Stuttgart.
He has held a numerous positions as teaching and research fellow at universities in Germany, Australia and New Zealand.
His Marsden-funded projects include experimental and theoretical investigations of the nanostructures of gold for a
better understanding of the quantum size effects in nano-structured materials, and understanding and modelling the
behaviour of dynamic clusters of atoms and molecules in heavy metal clusters. He has supervised a number of PhD
students, and collaborates intensively with more than 30 research groups worldwide on many different topics, ranging
from computational inorganic and organic chemistry to materials science and high-resolution spectroscopy. He has been
the recipient of six Marsden grants totalling $4 million.
The Humboldt Research Award, named after the late Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, is valued at