Alex Donald pic

A Sydney scientist has created the world’s smallest metallic wire, which is 100,000 times shorter than the width of a hair.

Dr Alex Donald, of the University of New South Wales, manipulated five silver atoms into a zigzag-shaped metal wire, overcoming previous difficulties of creating anything smaller than one-billionth of a metre.

“Scientists can already create metallic wires that are measured in nanometres, or one-billionth of a metre, which are many times larger than this wire. A key challenge in going smaller is that it becomes increasingly difficult to isolate and determine the shapes of such small particles,” says Alex, an ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award fellow and chemistry lecturer at the University of New South Wales.

Alex used an advanced instrument at the University of Melbourne to first manipulate the five atoms into a bowtie shape and then into a zigzag-shaped wire. He found that the addition or removal of a chemical allowed him to switch between shapes.

“We do not yet know what we can do with this wire, if anything, but these results demonstrate that an impressively small metal cluster can be entirely isolated and moulded into a relatively predicable shape,” he says.

These atom clusters have unique properties, including high-surface areas, which may ultimately make them useful as sensitive chemical sensors. For example, if one ounce of silver was converted into five-atom clusters, the total surface area of the clusters would be equivalent to 10 times the area of Australia.

NSW State Finalist: Alex Donald, University of New South Wales


The dream of affordable personalised medicine is one step closer to reality as a Tasmanian scientist shrinks a drug-testing laboratory to a size of a hand.

Aliaa Shallan, a PhD student at the University of Tasmania’s school of chemistry, is developing a portable unit that can analyse the drug quinine, using a single drop of blood and costing only a few dollars per test.

“It is devices like this that will make the dream of personalised medicine affordable and dramatically change the quality of life of billions of people around the world,” Aliaa says.

“The challenge was to extract the drug without blood cells and proteins, for which I created nanofilters using controlled lightning; an electric field applied across a thin part of the device. The cost is the lowest among existing nanofabrication techniques,” Aliaa says.

Billions of people take prescription drugs every day but the optimum dose for each person can vary greatly. Personalised medicine accommodates these differences by tailoring the dose according to the drug level in the blood.

Aliaa says creating simple devices that can be used at home is the answer to measuring individual needs without compromising lifestyle. “One example is glucose meters but similar devices for other drugs like antiepileptics and antidepressants are not available,” she says.

The next step in her research will be to apply her method to other approved drugs and to engineer the device for commercialisation.

Tasmania State Finalist: Aliaa Shallan, University of Tasmania