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Cooling western Sydney - Sydney Water

Research uncovers innovative solutions for cooling western Sydney

Sydney Water and the University of NSW have collaborated on a ground breaking study, Cooling Western Sydney, to create innovative solutions to help turn down the heat in western Sydney.

“There were a number of compelling statistics which led us to this research”, said Dr Michael Storey, Research Direction and Value Manager at Sydney Water.

“Temperatures are 6-10°C higher in western Sydney during the summer period than they are in the east and there can be up to three times as many deaths in western Sydney during heat waves than there are in eastern Sydney. Energy consumption for cooling Western Sydney is up to 100% higher than in the eastern zones of the city. Peak Electricity Demand increases by almost 100% when temperature increases from 20°C to 40°C.”

Dr Storey added that effective cooling of western Sydney by implementing the solutions outlined in the Cooling Western Sydney research could result in:

  • Reduced peak ambient temperatures by 2.5°C
  • An estimated energy saving of 1726 gigawatt hours (GWh) per year = 1.726 Billion kilowatt hours. The average Australian house uses 6,570 kilowatt hours (KWh) per year. This saving is the equivalent used to power around 262,000 homes for a year.
  • A 9% drop in peak electricity demand, which equates to almost one million tons of avoided CO2 emissions, enough to create the equivalent of removing over 200,000 average sized cars from the roads each year and significant savings on power bills.
  • A reduction in the heat related mortality rate by up to 90% in western Sydney

The study investigated the role of water and related infrastructure, greening as well as building materials on cooling western Sydney.

It has challenged conventional thinking around mitigating urban heat, including the way we look at the built environment, energy demand, public health and ‘greening’ cities.

“We must take a multi-faceted approach that includes hard surfaces such as roofs and pavements”, said UNSW Professor Mat Santamouris.

“The solution is not just about planting trees, which seems to be the commonly held view.

“Trees create a cooling effect through a process called evapotranspiration, where water stored in the tree evaporates through the leaves during hot temperatures. However, when trees are subjected to extreme heat stress, they go into survival mode to conserve water to keep themselves cool.

“This means that we can’t rely solely on urban green spaces as a means of cooling the city in extreme temperatures.

“While greenery does have a cooling effect, the study shows the most effective urban heat mitigation technologies use a combination of water based technologies including fountains in conjunction with cool material technologies such as cool roofs and pavements. Integrating these new and advanced technologies into urban design can greatly reduce the impact of urban heat and assist in cooling Western Sydney.

“These solutions are the best way to enhance the liveability of western Sydney and will deliver greater economic, social and environmental benefits”, said Professor Santamouris.

Dr Storey added, “this is a whole-of-Sydney issue.  Cooling western Sydney means cooling eastern Sydney.  We must think locally but act globally.

“There are large geographical and meteorological forces at play in western Sydney.  On one side we have the large western deserts and desert winds, and on the other the Pacific Ocean and eastern ocean breezes.  Trapped in the middle and bordered by the Blue Mountains is western Sydney, which can be subjected to extreme temperatures in summer time because the area receives little respite from ocean breezes and southerly winds.

“As Sydney is set to experience more prolonged summer heatwaves in future due to a changing climate, it will be critical for temperature peaks to be reduced to improve the thermal comfort for people living in western Sydney.

“The careful selection of water-based technologies and building materials can achieve a decrease of up to 4.5º C, which will take the ‘tops’ off the peak temperatures in extreme heatwave conditions in Sydney’s west”, said Dr Storey.

  • First published by Sydney Water 

Image: Sydney Water

Read more: Future tech for a stable climate

Core code

Featured image above: Gernot Heiser. Credit: Quentin Jones

We trust computer systems every day – but trusted systems are rarely entirely trustworthy. Laptops can crash, servers can freeze, and personal details can be stolen. Even pacemakers can be hacked.

“The complexity of the systems we’re building has grown much faster than our ability to deal with it,” says Gernot Heiser, a professor of operating systems at UNSW and chief research scientist at Australia’s digital research network, Data61, a division of the national science agency CSIRO. “The result is an appalling lack of dependability.

“As critical tasks like controlling medical devices, mobile phones, industrial plants and airplanes become ever more technology-dependent, trust should not be taken for granted,” he adds.

Is it even possible to write truly trustworthy code? Heiser thinks so – which is why he has spent the past decade developing secure microkernels, the core on which dependable operating systems can be built. By itself, a microkernel does not provide useful services, but contains the core mechanisms on which to build them.

Working with UNSW colleagues Gerwin Klein and Kevin Elphinstone, Heiser sparked excitement among experts when the team proved that all 7,500 lines of C code in his seL4 microkernel were mathematically correct. May not sound like much, but this is incredibly difficult to achieve.

“It is hard to comment on this achievement without resorting to clichés,” quipped Lawrence Paulson, a noted leader in theorem proving and a professor of computational logic at the University of Cambridge.

June Andronick, a principal research scientist at Data 61, who specialises in the verifiability of software systems, adds: “What Heiser and his team have done, and keep doing, is to strengthen the guarantees that can be provided about software by orders of magnitude, while maintaining very good performance for real-world use.”

A big test of Heiser’s seL4 microkernel came in 2015, when the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency gave hackers unfettered access to the on-board computer of an autonomous Boeing AH-6 helicopter gunship. Their task was to hijack the microkernel and take control. While hackers easily commandeered the helicopter when it hosted other software, they could not crack the on-board computer when it ran on seL4 .

A predecessor of the secure seL4 software – known as OKL4 – may already be in your pocket. Heiser set up Open Kernel Labs in 2006 to commercialise his OKL4 microkernel. The company was later bought by General Dynamics, after which “our technology ended up in the pockets of billions of consumers,” says Heiser. OKL4 is now on the security processor of all Apple iOS devices.

But there are still important weaknesses. “Observing exact timings of actions can leak secrets, via so-called ‘timing side channels’, giving attackers the ability to eavesdrop on communication or even masquerade their malicious code as legit services,” says Heiser. His team is now working to prevent such failures by blocking any given process from unduly influencing the execution speed of another process – and eventually proving that this works.

The second weakness is price. The development cost of the seL4 microkernel was about three times that of comparable unverified, vulnerable software. But Heiser thinks he can make the software affordable for everyone.

“If we manage to eliminate this factor-three cost gap to standard software, we’re totally changing the world of software systems.”

– Ben Skuse

For more stories at the forefront of engineering research, check out Ingenuity magazine.

Off-earth mining

Mining the skies

Just three kilometres in diameter, asteroid 1986DA is a fairly tiny affair by astronomical standards. Yet it contains astonishing wealth. Using radar, astronomers have discovered 1986DA is mainly made up of iron and nickel.

“Essentially, it is a ball of naturally occurring stainless steel,” says Serkan Saydam, a UNSW expert on the mining of off-Earth objects.

Asteroid 1986DA is also estimated to contain more than 10,000 tonnes of gold and 100,000 tonnes of platinum.

The prospect of such mineral riches excites some entrepreneurs. These visionaries picture a fleet of robot spaceships crossing the Solar System to mine its interplanetary resources. This would also open worlds like the Moon and Mars to human colonisation.

