Professor Thomas Maschmeyer from the University of Sydney has received the 2020 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation in recognition of his work translating fundamental research into two pioneering commercial technologies.
Based in the School of Chemistry in the Faculty of Science and a member of the University of Sydney Nano Institute, Professor Maschmeyer is a catalytic chemist. Over the past two decades he has invented a new, efficient way to convert renewable and plastic-waste inputs into their constituent chemical materials for reuse and reimagined zinc-bromide chemistry to develop a completely new solar-energy battery technology.
Both these inventions are poised to transform how we address two of humanity’s most pressing challenges – the need for more efficient commercial waste recycling and boosting the performance of renewable energy storage.
Professor Maschmeyer said: “It is wonderful to receive the Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation. It shows that innovation in Australia is having a global impact.
“As a chemist, creating a new molecule is exhilarating but creating a new process that goes global, is breathtaking,” he said.
The two companies he has founded to develop his world-beating technologies, Licella and Gelion, have attracted more than $120 million of investment and created more than 70 jobs in Australia.
The Catalytic Hydrothermal Reactor (Cat-HTRTM) co-invented by Professor Maschmeyer converts plastics and renewable wastes into high-value distillable liquids for integration into existing (petro)chemical value-chains. While nature takes millions of years to create fossil feedstocks, Professor Maschmeyer’s reactor takes 20 minutes or less to make sustainable ones, unlocking the circular economy and helping to remove plastic waste from landfill and the oceans.
This technology has been harnessed by Licella Holdings, a company he co-founded with its CEO Dr Len Humphreys. From its industry-scale pilot recycling facility on the New South Wales Central Coast, Licella is ready to work to help process biomass waste and remove plastics pollution from landfills and the oceans. Working with MURA Technology in Britain, Professor Maschmeyer’s invention is set to be adapted in East Timor to help Asia’s newest country transform to a plastics-neutral economy. MURA is also building a commercial recycling centre in north-east England.
Professor Maschmeyer said: “The Catalytic Hydrothermal Reactor is a ground-breaking technology that is able to refine plastic waste into a range of usable materials. The exciting thing about this technology is that it was conceived in Australia and will be applied globally to address one of the world’s most pressing problems – that of plastic pollution in our environment, especially in the oceans.”
Licella’s Cat-HTR technology is also being applied in Canada to turn pulp paper waste into renewable crude oils, further supporting the circular economy.
Professor Maschmeyer’s revolutionary zinc-bromide batteries promise to make renewable energy cheaper, safer and more deployable. The technology is especially suited to hot and remote environments due to its high-temperature capability, low fade and tolerance of complete discharge.
In the form of Endure, created by Gelion Technologies, the batteries have had their first commercial deployment at the University of Sydney to power solar Smart Benches as part of the University’s sustainability strategy.
Professor Maschmeyer said: “The energy storage technology uses a solution known as zinc-bromide gels. Compared to existing battery technologies, our battery is perfectly suited for Australian conditions. It is able to run at high temperatures in a largely unmanaged system – a solution particularly relevant to off-grid challenges in Australian agriculture, mining and remote communities.”
Professor Maschmeyer’s inventions support Australia’s capacity to build jobs in our renewables and domestic manufacturing sectors, which will provide solutions globally.
University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor and Principal Dr Michael Spence said: “Professor Maschmeyer is a powerhouse of ideas and energy. His work is an outstanding tribute to scientific discovery and commercial translation not just for our University but for the Australian higher education sector.
“His innovations show that investing in fundamental scientific research is no luxury, but a necessity if we are to transition to a low-carbon economy that provides jobs and export earnings for Australia. Congratulations to you and your team.”
Professor Maschmeyer was nominated for this award by Emeritus Professor Andrew Holmes, Melbourne Laureate Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at The University of Melbourne.
Professor Holmes said: “For two breakthrough technologies to emanate from the work of a single individual is truly outstanding, as is Professor Maschmeyer’s entrepreneurship – in particular his ability to promote Australian R&D to investors and to launch and build prosperous start-ups.
“I believe that Professor Maschmeyer’s commercialisation success has been possible only through remarkable scientific innovation and research leadership, with strategic insights into the process of translating blue-sky research into real-world commercial applications.
“Professor Maschmeyer has contributed significantly to Australia’s reputation on the global stage, and I look forward to his continuing positive impact on Australian science, industry, and skilled employment.”