Static-studying symphonic squire from the Shire: Dr Peter Ireland joins RealScientists

One of the minor challenges of @RealScientists is figuring out how to sum up some of our awesome researchers in a handful of words, particularly those whose interests inside and outside research are broad-based and multidisciplinary. This is because words are hard and we suck at them. ‘Molecular parasitologist and education researcher’ turned out to be nowhere near sufficient to summate last week’s curator Dr Andrea Crampton of CSU. Similarly, we’re stumped as to what to call our curator for this week, the inestimable Dr Peter Ireland of the University of Newcastle. Peter escaped the badlands of the Sutherland Shire as a teenager to the sandstone of Sydney Uni, where he completed his BSc (Hons) and his PhD in Applied Physics, which was on impact fracture of glass. After spending a couple of years as stay-at-home-Dad for his two young blokes, he joined the Centre for Multiphase Processes at the University of Newcastle in mid-2004. He has since become a member of the PRC for Advanced Particle Processing and the Newcastle Institute for Energy and Resources, investigating the fundamental physics behind a number of processes in the energy and minerals industry. For more detailed info on Peter’s research, check out his profile on the Newy Uni website.

In a professional sense, Peter is a physicist who hangs around with chemical engineers, so the question remains of what to call him. Other than the designated driver.* We fired our usual set of six at him to find out.


1) How did you end up in science?

I’ve been scientifically inclined since I was little. As a four-year-old I used to amuse adults by rattling off the names of the planets in their proper order and even drawing little pictures of them. Later on, I had a very good physics teacher in High School (Mr Bob Childs). Attending the National Summer Science School (now renamed the National Youth Science Forum) in Canberra in 1992 really decided matters.

2) How did you end up in your particular field?

By this time I’d decided that I wanted to pursue my childhood interest in Astronomy/Astrophysics at the University of Sydney. I did undergraduate research on microlensing by dark matter halo objects, and an Honours project on selection effects in pulsar surveys. I then immediately changed field and did a PhD in Applied Physics with Professor Dick Collins (now Emeritus Professor] as my supervisor, studying fracture mechanics under highly dynamic conditions.


I’m on a horse!

After finishing my PhD I moved to Newcastle to be with my wife, and had a career break of three years to look after my two small children. In 2004 I took up a research position in the Centre for Multiphase Processes at the University of Newcastle. The CMPP was set up by Professor Graeme Jameson to study various aspects of the science of particles, foams and liquid/solid/gas interfaces relevant to the processing and separation of mineral particles. I began by studying the forces between solids and aqueous foams, and expanded into work on the mechanical properties of liquid films and foams, and the way in which liquid is transported in foams and froths. Later, I began to investigate the potential for electrostatic forces to be used to manipulate and separate particles. At the end of 2011 I was awarded an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship to pursue this electrostatics work.

3) What’s your current work about?

I work on several quite varied physical systems with applications in the resources and energy area. The first is static electricity, and particularly triboelectrification, a formal term for the familiar process by which materials become charged when they touch or rub against each other. Electrostatic charge generated this way can be controlled and used to move and separate particles, surfaces and liquids, with applications in mineral processing, drug manufacture, nano-devices and a whole host of other areas. Another of my key research interests is liquid films, bubbles and foams – their stability, the way they interact with particles and surfaces and transmit mechanical forces, and the flow of liquid within them. Since froth flotation is one of the main techniques used to extract valuable mineral particles from crushed rocks, this is both a fascinating and economically important area of study.

I’m fascinated by the way in which applied research can yield completely new insights into the physical world. The reverse is also true – every piece of fundamental research potentially contains the seeds of new technologies, processes or therapies. My own work contains many examples. Contact and friction charge, for instance, was one of the first forms of electricity ever subjected to scientific study – the Greeks noted the effects of rubbing textiles on amber over 2500 years ago. Despite this, triboelectrification is still one of the most poorly-understood electrical phenomena – we don’t even really understand why rubbing transfers more charge than simple touching! It’s a great privilege to work in a field where, at the same time as developing new technology, I have the opportunity to cast light on a millenia-old scientific mystery.

Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. Stolen from Wikipedia, because that’s how we roll

4) You recently visited NASA, what was that about?

The Electrostatics Society of America holds a conference each year in a different city in the US or Canada. It’s a wonderful, friendly, collegial bunch of people. This year, the meeting was at Cocoa Beach, Florida – just down the road from Cape Canaveral! – and was hosted by some of the researchers from the NASA ‘Swamp Works’ laboratories. As you can imagine, electrostatic phenomena, including discharge and tribocharging, are important in almost every sphere of spacecraft and space instrument design. We had the enormous privilege of touring the NASA research facilities and seeing their work first-hand.

5) Newcastle: Why?**

To be with my partner, Carol Duncan! But quickly grew to love the place.

[Carol, who talks to Novocastrians for a living on ABC Radio, is a long-term friend of @RealScientists having hosted Upulie and various RS curators on her radio show.]

6) What are your interests outside research?

My scientific career has nearly been derailed a number of times by my musical interests. I listen to vast amounts of all kinds of music. Since my mid-teens I’ve been writing music too, all of it for my own desk drawer. I play the violin and viola and was a member of the Sydney Youth Orchestra and concertmaster of the Sutherland Shire Symphony Orchestra for a number of years (doing my bit to counteract various stereotypes of the Shire…)

Typical Shire kid: another violined thug. Let’s hope he keeps these unsavoury elements of his past to himself during his week on RS. Peter is an entertaining and worthwhile follow at @Hippopetamus, but for now, people of RealScientists, he’s all yours…

*This is funny because chemical engineers are always drunk all the time. Stereotypes: comedy gold.

**Dr Yobbo would like it known he does not endorse the tone of this question, which was drafted and posed by Bloody Melbournites. Newcastle is feckin’ awesome, even the slightly broken bits.


James is a recovering scientist and escaped postdoc who works in research management at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He's now retired from active @RealScientists duty, after serving from the project's beginnings in 2013 through to mid 2015. When not managing research, surviving #PlanetParenthood or pretending not to be an expat Australian in the Deep South of NZ, he tweets @theotherdrsmith.

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