All posts by Heather Catchpole

AAS awardees

AAS awards 24 outstanding Australian scientists

The scientists’ discoveries are changing the world, including revealing the physics of sea-level change, leading the discovery of gravitational waves, harnessing the immune system to fight cancer, answering unsolved mathematical problems and creating cheap, flexible, stable and non-toxic solar cells.

Emeritus Professor Cheryl Praeger receives the inaugural Ruby Payne-Scott Medal and Lecture. It is one of the Academy’s most prestigious awards and honours Ruby Payne-Scott’s pioneering contribution to radiophysics and radio astronomy.

Professor Praeger’s work on problems of symmetry has led a revolution in mathematics, and the algorithms she developed are used in technology around the world.

She has a long track record of mentoring and inspiring others, supporting women, advocating for mathematics in schools and promoting mathematics in emerging economies.

“I feel very humbled to receive the inaugural Ruby Payne-Scott Medal and I feel it a great honour: Ruby Payne-Scott was a trail-blazer for women in science,” said Professor Praeger.

“Along with all women who have had the opportunity of a life-long career in STEM, I feel enormous gratitude to Ruby for her courage in fighting against the restrictions which prevented this for married women in the 1950s.

 “Although I never had the opportunity of meeting Ruby, I am grateful to have known and worked with her son, mathematician Peter Hall.”

Professor Andrew Holmes is the recipient of the Academy’s other Premier award, the 2021 Matthew Flinders Medal and Lecture.

Professor Holmes is recognised for his world-leading contributions to materials science and biology, including plastics that emit light when sandwiched between electrodes connected to a power source—technology that forms the basis of flexible OLED televisions and plastic solar cells.

“Printed plastic solar technology is certainly going to be a technology in the [energy] marketplace,” said Professor Holmes, in a video published today to highlight his award.

“It has the advantage that it’s lightweight, it’s flexible and, in principle, it’s significantly cheaper than the silicon solar cell technology.”

In the career awards, Professor John Endler and Professor Susanne von Caemmerer are each awarded the inaugural Suzanne Cory Medal, which honours the former Academy president and molecular biologist.

Professor John Endler, a world-leading evolutionary biologist, has pioneered the field of sensory ecology, which explores how an animal’s environment helps determine how their specific senses and signals evolve.

Professor von Caemmerer, an expert in the processes underpinning how plant leaves use CO2, has changed the way we think about photosynthesis. Her research, aimed at improving photosynthesis in crops to increase their yields and adapt to climate change, is now applied worldwide.

One of the early-career researchers also honoured this year is Dr Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, a world expert on heatwaves—their causes, impacts and how they are changing as the earth warms.

She led a global study that found heatwaves have been increasing in frequency since 1950, and receives the 2021 Dorothy Hill Medal, which honours Australia’s first woman professor.

President of the Australian Academy of Science, Professor John Shine, said the research of this year’s awardees is at the forefront of science, not only in Australia but around the world.

“While many of these researchers are having direct impacts on our technology and everyday lives, others are pushing the boundaries of basic research—both of which are vital to the advancement of science.

“The Academy is proud to honour such a diverse range of researchers this year, reflecting the people driving Australian science.”

The Academy’s 2021 honorific awards go to: 

Premier honorifics

Career honorifics

Mid-career honorifics

Early-career honorifics

The awards will be presented in online ceremonies over the course of the year.

Read more about each of the Academy’s 2021 honorific awardees. 

CSIRO acting chief scientist Sarah Pearce

CSIRO moves to Open Access research

CSIRO Acting Chief Scientist, Dr Sarah Pearce.

The changes represent significant and coordinated steps towards Open Access for a research organisation in Australia, and will see CSIRO lead the way in removing paywalls and enabling unrestricted access to its research in scientific journals, instead of readers paying journals to access CSIRO’s published research.

The global shift towards Open Access aims to democratise science by ensuring research is available to everyone, not just those with journal subscriptions.

Moving barriers

The 100-year-old organisation has begun the journey towards Open Access, expected to take a number of years, by signing transformative ‘read and publish’ agreements with publishers including American Institute of Physics, Company of Biologists, Elsevier, Microbiology Society, Royal Society, and Royal Society of Chemistry to publish CSIRO science for readers to access for free – many of which are the first of their kind in Australia.

CSIRO’s editorially independent publishing business, CSIRO Publishing, also offers Open Access arrangements, including this month signing a number of agreements with the Council of Australian University Librarians (CAUL) member institutions, as well as with CSIRO itself.

CSIRO Acting Chief Scientist, Dr Sarah Pearce, said CSIRO was removing barriers to access and increasing opportunities for their published research to make a difference in the world.

“At a time when people around the world are turning to science for answers, we’re proud to be making more and more of our published research openly available,” Dr Pearce said.

“In this way, everyone can read the science themselves and increase the impact of our research.

“At the same time, we must maintain the very highest standards of peer review and publishing practices, so finding a viable way to transition the model for journal publishers, like CSIRO Publishing, towards Open Access is exciting.

“We can expand the reach of the outputs of scientific research while ensuring scientific integrity is protected.”

CSIRO Chief Information and Data Officer, Brendan Dalton, encouraged other research institutions to join the movement.

“As the national science agency, sharing our research with the world is essential to supporting national and international research excellence and fostering collaboration, so we’re proud to have signed a number of transformative agreements already, and look forward to increasing this number over the coming years as contracts come up for renewal,” Mr Dalton said.

“Open Access ensures we can solve the greatest challenges by sharing new knowledge across borders, across industries, and across communities to stimulate innovation, deliver social benefits and drive economic prosperity.”

This piece was originally published by CSIRO. View CSIRO’s Open Access Position Statement

CSIRO Publishing’s Open Access approach

Government calls for consultation on uni research fund

Can universities do more – or get more help – in commercialising research to drive the economic growth we need post COVID-19? And how can we facilitate more collaboration between university research and business? It might sound like a familiar refrain, after the $1.1 billion NISA (National Innovation and Science Agenda) was announced in December 2015.

But NISA petered out after 4 years, and the fact that the questions are being asked – and the consultation is happening – is being welcomed by Australia’s top bodies including Science & Technology Australia and the Australian Council of Deans of Science (ACDS).

Minister the Hon Alan Tudge released the University Research Commercialisation consultation paper on Feb 26 seeking feedback into these questions.

“I want to see new ideas on how we can increase collaboration between business and universities and put our research at the heart of our economic recovery,” Minister Tudge said.

“We want our high-quality research to better translate into the breakthrough products, new businesses and ideas we need to grow our economy and improve our society.

“COVID provides a unique opportunity to reassess university business models and better leverage research to grow our economy and generate Australian jobs.

“I will work with any university that is prepared to take a bold approach.”

It’s time to “level up”

Peak body Science & Technology Australia welcomed the initiative and said university science is ready to “level up”, calling for a $2.4 billion Science Future Fund.

“Australian science is ready, willing and able to answer that call,” said Science & Technology Australia Chief Executive Officer Misha Schubert.

ACDS joined the call for funding similar to the long-established Biomedical Research Translation Fund that fed $500m into medical research translation in 2015-2017.

“We strongly support the proposal for a non-medical research translation fund and a comprehensive long-term national plan for science and technology,” they stated in a press release.

“Such a scheme will enable the great work by University science in areas like environmental science, agriculture, chemistry and physics, to contribute to global challenges like food and water security, climate change, renewable energy and smart materials.”

Release the release here, or click here for a direct link to download the consultation paper.

Technology and plant concept

Bioinformation is about to change the world

“Hey Google, do I need to wear a mask in here?”  Imagine if your personal digital assistant could identify traces of COVID-19 in a room’s air, in real time, and tell you if you needed to take precautions.

Long a staple of science fiction, ‘bio-informational’ tools are poised to change the way we imagine, and interact with, the living world.

