5 ways Australian university science drives the energy transformation

May 17, 2024

Research and innovation across diverse disciplines are accelerating our journey to cleaner, more sustainable energy.

Image: Shutterstock

1. Geology: Unearthing critical elements

Geologists are crucial to the green energy transition, discovering and sustainably extracting critical minerals like lithium and cobalt, essential for battery technology. Innovative geophysical techniques and remote sensing technology are revealing deposits with lower environmental impact. 

Research in action: Researchers at the University of Adelaide have discovered why rocks called cold eclogites vanished from geological records over a billion years ago. This fundamental science suggests new methods for locating critical minerals by examining rock chemistry changes during this period. 

2. Biology: Fuelling the future with biofuels

Biologists are advancing sustainable energy through genetic modifications of algae and plants, boosting biofuel production efficiency and cutting reliance on fossil fuels. These biofuels are remarkable for their superior yield, producing far more oil per acre than traditional crops. 

Research in action: University of Queensland researchers, together with the Technical University of Munich, have sped up the process for turning sugarcane into a key green aviation fuel ingredient. This opens doors for producing sustainable plastics, rubbers and food additives more efficiently. 

3. Chemistry: Transforming energy storage and conversion

Chemistry is advancing toward net zero, innovating battery technologies like sodium-sulfur and solid-state systems, crucial for renewable energy and electric vehicles. These enhance energy storage and conversion, vital for integrating renewables and improving vehicle safety and efficiency.

Research in action: In April 2023, QUT deployed Australia’s first large-scale sodium-sulfur battery at a WA mine site, showcasing a scalable, high-capacity energy storage system that excels in extreme heat. 

4. Physics: Maximising solar cell efficiency

By developing new materials and optimising designs, physicists are pushing solar panels beyond traditional efficiency boundaries. Innovations like integrating
perovskite layers into silicon-based panels are a key breakthrough, enabling next-generation solar panels to absorb a broader spectrum. 

Research in action: In 2020, scientists from UNSW and The University of Sydney produced a new generation of experimental solar cells that pass strict international standards for heat and humidity — an important step towards commercially viable high-efficiency perovskite solar cells. 

5. Maths: Modelling energy systems

Using complex models and algorithms, mathematicians can simulate energy systems, optimise energy network efficiency, and meticulously track our progress towards ambitious climate goals. These models enable us to forecast energy demands, evaluate potential renewable energy sources, and strategise on reducing carbon footprints. 

Research in action: Established in 2017, the One Earth Climate Model (OECM) is a collaboration between the University of Technology Sydney, The University of Melbourne, and the German Aerospace Center. It generates detailed carbon-reduction pathways and strategies for countries, regions and key industries worldwide.

Writer: Gemma Chilton

First published in Australian University Science, Issue 11

Related stories

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *