Richard Tilley

Richard Tilley

Richard Tilley

Director of the Electron Microscope Unit at the Mark Wainwright Analytical Centre, UNSW

Contact details



Electron Microscope Unit:

Chemical Sciences Building (F10)
Kensington UNSW Sydney
NSW 2052

Tel: +61 (2) 9385 4425
Fax: +61 (2) 9385 6400

Research Group Webpage


Biographical Details

Professor Richard Tilley is the Director of Electron Microscope Unit at UNSW. His research is focused on the solution synthesis of nanoparticles and quantum dots for applications ranging from catalysis to biomedical imaging. He did his PhD in the Department of Chemistry, University of Cambridge, UK, after which he was a Postdoctoral Fellow for two years at the Toshiba basic R&D Center, Japan. A native of the UK, he graduated with a Masters of Chemistry from Oxford University, UK.



My research revolves around the synthesis, characterisation and applications of nanoparticles and nanomaterials. Nanoparticles hold a great fascination because they have different fundamental physical properties compared to bulk solids due to the very small size. Unique properties of nanoparticles include particle size dependent luminescence from semiconductor materials, superparamagnetism in magnetic materials and new and unusual crystal structures. The aim of the Tilley research team is to synthesize and characterize novel, cutting edge nanoparticle materials. We approach this problem using solution phase chemical techniques which allow for the synthesis of very uniform nanoparticles with superb control over their size and shape. The nanoparticles are characterized using a wide range of techniques with particular focus on high resolution transmission electron microscopy (HRTEM).



Current projects

Probing “active sites” on nanocatalysts via high resolution electron microscopy

With recent emerging challenges and opportunities in energy industry, nanocatalyst is one of the most investigated solutions for bringing an economically viable source of green energy.Due to the boom of nanocatalysts, the characterisation of these innovative materials has become more important than ever. Transmission electron microscopy is a powerful tool for us to understand the active sites on these nanocatalysts in atomic scale. With state-of-the-art electron microscopes provided by Electron Microscopy Unit, UNSW, we are able to obtain lots of structural and chemical information combining HR-TEM, STEM, HAADF, EELS, EDX, tomography and the advanced in-situ techniques. This valuable information will help us fundamentally understand how these catalysts work and empower us to rationally design next generation catalysts. 

Electron microscopy

Figure 1: HAADF images of nanocatasysts and EDX mapping showing spatial information of their structures and compositions.


Synthesis of shaped-controlled nanoparticles for energy-storage applications

Developing a global-scale renewable energy that can fulfil the demand of billions of people without damaging the ecosystem is very crucial for securing our future energy.  In general, water-splitting and fuel cell are the most promising technologies to convert the renewable energy source into chemical forms and then transfer it back to energy when it needs. Unfortunately, the large commercialisation of these technologies is still hindered by the high loading expensive noble metals. Therefore, the main goal is to develop active and stable catalyst in nano-scale to reduce noble metal loading.

Our strategy is to develop synthetic methods to control the size, shape and composition of nanocrystals, characterise them with advanced high-resolution transmission electron microscope (HRTEM) and then evaluate their electrocatalytic performance (such as ORR, OER and CO2 reduction). We are exploring a wide variety metals such as Pt, Pd, Ru, Au, Ni and Co as well as its combinations and then systematically study the relation between catalytic performance and crystallography surface. We focus on fundamental understanding to design active and stable nanocatalysts to promote large commercialisation for water-splitting and fuel cell applications. 

Electron microscopy

Figure 1: Diagram of the synthesis, characterisation and energy electrocatalysis application process for nanoparticles in our research group.


Iron nanoparticles for early detection of cancer

Early stage detection of tumours and cancerous cells requires the most sensitive and precise imaging of biological features in the body. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and magnetic particle imaging (MPI) are the latest techniques that are non-invasive and provides 3D information with high levels of detail. The unique magnetic properties of iron and iron oxide nanoparticles make these ideal candidates for this state-of-the-art application. These key magnetic properties are linked to the size and crystallinity of the nanoparticles. 

Electron microscopy

Figure 1: MRI images from iron-iron oxide core-shell nanoparticles injected into a mouse to enhance the contrast of a tumour (Tilley, Angew. Chem. – Int. Ed., 2012).

Using the leading edge of solution phase synthetic techniques, precise control over the nanoparticles and their magnetic properties can be achieved (Figure 2). In this project, well-defined nanoparticles with controlled crystalline domains will be studied for MPI. You will use transmission electron microscopy at one of the top microscopy facilities in Australia and be supervised by the director of the electron microscope unit, Professor Tilley. You will collaborate with leading researchers in MPI from Australia and internationally and work closely with a group of experts in nanoparticle synthesis. Overall, this work will tune nanoparticle size with precise synthetic control to optimise the magnetic properties of iron and iron oxide nanoparticles for MPI applications.

Electron microscopy

Figure 2: Transmission electron microscopy images of iron nanocubes and their magnetic properties for use in MPI.