In a paper recently published in Nature Communications, Macquarie University’s Thom Dixon, Dr Thomas Williams and Professor Isak (Sakkie) Pretorius take an in-depth look at what enhancements may be coming to a biological system – say, a plant or animal – near you, and sooner than you might have thought.

Dr Thomas Williams, Department of Molecular Sciences; Prof Sakkie Pretorius, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research); Thom Dixon, National Research Assessments Leader.

Future focus: Research authors Dr Thomas Williams, Professor Sakkie Pretorius and Thom Dixon … ensuring SynBio technologies are safe for the planet is key for Macquarie researchers. Photo credit: Michael Amendolia

And in thinking ahead, says Professor Pretorius, “We are also thinking about what will be needed to make sure these technologies are safe for the planet and what the legal and regulatory frameworks need to safeguard society from what the unintended consequences might be.”

It is our responsibility as researchers to imagine what might happen. That way we can guard against the possibility of causing harm through trying to do good.

At the Macquarie-based ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology  scientists are coming up with solutions to global agricultural, food production, manufacturing, healthcare and environmental challenges.

One of the underpinnings of Macquarie’s research framework is consilience – a term taken from biologist E.O. Wilson’s quest for a unified theory of knowledge, spanning from physics and biology to the humanities and social sciences.

For this reason, like Macquarie’s work throughout the ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology, this paper is multi-disciplinary, drawing on the arts and social sciences to examine not just the technical aspects of such revolutionary technology, but the broader implications and potential risk/benefit, to make sure that when these technologies are operational, they are also fit for social and environmental purpose.

Lead author Thom Dixon says: “It is our responsibility as researchers to imagine what might happen, both technologically and more broadly. That way we can guard against the possibility of causing harm through trying to do good.”

Sentinel plants and thought-controlled medicine delivery

The 21st century so far has been a period in which satellites, sensors and medical devices have made remarkable advances, and collected staggering amounts of data. The key word, though, is ‘collected’ – and collection is a one-way process. Information has flowed from the built, natural and living environment into digital systems, with nothing flowing back.

Two-way communication: Imagine a grapevine that could send electrical pulses to a satellite, alerting the vineyard manager to turn the sprinklers on.

But this is beginning to change.

We are now at the point when technology can allow information to flow the other way – from digital systems into living organisms and systems. With the practices and techniques of synthetic biology now being integrated into ‘multiscale’ designs that allow two-way communication across organic and inorganic information systems, biological devices are being reimagined as advanced cyber-physical systems.

Imagine, for example, that a vineyard contains one grape vine – just one – that has an engineered biosensor in its DNA. If that plant was getting low on water, it could send electrical pulses to a satellite, alerting the vineyard manager that it was time to turn the sprinklers on. This solves the problems of both under- and over-watering, optimises water use, and could also optimise yield.

What if we could use engineered gut microbiota, controlled by thought, to release medication on time and in the correct amounts.

The same plant could also potentially monitor air quality. If our hypothetical grape vine was in, for example, the NSW Hunter Valley, where vineyards and coal mines share the land, a sentinel plant could alert both vineyard and mine management if pollutants were escaping.

Or to take another example – what if we could use engineered gut microbiota, controlled by thought (monitored by an EEG) to release medication on time and in the correct amounts? People who are paralysed would no longer need to depend on others being there at the right time when they needed medication.

Over time, this could even be integrated with wearables and smartphones, to enable more sensitive calibration of medication delivery in a far broader range of patients.

Bringing everyone on board for the future

These are technologies for which the potential is truly vast, but they might encounter resistance.

As the article points out, “It remains unclear how those sectors of the public who have traditionally taken an opposition stance to engineering biology will respond to treatments and vaccines that are a product of that discipline and practice.”

The consilience approach is needed to ensure that public concern is anticipated and addressed, Pretorious says.

He stresses that these technologies are not yet practicable. But, he argues: “We need to look 10 to 20 years ahead, so that we’re ready.

“By getting the legal and governance aspects right at the same time as we’re perfecting the science, we make sure we use the technology without risk of harm, because we’ve already thought that through.”

Professor Sakkie Pretorius is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at Macquarie University.

Thom Dixon is a PhD candidate in the Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations.

Dr Thomas Williams is a Research Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology.

This article was originally published on Macquarie University’s Lighthouse website. Read the original article here.

AI can now learn to manipulate human behaviour

Jon Whittle, Data61

A recent study has shown how AI can learn to identify vulnerabilities in human habits and behaviours and use them to influence human decision-making.

It may seem cliched to say AI is transforming every aspect of the way we live and work, but it’s true. Various forms of AI are at work in fields as diverse as vaccine development, environmental management and office administration. And while AI does not possess human-like intelligence and emotions, its capabilities are powerful and rapidly developing.

There’s no need to worry about a machine takeover just yet, but this recent discovery highlights the power of AI and underscores the need for proper governance to prevent misuse.

How AI can learn to influence human behaviour

A team of researchers at CSIRO’s Data61, the data and digital arm of Australia’s national science agency, devised a systematic method of finding and exploiting vulnerabilities in the ways people make choices, using a kind of AI system called a recurrent neural network and deep reinforcement-learning. To test their model they carried out three experiments in which human participants played games against a computer.

The first experiment involved participants clicking on red or blue coloured boxes to win a fake currency, with the AI learning the participant’s choice patterns and guiding them towards a specific choice. The AI was successful about 70% of the time.

In the second experiment, participants were required to watch a screen and press a button when they are shown a particular symbol (such as an orange triangle) and not press it when they are shown another (say a blue circle). Here, the AI set out to arrange the sequence of symbols so the participants made more mistakes, and achieved an increase of almost 25%.


Read more: If machines can beat us at games, does it make them more intelligent than us?


The third experiment consisted of several rounds in which a participant would pretend to be an investor giving money to a trustee (the AI). The AI would then return an amount of money to the participant, who would then decide how much to invest in the next round. This game was played in two different modes: in one the AI was out to maximise how much money it ended up with, and in the other the AI aimed for a fair distribution of money between itself and the human investor. The AI was highly successful in each mode.

In each experiment, the machine learned from participants’ responses and identified and targeted vulnerabilities in people’s decision-making. The end result was the machine learned to steer participants towards particular actions.

In experiments, an AI system successfully learned to influence human decisions. Shutterstock

What the research means for the future of AI

These findings are still quite abstract and involved limited and unrealistic situations. More research is needed to determine how this approach can be put into action and used to benefit society.

But the research does advance our understanding not only of what AI can do but also of how people make choices. It shows machines can learn to steer human choice-making through their interactions with us.


Read more: Australians have low trust in artificial intelligence and want it to be better regulated


The research has an enormous range of possible applications, from enhancing behavioural sciences and public policy to improve social welfare, to understanding and influencing how people adopt healthy eating habits or renewable energy. AI and machine learning could be used to recognise people’s vulnerabilities in certain situations and help them to steer away from poor choices.

The method can also be used to defend against influence attacks. Machines could be taught to alert us when we are being influenced online, for example, and help us shape a behaviour to disguise our vulnerability (for example, by not clicking on some pages, or clicking on others to lay a false trail).

What’s next?

Like any technology, AI can be used for good or bad, and proper governance is crucial to ensure it is implemented in a responsible way. Last year CSIRO developed an AI Ethics Framework for the Australian government as an early step in this journey.

AI and machine learning are typically very hungry for data, which means it is crucial to ensure we have effective systems in place for data governance and access. Implementing adequate consent processes and privacy protection when gathering data is essential.

Organisations using and developing AI need to ensure they know what these technologies can and cannot do, and be aware of potential risks as well as benefits.


Read more: Robots can outwit us on the virtual battlefield, so let’s not put them in charge of the real thing


Jon Whittle, Director, Data61

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Alex Thomson

Gender gap in STEM begins early

Dr Alex Thomson heads up UTS’s Deep Green Biotech Hub, and is one of Science and Technology Australia’s Superstars of STEM, a program started to raise the profile of women in STEM.

