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Physics at RMIT University
Philip Wilksch, Dougal G. Mccu
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Physics at RMIT University



RMIT traces its ancestry back to 1887, when pastoralist and philanthropist Francis Ormond raised funds to establish the Working Men's College in Melbourne [1]. The College offered night classes to both men and women in technical, business and arts areas, and it is significant that, right from the beginning, one of the subjects taught was physics. Full-time courses in engineering and applied science, leading to diploma certificates, were first offered in 1899.

In 1934, at the urging of students, the College changed its name to The Melbourne Technical College, becoming known as "The Tech". The prefix "Royal" was added in 1954 in recognition of educational services to the Commonwealth and contributions to the war effort. The name Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology was adopted in 1960. It was not until 1981 that RMIT gained approval to award undergraduate degrees in its own right, rather than through the governing body of the Victorian Institute of Colleges.

RMIT has always been a dual-sector institute, running TAFE certificate and diploma programs as well as university-level degrees. The first PhD candidate to graduate from RMIT was a physics student, in 1991. In 1992 it was granted full University status under State legislation, and it became known as RMIT University. At this time there was a flurry of negotiations between different colleges driven by government demands for a reduction in the number of post-secondary institutions, and the outcome was that RMIT amalgamated with Phillip Institute of Technology and some other smaller colleges. At the beginning of the 21st century RMIT expanded its teaching activities into overseas markets, beginning with the establishment of branches in Vietnam.


The early history of physics at RMIT is inseparably associated with the name of Stanley Martin, who served as head of department from 1928 to 1968. He was succeeded in this position by Ken Connor, who then also became Principal of RMIT in 1970. Martin and Connor collaborated on a three-volume textbook Basic Physics, first published in 1945, and reissued in several editions up until 1970. This text was widely used in secondary and tertiary circles throughout Australia at that time.

Before 1950, physics was part of the School of Engineering, and was associated with the discipline of mathematics. The physics section had a particular interest in the teaching of weights and measures, and a course in instrument technology was developed in partnership with the Australian Society of Instrument technology and the Education Department. Another of its specialties was training students seeking registration with the Opticians' Registration Board. The department ran glassblowing and lens grinding workshops, which were also put to valuable use in support of the war effort.

After 1950, the group became an independent department. It added to its offerings by developing courses in medical radiography, and another in medical laboratory science, at the request of the respective national Societies. By the early 1980's, the Department of Applied Physics was part of the Faculty of Applied Science, offering a Bachelor of Applied Science in Applied Physics, diplomas in Medical Radiography, Nuclear Medicine Technology, and Therapy Radiography, a Graduate Diploma in Ultrasonography, and a Master degree by research in Applied Physics. The Bachelor of Applied Science in Medical Radiations was added in 1986, replacing the Diploma programs.

The range and variety of degree programs on offer has been expanded greatly over the years since then. The fourth-year Honours degree was added in 1992. Upon the amalgamation with the former Phillip Institute of Technology, a stream in Intelligent Instrumentation was added to the Bachelor degree, later becoming separate degrees in Computing and Digital Technology, and Computing and Internet Technology. Three-year Dual awards, which combined a concurrent Bachelor degree with a TAFE qualification, were trialed for several years, pairing Applied Science with a certificate in Scientific Language or Scientific Writing and Editing. Five-year Double Degrees with Communication and Electronic Engineering were introduced, attracting high-quality students. A stream in Nanotechnology has been added, and Master by Coursework degrees in Medical Physics.

Today, Physics is a discipline within the School of Science at RMIT University. It has 17 full time academic staff and 25 research staff.


The post-war specialisations of the department in the areas of instrument science and medical radiography continued into the 60s and 70s, with the additions of consulting and research in acoustics, materials science, optics, and nuclear radiation. These categories were defined more by the equipment and facilities than by the staff who worked with them, in that many projects took advantage of cross-fertilization and synergies between groups, branching, combining and diversifying with time. A common feature of the research, though, was close cooperation and collaboration with many industrial and government research laboratories, and other universities. These collaborations also provided a major source of funding. Visiting Scientists, Industrial Fellows, Adjunct appointments and student exchanges helped research projects to grow and flourish.

