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Scientist wins prestigious Humboldt Prize

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Professor Peter Schwerdtfeger

Scientist Professor Peter Schwerdtfeger, whose research has helped explain the physics and chemistry behind the colour of gold, has been awarded a prestigious Humboldt Research Award.

The award, also known as the Humboldt Prize, is given by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, in Bonn, Germany, to academics whose new theories, discoveries or insights have had a significant impact on their discipline and who expect to continue producing cutting-edge research in the future.

Professor Schwerdtfeger is director of the Centre for Theoretical Chemistry and Physics at the University's Institute for Advanced Study in Albany. He plans to continue his work in little researched areas "beyond conventional quantum chemistry", including complex interactions that underpin real life scenarios such as the recent Pike River mine disaster caused by a methane gas explosion. "The reaction of methane with oxygen is not well understood and molecular dynamics simulation would help to understand these complex chemical reactions," he says.

His work on the chemistry and physics of gold over the past 20 years has led to new understandings of what gives gold its unique yellow colour. "The understanding of the chemistry of the elements changed substantially over the last three decades, as chemists slowly realised that Einstein's Theory of Relativity cannot be neglected any more for heavy elements [like gold]," he says.

Professor Schwerdtfeger believes New Zealand universities need more money for fundamental research if they are to attain the level of excellence needed for top international rankings. "We have some really outstanding people here, but they struggle to get their research financed at adequate and internationally competitive levels."

The German-born scientist gained a degree as a chemicotechnical assistant at the Chemisches Institut in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1973, a chemical engineering degree from Aalen in 1976, and a PhD in 1986 from the University of Stuttgart. He has held a numerous positions as teaching and research fellow at universities in Germany, Australia and New Zealand.

His Marsden-funded projects include experimental and theoretical investigations of the nanostructures of gold for a better understanding of the quantum size effects in nanostructured materials, and understanding and modelling the behaviour of dynamic clusters of atoms and molecules in heavy metal clusters. He has supervised a number of PhD students and collaborates intensively with more than 30 research groups worldwide on many different topics, ranging from computational inorganic and organic chemistry to materials science and high-resolution spectroscopy. He has been the recipient of six Marsden grants totalling $4 million.

The Humboldt Research Award, named after the late Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, is valued at 60,000 Euros.

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