International Women’s Day on March 8 this year and the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on 11 Feb shone a light on the continuing work to do to reduce the gender gap in pay, employment and equity across the board.

Minister for Industry, Science and Technology the Hon Karen Andrews marked the International Women’s Day and highlighted the gender gap in STEM by launching the Women in STEM critical evaluation tool, the STEM Equity Monitor.

“The STEM Equity Monitor provides a mechanism for measuring change and analysis of trends over time, with results to be published annually over a ten-year period,” said Minister Andrews.

“These initiatives are part of a collective effort to create change and greater opportunities for the next generation of girls,” she said.

Lisa Harvey-Smith, the Women in STEM Ambassador joined Minister Andrews in launching the STEM Equity Monitor and Women in STEM Action Plan.

“A focus on data and evaluation is really valuable as a sound evidence base will help us to track progress and target action where it’s most needed,” she said.

“Gender equity in STEM and improving participation and opportunities for girls and women in these fields will result in significant social, economic and technological benefits for everyone,” says Minister Andrews.

What does the future look like?

Research from the Women in STEM Ambassador’s team has focussed on the early stage breaking down STEM stereotypes through the Future You initiative, and this week released results from the evaluation of the $1.5m campaign.

Future You is all about exciting and informing young people about the vast array of career options that use STEM skills and breaking down gender stereotypes about who works in STEM. 

The site aims to break down gender stereotypes for women and men in STEM careers (eg nurse=female, doctor=male). The team found statistically significant increase in children who reported being “very interested” in STEM after seeing the campaign (from 36% before to 63% after). This increase was especially strong in girls, with their interest in STEM growing three-fold (from 20% to 68% after the campaign).

Parents who considered STEM skills to be “very important” for their children’s future job prospects grew by 7%, and amongst women, the proportion of mothers who perceived STEM skills as “very important” for future job prospects rose from 52% before to 71% after the campaign.

Gender gap starts early but continues across all levels

Careers with STEM, produced by ScienceMeetsBusiness publishers Refraction Media, is an industry funded platform focussed on the next level aiming to inspire all students aged 12-20 into STEM careers. The site has grown 218% year-on-year and presents a diversity of people in STEM to provide role models in STEM for all people.

The site contains 400 role models in STEM careers from engineering and trades to data science and AI.

More information on Action Plan and Equity Monitor can be found at industry.gov.au/womeninstem

Get your kids to play and enjoy the Future You site.

Find hundreds of role models, quizzes, videos and free magazines on CareerswithSTEM.com

Visit the Women in STEM Ambassador’s site.

Livestream STEM Event

The next generation needs to know this

By Heather Catchpole

I have a vested interest in the future. I’m hoping there’ll still be bees and butterflies, that democracy will survive, that people will have access to basic human rights, quality of life throughout life, fulfilling careers.

I’ll be honest, right now it’s not looking promising. Unprecedented and pivot were two of 2020’s most overused words. And the climate challenge was practically forgotten in the COVID crisis. The scale of this change will soon be business as usual for the next generation. So what are the things they need to know right now to help them navigate the future?

To help answer this question, I pulled together some of the best and brightest thinkers across education, health-tech, machine learning, social media, climate science and entrepreneurship to look at just that – what do our next generation need to know in order to create a world that supports them into the future.

Spark new ideas

The livestream STEM event was part of Spark Innovation Festival, Oct 2020. Spark is about innovation, startups and business and finding your purpose and this year’s focus was on being Agents of Change.

How education will/has changed

Mohamad Jebera, Founder & CEO Mathspace

Mohamad is founder and CEO of Mathspace, technology which personalises a student’s maths education. He began his career as a derivatives trader at Optiver, leading its “Robot trader” project and became a senior partner at the firm. Wanting to use his mathematical skill set for a greater good— he decided to switch careers, initially intending to become a maths teacher. Mathspace is his effort to extend his enthusiasm for numbers to as many classrooms as possible, and is now used in over 25% of Australian high schools.

The future of health-tech

Silvia Pfeiffer, CEO & Co-founder, Coviu

Dr Silvia Pfeiffer is Coviu’s CEO and Co-founder, driving the global mission of Coviu for universal access to healthcare. In recent months, Coviu became the leading telehealth software in use by Australian healthcare providers, delivering 500K+ consultations in April. With over 20 years of experience building new Web video solutions, Silvia has worked at leading corporations including Google, Mozilla, NICTA and CSIRO. Silvia and co-founder Nathan Oehlman spun Coviu out of the CSIRO in March 2018. Silvia has a double degree in computer science and business management and has led Coviu through the pandemic from a team of 7 to 35.

AI, algorithms and social media

Associate Prof Richi Nayak, QUT

Richi Nayak is leader of the Applied Data Mining Research group, the HDR coordinator of Computer Science Discipline, Course-coordinator of IT81 (Doctor of IT) and an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Science and Technology at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia.

She has made significant contributions to three areas of Data and Web Mining: (1) Semi-structured Document Mining; (2) Web Personalisation and Social Network Mining; and (3) Applied Data Mining. Recently a deep learning algorithm identifying hate speech against women in social media was created by Nayak along with Professor Nicolas Suzor and research fellow Dr Md Abul Bashar in a collaboration between QUT’s faculties of Law, Science and Engineering, and the Digital Media Research Centre.

Algae, biofuels and innovation in climate change and science

Dr Alex Thomson, UTS

Dr Alex Thomson is a Superstar of STEM and the manager of the University of Technology Sydney’s (UTS) Deep Green Biotech Hub, and a lecturer in Environmental Science and Marine Biology. She has produced research papers on marine ecology and the carbon capturing potential of coastal systems. An advocate for sustainability and climate change action, she uses her research to engage and educate audiences about the potential of our global sustainable future. Alex is currently spearheading the world’s first dedicated algae accelerator program – joining biotechnology and entrepreneurship – through the Deep Green Biotech Hub, creating opportunities for STEM-preneurs across NSW to accelerate algae innovation and engage with science.

Read next: A Reverse Engineering Journey, Maryam Parvis

Science Meets Business kicks off new partnership

Science Meets Business, a website produced by specialist STEM content company Refraction Media has launched a new partnership with LCU, Laboratories Credit Union. Science Meets Business reaches thousands of unique users weekly and focusses on science innovation and business news.

LCU is a locally owned and operated credit union established 60 years’ ago by CSIRO staff and based in North Ryde, Sydney. LCU has partnered with Science Meets Business as a sponsor of the Science Meets Business’ regular e-newsletter.

“We are delighted to partner with LCU with our aligned audience and interests as Australia’s only site focussed on the full cycle of innovation in Australian science,” said Refraction Media CEO and publisher, Karen Taylor-Brown.

“LCU was founded by scientists and we’re committed to connecting with, and supporting, this important part of the community,” said Leanne Harris, General Manager, LCU.

Science Meets Business kicked off in 2014 and is also supported by the Co-operative Research Centre’s Association and the Australian Council of Deans of Science.

To speak to the publishers or find out more about working with Refraction Media, email info@refractionmedia.com.au.

Industry Futures: latest issue of Australian University Science

Australia’s strong science research and training are integral to driving new economies. Universities have a critical role as partners in establishing innovation and technological change in industry.

As science delivers new insights and tools, new industries are emerging, and people with science skills will be essential to these new industries. Australian University Science magazine highlights these stories, showcasing exceptional science teams and Australian science graduates working in industry.

This issue we look at How the Quantum Revolution is scaling up. Moving far beyond super-fast computing, quantum technologies can be applied to detect cancer, detect submarines from the seafloor, and encrypt data in such a way that it can never be hacked. This article from award winning journalist Wilson da Silva covers the exciting developments in this fast-growing industry.