Instrument Science

Besides supporting the instrumental requirements of other groups, this group developed and marketed aids for the handicapped including an artificial speech device. They also conducted research in applications of ultrasound to doppler flow measurements and in infrared atmospheric remote sensing.


The construction of a new building on the corner of Swanston and Franklin Streets afforded an opportunity for the inclusion in its basement of three large acoustic chambers, designed for the measurement of sound absorption and transmission and of sound power output. These acoustic laboratories gained NATA certification, and were used for many years for acoustic testing and certification of building materials for industry, as well as for research projects. One chamber was designed to be used as either a reverberation or anechoic chamber, and the other two were coupled so that the sound transmission and absorption properties of very large samples could be measured. The group worked closely with the relevant national and international bodies in the development of standards of measurement.


As a result of an appeal by RMIT in the late 70s for public donations for equipment, the department was able to purchase a high-power argon laser, which formed the basis of a well-equipped holography laboratory. Undergraduate elective courses in the theory and practice of holography were run over many years. Several collaborations with artists and industries grew out of this facility. Australian holographic artist Paula Dawson worked at RMIT as Artist in Residence in the late 80s, and there has been ongoing consultation and collaboration with her since. There was a very fruitful association with a scientific photography department in the Faculty of Art, with final-year art students undertaking projects in holography. The master recording for the first magazine-cover hologram to be produced entirely in Australia was made in the department, as well as the only known example of a hologram made with the original daguerreotype technique of exposure and development.

The related topics of digital speckle interferometry, computer-generated holography, Fourier optical techniques, and applications to measurements of strain and vibration have also been a focus of research and consulting. Spectrophotometry was applied to topics as diverse as the classification of wool fibres and the determination of pulp content in paper.

Medical radiography

Research into clinical aspects of radiology and radiotherapy was conducted in conjunction with the teaching of these subjects up until 1990, when Medical Radiations became a separate department.

Radiation Physics

The radiation group possessed a Tandetron tandem linear accelerator which was used for ion implantation and ion beam analysis experiments. They also studied the application of nuclear techniques to materials analysis, and performed nuclear reaction and decay studies, many in conjunction with ANSTO and other institutes. Several projects have investigated aspects of radiation dosimetry for treatments of cancer, in collaboration with local hospitals.

Materials science

Materials science research, otherwise described as condensed matter research, encompassed the bulk of the research effort in the department up until the turn of the century and beyond. It has been conducted on several fronts, initially supported by instrumentation in X-ray fluorescence, diffraction and scattering, sample preparation and vacuum equipment, and transmission and scanning electron microscopes. One of the earlier investigations was a study of the porosity and moisture content of brown coal. An Auger nanoprobe for surface analysis was added in 1993, and the suite of electron microscopes has continued to grow and be updated since then. In 2001, these facilities were combined to form the RMIT Microscopy & Microanalysis Facility which in 2010 became a centralized facility servicing the microscopy and microanalysis needs of the entire University [2].

There have always been close cooperation and joint projects with the communication and electrical engineering group at RMIT, specifically with the Microelectronics and Materials Technology Centre which began operation in the 1980s. Major themes have been fundamental investigations in electron microscopy, the study of carbon allotropes, "warm" superconductors, ion implantation and surface modification effects.

A major related long-term project has been in colloid science - the experimental and theoretical investigation of the interaction forces between colloidal particles. Laser light scattering and photon correlation measurements have been used as the basis of the experimental techniques in these studies. The more readily-manipulated colloidal systems can be used as models to gain insights into the behaviour of matter at the molecular scale. Alongside these experimental studies, there has been extensive work in computational physics, molecular modelling and molecular dynamics, using shared large-scale computing facilities.


The Centre for Molecular & Nanoscale Physics

The Centre for Molecular & Nanoscale Physics (NanoPHYS) [3] seeks to carry out high quality fundamental research in nanoscale physics, by combining world leading expertise in theoretical, computational and experimental aspects of physics at the nanoscale. NanoPHYS has three themes:

(1) Quantum nanostructures and devices - In the last few years there has been an increasing focus world-wide on quantum computing, quantum sensing, quantum cryptography and quantum metrology - collectively referred to as quantum technology. The members of this theme are key members of two ARC Centres of Excellence (described in detail elsewhere).

