Aussie Wi-Fi boffin nabs PM’s top science prize

CSIRO scientist awarded top honours

On 28 October CSIRO scientist Dr John O’Sullivan was awarded the Prime Minster’s Prize for Science and a $300,000 grant for his achievements in astronomy and wireless technologies, including leading the team that developed and patented the IEEE 802.11 wireless standard.

The basis for the development of what would later become the IEEE 802.11 wireless standard was O’Sullivan’s work with Fourier transforms, a set of mathematical equations used to isolate individual components of a compound waveform, such as parts of a complex radio signal.

O’Sullivan’s research initially focused on the search for radio waves from exploding black holes and cleaning up intergalactic radio wave distortion. However, when the CSIRO was looking for ways to commercialise its capability in radio physics in the early 1990s, O’Sullivan and his team realised that the same research could be applied to the technology for wireless networking.

A US patent was granted in 1996. In 1999, the first modern international standard for WLAN (IEEE 802.11a) was ratified. Its implementation relied on the technology covered by the CSIRO's patent. In 2001 the first products using the standard entered the market.

A statement released by the Prime Minister’s office said the discovery is one of the most significant achievements in the science agency’s 83 year history and is an example of how blue sky research can have very practical outcomes.

The work of O’Sullivan and his team was publicly recognised earlier this month, when the CSIRO announced it received over $200 million in settlements from 14 companies that have been using the 802.11 standard in their products without paying royalties to the patent holders and creators of the technology.

The CSIRO’s Chief Executive, Dr. Megan Clark, said O’Sullivan was instrumental in the design of the Australian Telescope located in Narrabri and he pioneered the approach that led a CSIRO team to solving the multipath problem that was crucial to the development of fast wireless networks.

“Dr O’Sullivan’s leadership and scientific brilliance continue to contribute to the nation through his development of an innovative radio camera for the Australian SKA Pathfinder [ASKAP] radio telescope,” she said.

“John's work has significant relevance to the future international project to build the $3 billion Square Kilometre Array [SKA] telescope.”

The CSIRO's Dr Amanda Barnard won the 2009 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year for major contributions to the field of nanoscience.

Clark said Barnard’s research involves predicting the structure, shape and stability of man-made nanoparticles to understand how they interact with different environments such as natural ecosystems.

“Her unique approach has been used all over the world to predict how these tiny pieces of matter respond to changes around them, and how we can use these changes to make designer materials for specific applications,” Clark said.

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