Plus, other industry futures under development in Australia that are building better economies through advanced manufacturing. Algae can make anything that can be made from fossil fuel derived plastic. And the plus side? It’ not only doesn’t emit greenhouse gases: it absorbs them. Read about the UTS Deep Green Biotech Hub and how university science is working with industry in the green economy, future batteries, biotechnology and modelling of new materials.

You can read the full issue, published November 2020 here, or subscribe to receive print copies and more here.

You can also catch up on previous issues on:

Issue 1: Energy Futures, Sept 2019

Issue 2: Water Futures, March 2020

Issue 3: Global Health Futures, July 2020

Australian University Science is published by STEM specialist content company Refraction Media.

Australian University Science issue 3 banner

Australian universities COVID-19 response – Issue 3

When the pandemic hit, the Australian Council of Deans of Science quickly mobilised to understand Australian universities COVID-19 response, covered in the latest issue of Australian University Science.

University science research is a deep repository of knowledge and is uniquely positioned to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, through research across multiple disciplines and targeting many different problem areas.

As Professor John Shine notes in the introduction to the issue, university science in Australia is developing strong candidates for a vaccine with the support of the Centre for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and from global biotech giant CSL, established in Australia in 1916.

But the response goes far beyond vaccine research, with a number of cutting edge molecular biology research and environmental science pivoting into the COVID-19 problem.

In addition, Australian universities COVID-19 response included university science departments utilising their unique facilities and knowledge.

They manufactured hundreds of thousands of masks and other personal protective equipment, began research into mental health effects, modelled the spread of the virus, looked at the effects on specific groups including minorities and regions, and worked with the government and schools to provide resources and expertise.

This virus is not finished, nor is the research. There will be rapidly changing approaches to testing regimes, new drugs and new vaccines. There will also be ongoing impacts, challenges and setbacks.

As this latest issue of Australian University Science goes to show, as the virus continues to change our world, university science research will be at the frontline in helping us to understand, adapt and respond to this crisis.

Heather Catchpole, Editor, Australian University Science & Head of Content, Refraction Media. @hcatchpole

About Australian University Science

Australian University Science is produced by STEM-specialist publisher, Refraction Media (publishers of ScienceMeetsBusiness.com.au), on behalf of the Australian Council of Deans of Science.

Australian University Science highlights the collaborative work of the science community in this third edition, and profiles the roles graduates play in industry.

To provide feedback or suggestions to the editors, subscribe to this publication or order additional copies, email info@refractionmedia.com.au.

Early career researcher Jess Moran

Early career researchers make a big impact

Five early career researchers are vying for $10,000 in prize money thanks to CQUniversity and the Co-operative Research Centre Association (CRC Association). The finalists’ fields range from using Artificial Intelligence in mental health to peer pressuring stem cells to become brain cells and creating a beehive “breathalyser” for disease detection.

The five early career researcher finalists were selected from submissions that came from 25 CRCs and the 30 universities that are supporting members of the CRC Association. They are: Dr Kiara Bruggeman, Australian National University; Jessica Moran, CRC for Honey Bee Products; Dr Gemma Sharp, Monash University; Dr Ben Sinclair, Monash University and Dr Julia Stone, CRC for Alertness, Safety and Productivity.

Judges agreed the quality of the submissions was very high this year, and the selected finalists especially stood out by communicating their science, its impact, and their role in delivering it.

Read more: Celebrating 30 years of CRC success

Bee breathalysers sniffs out disease

Jessica Moran is investigating the smell of the honey bee disease American foulbrood in order to create a “beehive breathalyser” that can non-invasively diagnose sick hives.

“We’re currently starting to develop the sensors, but we’re optimistic that the beehive breathalyser will be commercially available within the next five years. Our device will help safeguard Australia’s honey bee industry: by allowing beekeepers to rapidly screen hives for disease, outbreaks will be detected earlier, preventing severe losses in production and revenue,” says Moran.

“In particular, this device will be used to prevent diseased hives from entering pollination sites, protecting the pollination services that are estimated to be valued at $14 billion annually in Australia.”

AI helps to address eating disorders

Early career researcher Gemma Sharp is leading a team working on a novel conversational agent or “chatbot” which uses artificial intelligence technology to provide therapeutic support to people with body image concerns and also to their concerned loved ones.

“Negative body image is a major risk factor for a number of mental health issues most notably eating disorders, the most fatal of all mental disorders,” says Sharp.

“There are 1 million Australians living with an eating disorder and less than 25% of these will receive treatment or support. The chabot aims to fill this gap by preventing and intervening in the development of negative body image and eating disorders.”

Early career researcher Dr Gemma Sharp is using chatbots to provide therapeutic support to people with body image concerns and their families.

Writing a winning application

Sharp says the award application was an excellent opportunity to reflect on the “big picture” impacts of her research and articulating this information in an accessible way.

“It was a very challenging but rewarding exercise”, adds Sharp, who collaborates with The Butterfly Foundation and AI company Proxima as well as Swinburne University of Technology and Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre. 

“There are not enough mental health practitioners in Australia to meet the high demand for services and so online tools like chatbots could be very helpful in meeting these needs.” Watch Gemma Sharp’s 30 second video here.

Moran, who collaborates with AgriFutures Australia and the state bee biosecurity officers to field-test the sensor, says doing the Early Career Researcher award application made her re-think the language she uses to describe her project to the public.

“The exercise has really improved my skills and the way I think about science communication. I would really like to research other bee diseases, particularly those exotic to Western Australia, and create beehive breathalyser-type tools for them too.” Watch Jessica Moran’s video here.

Each finalist receives $1,000. The winner, chosen by popular vote on Jun 24 2020, receives an additional $5,000. Register to watch or vote here.

Read more: University Science delivering water innovation

Wearable sensors track body clock

Monitoring individual body clock time through wearable sensors will provide huge benefits in personalised medicine, says Dr Julia Stone, from the CRC for Alertness, Safety and Productivity, another early career researcher finalist.

“Cancer treatment outcomes can differ depending on the time they are given in terms of an individual’s body clock. However, it is really hard to know what time it is for each individual’s body clock, and that is what my research is trying to solve,” says Dr Stone.

“Similarly, we could use this technology to develop personalised approaches for managing body clock disruption experienced by shift workers. Light interventions can help people adapt better to their night shift schedule, however if they are timed incorrectly, they can actually make things worse.

“Being able to monitor body clock time using wearable technologies would have a huge impact in both of these scenarios, and potentially many more.”

Early career researcher Dr Julia Stone
Early career researcher Dr Julia Stone is investigating wearable tech in the personalised medicine space.

– Heather Catchpole

Professor Chiaro Neto

Australian University Science Issue 2: Water Futures

As an increasingly dry continent, Australia faces immense water challenges. Australian universities play a critical role in undertaking research and development to assist in the identification of water management problems, the achievement of water security, and the creation of innovative solutions.

Universities engage at each stage of the innovation cycle to help water managers deliver water security to communities, industries, agriculture and the environment.

The stories within this issue highlight university science contribution to enterprise, education and agriculture in Australia.

In the Foreword to the latest edition of Australian University Science, Professor Rob Vertessy, Enterprise Professor (Water Resources), University of Melbourne looks at the big picture issues in water management.

End-to-end solutions

From catalysing new science to ‘pull’ water out of the air using smart, fundamental chemistry to testing research and development (R&D) directly with end users, universities engage at each stage of the innovation cycle to deliver water security to communities, industries, agriculture and the environment.

Australia’s comparative success in addressing our water challenges has much to do with the fact we have had a strong water research and teaching community that functions as an early warning system for emerging problems, and as a training ground for the advanced technical capability that is entrained in the water sector. This knowledge transfer is needed today more than ever before to contribute expertise to the ‘wicked’ problem of equitable sharing of water as a highly contested resource. Achieving water security is one of the great global challenges of our times.

Related: Water sensitivity can be achieved in Australia

Through ideas and people working within and with Australian university science, we create world-leading expertise in water management problem identification and remediation. We still have many serious water security issues to surmount, as evidenced by the recent crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin. Advances will require a national architecture for identifying and funding research priorities. It will also require the ingenuity, tools and people that can bring together research knowledge with fast, effective delivery of solutions.