With its vast mining experience, Australia is keen to ensure it is in the vanguard of these operations. Hence the appointment of Saydam as an associate professor of mining at UNSW, where he is putting together a small team of off-Earth mining experts. The work of Saydam’s honours student Georgia Craig on asteroid 1986DA highlights the importance of the careful planning that will be needed in future – and the problems that lie ahead.

Named after the year in which it was discovered, asteroid 1986DA orbits the Sun 75 million kilometres from Earth and is rated by the International Astronomical Union as a Near Earth Object, or NEO. But calculations by Saydam show that 1986DA is still too remote to be mined economically. On the other hand, his research suggests that if the asteroid were half its current distance from Earth, it could be viable to exploit.

That is good news because there are about two million other near-Earth asteroids orbiting the Sun. If we can find a better-placed candidate, it could become a target for mining operations. Hence the activities of companies like Planetary Resources (see ‘Frontier horizon’, above) which is preparing to carry out detailed surveys of NEOs to find one best suited for mining operations.

Asteroids like 1986DA are not the only targets for future missions. Other types of asteroids contain far less mineral wealth, but much more water. That could be crucial, says Saydam. “Water will be our prime source of fuel in space, and finding sources will be a priority. Hydrolysis of water produces hydrogen and oxygen, which can be burned together as fuel, and used in space shuttles and/or satellites. To put it bluntly: water is going to be the currency of space.”

Worlds like Jupiter’s moon Europa, which has a vast ocean below its frozen surface, and Saturn’s tiny Enceladus, which vents water into space, would be good targets but are too remote.

“We will have to find water much nearer to home, and given that we have to start somewhere, Mars is the logical place to begin our hunt for water on another world,” says Sophia Casanova, a geologist and PhD candidate who is now studying off-Earth mining at UNSW. “Finding and extracting water will be crucial for setting up colonies there.”

The trouble is that, while the poles of Mars have ice, they are too cold and inhospitable to provide homes for early colonists. By contrast, Mars’s equatorial region is warmer and more amenable but lacks water – at least on the surface. “That means we will have to seek it underground,” says Casanova, whose research is now focused on finding ways to pinpoint rich deposits of clays and hydrate deposits at lower latitudes on Mars. “There could be some kind of artesian wells, but we have no evidence of their existence as yet. So we will probably have to use hydrate minerals.”

But how can we extract water from rocks? Casanova explains: “You could put your minerals in a chamber and heat them to extract the water. Alternatively, you could use microwave generators that heat the underground to break up the rocks and release the water that way.”

At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, Saydam’s team has developed models to evaluate multiple off-Earth mining scenarios.

Another practical problem concerns the use of seismic detectors. On Earth, a charge is set off and seismic waves that bounce off subterranean deposits reveal their presence. But as a tool for exploring other worlds, the technique is poorly developed. “Some seismic measurements were taken of the Moon by Apollo astronauts, and that’s about it,” says Michael Dello-Iacovo, a former geophysicist and now a PhD candidate at UNSW. “An early Mars lander was designed to do that but crashed. Now the Mars InSight Mission is being prepared to carry out seismic studies but will not be launched until 2018.”

Seismic waves may behave very differently on asteroids or other planets, says Dello-Iacovo. “There will be no atmosphere, and virtually no gravity, and we have no idea how that will affect seismic wave behaviours. My research is aimed at tackling that problem,” adds Dello-Iacovo, who is spending a year at JPL working on methods for improving our understanding of asteroid interiors.

“We still don’t know if asteroids have solid cores or are just piles of rubble held together loosely,” Dello-Iacovo says. “If the latter, they might break apart if only a small force is applied to them during a mining operation.”

A host of ethical and legal issues also need to be overcome, says Saydam. “What treaties are we going to have to set up to exploit space? And what would happen if we suddenly turned a rare metal like platinum into a commonplace one by bringing huge chunks back to Earth? We could trigger a crash in international metal markets.

“On the other hand, off-Earth mining has the potential to trigger great expansion in the global economy and we must make sure that Australia can influence that through its research capabilities. We also need to make sure we have trained manpower to take advantage of this great adventure.”

– Robin McKie

rUNSWift

Silicon champions

Imagine a soccer grand final where a team of fully autonomous humanoid robots beats the latest winners of the World Cup, all within the official guidelines of FIFA.  

This is the long-term vision for RoboCup, an international robot soccer championship that highlights the latest developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics research. 

Since first entering RoboCup in 1999, UNSW’s team rUNSWift has been a consistent leader in the competition. The team, made up of a mix of the university’s top engineering students and robotics experts, has taken out five world titles, most recently in 2014 and 2015. Only one other team, Germany’s B-Human (a joint team from the University of Bremen and the German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence, or DFKI) have managed to equal them.

“This is the ‘space race’ of robotics,” says Maurice Pagnucco, Deputy Dean (Education) of UNSW’s Faculty of Engineering and Head of the School of Computer Science and Engineering. “What we learn from robots playing soccer can be applied to industry and help us solve difficult, real-world problems.”  

The competition is a standard platform league of fully autonomous Nao humanoid robots, which compete against each other in teams of five. With no physical advantage, what differentiates the teams from each other is the software and AI the engineers create in the months leading up to the competition. Once the game kicks off, the robots are on their own. 

 “The design process is challenging, as we have to create software that’s robust enough to handle the different situations a soccer player may face,” says software engineer Sean Harris, rUNSWift’s successful leader in 2014 and 2015. “The robot must react quickly and effectively in a variety of unknown situations.”  

It’s this ability to respond quickly that has set rUNSWift apart from other teams competing for the world title. Over hours of simulations and machine learning tests, the UNSW squad has developed a walking code that enables the robots to walk faster than most of their competitors.  

“We start by designing the larger components, and then work our way down to the details of how each component will operate,” says Harris, who now creates software for Cruise GM’s self-driving cars. “We test several different approaches on a weekly basis and fine-tune the best for each task.”

RoboCup winners cannot rest on their laurels. Each year, the software developed by the winning team is shared with all other teams, forcing the technology to accelerate to stay ahead.

RoboCup attracts interested scouts from leading technology brands, such as Google, Microsoft and Dell. It will be held in Sydney in 2019 and is expected to attract up to 600 teams and 20,000 spectators.

– Gemma Conroy

Fight club at cybersecurity MOOC

In 2012, the Australian Prime Minister’s Office – together with Cisco, Microsoft and Facebook – established an annual hacking competition to find the next generation of web security talent. Student teams from across the country compete in the 24-hour hackathon. And every year, for the past four, Richard Buckland’s students have blown the competition away – taking 1st, 2nd  and 3rd.  “Every year, we blitz it,” says Buckland, head of the Security Engineering Lab and a professor of cyber security at UNSW’s School of Computer Science and Engineering and creator of a cybersecurity MOOC (massive open online course). “So I think we’re doing something right.”

What he does right is organise courses that teach cybersecurity through a series of hands-on exercises, using cloak-and-dagger collaborative games that ignite his students’ enthusiasm. This approach flips the standard teaching model, so that students are taught offence as a way to develop defence; and, in the process, come to understand the mindset of the hacker.

