UTS’ Dr Alexandra Thomson in the Deep Green Biotech Hub
The new era in advanced manufacturing is driven by long-term science from Australia’s universities.
Advanced manufacturing sits at the heart of the Morrison government’s multibillion-dollar, five-year blueprint to reshape Australia’s post-pandemic economy, create millions of future jobs and boost local manufacture of industrial goods.
The strategy supports growth across the medical technology, biotech, agriculture, food technology, defence, fintech and resources sectors and will push research commercialisation and enhanced collaboration between universities, governments and the private sector.
Key to developing these new industries is long-term university science in chemistry, physics and biology addressing major global challenges around energy, pollution and health.
Establishing future energy industries
The expansion of our energy needs, and the ability to meet these sustainably, is one such challenge.
“Australia has almost unlimited energy resources through sunlight, so scientists are thinking about how we can export our sunlight to countries like Korea and Japan that don’t have those resources,” says Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Professorial Fellow Peter Talbot.
He says that as demand for mobile devices, electric vehicles and remote sensor networks skyrockets globally, developing new battery technology is one way to deliver this energy.
Talbot established Australia’s first lithium ion battery manufacturing plant, the QUT Advanced Battery Facility, and leads several other programs in future energy storage and hydrogen fuel. The world lithium-ion battery market is growing at over 14% a year and industry analyst Technavio predicts it will grow by $66.76 billion between 2020 and 2024.
Talbot says Australia is well positioned to be a major battery processing, advanced manufacturing and trading hub. “There is a once-in-a-generation shift underway in how we generate and store energy, which is driving an enormous industry worldwide,” he says. “Australia is perfectly placed to take advantage of this huge opportunity.”
Australia exports nine of the 10 mineral elements required for lithium-ion batteries and has commercial reserves of the remaining element — graphite.
Critical to the growth of this industry is talent from our universities. Talbot says the battery industry will need scientists from various disciplines: from geologists to find deposits, to electrochemists, physicists, mathematicians and computer scientists to optimise the properties and develop viable commercial products for sale and export.
Creating green futures
UTS opened its Deep Green Biotech hub in 2016 to focus on all things algae, from single-celled freshwater microalgae to large ocean kelp species, with a direct focus on using its research expertise to generate new industries.
Algae is used in pharmaceuticals, foods, fertilisers and building materials. It has significant sustainability benefits, using just 2% of the land and water required to grow the equivalent volume in beef protein, and instead of generating greenhouse emissions during production, it absorbs them.
The Deep Green Biotech Hub is a completely different approach to building relationships with university and industry: 10 business start-ups have already graduated from the Hub’s five-month business accelerator programs, which team companies with a research mentor to help them innovate using algae, kick-starting a potentially huge new industry based on fundamental science.
“The scientific expertise we provide is incredibly valuable to these companies and it’s essential for them to be able to innovate and be successful,” says Dr Alexandra Thomson, who heads up the Hub.
Globally, the algae industry is estimated to be worth $62.15 billion by 2024, she says. “We’ve been benchmarking the Australian industry and since 2018 the number of companies that are involved in microalgae has grown by 30%.”
“Australia is in a prime position to take advantage of this developing economy, we have a whole bunch of kelps that are endemic and can leverage these amazing native seaweed species to address different products.”
Head of the Australian Seaweed Institute, Jo Kelly says the burgeoning Australian seaweed industry could generate over $100 million by 2025 and create up to 1200 direct jobs in regional, coastal communities if universities are on board.
“Scientists will play a key role in industry development with the current key challenges to close lifecycles, scale cultivation and create high value bioproducts,” she says.
Metabolising materials for health research leads to new advanced manufacturing opportunities
At the University of Queensland, bioengineering expert Professor Lars Nielsen’s metabolic modelling work ranges from using stem cells to produce blood cells for transfusions, to designing complex biological systems from bacteria to baker’s yeast and sugarcane.
Like many in university science, Nielsen works directly with industry and has helped develop new ways to produce products spanning antibiotics to aviation fuels, proteins and agricultural bio-pesticides.
“We apply biology to engineer living cells, which involves chemical engineers working with biologists, chemists, physicists and mathematicians,” he says.
Queensland’s 10-year Biofutures roadmap predicts a billion-dollar export-oriented biotechnology industry by 2026, creating thousands of jobs.
Nielsen says government investment in synthetic biology is on the rise in countries where there’s concern over the pandemic’s disruption to global supply chains.
“In a more nationalist world nations may want to rely on themselves for certain products more; in Australia, for example, we are asking if we want more local production of fuels, and if we need to expand our fuel reserves?”
Synthetic biology could enable local production for drugs such as antibiotics — the vast majority of which are currently produced in China — and for other products including fuels.
Adding up new products
David Winkler is a Professor of Biochemistry and Genetics at La Trobe University who has spent more than 30 years on the development of new drugs and biomaterials for advanced manufacturing.
He recently contributed to the development of a biopolymer that passively blocks fungi and could replace chemical fungicides, prevent harmful fungi spoiling crops, or even protect implanted medical prostheses from fungal infection.
“I use computational chemistry, machine learning and AI to model the molecular interactions of materials with biology,” he explains.
Machine learning helps scientists navigate vast complexities required to model new materials and molecules, opening up production of an essentially infinite number of new materials with extremely broad industrial applications.
Winkler’s computational design of drug candidates and materials has generated 25 patents, contributed to four start-up companies, and could potentially deliver the first effective treatment for the fatal blood cancer myelofibrosis.
Once a bioactive material is successfully translated into a drug treatment, medical device or diagnostic tool, there’s often a billion-dollar-per-year market – and the core research takes place in university science departments. – Fran Molloy
First published in Australian University Science, November 2020
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