Consulting with the university science community, the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) and the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) are working to prepare a strategic vision for Australian water research in 2020. That vision will require collaboration between university science, national agencies, industry, researchers, education and end users. Australian universities have a vital role to play in shaping this strategy and promoting it to government.

University science has the facilities, space and expertise to test R&D in the environment in which it will be used, and the remit to train people to address these challenges. Our resilience to a changing climate and water system will rely on this inbuilt capacity and ingenuity.

Professor Rob Vertessy

Enterprise Professor (Water Resources), University of Melbourne

This article appears in Australian University Science issue 2.

Water for country

Bradley Moggridge is a Kamilaroi water scientist, a Fellow of the Peter Cullen Water and Environment Trust and a recent Young Tall Poppy Scientist of the Year in the ACT. Managing the aquifers, water catchments and rivers that span Australia’s arid lands lies deep in his blood. “My people have been interested in water for more than 65,000 years,” he says.

Moggridge is a hydrogeologist who recently led Australia’s only Aboriginal water unit at the NSW Department of Primary Industries.

His Master’s thesis, in 2005, at the University of Technology Sydney explored how Aboriginal knowledge was used to understand and access groundwater. “The flexibility that allows exploratory research through university science gave me the opportunity to connect the dots between hydrogeology, hydrogeochemistry and Aboriginal science,” he says.

Moggridge is now completing his PhD at the University of Canberra, where his research links western science with traditional knowledge to develop best-practice methodologies for water planning and management tailored to specific landscapes.

He says that his own heritage, as a Murri man from the Kamilaroi Nation of north-western New South Wales, deeply informs his work.

Australia has been home to thousands of generations of its First Peoples despite its arid landscapes. Traditional knowledge about how to find water sites has been integral to the survival of Aboriginal people, says Moggridge.

“Move away from the coastal regions and the river lands, and your dependence on surface water diminishes. In a dry landscape, knowing when, where and how to find water, where groundwater is the only source of water, that is how our people survived,” he says.

“Aboriginal ways of thinking and managing country involve scientific processes and generations of observation — why there’s a stand of gum trees here, why birds go to a certain place — but it has been regarded as myth and legend.”

Rangers in the Great Sandy Desert cite stories about one dryland location that had previously been a river. “Hydrogeologists drilling there found evidence of a paleo channel,” says Moggridge. “This is old, old knowledge.

Related: Tracing Change: Past Australian Environments

“Our stories hold the key to managing water on this continent. It’s a knowledge system that has survived changes in climate for millennia. Protecting water remains a cultural obligation.

“The support of university science will let me continue my work, applying an Indigenous methodology to the way we manage water.”

Fran Molloy

PATH

>> Bachelor of Environmental Science, Australian Catholic University

>> Master of Science, Hydrogeology and Groundwater management, University of Technology Sydney 

>> Team Leader, Aboriginal Water Initiative, NSW Department of Primary Industries

>> Special Advisor, First Peoples Water, Water Stewardship Australia

>> Indigenous Water Research Specialist, CSIRO

>> Environmental Officer, Camden Council

This article appears in Australian University Science issue 2.

Drops from thin air

The University of Sydney Nano Institute team

University science is behind some of the most profound innovations and breakthroughs in water research, from the development of cutting-edge techniques to maximise irrigation, to the creation of innovative new materials that can literally capture water from the air.

At the University of Sydney, the Advanced Capture of Water from the Atmosphere (ACWA) project applies nanoscale materials science to mimic the remarkable adaptation of desert beetles in Namibia, a region where just 1.4cm of rain falls each year. The beetle collects water vapour from the atmosphere, turning it into liquid via the intricate shapes of tiny bumps on its exoskeleton.

Biomimicry — learning from, and mimicking, clever strategies found in nature to solve human design challenges — is an important component of the work of the University of Sydney Nano Institute, co-led by chemist Professor Chiara Neto and physicist Professor Martijn de Sterke. Innovations from the research include a nanotextured surface which can repel bacteria, algae and other marine life from ships’ hulls, inspired by a lotus leaf; a nanoscale slippery surface, inspired by the pitcher plant, that can be used for microfluidic channels in bioengineering; and a stain-resistant paint base.

The Institute has attracted top-level researchers from chemistry, physics, materials science and bioengineering from across the university.

“We began with the idea of capturing water from the atmosphere by optimising the surface chemistry of a material so it would enable the formation of droplets out of humid air,” says Neto.

“We are now developing new devices that capture water from the atmosphere through condensation, using no external source of energy, by designing surfaces that spontaneously cool when exposed to the air,” she says.

Related: Software saves rainwater

The team has made two key breakthroughs. First, they have perfected the surface science of nanoscale ‘bumps’ shaped in a way to harvest a very thin film of water vapour, similar to the Namibian desert beetle.

Their second breakthrough is the development of an entirely new surface that is naturally chilled and causes water to condense into droplets. Wherever the atmosphere is above 30% humidity, this surface will automatically collect water vapour from the air.

The ACWA project is well on the way towards its ambitious goal to create materials that capture sufficient water from the atmosphere to alleviate the effect of drought by providing water for humans, animals and plants.

Patents are underway for exciting applications for the technology, including watering devices to use within greenhouses; a portable self-filling water bottle for bushwalkers and emergency crews; and small water stations to sustain wildlife in remote areas

Fran Molloy

This article appears in Australian University Science issue 2.

Karen Rouse leads a national effort to take valuable water research from university science to industry and end users

The war on waste

With a career spanning 20 years in the water sector, Karen Rouse is well placed to provide leadership in her role as CEO of Water Research Australia (Water RA). She serves on the Board of the Global Water Research Coalition and Water Industry Alliance, and led the CSIRO urban water research program looking at positive environmental outcomes for wastewater treatment.

A native Brit, Rouse worked as a geologist in the energy and construction sectors in Australia before completing her Master of Environmental Studies at the University of Adelaide. The interdisciplinary nature of the course brought a seismic shift in her career.

“The course I studied had science subjects such as conservation, biology and freshwater ecology, but it also included environmental economics, law and a synthesis subject,” she says. “That has enabled me to see how science gets into policy and practice, and to understand the systems that go around it.”

Water RA transitioned from a Cooperative Research Centre with university partners 10 years ago to being fully industry funded today, coordinating collaborative research between universities to tackle water challenges. “Our members are roughly half universities and half industry, including water utilities, health regulators, consultants and a few small niche companies,” says Rouse. “We call them our big team.”

A major challenge is to work out how to reuse water regardless of where it comes from, whether that be stormwater or treated wastewater, to treat it appropriately and then communicate that to the community. “In towns in western New South Wales where they’re running out of water, we are making sure people in leadership have access to accurate and evidence-based information with which to act,” she says.

Water RA also delivers an acclaimed research leadership program that offers industry sponsorship to Honours, Master’s and PhD students, to make them ready for careers in the water sector. “Our success is a 95% rate of employment within the sector when they finish,” says Rouse.

Students receive industry mentorship, attend leading industry conferences, and importantly, an ongoing program aimed at maintaining a lifelong research mindset.

“It’s a risk as a scientist working in industry to become ‘frozen’ in time if you don’t continue to pursue new knowledge and actively keep up with your discipline. That’s where universities play a crucially important role.”

Brendan Fitzpatrick

PATH

>> Bachelor of Science (Hons), University of Exeter 

>> Master of Environmental Studies at the University of Adelaide

>> Senior Environmental Assessment Officer, SA Planning 

>> Principal Strategist, Environment and Sustainability, SA Water

>> Theme Leader, Water for a Healthy Country Flagship, CSIRO

>> Manager, Source Water and Environment Research, SA Water

>> CEO, Water Research Australia

This article appears in Australian University Science issue 2.