“In addition, we partner with experts to bring in real-world scenarios to the classroom,” Buckland says. Sometimes, these are industry gurus in banking and telecommunications. Sometimes they are badass hackers.

“I can give the students an overview and tell them the theoretical aspects, but then we have cyber community leaders show them how to actually do it,” he says. “I think the role of teachers is to lift our students up above us.” 

Cyber defender Richard Buckland at work with students.

The program’s alumni have brought this collaborative ethos into the corporate world. “I’ve seen the emergence of a community of security professionals who work together, not just for the interests of their own company, but for security in general,” says Buckland.

There is a huge supply and demand problem for cybersecurity professionals. A recent report by US-based market research company Cybersecurity Ventures estimates cybercrime cost companies US$4 trillion in 2015, and is set to rise to US$8 trillion annually by 2021. 

It’s a criminal epidemic that can only be fought by cybersecurity experts, a profession that is itself growing at a rate of 18% annually, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Cisco estimates there are more than a million unfilled security jobs worldwide. “In the early days, companies just repurposed rebels and old-style malcontent hackers, dressing them in suits and paying them lots of money,” says Buckland. “That was a really great solution. Until the pool ran dry.”

Now that cybersecurity experts need to be mass produced, the burden is falling to universities. “But no one worldwide really knows how to do it – there isn’t yet expertise on training up the rebels and breakers you want.” 

Teaching the mindset of a hacker via cybersecurity MOOC

To help quench demand, Buckland is developing a series of massive open online courses (MOOCs) for anyone to learn cybersecurity, as part of a A$1.6 million SEC.EDU partnership with the Commonwealth Bank of Australia to expand UNSW’s cybersecurity teaching resources and curriculum.

Already, almost 20,000 budding cyber defenders have signed up to the introductory cybersecurity MOOC, 60% of them from Australia, ranging from information technology professionals wanting to brush up on the latest technical knowhow, to schoolchildren – even miners and taxi drivers who want to reskill.

Perhaps most crucial are the many teachers and lecturers taking the course, exponentially increasing Buckland’s reach. “For university academics who have been brought up in a traditional non-hacker way, cyber is a little bit scary to teach,” he says. “Academics can borrow our lecture notes and course materials, or just be influenced to – I hope – become believers in the particular way we teach cyber.”  

Buckland’s cybersecurity MOOC is hosted on Open Learning, Australia’s first MOOC provider and a company he co-founded in 2012 with former student and now chief executive Adam Brimo. Designed to deliver more engaging courses online, the platform features lecture videos and exercises, along with wikis and social media-style technologies to allow people to interact and collaborate.

And Buckland is not just focusing on young adults and professionals. Aiming to instil a cybersecurity mentality at an early age, he goes into primary schools to teach kids the basic mindset of a hacker and how to protect against cybercrime. “I’m trying to get the kids to scam each other in a controlled way, because I think then they get to understand how scams work and how to be defensive against them.”

– Ben Skuse

Featured image: Suzanne Elworthy

Read about the collaborative opportunities presented by cybersecurity challenges here.

photovoltaic research

The sunshine factory

Featured image above: World record holder Xiaojing Hao with CZTS thin-film cells atop the Tyree Energy Technologies Building at UNSW’s Kensington campus.

Xiaojing Hao couldn’t sleep. Two weeks earlier, the UNSW engineer had sent a thin black tile, barely the size of a fingernail, to the US for testing, and she was waiting anxiously for the results. Her PhD students were equally on edge.

It was midnight when Hao checked her email one more time. It was official: her team had broken a solar cell world efficiency record. “I was full of joy at the achievement,” Hao recalls. “I shared the good news with my team immediately – we made it!”

Hao’s thin black tile had become the newest champion in the solar cell race: one of seven world records UNSW photovoltaics researchers broke in 2016. Efficiency records are not just notches in the scientists’ belts. The more sunlight solar cells can convert, the less manufacturing, transport, installation and wiring is needed to deliver each watt – moving solar energy closer and closer to knocking coal off its perch as the cheapest form of energy.

UNSW photovoltaics researchers, led by Martin Green – often dubbed the ‘father of photovoltaics’  – have held world records for efficiencies in solar cells in 30 of the past 33 years. And with its strong track record in research commercialisation, UNSW’s prototype technology is setting the trends for the commercial solar market.

Meanwhile, their focus is on developing the next generation of solar cells – pushing forward to a zero-emission future. 

Martin Green and Wei Zhang measure the adhesion between metal contacts and solar cells.

Making a commercially viable product

Hao moved to Sydney in 2004 from China, where the solar industry is booming. A materials engineer by training, Hao was intrigued by the frontline photovoltaic research on thin-film solar cells at UNSW.

These cells have benefits over the more traditional silicon cells. The manufacturing process doesn’t require high temperature steps. They can also be much thinner than bulky wafer silicon, and so could engender new solar applications: imagine solar-powered electric cars,  building-integrated solar cells or photovoltaic glazing on windows.

So far, the thin-film uptake in the markets has been sluggish: commercial thin-film cells make up only around 8% of the solar market. The problem is that the commercial products available, cadmium telluride and copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS), are made of toxic or rare materials: cadmium is highly toxic and tellurium is about as abundant as gold.

So Hao decided to go back a step. “We’re trying to make the whole world ‘green’, right?” she says. “So, we should choose materials that are non-toxic and cheap, and that would ensure their deployment in the future – without constraint on raw materials.”

Finding a material worth investigating

Her quest for a greener world began in 2011, after she returned from maternity leave. Hao and her PhD supervisor, Martin Green, knew what they were looking for: a mix of elements that would absorb and conduct energy from sunlight, and are commonly found in nature.

“We worked our way through the periodic table for materials that met those criteria – CZTS was the one that popped out at you as worthy of investigation,” Green explains.

In 2012 CZTS – copper, zinc, tin and sulphide – was recorded for the first time in the solar cell efficiency tables, an internationally curated list of solar cell performance. Inclusion in the tables means a new cell has been independently tested for efficiency by a recognised test centre, and indicates the new cell has features that will be interesting for the photovoltaic community.

Hao began making her own version of the CZTS cell, looking for defects, ironing out the kinks and pushing efficiencies, bit by bit.

At the basic level, all solar cells absorb photons from sunlight and funnel them into an electric current. Hao discovered that tiny holes in her CZTS cells, formed as the components were baked during production, acted like a roadblock for that charge. By adding a microscopic grid layer through the cells, her team stopped these holes from forming, and raised their efficiency to 7.6% in a 1cm2 cell.

That was Hao’s first world record. By changing the buffer that helps the CZTS cell collect charge, the team could further tweak the current flow and voltage output. This buffer netted Hao another world record in September 2016 – a 9.5% efficiency for a 0.24cm2 cell, beating a 9.1% record previously held by Toyota.

“We’re completely leading CZTS solar cell technology at the moment,” Hao says with a smile.

The energy output of Xiaojing Hao’s CZTS cells are tested.

According to Hao, these records have already sparked interest from Chinese, US partners China Guodian Corp – one of the five largest power producers in China – and Baosteel, the giant state-owned iron and steel company based in Shanghai.

