Dr Raffaella Demichelis Curtin University

Computational Chemist exploring ways to convert carbon dioxide into clean energy

The Pawsey Supercomputing Centre is situated in Technology Park, Kensington, which is opposite Curtin University; an internationally renowned institution that encourages and enables some of Australia’s greatest minds.

One of these minds is Dr Raffaella Demichelis, one of the latest recipients of Australia’s prestigious ARC Future Fellowship – a competitive grant program “to undertake research and make new discoveries in areas of critical national importance”.

Inside the exhibition space at the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre, I was surrounded by light boxes and case studies that showcase the amazing researchers and science being undertaken at the research facility. It made me a little nervous, knowing I was about to meet one of these scientists, but once she walked into the room, Dr Demichelis put my mind at ease.

We instantly got to talking, when I realised she always had a passion for science, with a special place in her heart for chemistry. As she was growing up in Italy, one of her early high school memories was in grade seven, learning what water molecules look like and how they rearrange themselves during melting, freezing, evaporation and condensation.

From this early age, she was fascinated by chemistry, especially by its theoretical aspects. This fascination never ceased; Demichelis pursued her muse to study at Università degli Studi di Torino (University of Turin), a distinguished institution over 600 years old.

Though she had little interest in computers, Demichelis realised that theoretical chemistry, as well as many fields of research these days, rely massively on computer science to answer scientific questions. So, it was at university that she combined both theoretical chemistry and computer science to complete her Master and PhD in Chemistry.

Put simply, theoretical and computational chemists study how atoms interact, what are the causes and the consequences of their interaction. Demichelis believes this is a key to understanding and addressing many environmental, technological and medical challenges – as everything is made of atoms!

Following the completion of her PhD, she moved to Perth, Australia to take up a 3-year post-doctoral position at Curtin University. That was 8 years ago; since then, opportunities continued to present themselves that made the decision “to stay a little longer”, as Demichelis puts it, much easier.

Juggling being a lecturer at Curtin, a mother, and researcher is no easy feat, but with a healthy work-life balance, a family-friendly environment promoted by both Curtin and the ARC,  determination, and a great team with her, Demichelis continues to develop her research efficiently and effectively.

Her team comprises of PhD students, post-doctoral associates and the complementary expertise of national and international collaborators. Under her guidance, they will focus on investigating the chemical reactions occurring on mineral surfaces that are naturally able to transform water and carbon dioxide into fuel.

 

What exactly does this mean?

Demichelis’ goal is contributing to solve critical problems that society faces today and in the future – a key problem being the production and consumption of energy. Her work aims to provide evidence that computational methods (or virtual experiments) are able to successfully address complex problems within the chemical sciences. “I believe this point is very important given the growing computing capabilities now available in Australia and in the world”, she said.

In other words, she is using her deep understanding of chemistry to explore how to mimic what happens in nature (geomimetic chemistry) and to eventually apply it to address environmental and energy problems in the real world. Essentially developing a “new chemical pathway to produce clean energy”

This research has not gone unnoticed. I earlier alluded to Demichelis being the latest recipient of Australia’s prestigious ARC Future Fellowship.

“The ARC Future Fellowships aim to attract and retain Australia’s best and brightest mid-career researchers”, said Professor Deborah Terry, Curtin University’s Vice Chancellor. “Dr. Demichelis will play a vital part in helping boost the country’s research and innovation capacity in areas of national importance… [she] has a strong and internationally-recognised research profile in the fields of chemistry, geochemistry and materials science”.

The Fellowship’s funding will allow Demichelis and her team to explore the rich chemistry observed in many natural environments, able to harvest carbon dioxide and produce fuel.

“This chemistry, if understood, could be applied both to produce energy and to reduce the higher and higher levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.  What I hope to achieve is a clear description of the mechanism of this chemistry at a molecular level, something that is at present unknown”, Demichelis said; “this will require a lot of preliminary work on developing an accurate and predictive virtual model, which is the real challenge”.

Exploring these barriers unknown are daunting and uncertain, but Raffaella Demichelis is approaching them head-on. When I asked what the future held for her, she simply replied: “Who knows, hopefully, something good!”