SMART farms are outdoor laboratories where scientists and growers test out innovations

Smart science at regional universities driving future farms

Outside Armidale, in northern NSW, eight different properties covering 3900 hectares of woodland, grassland, water sources and pasture comprise the University of New England’s Sustainable Manageable Accessible Rural Technologies (SMART) Farms, an outdoor laboratory for the Precision Agriculture team.

These farms include a commercial sheep property, 1000-head cattle feedlot, long-term agronomy plots, a genomic research centre and teaching lab featuring innovative farming technologies that are tested, assessed and monitored on working farms.

UNE crop scientist Dr Richard Flavel says agricultural science works best when universities are in partnership with industry.

Related: Drones increase crop yield

“Universities have an opportunity to bring in expertise and to do the things that industry hasn’t got the time, or the economic drivers, to do themselves, and to really boost innovation.”

For more than three years, UNE scientists have gathered data from a wide network of more than 100 soil moisture probes that create a ‘living map’ reporting on the moisture levels across a segment of the property.

Other sensor networks report on the water use in trees, the growth of pasture and even the amount of honey being produced in the property’s beehives.

Water and its use is always a key focus of the university’s research.

Innovation in farming

Dr Flavel says regional universities are well placed to explore scientific solutions for some of the big challenges facing Australia’s farmers, most of these relating to how best to use limited water resources.

“All of the innovative systems that have come online in farming during the past 30 years — from no-till systems, to maintaining and improving groundcover, to retaining stubble — these are all essentially about managing water,” he says.

At UNE’s campus in Armidale, level-five water restrictions are in place following years of crippling drought.

“Farming in Australia is very responsive to our climate. Our growers are governed by when, and by how much water they get,” says Dr Flavel.

He says with just five per cent of Australia’s crops irrigated, cropping industries in Australia rely on rainfall, and most water for crops is stored in the soil.

“Our research looks at current water use by dryland crops and grazing pasture, and how best to make use of the water when it lands on paddocks,” he says.

University of New England researcher Dr Richard Flavel
University of New England crop scientist Dr Richard Flavel at the Precision Agriculture SMART farm outdoor laboratory.

Sub-soil profile changes could double yields

Decades of research in universities have delivered real improvements in agricultural topsoil structures, with growers now seeing remarkable improvements from techniques that improve soil sodicity, salinity and acidity. The next step is sub-soil management, explains Dr Flavel.

At the University’s SMART farm, moisture sensors show there’s still substantial water being held in sub-soils after harvest.

“When a crop has finished, the water in the sub-soil profile should have been used up and turned into wheat. High sub-soil water shows that plants haven’t been able to access water at depths — that’s a reduction of yield potential for the grower,” he says.

Sub-soils, which sit 15cm or deeper below the surface, are now recognised as an important area for further improvement. Addressing this problem is a focus for more research.

“We’re currently looking at ways to fix sodic or saline sub-soils to improve how much our plants can use the water that falls on the paddock,” says Dr Flavel.

“Unlocking water deep in the soil profile could potentially double yields in some situations.”

Treating hydrophobic soils

Another research area is the massive tracts of soil across Australia’s croplands — nearly five million hectares — which are non-wetting or water-repellent.

University scientists found that some particles of soil developed a water-resistant coating, leaving rainfall to evaporate from the surface rather than penetrate the ground for plants’ use.

“Understanding this phenomenon has involved some tricky physics at a microscopic level,” he says.

Dr Flavel’s research is looking at ways to address this problem, which can include wetting agents, bringing up clay from deep in the soil profile and changing crops.

“Growers are very innovative, and as a scientist that’s exciting. We’ve got a group which is keen to work with our scientists to find and adopt new discoveries.”

Fran Molloy

Cleaning up our waterways

Dr Steven Melvin, research fellow at the Australian Rivers Institute

Science at regional and rural universities can work with local land managers, government agencies and communities to monitor the health of waterways, assess problems on the ground, and to help develop evidence-based solutions that minimise human impact and deliver the best outcomes for sustainable communities.

At Griffith University, in south-east Queensland, the Australian Rivers Institute has a range of industry and government partners through the ARI Toxicology Research Program.

“Our research looks at the source of contaminants, their fate or where they end up, and the effect,” says Dr Steven Melvin, who is a research fellow at the ARI.

Tens of thousands of different chemicals enter our waterways, but most have a relatively low impact, he says. The ARI collaborates with industry and government agencies to identify contaminants that are potentially damaging and looks at ways to treat and remediate these.

“Largely through industry-collaborative, university-led research, we now have advanced technology, such as reverse osmosis, which uses energy and pressure to treat wastewater by forcing it through a semi-permeable membrane that filters out minute chemical compounds that could cause effects in the environment.”

This article appears in Australian University Science issue 2.

Researchers from ANU make a surprising breakthrough for water innovation

University Science Delivering Water Innovation

Peter Mabbitt (left) and Kai Xun Chan (right) from the Australian National University Research School of Biology.

Unexpected outcomes

Scientists from the ANU Research School of Biology made a major breakthrough for world food security while investigating photosynthesis. They discovered that chloroplasts — which convert sunlight into sugars through photosynthesis — can also activate a chemical signal to close stomata on leaves to protect individual plants from losing vital water in drought. By boosting this chloroplast signal in barley plants, the team improved drought survival time by around 50%. The team is exploring ways to boost this chloroplast signal in different crops, through breeding, genetic or agronomic strategies.

Related: The future hydrogen economy is scaffolded by universities

Connecting with industry

More than five million hectares of agricultural land in Australia is hydrophobic, meaning the soil repels water. Global chemical company BASF co-funded research by scientists at Swinburne University, led by chemistry Professor David Mainwaring, with the CRC for Polymers, to develop solutions to help soil accept water. These new soil-wetting agents have increased crop yields. The multidisciplinary team has now patented two polymer surfactants and a soil diagnostic test.

Diverse Teamwork

Murdoch University’s Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Ecosystems is tackling clean-energy and fresh-water challenges with a cross-disciplinary approach. Researchers in aquatic biology and ecology, marine mammal ecology, fisheries, aquaculture, algal biotechnology, oceanography, human-use and habitat assessments, bioinformatics, economics and spatial sciences are all working together. One recent project tackled challenges around the release of aquaculture-bred fish into the wild environment.  

Students help scientists from Murdoch University’s Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Ecosystems release bream into the river

Creating real value

Inspired by plant experiments on the International Space Station, University of Queensland researchers are advancing the technology of ordinary glasshouses with a revolutionary “speed breeding” technique that can cut plant breeding time in half. Dr Lee Hickey and his team developed a ‘desktop breeding cabinet’ that will allow researchers to develop wheat, barley, canola and other crops adapted to drought, changed local soil and climate conditions.

Dr Lee Hickey from the University of Queensland developed a way to allow crops to adapt to drought in new water innovation
Dr Lee Hickey from the University of Queensland
Australian University Science Energy Futures

Australian University Science: university science, universal impact

Australian universities have a critical role in research innovation and technological change. A new publication reveals the impact of university science on innovation, entrepreneurship and employment in future energy technologies.The bi-annual publication is published by Refraction Media on behalf of the Australian Council of Deans of Science (ACDS).

The first issue, launching on 9 September 2019, focusses on the hydrogen economy. The first hydrogen fuel exports to Japan (through Queensland University of Technology’s Redlands Facility) left Australia in March this year. It’s just one of the ways that universities are delivering on this potential multi-billion dollar economy. Australia is also well positioned to become a net exporter of hydrogen, an opportunity expected to create 16,000 new Australian jobs by 2040.

“University science is a fundamental source of disruptive ideas, and a partner for their translation into innovation,” says Executive Director of the ACDS, Professor John Rice. “The emerging hydrogen economy and energy futures are a great example.”

“Australian University Science provides a critical insight into how university science informs, partners and drives innovation domestically and internationally,” says Professor Rice.