Hao is also in talks with thin-film manufacturers MiaSolé of the US, Sweden’s  Midsummer and Solar Frontier in Japan. The companies are commercial producers of CIGS cells and their production lines use similar methods; Hao says they could easily adapt them
for CZTS production.

Hao believes efficiencies of above 15% will start moving CZTS to the commercial market. She is already well on her way, aiming to bring her CZTS cells to 13% efficiency by 2018.

Taking on the solar cell market

After four decades in photovoltaics research at UNSW, Martin Green has a healthy scepticism when it comes to marrying new breakthrough technologies with commercial markets. “The solar industry is just so huge that you need enormous resources to introduce a new product to the market – and there’s a huge risk associated with that,” he says.

With a firm grip on 90% of the commercial solar cell market, “the situation with silicon is a bit like that of the internal combustion engine,” Green explains. “That engine is not the best fossil fuel engine, but the huge industry supporting it means it has been very difficult to displace.”

But CZTS does not need to compete with silicon – the two can complement each other. Silicon absorbs red light better than blue, while CZTS absorbs blue wavelengths better. A CZTS layer on top of a silicon cell can catch the wavelengths silicon does not use efficiently. Green says the big silicon manufacturers could trial the new CZTS technology by selling these ‘stacked cells’ as a premium product line.

“Companies that are well established would be interested in exploring that space – it just seems like a natural evolutionary path for photovoltaic technology,” he says.

Collaborating with the competition

Just a few labs down the corridor of the Tyree Energy Technologies Building at UNSW’s Kensington campus, Anita Ho-Baillie is working with Green to put another ‘stackable’ thin-film solar cell through its paces.

In 2009, a material called perovskite arrived on the thin-film solar cell stage with an efficiency of 3.8%. Perovskites have since shot up in efficiency ratings faster than any other solar cell technology.

After Ho-Baillie’s team found a new way to apply perovskite to a surface in an even layer, their solar cells broke three more world records in 2016. Her next step is to make perovskites more durable to match the current lifetime of silicon solar cells – an essential prerequisite for large-scale commercial deployment.

Anita Ho-Baillie with her record-setting perovskite cells.

As the leader of the perovskites project in UNSW-based Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics (ACAP), Ho-Baillie stands at the nexus of Australia’s greatest cluster of scientists pushing thin-film technologies forward. 

This alliance consists of six research organisations around Australia: the national research agency, CSIRO; Melbourne’s Monash University and the University of Melbourne; the University of Queensland in Brisbane; the Australian National University in Canberra; and UNSW in Sydney.

ACAP director Martin Green says, “We’ve been able to draw on the expertise of all these groups and come at problems from different angles, so it’s really put us in a good spot internationally”.

Ho-Baillie admits balancing collaboration with competition is tricky in a field where everyone is trying to claim the top spot. “It’s hard, but we find working together really helps,” she says. 

Much like CZTS and other thin films, perovskite cells are flexible, making them a perfect candidate for energy-harvesting glazes on building materials, cars or windows. But Ho-Baillie has even greater ambitions: with their low weight-to-power ratio, perovskites would be perfect for supplying precious energy to spacecraft, where every kilo counts. 

“Perovskites came from nowhere,” she says. “Now I think they will lead us to something that we never even thought would work.”

Improving the cost of solar energy by 150 fold

Thin films are making their mark, but Green is also working to squeeze more energy from sunlight using silicon, smashing two more world records in 2016. Using specialised mirrors and prisms, Mark Keevers from Green’s team pushed silicon cells to collect concentrated sunlight with 40.6% efficiency, and unconcentrated sunlight at 34.5%.

Mark Keevers made silicon cells more efficient using specialised mirrors and prisms.

Although these prototypes are perfect for soaking up photons on solar tower ‘concentrators’ with heavy-duty efficiency, their manufacturing costs are too high to make them viable in the consumer market.

But on the rooftop, silicon is still king. And it’s thanks to plunging costs made possible by a UNSW-led boom in silicon solar cell production in China, which now provides more than half the world’s solar cells.

In 1995, Green and his long-term collaborator Stuart Wenham – along with (then) PhD student Shi Zhengrong – started solar cell company Pacific Solar in Australia.

Solar pioneers Martin Green and Stuart Wenham

After six years racking up a wealth of management and manufacturing know-how, Zhengrong returned to his native China and founded the silicon solar manufacturing company Suntech Power in 2001, using technology developed at UNSW to dramatically reduce costs.

By 2005, Zhengrong became the world’s first ‘solar billionaire’, and a wave of Chinese companies hit the market, following Suntech’s recipe. The global solar industry was growing at an average 41% year-on-year. And within a decade, China’s market share of the global photovoltaic industry had grown from near zero to over 55%. Suntech itself delivered more than 13 million solar panels to 80 countries.

Where photovoltaic solar cells used to deliver one watt for US$76.67 in 1977,  that’s down to just US49¢ today. That’s a 150-fold improvement in the 40 years Green has been in the field.

“Shi was the right person at the right place and the right time to move in both Chinese and Western cultures,” Green says.

“It’s interesting to ponder what would have happened if UNSW hadn’t kick-started the Chinese industry.”

Breaking through the next barrier of photovoltaic research

With plunging module prices, rising efficiencies and more durable cells, why is the world still relying on coal for the lion’s share of its electricity needs? 

Perhaps it’s not the solar technology that we’re waiting for. A fundamental challenge remains: how to store the energy we can now capture from sunlight for later use.

“I think photovoltaics has already reached the tipping point – the efficiency and cost is already able to compete with fossil fuels,” says Wenham. “I think the next breakthrough needs to be in energy storage, to bring down that cost enough to make photovoltaics usable everywhere at any time.”

This doesn’t mean UNSW photovoltaics scientists are calling it a day. Instead, they continue to push silicon to its limits, while new technologies, such as Hao’s record-breaking CZTS tile, are racing to catch up to silicon’s powerhouse.

“Solar technology will continue to be higher-efficiency, lower-cost – and will keep getting better,” says Wenham. “The more we develop photovoltaic technology, the easier the transition will become.”

“We’ve reached a new era where coal is no longer the cheapest way of making electricity – it’s solar,” says Green. “And the exciting thing about that is – I regard solar as still in a very primitive stage of development, so there is plenty more cost reduction to come.”

– Viviane Richter

Photography: Quentin Jones

For more stories at the forefront of engineering research, check out Ingenuity magazine.

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UNSW Women engineering award

UNSW Women in Engineering Awards

They are named for some of Australia’s top research leaders and exemplify commercial outcomes from research. Yet the UNSW Women in Engineering Awards night this year also showed how far there is to go in approaching gender equity in one of the most inequitable fields of employment in Australia.

While some of the world’s leading engineers – responsible for world record solar efficiencies, in high performing perovskite solar cells for example – were recognised through the awards; students, research leaders and industry also heard of the barriers that persist in recruiting young women into engineering.

Engineering skills are central to leadership – trained in analytical approaches, problem solving and focussed on the big picture, it’s a critical path for tomorrow’s leaders.

A problem of supply

In 2016 just 13% of Australian engineers were women. Many come to engineering careers through UNSW Sydney, which as the largest engineering faculty accounts for 20% of the Australian engineering graduates that fill just one-third of the 18,000 engineering positions available each year.

The UNSW Women in Engineering Awards are designed to showcase excellence in engineering and also provide clear role models for young women. The university goes to considerable lengths to improve diversity in student intakes – making individual calls to women offered places at the university to encourage them to accept the offer. 

UNSW Women in Engineering Awards showcases strong role models

The Ada Lovelace Medal for an Outstanding Woman Engineer was awarded to Kathryn Fagg, Reserve Bank board member and President, Chief Executive Women. The Maria Skyllas-Kazacos Young Professional Award for Outstanding Achievement was won by Narelle Underwood, Director of Survey Operations at Spatial Services, a division of the NSW Department of Finance, Services. Prof Cordelia Selomulya, Professor, Monash University was awarded The Judy Raper Award for Leadership.

The UNSW Women in Engineering Awards are named after two of Australia’s leading engineer researchers, Maria Skyllas-Kazacos and Judy Raper.

Maria Skylass-Kazacos is one of Australia’s first female professors in chemical engineering. Judy Raper is ‎Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at University of Wollongong.

The award attributions are included below.

The Ada Lovelace Medal for an Outstanding Woman Engineer

Kathryn Fagg is a chemical engineer by training who has held technical and leadership roles in the petroleum, banking, steel-making and logistics sectors. She now serves on the board of the Reserve Bank of Australia, is Chairman at Melbourne Recital Centre, and holds Non-executive Director roles at Boral, Djerriwarrh Investments, Incitec Pivot and Breast Cancer Network of Australia. She also serves as President of Chief Executive Women and speaks publicly on issues relating to gender equity in business.

The Judy Raper Award for Leadership

Cordelia Selomulya UNSW women engineering awards

Professor Cordelia Selomulya leads the Monash Biotechnology and Food Engineering group and is director of both the Australia-China Joint Research Centre for Future Dairy Manufacturing, and the Graduate Industry Research Partnership for the Food and Dairy industry. Professor Selomulya leads the Monash Advanced Particle Engineering Laboratory in interdisciplinary research on the design of nanoparticle vaccines and mesoporous materials. She has designed a more efficient DNA vaccine delivery system for malaria using magnetic nanoparticles, revealed the role of nanoparticle adjuvants for ovarian cancer vaccines, and developed multi-stage vaccines for malaria.

The Maria Skyllas-Kazacos Young Professional Award for Outstanding Achievement

Narelle Underwood UNSW women engineering awards

Narelle Underwood is the Surveyor-General of NSW and Director of Survey Operations at Spatial Services, a division of the NSW Department of Finance, Services and Innovation. She is the first woman to ever be appointed to the role in any Australian state. As Surveyor General she is the President of the Board of Surveying and Spatial Information (BOSSI), Chair of the Geographical Names Board, NSW Surveying Taskforce and the Surveying and Mapping Industry Council.

bacterial biofilms

Molecular warfare

Featured image above: Cyrille Boyer of UNSW’s School of Chemical Engineering. Credit: Quentin Jones

We often picture disease-causing bacteria as an invading army of individual cells. But in fact, these pathogens find strength in numbers, glomming onto each other and coating the surfaces around them in near-indestructible protective sheets called biofilms.  

These biofilms pose an enormous problem in medicine. They can form directly on lungs, wounds or other living tissue, and can contaminate medical devices such as catheters, prosthetic joints and other implants. Food production, water treatment, and other industrial facilities can also fall victim to their powers. Many types of biofilms resist antibiotics, and the bacteria they’re built from churn out toxins that make their human hosts sick. Yet, no good way exists to destroy them. 

Cyrille Boyer, a polymer chemist and Co-Director of the Australian Centre for Nanomedicine at UNSW in collaboration with Dr Nicolas Barraux, believes that a nanomaterial he designed – a polymer-coated iron oxide particle that heats up when a magnetic field is applied – can provide a solution.

In December 2015, he and his colleagues reported in Nature’s open access journal Scientific Reports that using these nanoparticles to raise the temperature of a biofilm by just a few degrees caused it to break apart.

bacterial biofilm

bacterial biofilm
Biofilm of staphylococcus aureus (or ‘golden staph’) on a catheter; bloodstream infections with this bacteria kill 20 to 35% of patients within a year.

Solo-swimming bacteria are much more susceptible to antibiotics, Boyer explains, so the researchers could then send in another type of particle to deliver medicine that kills off the bugs. They are now planning on testing the particles in live mice and discussing a potential partnership with a company interested in taking the method into clinical development.  

Polymer chemist Eva Harth from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, describes it as an out-of-the-box strategy to treat a long-intractable problem.

This paper shows that a polymer construct can be much more effective than a traditional drug,” she says. 

“There’s an enormous need for new technologies” for breaking up biofilms, says Rodney Dolan, Director of the Biofilms Laboratory at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “It’s a very creative, very interesting approach, particularly combining particles with magnetic fields to localise and control the effect.” 

Smart, easy, elegant solution

Boyer is a master of materials, and his specialty is controlling the effects of the nanoparticles and polymers he creates.

“In my team, we are looking at how to make smarter nanoparticles, where the nanoparticle acts in response to an external signal,” he says.

In 2015, Boyer was awarded the Australian Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year for his work using light to catalyse the assembly of polymers with distinct properties. Although the biofilm-busting technique doesn’t employ light, it’s right in line with Boyer’s vision of building ‘smart’ particles whose behaviour can be controlled for therapeutic purposes.  

Boyer created his iron oxide particles in response to a discovery made by microbiologist Nicolas Barraud at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, France. The two met by chance, when Barraud, then based at UNSW, was attending a conference out of town. He popped
in on a talk Boyer was giving about polymers that release nitric oxide.
“It was a serendipitous meeting,” he says. “We realised we were working at the same university, a few buildings across.”  

Barraud was studying the basic properties of biofilm formation and dispersal, and had recently discovered that nitric oxide could break up biofilms. Back in Sydney, he asked Boyer if he could try the polymers described in the talk. Boyer was happy to comply, and the approach worked relatively well, according to both researchers.

They published a couple of papers, filed a patent, and are still pursuing the project — but the drawback was that nitric oxide is a gas, which makes it difficult to spatially and temporally control its release.

Barraud had also discovered that giving biofilms a tiny temperature boost made the bacteria move and shake, ultimately disbanding them, but he couldn’t work out how to apply the discovery. Then one day, over a beer, Boyer mentioned that he could create particles that induce local heating. “I’ve worked with chemists before,” Barraud says, “and usually as soon as you get into the lab you run into problems. But with Cyrille’s polymer, it was very straightforward,” he says.  

That’s because in this project and others, Boyer focuses on identifying simple, well-worked-out polymerisation methods that can be used in specific applications. “Very precise materials that are easy to make – that’s the key,” says Harth. “It’s smart, easy, and elegant – that’s what he’s after.”

– Alla Katsnelson

For more stories at the forefront of engineering research, check out Ingenuity magazine.

Recommended for you: The Sunshine Factory

lost satellite

Lost satellite?

