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Otago scientist’s part in discovering ground-breaking technique recognised


Wednesday 7 August 2013 3:25pm

University of Otago Chemistry Professor Jim McQuillan’s role as a co-discoverer of the most sensitive analytical technique ever developed was recently highlighted at a UK event celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Professor Jim McQuillan and the case containing the SERS co-discoverers’ lab diary.

Surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS), which allows molecules to be detected in minute quantities, was discovered by Professors Martin Fleischmann, Patrick Hendra and McQuillan at the University of Southampton in 1973. SERS has since revolutionised areas as diverse as crime-scene forensic analysis, drug detection, and establishing the origins of works of art.

In recognition of enormous impact of SERS, the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry recently awarded a National Chemical Landmark blue plaque to the University of Southampton’s Chemistry department.

On awarding the plaque, Royal Society of Chemistry Past President Professor David Phillips said the “practical application of SERS in chemistry, genetics and healthcare has been of vital scientific importance, from the detection of cancer genes to DNA fingerprinting”.

Professor McQuillan and his two colleagues found that by roughening the metal surface upon which they were looking at molecules, they could increase the signal by which they could detect these molecules, by a million times. This allowed them to detect molecules in far smaller quantities than ever before.

Since this discovery, there have been thousands of papers published on the technique, as well as countless uses of it across industries and around the world. An example of where it is used is in forensic analysis, to pick up the tiniest trace molecules of DNA at crime scenes.

At the award ceremony, Professor McQuillan said that it is very nice to have recognition for something that was done such a long time ago.

“And we didn’t really realise the significance of what we had discovered—the field has gone in different directions and has been quite significant in a whole lot of different areas of chemistry and physics,” he said.

SERS is now understood to arise from collective electron oscillations that create large electric fields at the particle surfaces, which has led to the research area known as plasmonics.

The landmark paper outlining the SERS discovery was published in 1974 and has been cited more than 2400 times. The year after its publication Professor McQuillan joined the University of Otago’s Chemistry Department.

As the full significance of SERS was not yet recognised, there was a reluctance to purchase the expensive equipment necessary for him to pursue further research in that particular field. Instead, Professor McQuillan turned his attention to other aspects of surface spectroscopy.

In 2008, he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in recognition of his important contributions to the study of solid surfaces and solid-solution surface interactions.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise) Professor Richard Blaikie warmly congratulated Professor McQuillan and described the awarding of the plaque as a “wonderful accolade” for him.

A video about the discovery of SERS and the awarding of the plaque can be watched here:

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