The publication highlights a multitude of collaborations with other research institutions and government, CRC partnerships, the CSIRO and private corporations. Some of the hydrogen technologies showcased include artificial photosynthesis (Australian National University), hydrogen-producing bacteria (Macquarie University) and crystal catalysts for solar-produced hydrogen (Curtin University). 

“University science now engages at every stage of the cycle in which knowledge is turned into new and better ways of doing things,” says Australia’s past Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb. 

“University scientists and students do more than explore, uncover and discover. They also use their knowledge to work closely with the people who produce the new technologies and practices that a changing world needs,” he says.

“Whenever there is a great new kind of technology, advances in clean energy, or smarter ways to diagnose and treat disease, you can be sure that university science lies somewhere behind it.”

The publication is free to order and download here.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is ACDS-issue1-twitter-1024x563.jpg

Supercharging the next generation

ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials scientists (l to r): Associate Professor Jenny Pringle, Dr Danah Al-Masri, Dr Mega Kar and Professor Douglas Macfarlane.

The ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials is taking teamwork to new levels.

The ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES) is an impressive knowledge hub that has significant runs on the board, including the creation of spin-off company AquaHydrex. Set up in Wollongong in 2012, the now Colorado-based energy company utilises fundamental science research outcomes to commercialise an innovative and cheaper way of producing hydrogen.

But talk to the teams that conduct research at ACES and the passion for knowledge translation, training and entrepreneurship are just part of the story. What comes through most clearly is that it’s simply a great place to work.

The ACES focus is on training the next generation of research leaders and providing manufacturing and industry opportunities across health, energy and smart materials. There are five international partners and seven Australian universities on board: the University of Wollongong, Deakin University, Monash University, the University of Tasmania, Australian National University, University of Melbourne and Swinburne University of Technology.

Deakin University Associate Professor Jenny Pringle says it’s a “strong, tight-knit community”. “Students get to hear about everything, it’s really diverse.”

Collaboration is facilitated through weekly dial-in meetings, and twice yearly national and international symposia. Students regularly present at workshops, and training in entrepreneurship and communications is prioritised.

A/Prof Pringle is project leader for thermal energy storage and battery materials, and a chief investigator at the Institute for Frontier Materials, an ACES collaboration partner, where she works with PhD graduate Dr Danah Al-Masri. With colleagues ACES Energy Theme leader Professor Douglas MacFarlane and Laureate Research Fellow Dr Mega Kar, their métier is creating cheaper, safer energy harvesting and storage systems. Dr Kar’s focus is on new battery materials to improve or replace lithium ion batteries, which are widely used in laptops and phones and can be expensive and, rarely, but catastrophically, unstable.

Dr Al-Masri is one of around 70 PhD students at ACES, more than three-quarters of whom come from overseas. “Efficient energy storage is such a complex problem — you have to collaborate and some of the best people are working across the world,” she says. “ACES’s strong international reputation allows us to come together.” 

The centre draws in physicists, chemists, biologists and engineers, with the recognition that basic science is critical. “Exceptional science is at the core of everything the centre does,” says

A/Prof Pringle. The team works across the innovation system, from designing electrolytes — materials with an electric charge — to prototyping batteries that are tested in electric cars, laptops and mobile phones, always seeking energy storage’s holy grail: inexpensive materials that need to be charged less often, but hold their charge for longer. 

“The critical outcome of our research shows we can outperform some of the lithium batteries out there, which has led to some patents and interest from industry,” says Dr Kar. 

“Within ACES, we have a good gender balance and we encourage students from all backgrounds to focus on climate change and global warming. Storage is a hot topic right now and we need the best of the best to be involved,” she says.

Professor MacFarlane says that while it’s exciting to see the application of fundamental science come to fruition, the outcome from ACES is more than great basic science.

“One of our top priorities and our chief outcome is our bright young scientists – that’s what we produce mostly, and the science is the vehicle for that training. If we can produce exceptional science as well, that’s a bonus.”

Heather Catchpole

This article appears in Australian University Science Issue 1.

David Harris

Chemistry expertise led to CSIRO legacy of lowering emissions

University science collaborations have geared CSIRO research director Dr David Harris to uncover ways to move to a sustainable global energy system.

Dr David Harris is a scientist who leads CSIRO’s Low Emissions Technologies Program, a research team exploring ways to lower carbon emissions from renewable and coal-based systems.

His research during the past 30 years has focused on improving the efficiency of systems that generate electricity and power.

As the son of a mechanic and an artist growing up in rural New South Wales, Harris credits his BSc in Industrial Chemistry, from the University of NSW, for giving him the practical foundation for understanding big processes such as steel and glass manufacturing and the use of chemistry and physics in industry. 

For his PhD, Harris worked with BHP’s Newcastle steelworks researching the processes of degradation of metallurgical coke in high-temperature blast furnaces.

“We identified some really interesting chemical and physical processes that you wouldn’t normally associate with steelmaking,” he explains. 

In collaboration with the University of Queensland, University of Newcastle and University of NSW, as well as coal industry partners, these findings led Harris to investigate combustion, mass-transformation and, ultimately, gasification in advanced power generation technologies.

“Not many of these advanced coal technologies were installed in Australia, but those processes led to the technology we are now developing for conversion of ammonia to hydrogen and then separation of hydrogen for other uses,” he says, referring to CSIRO’s ammonia-to-hydrogen fuelling technologies, which range from synthesis gas to new industries for renewable energy exports.

“Now we’re looking at hydrogen-based energy systems, with that hydrogen coming from coal, gas, renewable energy such as biomass, industrial and municipal waste streams, solar or wind,” says Harris.

He says Australia’s high solar coverage gives a real advantage when combined with clever technology to produce hydrogen from solar energy, which could be exported to remove emissions from motor vehicles and energy systems worldwide.

Brendan Fitzpatrick

PATH

>> Bachelor of Science, UNSW

>> PhD (Industrial Chemistry), UNSW

>> Technical Officer, School of Chemical Engineering, UNSW

>> Program Manager, CRC for Black Coal Utilisation

>> Interim CEO, Centre for Low Emissions Technology

>> Research Director, Low Emissions Technologies, CSIRO

This article appears in Australian University Science Issue 1.

hydrogen economy

The future Hydrogen Economy is scaffolded by universities

The world faces a huge challenge in sustainably delivering our energy needs. Hydrogen promises to become a major clean energy contributor, yet currently most of the world’s 70 million tonnes of hydrogen produced each year comes from hydrocarbon/coal processes such as coal gasification, with only around four per cent from ‘clean’ processes involving electrolysis (converting water into hydrogen and oxygen).

Australian university science provides the basis on which the hydrogen industry has evolved and continues to innovate, playing an essential role as a partner in establishing innovation and technological change. This research is coming from surprising places, including centres of biology, chemistry and geology.

Plant science key to unlimited clean fuels 

Using electrolysis to convert water into hydrogen — with a by-product of oxygen — is costly because it must use continuous grid power. At present, these energy-hungry and inefficient processes defeat the purpose of creating hydrogen as an energy source.  

At the Australian National University, chemistry professors Ron Pace and Rob Stranger have taken a leaf from nature, uncovering the process used by all photosynthetic organisms to use the sun’s energy to convert water into hydrogen and oxygen. This natural electrolysis is the most efficient method known and relies on a ‘chemical spark plug’ called the water oxidising complex.

For decades, debate has raged about how the atoms that comprise water are used in this photosynthesis process. Profs Pace and Stranger used Australia’s fastest supercomputer at the ANU’s National Computational Infrastructure facility to model the chemical structure of the manganese atoms involved in this process and to decode the reasons behind its efficiency.

Their discovery has opened up opportunities to develop ‘artificial leaf’ technology with the capacity for potential unlimited future hydrogen production.

Professor Pace now heads a $1.77 million project in partnership with Dr Gerry Swiegers and Dr Pawel Wagner at the University of Wollongong, which uses specially designed electrodes, made of Gor-Tex, to mimic natural surfaces. The materials will help the formation of hydrogen and oxygen gas bubbles to operate more efficiently and also allow them to use fluctuating power sources such as wind and solar energy. 

