Wellington university student John Watt was tonight named the 2009 MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year for finding a cheap and effective way of removing toxic pollutants from vehicle exhausts.
Mr Watt's breakthrough research involves "growing" nanoparticles of a precious metal, palladium, that costs up to $11,000 a kg, to efficiently remove the toxic gases.
In Auckland tonight he was presented with the MacDiarmid medal as well as a $10,000 cash prize, a trip to an international science conference and $5000 for the competition's future technologies category.
Mr Watt, 27, said he took up nanotechnology "because of the unexpected and exciting things" to be found. "I hope my research will deliver a cheap and effective way of improving air quality and also make a contribution to strengthening New Zealand innovation and our high-tech economy," he said.
By manipulating the size and shape of the nanoparticles -- the first time anyone has been able to fully track the growth of palladium nanoparticles and learn how to change their normal structure -- Mr Watt has made it cost-effective to use the expensive metal.
"We grow the nanoparticles in solution which makes them easier to extract and results in less waste," he said.
Normally creating metallic nanoparticles requires work at very high temperatures.
His research as a third year PhD student at Victoria University has received global recognition from the scientific community and samples of his palladium nanoparticles are being assessed to determine their suitability for pollution control systems.
Johnson Matthey, a British chemicals company and a world leader in the use of precious metals, is studying samples from the Wellington research.
The senior scientist at the company's technology centre, James Cookson, said Mr Watt had produced some excellent results with great potential.
"Not only is John a highly talented scientist, he has also shown that he can clearly and concisely communicate with experts and general audiences alike," he said.
In June, the research made the front cover of an international science journal, Advanced Materials.