(2) Soft matter and biological physics at the nanoscale - Soft matter has been recognized as a separate field since P.G. de Gennes highlighted the term in his Nobel laureate award speech in 1991. Soft matter is the interface between physics, chemistry and biology, and is characterized by structures on mesoscopic scales (~1-1000 nm). A broad range of novel physics occurs only in soft matter, and dynamics are governed by thermal fluctuations (eg Brownian motion). One of the key features of soft matter is self-assembly: from the formation of membranes and other phases from amphiphilic molecules such as lipids and surfactants, to the self-assembly and crystallisation of nanoparticles. Applications include: understanding structure and function of membranes, proteins and ion-channels; the development of drug delivery systems using nanoparticles; the development of novel antibiotics and antibacterial surfaces; and the self-assembly of molecules and nanostructures.

(3) Nanostructured Materials, Surfaces and Interfaces - Nanotechnology is one of the most exciting and fastest growing areas of science. It provides the basis for the design and manufacture of materials systems with nanoscale architecture that can directly interact with living systems such as cells or can be assembled to construct complex electronic, optical, and medical devices. Significant advances in the design and construction of materials are inextricably linked with the ability to manipulate and characterise nanoscale objects. Applications of this research include new materials suitable for use as biosensors or for the next generation of devices for the efficient storage of data.


The design of low-frequency electromagnetic sensors has been the focus of research in the Geophysics group at RMIT led by Professor James Macnae, a Gold Medallist of the Australian Society of Exploration Geophysicists. With research funding from a Canadian geophysical contractor and an Australian manufacturer, the research group has enabled the commercialisation of the robust ARMIT induction magnetometer, providing SQUID magnetic field sensitivities at a fraction of the cost. This sensor is now in extensive worldwide use for mineral exploration, with development projects underway to use it in airborne and borehole surveys (Fig. 1). A new high-frequency magnetic field sensor for ground penetrating radar funded by 7 of the world's major mining companies through AMIRA International has increased search depths by 50% when compared to state-of-the-art commercial systems and will shortly be commercialised with usage initially restricted to project sponsors. Several other research projects have led to significant advances in software for modelling and interpretation, particularly of airborne electromagnetic survey data.


Fig. 1: RMIT electromagnetic sensor operating in the sub-Arctic.

Medical Physics Research

Research in the field of medical applications of ionising radiation spans the disciplines of radiation oncology, diagnostic imaging, and radiation protection. Challenging radiation interaction and dosimetry problems are investigated by integrating innovative experimental technique development with high performance computational simulation.

The development of practical solutions to real-world challenges has included a world-leading, real-time treatment verification system for high dose rate brachytherapy (HDRb) for prostate cancer. In HDRb, a high-activity radionuclide source is robotically driven inside the patient's tumour via hollow needle-like catheters. A source tracking system monitors the source location within the patient throughout the treatment, validates correct and accurate delivery, or detects discrepancies.

The challenge of dosimetric evaluation of radiation delivery to moving and deforming anatomy led to the invention of the world's first deformable 3-D dosimeter. The combination of 3-D radiochromic dosimetry, optical tomographic readout, and the ability to introduce a time-variant geometric distortion, enables the direct measurement of cumulative dose distributions.

Novel dosimetric approaches applied in vivo and in phantoms (artificial surrogates for real patients) are used to quantify poorly known out-of-field doses reaching untargeted healthy tissues. This helps us to better understand contributing factors and to develop strategies to reduce them, to optimise patient treatment and safety against risks of long-term side effects.


Fig.2: Cross-fired microbeam irradiation of a 3-D radiochromic dosimeter imaged with Confocal microscopy.

RMIT University is a world leader in exciting research to develop Synchrotron Microbeam Radiation Therapy (SMRT) and progress rapidly towards proposed veterinary trials and anticipated first-in-human trials. SMRT combines ultra-high dose rate synchrotron radiation with a new paradigm of 'spatial fractionation': interspersing high and low dose regions at the micro scale to exploit newly discovered response between cancer and normal cells (Fig. 2). In pre-clinical studies, there is evidence for SMRT having equivalent or superior tumour control to conventional RT, with the added benefit of significantly less damage to normal tissues.

Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics

The Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) [4] is a multi-node Centre with the aim of harnessing the power of light to measure, and to develop novel windows into the body. Our mission is to discover new approaches to measure nano-scale dynamic phenomena in living systems. We develop new optical sensors and sensor technologies to learn about novel biological systems. Our goals are to uncover the biochemical origins of health and disease, but we pay special attention to our biological challenge questions: The Spark of Life, understanding the development of embryos from the first seconds after fertilization to the first week; Cardiovascular Health, understanding the processes behind the leading cause of death and disease burden in Australia; and the Origins of Pain, understanding the mechanisms behind chronic pain, a condition that originates purely within the brain.


Fig. 3: Depth mapping from a multi-core fibre endoscope. By imaging through a multi-core endoscope, a CNBP researcher developed a new way to recover depth information from deep within the body using a novel application of light field imaging. This technology is likely to have impact for a range of medical diagnoses and has already been used in live animal trials. [5].

The CNBP draws together the talents of almost 200 individuals around Australia, as well as additional international partners to meet its goals. The administering node is at the University of Adelaide, with additional Australian nodes at Macquarie University, RMIT University, Griffith University, and the University of New South Wales. The RMIT node was one of the founding nodes of the CNBP and concentrates on microscopy, imaging (Fig. 3), spectroscopy and theory, bringing our expertise in diamond and other quantum emitters to the challenges of imaging in biological environments. Beyond science goals, our team actively participates in outreach, professional development, and industry engagement to ensure that CNBP science creates real-world impact, is translated, and shared with the community.

Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T)

The ARC Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T)[6] is focused on delivering world-leading quantum research to develop full-scale quantum systems - encompassing ultra-fast quantum computation, secure quantum communication and distributed quantum information processing. This Centre encompasses eight Australian universities and more than 25 partners to form one of the largest combined efforts in quantum computation and communication research in the world.


Fig. 4: Entanglement structure of a continuous-variable cluster state, a resource state for quantum computing. Each individual black node represents an individually addressable mode of light. Particularly chosen measurement of these light modes implement the desired quantum computation.

With Australian Research Council funding extended through to 2025, CQC2T is building on its fundamental advances in quantum information research in silicon, optical and networking platforms to develop full-scale quantum systems with a mission to deliver quantum processors able to run error-corrected algorithms and transfer information across networks with absolute security (Fig. 4). Australian researchers have established global leadership in quantum information. Having developed unique technologies for manipulating matter and light at the level of individual atoms and photons, we have demonstrated the highest fidelity, longest coherence time qubits in the solid state; the world's longest-lived quantum memory in the solid state; and the ability to run small-scale algorithms on photonic qubits.

RMIT University joined CQC2T in 2018, with a node jointly hosted by the Schools of Science and Engineering. With international collaborations across four continents, RMIT's work focusses on unique and novel approaches to quantum computing with light. RMIT's inclusion brings new theoretical expertise in continuous-variable approaches to quantum information processing (Science) and new design and fabrication of on-chip optical systems for quantum processing (Engineering). The value of these approaches is that they sidestep many of the challenges of first-generation optical quantum technology and open the door to large-scale quantum computing.

Centre of Excellence in Exciton Science

RMIT hosts one node of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Exciton Science [7]. This Centre of Excellence combines researchers from 5 Australian Universities working in chemistry, physics, mathematics, materials science and engineering, with a focus on building a sustainable energy future where light of all types powers our world. The Centre aims to develop the capability to control the position, lifetime and interaction of excitons in a wide range of materials and use these capabilities to deliver solutions to challenging problems in energy generation, lighting and security.

The Centre has three core Research Themes:
• Excitonic Systems for Solar Energy Conversion - research into thin film upconversion devices, next generation luminescent solar concentrators, artificial photosynthesis and solution processed next-generation photovoltaics.
• Control of Excitons - coherent control of excitons, high-throughput materials discovery, exciton dynamics at nanoscale and multiscale studies and models of exciton transport.
• Excitonic Systems for Security, Lighting and Sensing - excitonic materials for security, light emitting devices, photodetectors, sensors and synthesis of novel excitonic materials.

