Image: Professor Peter Macreadie, Director, Blue Carbon Lab, Deakin University
Fundamental university science research has drawn inspiration from the Great Barrier Reef’s carbon storage capacity, the plant world’s ultra-efficient storage and transport structure, the reinvention solid state physics to develop new materials for electronic efficiency and advanced agricultural to nourish future outposts in space.
1. Oceans: Raising natural capital
Oceans of ecosystem data from decades of environmental science at Australian universities provide a wealth of information on the value — natural beauty aside — of the Great Barrier Reef. Researchers led by Deakin University’s Blue Carbon Lab (including director Prof Peter Macreadie, left) have identified that — through conserving and restoring coastal and marine ecosystems — the reef has enormous capacity to store carbon dioxide. Seagrass meadows and mangrove forests within the reef’s coastal catchment areas already sequester an astonishing 111 million tonnes of carbon. Damage to catchments could result in greater carbon emissions, boosting the argument for reef protection. Restoring 90,000 hectares of land throughout the reef’s catchments could enable an extra five million tonnes of carbon to be captured by 2100. In fact, coastal wetlands can capture and store carbon in the ground 10 times faster Reathan nearby rainforests.
2. Energy capture: Inspiration from plants
Western plant science traces its roots to Ancient Greece, and has long provided inspiration across different disciplines. Drawing on a network of expertise across plant science, energy research and engineering, RMIT University researchers are looking at the leaf structure of the western sword fern as inspiration for the development of a graphene-based capture and storage of solar energy. Their research revealed that sword fern leaves, packed with veins, are extremely efficient at storing energy and moving water within the plant. This led to the creation of a prototype electrode based on this leaf design. By combining it with supercapacitors, the researchers were able to dramatically improve the solar energy storage capacity. Elements of the prototype are based on flexible thin-film technology, potentially allowing a solar storage solution that is less bulky and rigid than current solar cells, and which could have many uses: including car panels, smartphones, and watches.
3. Better electronics: Reduce power, boost efficiency
Our insatiable appetite for electronic devices has led to a rapid increase in energy use, with information technology now responsible for 8% of the world’s electricity consumption. Experts predict the technology currently powering these devices simply can’t keep up. The materials of the future that will cater for rapid advances in technology are ideated in the hallways of university science — but it takes a village. FLEET, the ARC Centre of Excellence in Future Low-Energy Electronics Technologies, is a collaboration of Monash, ANU, RMIT, UNSW, the University of Queensland, Swinburne, and the University of Wollongong, with 18 other Australian and international research institutions. Combining the expertise of 200 researchers, FLEET aims to create a new generation of ultra-low energy electronics based on novel materials, that would allow devices to ‘switch’ at much lower voltages, resulting in far less energy use. The physicists, materials scientists and engineers of FLEET are reinventing solid state physics to develop new materials that harness the strange effects of quantum mechanics to attain the crowning ambition of room temperature, zero-resistance electrical pathways.
4. Plant factories: Food and medicine in space
Future outposts on the Moon or Mars will be unable to bring all they need from Earth, so they will need to grow their own food, and create medicines and materials. That’s the mission of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plants for Space, based at the University of Adelaide and involving Flinders, the University of Melbourne, UWA and La Trobe, as well as eight companies and 20 research institutions in Australia and overseas, including NASA.
Known as P4S, the centre plans to cultivate new varieties of plants that can grow in controlled environments. This expertise relies on years of Australian science advances in agriculture in some of the most challenging climates on Earth. Breakthroughs from the new centre will be immediately applicable on Earth, since we also face sustainability challenges in food and biomaterial production — such as lack of water, the need to recycle nutrients and avoid waste — and will fast-track current research on controlled environment agriculture and vertical farming.