Swinburne University of Technology’s Dr Ivan Maksymov improving invertebrate robots.
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.
Here are five ways university science is fuelling new industries.
1. Improving invertebrate robots
A physicist and a mathematician from Swinburne University of Technology demonstrated the existence of fundamentally important Faraday waves on the surface of vertically vibrated living earthworms. The research could help advance work on human-machine interfaces, autonomous soft robotics and mechatronics.
The work earned Dr Ivan Maksymov and Dr Andriy Pototsky the 2020 Ig Nobel award in Physics for their amusing experiment involving four species of earthworms vibrated on a sub-woofer speaker and anaesthetised with dilute vodka.
“Recently, there have been experimental demonstrations of prototypes of soft autonomous robots that move by crawling across surfaces by contracting segments of their body, much like earthworms,” says Maksymov.
The research was published in the journal Scientific Reports. (Post-experiment, all worms lived out their days in a worm farm).
2. Advancing drug manufacturing
University of South Australia pharmeceutical scientist Professor Clive Prestidge and team have developed an oral formulation for the leading prostate cancer drug Abiraterone acetate (marketed as Zytiga).
Pre-clinical trials showed the oral form improved the drug’s effectiveness by 40%, allowed a lower dose to be used, and could dramatically reduce current side-effects, including joint swelling. One in six men are diagnosed with prostate cancer before the age of 85 and there were 1.28 million cases globally in 2018.
3. Developing new medical tech
University of Western Australia physicist Professor Michael Tobar has collaborated on a project that has found a new way to measure tiny forces and use them to control objects without contact — a practical application of a theoretical physics phenomenon called the Casimir force. The discovery has applications in nanotechnology and in nano-electromechanical systems, including membranes used in precision medicine such as targeted drug therapies.
4. Re-formulating ancient ferments
Biochemist Dr Cristian Varela from the Australian Wine Research Institute has led a study in collaboration with the University of Adelaide investigating processes used by the Tasmanian Palawa people to produce a fermented alcoholic beverage from the sweet sap of the Tasmanian cider gum, Eucalyptus gunnii. The researchers worked with local Aboriginal communities to understand traditional processes and gather soil, bark and sap from the trees.
Their research used DNA sequencing to identify the complex microbial communities associated with the natural fermentation of sap, finding some new classifications of yeast and bacteria not previously described that are unique to Australia and could be used to help revive lost practices or develop new ones.
5. Commercialising kangaroo tendons
At the University of Sydney, biomechanics researcher Dr Elizabeth Clarke has developed a product that uses kangaroo tendons for ligament reconstruction in human subjects in tandem with a 3D-printed biomaterial to connect it to bone. The invention is being commercialised by Allegra Orthopaedics, the Innovative Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre and Bone Ligament Tendon Ltd.