Group name Nanomaterials Research Laboratory

Group leader Thomas Nann

Location School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Newcastle, Australia

Further information

Professor Thomas Nann.
Professor Thomas Nann.
In the lab, making aluminium-ion battery pouch cells.
In the lab, making aluminium-ion battery pouch cells.
Silica nanoparticle decorated with gold nanoparticles (multifunctional nanomaterial).
Silica nanoparticle decorated with gold nanoparticles (multifunctional nanomaterial).
In the lab, preparing electrodes for ion batteries.
In the lab, preparing electrodes for ion batteries.
Carbon/V2O5 core/sheath nanofibers (used as battery electrode material).
Carbon/V2O5 core/sheath nanofibers (used as battery electrode material).

The design, synthesis, and application of new nanomaterials require a highly cross-disciplinary approach. Thomas Nann, who is Professor and Head of School at the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Newcastle in Australia, describes himself as an accidental nanoscientist, with a role that sometimes needs to be an electrochemist, a biochemist, or an engineer. His research focuses in particular on the application of mainly inorganic nanomaterials in energy storage and bio/medicine.

He received his MSc (Chemistry) in 1994, and PhD (Physical Chemistry) in 1997, both from the Albert-Ludwig University Freiburg in Germany. Nann remained at this university for some more years where he was awarded his Habilitation (Nanosciences) and Venia Legendi in 2004. From Freiburg, Thomas first moved to the University of East Anglia in the UK, then to the University of South Australia in Adelaide. During this time he established a strong leadership and research track record in the nanoscience and nanotechnology. In 2015, he accepted an appointment as Director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology in New Zealand, and finally returned to Australia in 2019 to take up his current position.

Thomas talked to Materials Today about his current research and future plans.

How long has your group been running?

I started my independent research group at the University of Freiburg in Germany in 1998. At the time, I was appointed to a junior academic position at the Institute for Microsystem Technology. My own background is in physical chemistry and materials science, so working in a research environment that was dominated by engineers left its mark on my career. I was (and still am) fascinated by research that crosses disciplines and has an impact on society and industry.

How many staff currently makes up your group?

During my career, I moved around quite a bit and the size of my research group typically ranged from 5 to 20, depending on where I was and the local opportunities. In my experience, a certain 'critical mass' of 5-ish is necessary to undertake impactful research, but a larger group offers more opportunities. Currently, I supervise two small groups, one at my former university in Wellington, New Zealand, the other at my latest appointment at the University of Newcastle.

What are the major themes of research in your group?

The basis of most of my research revolves around the synthesis, characterization and application of new nanomaterials. My group focuses mainly, but not exclusively, on inorganic materials. I am also very interested in using these materials in cross-disciplinary application. My two main application areas are energy storage and bio/medical applications (bioimaging and drug delivery). Although my main research interest has always been nanomaterials, depending on with whom you talk, some people think I am an electrochemist, others a biochemist… and they are not entirely wrong.

How and why did you come to work in these areas?

If I am brutally honest, I have to say that I just happened to stumble across these areas (for example, I did a PhD in electrochemistry). Naturally, I am fascinated by the nano-world and love to tackle big challenges (energy, health), but I am also convinced that there is more than one way to skin a cat. What I love about research is the adventure and curiosity in exploring new things (a bit like Star Trek: "to explore strange new worlds"). I am sure that can be found in most research areas.

What facilities and equipment does your lab have?

Australia is a relatively small country (in terms of population) and we share a lot of equipment (which is a really good thing because it fosters collaborations). This means that I've got only basic equipment in my lab and access more specialized items such as electron microscopes or XPS in shared facilities. In my lab, we’ve got the capability to synthesize various types of nanomaterials, for example through wet-chemical routes or electrospinning. We also have equipment for making and testing batteries, basic electrochemical and electron spectroscopy equipment, and similar items.

Do you have a favorite piece of kit or equipment?

My favorite piece of equipment is a transmission electron microscope (TEM). I have always been fascinated by the possibility of ‘seeing’ atomic structures and objects that are smaller than the wavelength of visible light. I know this may not sound very scientific, but I also love to take ‘beautiful’ micrographs, for example by arranging nanoparticles in a superlattice.

