Former Oamaru student Paul Plieger has been awarded nearly $1 million to research how to better deal with beryllium.
The element is the most toxic non-radioactive element on the planet.
Dr Plieger, of the Institute of Fundamental Sciences, has been awarded $930,000 from the Marsden Fund for the three-year project. The team he leads includes scientists from the University of Waikato and the University of Auckland.
In an article written for Massey University, Dr Plieger said while the toxicity of the element was well-known, it was still used in a range of commercial applications, such as mobile phone components, golf clubs and telescopes.
"Our main aim will be to develop chelating agents by creating designer molecules that will bind to the beryllium atoms," he said.
"If we can do this, we will be better able to detect beryllium in the environment, develop therapies for individuals exposed to it, and devise protocols to remediate beryllium contamination."
Due to beryllium's unique properties, it could not be replaced by a safe metal in many of its applications, said Dr Plieger.
"Anything that requires a high-temperature semi-conductor probably has beryllium in it," he said in the article.
"The amount of beryllium in electronic componentry, such as laptops and mobile phones, is very small but the problem arises when they come to the end of their lives. If you incinerate them, for instance, you'll have beryllium dust in the air and it's the dust that causes the problems."
Dr Plieger told the Oamaru Mail beryllium could enter the lungs of a person who had inhaled it, and interfere with the immune response, which eventually caused the lungs to be dysfunctional.
If the team is successful, their research will be on the world stage.
"It's fundamental," he said.
"Hopefully if we're successful we will have a new series of molecules that can bind on beryllium better than anyone has done before."
Dr Plieger attended Totara Primary School and St Kevin's College.
Oamaru still represents home for him. He misses walking down the street and bumping into people he knows and living next to the sea.
Dr Plieger, who now resides in Palmerston North, said the design the team had formulated ahead of the research was unique but it was an untested area.
"The design could work brilliantly or we might say it doesn't work," he said. "That's research. You are always stepping into the unknown."