Featured image above: the Nanoracks CubeSat launcher on the Japanese arm of the International Space Station

The first Australian satellite in 15 years, UNSW-EC0, was successfully deployed from the International Space Station, but the UNSW engineers who built it were unable to establish contact when it made its first pass above Sydney.

UNSW-EC0 was ejected from the station at 3:25pm AEST on 26 May, and made its first pass over Sydney at 4:21pm. Engineers at UNSW’s Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER) were unable to pick up the signal it is meant to send to confirm the cubesat is operating as designed.

“We’re not overly concerned yet,” said Elias Aboutanios, project leader of the UNSW-EC0 cubesat and deputy director of ACSER. “We’re troubleshooting a number of scenarios for why we didn’t detect it, from checking our ground equipment to exploring the possibility that the batteries might have discharged. But at the moment, we just don’t know.”

“If it is the batteries, the satellite has solar panels and will be able to recharge,” said Joon Wayn Cheong, a research associate at UNSW’s School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications and technical lead of the UNSW-EC0 cubesat. “But because it was deployed in the Earth’s shadow, we have to wait for it to make a few orbits before it has recharged, especially if it’s tumbling. So it could be 24 to 48 hours.”

The International Space Station, or ISS, will make four more passes over Sydney on Friday 25 May, and the UNSW team of 15 researchers and students will again try to establish contact, and run a series of tests for scenarios to explain the lack of a signal.

UNSW-EC0 is one of three Australian research satellites – two of them built at the UNSW – that blasted off just after on April 19 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Its mission is to explore the little-understood region above Earth known as the thermosphere, study its atomic composition as well as test new robust computer chips and GPS devices developed at UNSW.

In addition, its chassis is made entirely from 3D-printed thermoplastic, itself an experiment to test the reliability of using  3D-printing to manufacture satellites, making them cheaper and much more customisable.

The cubesat is part of an international QB50 mission, a swarm of 36 small satellites – known as ‘cubesats’ and weighing about 1.3 kg each – that will carry out the most extensive measurements ever undertaken of the thermosphere, a region between 200 and 380 km above Earth. This poorly-studied and usually inaccessible zone of the atmosphere helps shield Earth from cosmic rays and solar radiation, and is vital for communications and weather formation.

“These are the first Australian satellites to go into space in 15 years,” said Andrew Dempster, director of ACSER at UNSW, and a member of the advisory council of the Space Industry Association of Australia. “There have only been two before: Fedsat in 2002 and WRESAT in 1967. So we’ve got more hardware in space today than Australia’s had in its history.”

UNSW-EC0 was deployed from the ISS from a Nanoracks launcher, a ‘cannon’ that eject cubesats at a height of 380 km (the same as the ISS), allowing them to drift down to a lower orbit where they can begin their measurements.

“This zone of the atmosphere is poorly understood and really hard to measure,” said Aboutanios. “It’s where much of the ultraviolet and X-ray radiation from the Sun collides with Earth, influencing our weather, generating auroras and creating hazards that can affect power grids and communications.

“So it’s really important we learn a lot more about it. The QB50 cubesats will probably tell us more than we’ve ever known about the thermosphere,” he added.

QB50 is a collaboration of more than 50 universities and research institutes in 23 countries, headed by the von Karman Institute (VKI) in Belgium. “This is the very first international real-time coordinated study of the thermosphere phenomena,” said VKI’s Davide Masutti. “The data generated by the constellation will be unique in many ways and they will be used for many years by scientists around the world.”

This article was first published by UNSW Engineering. Read the original article here.

science policy

Make your expertise available

Featured image: President of Science & Technology Australia, Professor Jim Piper (left), hosts a meeting between Science meets Parliament delegates and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (centre) in 2016

Darren, what’s your particular area of research and how can it help to inform policy in Australia?

I am a medical researcher, working to understand the biology of cancer and neurodegeneration, and use that knowledge to design new therapies. Both diseases have a huge health and financial impact in Australia and internationally, and with an ageing population this impact will only increase, with obvious implications for health funding and policy.

When you first attended Science meets Parliament, how did you prepare for your research pitch?

I really didn’t know what to expect so I was actually pretty underprepared. I won’t make that mistake this time!

Did your pitch have the desired outcome? What would you do differently next time?

I had a great discussion with a Greens senator from Western Australia who had a strong interest in environmental issues. We talked about the importance of science in understanding the environment and gathering data as a foundation for drafting good evidence-based policy in areas such as fisheries management and forestry. In some ways I didn’t really have to do much convincing! 

This time I plan to research the electorate of the parliamentarians I’ll meet and the issues that might be important in that context. I’ll make sure I understand the issues they have flagged as important to them and think about how my background and research interests might align with those issues. I also plan to ask them questions to find common ground for discussion.

Describe your experience at Science meets Parliament (SmP). What did you think of the event?

I was really enthused by SmP, and impressed by the level engagement of the politicians and policymakers who attended. I found it an invaluable learning experience and a fantastic opportunity to meet scientists across a broad spectrum of specialities.

Seeing the workings of government up close (if only briefly) was a real eye opener and the various briefings and workshops were constructive and informative. I still draw on the things I learnt there.

In many ways it was a catalyst to me becoming much more interested and active in science policy and communication.

What advice do you have for other researchers who are trying to turn their knowledge into action?

Keep a constructive mindset and focus on how science might help, rather than just presenting a list of problems or complaints.

Listen to the concerns and issues that are important and make yourself available as a source of expertise and advice on the process and outcomes of science by fostering relationships.

Be aware that politics and policy development work to different timelines and use different language to science.

Try to take a bipartisan approach.

What have been the major challenges in getting your science heard by policymakers in Australia, and how have you overcome them?

The most difficult barriers to progress have been the relatively regular turnover of ministers, a challenging funding environment (which always seems to dominate discussions) and hostile attitudes to evidence and rejection of “expertise” in some quarters. 

Overcoming these is really challenging and incredibly time-consuming. My approach is to attempt to build dialogue wherever possible, and to be proactive in making science relevant and interesting to the general public.

I take every opportunity I can to tell people about the outcomes and process of science. Public support for science might eventually translate into it being heard at the policy level.

How do you think the relationship between science and politics in Australia compares with other countries, and what lessons could we take from overseas?

I believe we can learn a lot from other countries. For example, we could benefit from aspects of science and policy partnering schemes employed in the UK, science diplomacy schemes in the US, and the appointment of ministers with relevant experience and qualifications in places like Canada.

Most government departments in the UK have a Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) to provide scientific advice and PhD students can undertake three-month internship placements in the Government Office for Science.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) have a Centre for Science Diplomacy which aims to use to promote scientific cooperation as an essential element of foreign policy.

What are you most looking forward to at Science meets Parliament this year, and what do you hope to see more of in the future?

I look forward to meeting interesting and driven people, gaining new insights and hopefully gaining some traction with politicians about the importance of science and its ability to help drive the health and prosperity of Australians.

Click here to find out more about Science meets Parliament.

cyber security

Cyber warfare: a battle plan

The Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) 2016 Threat Report, just released, has some concerning details about the state of Australia’s cyber security. The report highlights the ubiquitous nature of cyber crime in Australia, the potential of cyber terrorism, and the vulnerability of data stored on government and commercial networks.