What do you think has been your most influential work to date?

I find this really difficult to answer because I have a very broad spectrum of interests. However, the one material that accompanied me throughout my whole career is indium phosphide (InP) quantum dots. My research in this area was always driven by the desire to find an alternative for highly toxic cadmium selenide (CdSe) quantum dots. Over the years, we went from clumsy beginnings to a very elegant synthesis method that we have published recently. I would say that my group has been quite influential in this area over the years.

What is the key to running a successful group?

Great people!

How do you plan to develop your group in the future?

During the past decade or so, there has been a global trend away from evaluating research by traditional metrics (aka h-index) towards looking for ‘impact’. In my opinion, this is a very healthy trend, because how could we change the world if we don’t have any impact? Therefore, my future plans for my research group are going in this direction: I want to increase engagement with society and industry and take on real-world challenges. In my experience, when doing so, there will emerge plenty of fundamental science opportunities along the journey that produce an exciting overall mix of basic and applied research.

Key publications

  1. G. Laufersky, S. Bradley, E. Frecaut, M. Lein, T. Nann. Unraveling aminophosphine redox mechanisms for glovebox-free InP quantum dot syntheses. Nanoscale 10 (2018) 8752–8762.
  2. G. Dobhal, D. Ayupova, G. Laufersky, Z. Ayed, T. Nann, R. Goreham. Cadmium-Free Quantum Dots as Fluorescent Labels for Exosomes. Sensors 18 (2018) 3308.
  3. S. J. Bradley, R. Kroon, G. Laufersky, M. Röding, R. V. Goreham, T. Gschneidtner, K. Schroeder, K. Moth-Poulsen, M. Andersson, T. Nann. Heterogeneity in the fluorescence of graphene and graphene oxide quantum dots. Microchimica Acta 184 (2017) 871–878.
  4. M. Röding, S. J. Bradley, N. H. Williamson, M. R. Dewi, T. Nann, M. Nydén. The Power of Heterogeneity: Parameter Relationships from Distributions. PLoS ONE 11 (2016) e0155718.
  5. Y. J. Mange, M. R. Dewi, T. J. Macdonald, W. M. Skinner, T. Nann. Rapid microwave assisted synthesis of nearly monodisperse aqueous CuInS2/ZnS nanocrystals. CrystEngComm 17 (2015) 7820–7823.
  6. M. R. Dewi, G. Laufersky, T. Nann. Selective assembly of Au-Fe3O4 nanoparticle hetero-dimers. Microchim Acta 182 (2015) 2293–2298.
  7. T. J. Macdonald, Y. J. Mange, M. Dewi, A. McFadden, W. M. Skinner, T. Nann. Cation exchange of aqueous CuInS2 quantum dots. CrystEngComm 16 (2014) 9455–9460.
  8. H. Wang, T. Nann. Monodisperse upconversion GdF3:Yb, Er rhombi by microwave-assisted synthesis. Nanoscale Res. Lett. 6 (2011) 267.
  9. H.-Q. Wang, R. D. Tilley, T. Nann. Size and shape evolution of upconverting nanoparticles using microwave assisted synthesis. CrystEngComm 12 (2010) 1993–1996.
  10. J. Ziegler, S. Xu, E. Kucur, F. Meister, M. Batentschuk, F. Gindele, T. Nann. Silica-Coated InP/ZnS Nanocrystals as Converter Material in White LEDs. Adv. Mater. 20 (2008) 4068–4073.
  11. U. Resch-Genger, M. Grabolle, S. Cavaliere-Jaricot, R. Nitschke, T. Nann. Quantum dots versus organic dyes as fluorescent labels. Nature Methods 5 (2008) 763–775.
  12. S. Xu, S. Kumar, T. Nann. Rapid Synthesis of High-Quality InP Nanocrystals. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 128 (2006) 1054–1055.
  13. M. Darbandi, R. Thomann, T. Nann. Single Quantum Dots in Silica Spheres by Microemulsion Synthesis. Chem. Mater. 17 (2005) 5720–5725.