Not many academics have a golf putting machine in the corner of their office.
But after devising and patenting a new method of purifying carbon after having a moment’s inspiration on the golf course, Professor Colin Raston should probably be encouraged to spend more time with his aging executive stress toy.
“I had a paper in Nature 20 years ago about new ways to purify carbon buckyballs, which have 60 corners. I had been thinking about it for a couple of weeks at work, but was playing a round of golf on the weekend and as I was putting the golf ball with all its dimples on the tee, it occurred to me that a bucky ball clutcher could be developed that grasped the buckyball, just like a golf tee,” Professor Raston said.
“Within three weeks we had completed the research to prove the concept. It took another three weeks to write the paper and the rest is history. We patented the concept and it has been used around the world.”
Then there is his revolutionary new technology to refine chemicals at the molecular level which was developed after inspiration struck him on a flight from Los Angeles to Australia. The PowerPoint presentation that he developed to prove the key principles that underpin the Vortex Fluidic Device was considered such an extraordinary stroke of genius that Nature published the key slides in their Scientific Reports publication.
“All it is, is a rapidly rotating tube which can be varied to a wide range of angles. It spins at a ridiculously high speed and you can vary the size of the tube, which we hope will enable us to redefine how to make drugs cleaner, with less waste, how to improve fuel production and a whole host of other applications,” Professor Raston said.
While the device has earned international fame and an Ig Nobel Prize for its capacity to unboil an egg by refolding the egg’s proteins into the state found prior to cooking, the Vortex Fluidic Device is on the verge of creating insights that will result in a barrage of new headlines.
“Very few people go off and create a new paradigm in research, and this Device is a new paradigm – but getting a new concept like this accepted is not a trivial task. So we collaborate with a lot of people around the world to ensure more people make their own experiments with the device, to speed up the process of its acceptance as a key new tool in chemistry and beyond.”
Very few people truly defy categorisation, but Professor Raston has a depth and complexity hooked up with a maverick willingness to defy convention and the boundaries of possibility that make him very difficult to pigeonhole.
Let’s start with a few inescapable characteristics. He’s very tall. This is rather redundant as a career asset, forcing him to simply stoop lower over the benches in his shiny new lab, but at 6 feet and five inches, he has the bearing of a man equipped to make his own way in the world
He’s deeply passionate. He will vacillate from insights into the Raston family tree (his first ancestor to set foot on Australian soil, Rev Thomas Llewellyn Raston was a loquacious clergyman who of uncommonly small stature, standing at 4 feet 11 inches, but earned renown as a great orator and persuader); the complexities of golf; his passion for nature photography (“You frequently get your best ideas out there in the bush,”); and how he famously worked out how to unboil an egg – the feat that earned him and his colleagues at the University of California-Irvine, the 2015 Ig Nobel Prize, awarded for allegedly whacky science.
However, as further time elapses, a clearer picture emerges of a man with a symphonic mind, drawing connections and ideas from eclectic simultaneous streams of thought, driven by a relentless and sometimes even reckless curiosity.
His first experiments began as a child. “When I was 12, I blew up the house,” Professor Raston recounts. “It was the middle of winter and the Perth winters were ferocious then. I had a two bar electrical heater in my room and I wondered what would happen if you placed fencing wire across the two bars.
“I turned the power off at the meter, wound the wire onto the radiator and then when I turned it back on, the meter box blew up, with smoke coming out everywhere.
Fortunately it was a stormy night and Dad always thought it had been caused by a lightning strike.
“I was only properly hooked into science by an amazing teacher we had in high school, Mr Stockdale. There were 27 of us in the class at John Curtin High School and 17 got distinctions – Mr Stockdale was the teacher that got things going for me and for many others.”
Working as a welder each Summer during his university years gave him insights into developing practical solutions and also a strong ethic of minimising waste in every task he subsequently undertook.
Those lessons resurfaced as he launched the green chemistry movement in Australia, when elected President of the Royal Australian Chemistry Institute in 1997.
“I thought, chemists can’t just keep doing what we are doing, creating toxic outputs and waste on a huge scale. I started writing some articles about green chemistry and next thing I was representing Australia in international initiatives on green chemistry overseas,” Professor Raston said.
“Dupont was the first company that developed the concept after Paul Anastas published his 12 principles of green chemistry. Within one year they saved 1 billion dollars.
The obvious isn't the obvious until someone says it.
His laboratory is the envy of the University – kitted out with equipment and an assemblage of staff and students capable of delivering scientific advancements truly deserving of repeated ‘breakthrough’ tags. As the South Australian Premier’s professorial research fellow, he is relatively new to Flinders, but has felt immediately at home.
One of his proudest moments came after the unboiling an egg story broke as global news, reaching the ears of his grandsons in Sussex, England.
“My 9 year old grandson really understood the process of unboiling an egg and its significance for making drugs cheaper and cleaner, and he can’t wait until he becomes a scientist. He was telling stories in class about this crazy professor in Australia and when my daughter went to pick him up, the teacher asked her about them and my daughter had to tell her it was really true.”
The delight he has in recounting the story is only marginally exceeded as he sits down proudly next to his ‘baby’ the Vortex Fluidic Device.
“I want to put green chemistry into everyday use, so we can work out how to make things with fewer toxic reagents. That’s one of the applications that this device will have, which is pretty exciting.
“In the States they take green chemistry seriously because it makes a lot of money.
If you have a process that reduces waste and reduces resource use, then instead of investing huge resources into fighting environmental regulation, companies, the community and the environment all get a much better result.
“We need to be benign by design, and this device is going to help us take another step in doing that.