Several factors are driving these vulnerabilities. And there is considerable work to do to address them.

The cause

A big driver is the maturation and “professionalisation” of cyber criminals. They have businesses, plans, and online fora (support services offered in many languages). There are even services a potential criminal can easily hire – with botnets used for DDoS attacks going for as little as A$50. DDoS stands for Distributed Denial of Service, and involves attackers sending swarms of bots to overwhelm networks. Recently, DDoS attacks have been getting extremely powerful.

Eugene Kaspersky, chief executive of security group Kaspersky Lab, recently explained that:

“as the criminals mature in their operations, the criminals are now offering … “crime-as-a-service” … they are now moving to attacking transportation, and manufacturing … criminals are now hacking coal mine haulage trains, to steal coal or decreasing temperatures inside fuel tanks to steal 3% of fuel with every tank.”

The internet is a weapon

We have reached the stage at which the internet has been weaponised. This word was previously only used to discuss events such as Stuxnet, which was a cyber attack on an Iranian nuclear facility thought to be carried out by the United States and Israel. I would suggest we can extend this concept and realise that the internet’s corporate, personal and government systems now resemble weapons and weapon systems.

An old-fashioned criminal with a gun could hold up a bank and take customers’ money. Today’s criminal, depending on the size of their network-based “weapon”, can take our money, our data, our secrets, or disempower us by disabling our electricity, gas or water supply.

We are beyond a point of no return in our reliance on computers and networks, and the demand for innovation in technology is heightening our cyber security problem all the time.

So what should we do?

In a recent discussion paper, my colleague Greg Austin and I wrote:

“When it comes to addressing threats from advanced technologies, since Australia is a free and open society facing few enemies, and none that are powerful, the country has been … behind the pace. Awareness in the broader community and even in leadership circles of the threats from advanced technology is quite weak.”

We commended the Turnbull government, its innovation strategy, its Defence White Paper, and its Cyber Security Strategy. However, we also noted that:

“…there is a large gap between US assessments of advanced technology threats and the Australian government’s public assessments. These gaps have important policy implications, as well as negative impacts on the security and prosperity to Australians… The country’s education and training policy needs to make giant steps, of which an enhanced STEM approach is only one, and one that will have no strong pay-offs in the next decade at least.”

We are in a situation where Australia greatly lacks a trained and experienced cyber security workforce. Existing staff are fully stretched. We have only a trickle of students in the right disciplines in the VET and Higher Education pipelines. We also lack a local cyber security industry and we find that cyber security solutions are largely supplied by the United States, Israel, Europe, and Russia. We are forced to believe the vendors’ rhetoric rather than rely on local expertise.

A checklist for national cyber security

To remedy this situation we created a checklist for effective response to the cyber security situation that exists nationally:

  1. The states and Commonwealth should commit to a fast track process to set up a national cyber crime fighting unit to capture and convict more cyber criminals. This should include research staff, funded to at least $20 million per year for ten years.
  2. Australia needs to consider creating a National Cyber Security College to get focus and concentrate expertise. Such a body could help generate the following necessary actions:
  • Establish nationally approved undergraduate curricula across a range of disciplines in cyber security, using rewards to ensure that teaching is carried out to some national established standard.
  • Establish TAFE curricula at Certificate 1-6 since not all jobs are for graduates.
  • Determine a transition plan so professionals from a range of specified disciplines can be upskilled and converted into cyber security professionals.
  • Devise a dedicated, well-funded plan to generate the 8,000 to 10,000 cyber security professionals needed in the next few years.
  • Consider developing a private system and sector-specific initiatives for hybrid education initiatives around the country.

We would not leave our houses unlocked and allow criminals to walk in and steal our possessions. We now need to come up with clever ways of securing the cyber world and protecting Australians and our economy.

– Jill Slay

Director, Australian Centre for Cyber Security, UNSW Australia

This article was first published by The Conversation on October 12 2016. Read the original article here.

gender equality in research

Gender equality in research and physics

The underrepresentation of women in the STEM research sector in Australia is a significant issue. I acknowledge, with some degree of shame, that my own core discipline of physics is one of the worst offenders.

Data from the ARC’s latest Excellence in Research for Australia round indicates that women represent only 16% of academic levels A–E in the physics discipline. As with all other Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) disciplines, the fraction is even worse in higher levels — only 10% of physics professorial staff are women.

While this fraction is probably representative of physics around the world, there are some interesting exceptions. For example, in France, the overall rate of women in physics is much stronger (around 26%). As a practitioner of nuclear physics, I was always struck by the much stronger presence of women in that sub-discipline in France. Of course, France has the presence of Marie Curie, who was awarded two Nobel prizes for her contributions to physics and chemistry. Clearly role models matter!

It is with this in mind that at least two dedicated fellowships for exceptional women researchers are awarded under the ARC’s Australian Laureate Fellowships scheme each round. One of these, the Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellowship, is awarded to a female researcher in science and technology. The award is won on the basis of merit, but these researchers are given extra funding to assist them to undertake an ambassadorial role to promote women in research and to mentor early career researchers.


“Australia’s research institutions need to take joint responsibility for the progression and retention of women in the research workforce.”


Australian Laureate Fellows, such as Professors Veena Sahajwalla and Michelle Simmons from UNSW Australia and Professor Nalini Joshi from The University of Sydney, are tremendous role models and are actively encouraging and supporting women to undertake careers in STEM. A fantastic example of this is the Science 50:50 programme, led by Sahajawalla, which aims to inspire Australian girls and young women to pursue degrees and careers in science and technology.

This is a start, but it is not enough. I have been determined to strengthen the ARC’s commitment to gender equality in research through a number of initiatives. We have achieved relatively even success rates for women and men across the schemes of the National Competitive Grants Programme, but we still need significant improvements in the participation rate of women in research.

While the ARC can promote and monitor gender equality in research, Australia’s research institutions need to take joint responsibility for the progression and retention of women in the research workforce. That is why it has been so encouraging to see the research sector’s very strong response to the Science and Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot. This is surely a pivotal step forward, and one we should all support to ensure it succeeds.

Professor Aidan Byrne

Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Research Council (ARC)

Read next: Macquarie University’s Professor Barbara Messerle highlights the need to celebrate cross-disciplinary role models who have paved non-linear careers from foundations in STEM.

People and careers: Meet women who’ve paved brilliant careers in STEM here, find further success stories here and explore your own career options at postgradfutures.com.

Spread the word: Help Australian women achieve successful careers in STEM! Share this piece on gender equality in research using the social media buttons below.

More Thought Leaders: Click here to go back to the Thought Leadership Series homepage, or start reading the Graduate Futures Thought Leadership Series here.

research commercialisation awards

Research commercialisation awards

Featured image above: Dr Alastair Hick, KCA Chair and Jasmine Vreugdenburg (UniSA), winner of the Best Entrepreneurial Support Initiative and People’s Choice Award at KCA’s Research Commercialisation Awards. Credit: KCA

The University of New South Wales (UNSW), Curtin University (WA) and the University of South Australia (UniSA) were winners at the Knowledge Commercialisation Australasia (KCA) Research Commercialisation Awards, announced at its annual conference dinner in Brisbane.

