14 Nov 2013

PM's Science Prize Awards

From Our Changing World, 9:55 pm on 14 November 2013

PM's Science Prize Awards

The winners of the 2013 PM's Science Prizes are, from left to right, Fenella Colyer, head of physics at Manurewa High School (Science Teacher Prize), Benjamin O'Brien, CEO of StretchSense Ltd (MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize), Tom Morgan, a Year 13 student at Marlborough Boys' College (Future Scientist Prize), Prime Minister John Key, University of Auckland microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles (Science Media Communication Prize), and the winners of the top award, Grant Covic and John Boys, both from the University of Auckland. (image: V Meduna) 

This week, the president of the Royal Society of New Zealand, David Skegg, announced the winners of the PM's Science Prizes. Two University of Auckland engineers, Grant Covic and John Boys, received the $500,000 top award for developing a wireless power transfer system.

PM Award Profile For nearly three decades, the pair have been pioneering inductive power transfer technology, or IPT. Often told that their idea for transferring electricity without cables was both impossible and crazy, they left many early funding meetings empty-handed. But they refused to let initial scepticism put them off and, in 1990, Japanese company Daifuku took a chance and invested significantly in their research, which is licensed through the university’s commercial arm, Auckland UniServices Ltd.

With IPT, electrical power can be delivered without electrical contact to stationary or moving loads.The first solutions were applied to industrial applications for moving vehicles in factory clean rooms, industrial plants and in theme parks. More recently the pair’s technology has been re-developed to enable battery charging of electric vehicles without the need to plug in. In May 2010, the spin-out company HaloIPT began developing the technology further for electric vehicles and, in late 2011, it was sold to Qualcomm, a United States Fortune 500 company.

The resulting return to Auckland Uniservices is more than 50 times the original pre-seed investment and it is believed to be the most successful deal for any New Zealand university or crown research institute start-up company. The next frontier for the engineers is to develop in-road wireless charging, eliminating the need for plug-in battery chargers and enabling cars to recharge as they travel along highways. They aim to lower the cost and battery weight, increase the power and make cars more efficient while using green energy, such as solar or wind.

University of Auckland microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles has won the Science Media Communication Prize for her role as a commentator on a wide range of scientific issues, including aspects of the recent Fonterra botulism scare, as well as for communicating her own research interests through animated videos.

Auckland Bioengineering Institute scientist and CEO at StretchSense Ltd Ben O’Brien won the MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize to further his development of small, soft, stretchy sensors that can measure movement of the human body and transmit the information to an app.

Fenella Colyer, head of physics at South Auckland’s Manurewa High School, won the Science Teacher Prize in recognition of being the driving force behind a 30 per cent increase in the past two years in the number of Maori and Pasifika students studying physics.

And Thomas Morgan, of Marlborough Boys’ College in Blenheim, won the Future Scientist Prize for a detailed project showing oyster mushrooms have the potential to be enriched with Vitamin D when exposed to ultraviolet light.