Hydrogen pilot plant delivers first shipment 

Potential demand for imported hydrogen in China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore could reach 3.8 million tonnes by 2030. The QUT Redlands Research Facility is already geared up to generate hydrogen gas from seawater using solar power generated by its concentrated solar array.

The project received funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency to develop next-generation technologies in electrolysis, energy storage and chemical sensing to produce hydrogen without any carbon dioxide emissions. 

The facility is led by Professor Ian Mackinnon, who possesses deep science expertise in geology and chemistry, and also heads QUT’s Institute for Future Environments. The first shipment of green hydrogen was exported from the facility, to Japan, in March 2019 as part of a collaboration between QUT and the University of Tokyo, which uses proprietary technology owned by JXTG, Japan’s largest petroleum conglomerate. It’s just one of the ways in which Australian science expertise, led by universities, is driving a new economy forward.

Fran Molloy

University science delivering key outcomes to hydrogen and energy futures

  • New material splits water into hydrogen cheaply: Professor Chuan Zhao and UNSW chemists invented a new nano-framework of non-precious metals, making it cheaper to create hydrogen fuel by splitting water atoms.

  • Molecular breakthrough helps solar cells tolerate humidity: Nanomaterials scientists at Griffith University, under Professor Huijun Zhao, invented a way to make cheap solar-cell technology more tolerant of moisture and humidity.

  • A spoonful of sugar generates enough hydrogen energy to power a mobile phone: Genetically engineered bacteria that turn sugar into hydrogen have been developed by a team of molecular chemists at Macquarie University who are looking to scale the technology.

  • Solar crystals are non-toxic: Under Dr Guohua Jia, molecular scientists at Curtin University have invented tiny crystals that don’t contain toxic metals but can be used as catalysts to convert solar energy into hydrogen.

  • Green chemistry breakthrough makes hydrogen generation cheaper: Electromaterials scientists at Monash University, led by Dr Alexandr Simonov, have found a solution to metal corrosion caused by water splitting to create hydrogen.

  • Gelion revolutionary battery technology: A University of Sydney chemistry team, led by Professor Thomas Maschmeyer, created low-cost, safe, scalable zinc bromide battery technology for remote and renewable energy storage.

  • Ocean mapping finds prime-tide for energy: University of Tasmania Associate Professor Irene Penesis is using hydrodynamics and mathematics to assess Bass Strait’s tidal energy resources to stimulate investment in this sector.

  • New catalyst helps turn CO2 into renewable fuel: CSIRO materials chemist Dr Danielle Kennedy, with University of Adelaide scientists, created porous crystals that help convert carbon dioxide from air into synthetic natural gas using solar energy.

This article appears in Australian University Science Issue 1.


university

Australian University Science: Knowledge and impact

University science has long been recognised for the stream of fundamental discoveries that stem from its research: from the origins of the cosmos and the causes of climate change to the most intrinsic parts of the atom. But university science is now much more than a catalyst for discovery. 

Through a multitude of collaborations — including with other research institutions and government, in Co-operative Research Centre partnerships, with the CSIRO, or directly with companies large and small — university science now engages at every stage of the cycle in which knowledge is turned into new and better ways of doing things. 

In the modern world, university scientists and students do more than explore, uncover and discover. They also use their knowledge to work closely with the people who produce the new technologies and practices that a changing world needs.

Materials and processes we use every day stem from science. They are so common that many of us simply take them for granted. But whenever there is a great new kind of technology, advances in clean energy, or smarter ways to diagnose and treat disease, you can be sure that university science lies somewhere behind it. 

University teaching is also critical. It develops the science graduates who are an important part of the workforce and possess the finely honed skills to understand, manage and develop new technologies from cutting-edge science. As we endeavour to front the challenges of tomorrow, university science will deliver the tools and people we need to create a better future.

Professor Ian Chubb AC
FAA FTSE FACE FRSN

This article is published in Australian University Science Issue 1.

Solar energy entrepreneur gets her start in university science

Residential rooftop photovoltaics (PV) remains one of Australia’s hottest energy options, with the Clean Energy Council reporting, in December 2018, that two million Australian households had installed solar panels on their homes. 

The energy market is a complex sector, which needs to be dynamic to meet fast-changing consumer requirements and global pressures. In Australia, energy is also a politically delicate area, ripe for disruption.

Solar entrepreneur Emma Jenkin, co-founder of DC Power Co, is uniquely qualified to be part of a revolutionary change in Australia’s energy sector thanks to her strong insight into data analytics and her merged commerce/science background.      

Jenkin completed a Bachelor of Science at the University of Melbourne then worked in industry before co-founding DC Power Co, an Australian solar energy retail start-up that has completed the world’s most popular equity crowdfunding campaign to date — raising $2.5 million from more than 17,500 investors.

Jenkin is a self-confessed ‘maths geek’ who completed first-year university maths while still in high school, then started an engineering degree before moving to a combined Bachelor of Science and Commerce degree, where she majored in maths and statistics.

“Our research revealed an appetite across Australia to have more energy independence in the face of distrust around the electricity sector,” she says.

“PV solar is driven by people’s desire to take on renewables for cost savings, for self-sufficiency and for the environment.”

Jenkin’s co-founders — Nic Frances Gilley, Monique Conheady and Nick Brass — have all worked in environmental, energy or carbon trading markets, she says. Their aim is to drive mass efficiency and buying power for member households. Research shows that nearly

20 per cent of rooftop solar systems don’t function properly, and DC Power Co uses analytics to identify non-performance and is the only company that alerts customers when their systems don’t work. 

“We spotted a need for an energy company that focused on solar households,” she explains.

Brendan Fitzpatrick

PATH

>Bachelor of Science/Commerce, University of Melbourne

>Executive Director, UBS commodity index training

> Project Manager, Carbon Bridge Ltd

> Executive, Cool nrg International

>Director, FIIG Securities

> Co-Founder and CFO, DC Power Co

This article appears in Australian University Science Issue 1.


energy trading

CRC energy trading research leads to career success

The inspiration for Power Ledger stemmed from co-founder Jemma Green’s PhD on electricity market democratisation. Funded by the CRC for Low Carbon Living (CRCLCL), Dr Green designed a solar and battery system for apartments (the first of its kind in Australia) and an energy trading platform to allow peer-to-peer trading using blockchain.

This foray into destructive innovation led Dr Green to co-found Power Ledger, a platform designed to ease the global transition to low-carbon energy by decentralising energy and allowing ordinary people to become investors in renewable energy assets.

“Our technology uses blockchain to enable energy trading, energy asset financing and carbon markets,” explains Dr Green. “Our corporate mission is the democratisation of power and the delivery of low cost and low carbon energy markets.”


Main image: Chair & co-founder Dr Jemma Green in the PowerLedger office in Perth.

Power Ledger allows consumers to sell and trade electricity from a residential energy generation system using a blockchain environment. Renewable energy assets are tokenized so they become tradeable on the secondary market. “Everyday people can invest in and co-own these assets, whereas previously it had been the domain of institutional investors,” says Dr Green. 

This year, Power Ledger will launch their energy product: a grid connected battery and commercial solar farm. The company is also involved in issuing and trading on carbon credit and is currently working across four countries to tokenize carbon credit so it can be traded on the exchange.

Last year, Power Ledger was the winner of the Extreme Tech Challenge, and the team travelled to Las Vegas and Richard Branson’s Necker Island to pitch their business concept. Dr Green says the original CRC funding was a life-changing opportunity. “I’m enormously grateful for the risk the CRCLCL took investing in me. We’re a group of passionate experts in blockchain and technology at Power Ledger and with scaling and commercialisation, we hope to make a big difference to achieving the Paris climate goals.”

– Larissa Fedunik