Success lay with UNSW which won Best Commercial Deal for securing $20 million capital investment from Zhejian Handian Graphene Tech; Curtin University for the Best Creative Engagement Strategy with The Cisco Internet of Everything Innovation Centre; and UniSA won Best Entrepreneurial Initiative and the People’s Choice Award for its Venture Catalyst which supports student led start-ups.

“These awards recognise research organisations’ success in creatively transferring knowledge and research outcomes into the broader community.  They also help raise the profile of research organisations’ contribution to the development of new products and services which benefit wider society and have the potential that develop the companies that may grow new knowledge based industries in Australia,” says KCA Executive Officer, Melissa Geue.

KCA Chairman and Director of Monash innovation at Monash University, Dr Alastair Hick, says it is important that commercialising research successes are celebrated and made public.

“KCA member organisations work incredibly hard at developing new ways to get technology and innovation out into industry being developed into the products and services of tomorrow. These awards recognise that hard work and also that we must develop new ways of improving the interface between public sector research and industry.

“I am also excited that KCA members are playing an increasing role in helping the entrepreneurs of tomorrow. It is essential that we help develop their entrepreneurial skills and give them the opportunities in an environment where they can learn from skilled and experienced mentors,” says Hick.

Research Commercialisation Awards – winning initiatives

Best Commercial Deal

Zhejian Hangdian Graphene Tech Co (ZHGT) – University of New South Wales (UNSW)

This is an initiative to fund and conduct research on cutting-edge higher efficiency voltage power cables, known as graphene, and on super-capacitors. With $20M capital investment by the Chinese corporation Hangzhou Cable Co., Ltd (HCCL), and UNSW contributing intellectual property as a 20% partner, the objectives are to execute the deal through research and development; manufacturing of research outcomes in Hangzhou; and finally commercialisation.                                                                                                             

Best Creative Engagement Strategy

Cisco Internet of Everything Innovation Centre – Curtin University

The Cisco Internet of Everything Innovation Centre, co-founded by Cisco, Curtin University and Woodside Energy Ltd, is a new industry and research collaboration centre designed to foster co-innovation. With a foundation in radioastronomy, supercomputing and software expertise, it is growing a state-of-the-art connected community focused on leveraging data analytics, cybersecurity and digital transformation network platforms to solve industry problems. The Centre combines start-ups, small–medium enterprises, industry experts, developers and researchers in a collaborative open environment to encourage experimentation, innovation and development through brainstorming, workshops, proof-of-concept and rapid prototyping. By accelerating innovation in next-generation technologies, it aims to help Australian businesses thrive in this age of digital disruption.

Best Entrepreneurial Initiative

Venture Catalyst Program – UniSA

Venture Catalyst supports student led start-ups by providing up to $50k to the new enterprise as a grant. The scheme targets current and recent graduates who have a high tolerance for risk and an idea for a new business venture that is both novel and scalable. The scheme takes an ‘IP and equity free’ approach and encourages students to collaborate with different disciplines and externals to encourage a diverse skill set for the benefit of the new venture. Venture Catalyst is a collaboration between the UniSA and the South Australian Government, and is supported through UniSA Ventures as well as representatives from industry and experienced entrepreneurs.

This year’s Research Commercialisation Awards were judged by commercial leaders of innovation:  Erol Harvey, CEO, MiniFab, Dan Grant, PVC Industry Engagement, LaTrobe University and Anna Rooke, CEO, QUT Creative Enterprise Australia.

About Knowledge Commercialisation Australasia (KCA)

Knowledge Commercialisation Australasia (KCA) is the peak body leading best practice in industry engagement, commercialisation and entrepreneurship for research organisations. They achieve this through delivery of stakeholder connections, professional development and advocacy.

This information was first shared by Knowledge Commercialisation Australasia on 2 September 2016. See all finalists here

commercialisation

Is commercialisation the dark side?

As an avid Star Wars fan I’d like to explore the topic of research commercialisation using terms that a Jedi Knight would recognise.

The Federal Government is seeking a better return on its sizeable investment in research through:

  • better commercialisation of research
  • more engagement between researchers and industry, and
  • changing the requirements for funding for research institutions and the incentives for researchers.

To some, this push for a more commercial and applied approach to research is like the Emperor urging Luke Skywalker to embrace the dark side of the force.

Like a Jedi apprentice, I began my science degree because of my love of science and desire to make a difference. I was not interested in doing a business degree or any degree that would purely maximise my salary prospects.

I chose an honours project close to my heart, involving ‘cis-platinum’ chemotherapy for breast cancer, with which my aunt had been recently diagnosed. Unfortunately the project was given to a student who was less passionate about it, but had a higher grade point average than me.

I was forced to find an alternative project. Seeking something with a practical application, I changed universities and chose a project sponsored by a company seeking a solution to a problem. My honours thesis titled ‘The wettability of rough surfaces’ looked at why roughening a surface could make it more hydrophobic for practical applications in non-stick surfaces.

When I started work at ANSTO, in a role that was half research and half business development, I was tasked with creating a spin-off business involving one of the research instruments.

As I was introduced to other research staff, a term came up that I was familiar with, but not in a work context. Some researchers referred to me as having moved to the “dark side”.  This was said as a joke, but it stemmed from an underlying belief that anyone associated with commercialisation, or engaging with industry regularly, was doing something wrong.

The implication was that there was something suspect about me for being involved in this type of activity, ‘tainted’ by commerce.

Being older and – I’d like to think – somewhat wiser, I now reflect that, had I continued along the pathway of medical research into breast cancer, perhaps I would have made an amazing discovery that could have saved many lives. But for my research to result in a cure would require the involvement of commercialisation experts – the kind of person I have become.

Between a cancer research discovery and a cured patient lies the long and arduous process of commercialisation which requires a team-based approach, where research and commercial staff work collaboratively.

I know now that being responsible for industry engagement, or commercialisation of a project rather than the research, does not mean my work is any less important, pure or noble. I’m using my strongest skills in the best way to have a positive impact for humanity, in my own way.

Commercialisation experts are not the Sith, we bring balance to the force by forging new Australian industries and actively training young researchers in the ways of industry, for research alone cannot achieve a better future.

I believe commercialisation is not the Dark Side, it is A New Hope.

– Natalie Chapman, Managing Director, gemaker

commercialisation

Natalie Chapman is a commercialisation and marketing expert with more than 15 years of experience turning innovative ideas and technologies into thriving businesses.

She co-founded her company gemaker in 2011 after almost a decade leading business development and marketing projects at ANSTO and, in 2013, won a Stevie Award for Female Entrepreneur of the Year in Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

Natalie specialises in mining, new materials, environmental and ICT technologies. She takes technologies from research through to start-up, assisting her clients with commercialisation strategy, building licensing revenue, securing funding grants, tenders and engaging with industry.

Natalie also heads corporate communications at ASX-listed mining and exploration company Alkane Resources and is responsible for attracting investment, government relations and marketing communications.

Natalie has a Bachelor of Science with honours (Chemistry) from the University of New South Wales and a Master of Business Administration (Marketing) from the University of Wollongong.