The RMIT node incorporates theoretical and computational researchers studying the behaviour of excitons in organic and inorganic materials. Their work uses tools from quantum chemistry, density-functional theory, open-quantum systems theory, charge transport modelling and a range of other computational techniques. They work closely with experimental groups both nationally and internationally to understand how excitons are created, how they move within a material and what limits their lifetime or mobility. This knowledge is then applied to design and analyse materials for use in new types of photo-voltaic, lighting and sensing applications.

Centre of Excellence in Future Low-Energy Electronics Technologies

RMIT hosts one node of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Future Low-Energy Electronics Technologies (FLEET) [8]. FLEET addresses a grand challenge: reducing the energy used in information technology, which now accounts for 8% of the electricity use on Earth and is doubling every 10 years. The current, silicon-based technology will stop becoming more efficient in the next decade as Moore's law comes to an end. The grand challenge is to develop new materials and technologies which can be used to create the next generation of low power electronics.


Fig. 5: Devices being made in the FLEET Laboratories at RMIT University.

FLEET will meet this challenge by realising new types of electronic conduction without resistance in solid-state systems at room temperature. These concepts will form the basis of new types of switching devices (transistors) with vastly lower energy consumption per computation than silicon CMOS. Electronic conduction without resistance will be realised in topological insulators that conduct only along their edges, and in semiconductors that support superflow of electrons strongly coupled to photons. These pathways are enabled by the new science of atomically thin materials.

The RMIT node includes both experimental and theoretical research efforts. The experimental work focuses on topological condensed matter systems, spintronics, and magnetic materials. This includes growing single crystals, thin films and nanostructures and using these materials to fabricate devices for electron and spin transport measurements (Fig. 5). The aim is to understand the fundamental physics of these novel materials and devices and to fabricate the next generation prototype spintronic devices. The theoretical work done at RMIT within FLEET focuses on using charge transport models to understand the electrical response of two-dimensional and topological materials. This includes understanding the influence of dissipation and decoherence on electronic transport in nanostructures, and its role in electronic devices based on topologically protected conduction channels (Fig. 6).


Physics at RMIT University has a long history of high performance in Teaching and Research. In the most recent national audit of research excellence administered by the Australian Research Council (ERA 2018), Physical Sciences received the maximum rating of 5 (well above world standard). In 2020, in collaboration with the Geospatial Science and the School of Engineering, it will launch a new undergraduate Program in Space Science.

Acknowledgement: The Authors gratefully acknowledge Gary Bryant, Andrew Greentree, Jared Cole, Nicolas Menicucci, Rick Franich and James Macnae from Physics, School of Science, RMIT University for providing content for this article.


Fig. 6: Molecular dynamics simulations of the formation of ultra-thin aluminium-oxide tunnel barriers of different thicknesses. These tunnel barriers are a key component in nano-electronic devices, including quantum computers being developed by the likes of IBM and Google. Research in computational modelling at RMIT is developing new methods of simulating the fabrication process and determining the resulting electrical response.


[1] "The Tech", Hyland House Publishing, South Yarra, Melbourne (1987).
[2] http://www.rmit.edu.au/microscopy
[3] https://www.rmit.edu.au/research/research-institutes-centres-and-groups/research-centres/centre-for-molecular-and-nanoscale-physics
[4] http://cnbp.org.au/
[5] Orth et al. Science Advances 2019; 5:eaav1555.
[6] https://www.cqc2t.org/
[7] hhttps://excitonscience.com/
[8] http://www.fleet.org.au//


Philip Wilksch is an Honorary Associate Professor in Physics, School of Science at RMIT. He came to RMIT as a Lecturer in 1985 to take on the optics programs of the Department. Having a strong interest in holography, he developed the Department's teaching and research capabilities in this area, forming collaborations with several artists and industries. His more general interests are in the application of optical techniques to measurement, sensing, and materials characterisation, and in the teaching of optics. Now retired, he continues an association with RMIT in an Honorary capacity.

Dougal McCulloch is the Associate Dean Physics in the School of Science at RMIT. He established and is the current Director of the RMIT Microscopy and Microanalysis Facility (RMMF) and has published 200 papers in international refereed journals within the fields of advanced microscopy & microanalysis, carbonaceous solids and advanced coating materials.

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