Position: Head of the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, Field: Chemical and Physical Sciences, Organisation: Victoria University of Wellington

Professor John Spencer is Head of the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington. This involves a lot of administration, but as John is an inquisitive chemist, he makes sure that the paperwork doesn’t stop him from continuing with research.

The techniques that I used to study transition metal compounds are not generally useful to study carbon nanotube growth. Thus I had to learn a completely new way of thinking about research.

Prof Spencer’s nanotube research

John Spencer works with carbon nanotubes, which are 100,000 times thinner than a human hair, and 200 times stronger than steel but a fraction of its weight. John carries out research on how these new materials are formed, and designs the special chemicals (catalysts) needed to grow them. These catalysts are essential – without them, the chemical process does not work efficiently. Understanding how nanotubes grow is important, because their amazing strength and electrical conductivity are related to their structure. John also investigates new devices made from nanotubes, such as nanoscale electrical switches.

Becoming a nanotechnologist

You could say that Prof Spencer was a chemist in the right place at the right time. In the year 2000, carbon nanotubes were new, and different scientists were needed to make and understand them. Prof Spencer already had experience working with catalysts, so he offered his expertise to help solve some of the problems involved in growing carbon nanotubes.

Choosing where to carry out his research was important to Prof Spencer. When he started working in nanotechnology in 2000, Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) had the right mix of chemists and physicists needed to tackle nanotube problems. It also had some of the very expensive modern equipment necessary for this work. These advantages continue, as VUW has become the major host of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology.

Prof Spencer is still excited by the potential of carbon nanotubes. Like all scientists, he has plenty of curiosity, determination and practical skills, but he also enjoys the need to keep learning. He has had to learn new techniques, such as electron microscopy and how to make new molecules at temperatures as high as 800°C. He has also had to think in a new way about materials and what you might do with them.

Useful links

Home page of the School of Chemical and Physical Science at Victoria University of Wellington.

This article is based on information current in 2008.

Published 28 May 2008, Updated 10 April 2014