Dr Priscilla Johnston awarded cotton’s science and innovation award (8 March 2017)

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Dr Priscilla Johnston, a chemist in CSIRO’s Manufacturing division, has been awarded the cotton Science and Innovation Award in Canberra overnight.

The award, provided by ABARES with support from CRDC, was awarded by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, the Hon. Barnaby Joyce, at the annual ABARES dinner.

Priscilla’s project focuses on helping cotton growers make the most of available water resources through the introduction of a new ‘smart’ polymer she created for use in agriculture as part of her postdoctoral research.

“This polymer can be sprayed out onto soil to form a barrier that slows down water evaporation and keeps more water in the soil for the plant to use,” says Priscilla.

“It’s been specially designed so that water is also able to pass through it and into the soil. Because of that very special feature, there’s opportunity that we can use it on rain-fed crop systems and surface irrigated crop systems.”

Priscilla’s polymer has already been shown to reduce the rate of water evaporation by up to 77 per cent compared to bare earth. It’s non-toxic and degrades in the soil. But through the Science and Innovation Award, Priscilla will take the project to the next step with trials of the polymer on cotton crops.

Priscilla is interested in using polymer chemistry to solve real world problems. She has already made polymers to help increase the lifespan of solar cells and produced new ‘green’ plastics that can be chemically broken down and fully recycled with UV light. But this will be a new challenge for Priscilla, who will swap her usual round bottom flasks and chemistry lab for the glasshouse.

“I’m looking forward to growing cotton,” she says. “Just being in the glasshouse and seeing the polymer in action will be a wonderful experience.”

CRDC Chair Richard Haire and Executive Director Bruce Finney attended the awards ceremony and passed on their congratulations to Priscilla.

“Ensuring continuous improvements in water use efficiency is a core focus for CRDC and the cotton industry, which is why we were most impressed with Priscilla’s proposal to utilise her smart polymer to assist growers,” said Bruce.

“We believe Priscilla’s project has the potential to make a real, tangible contribution to growers and the field of cotton research.”