Four fundamental science success stories

March 14, 2022

From devices that allow patients to operate computers with their thoughts to revolutionising solar technology, here are fundamental science’s success stories.

Image: PERC solar cells have revolutionised solar photovoltaic. Shutterstock

1. Bringing new hope for paralysis 

In a two-year, world-first human trial run by the University of Melbourne, two people with paralysis have had a small device called Stentrode inserted under the skull at the top of their heads.

Associate Professor Tom Oxley, the inventor of Stentrode, was a University of Melbourne PhD student back in 2011 when he began exploring the idea of placing the electrodes in the brain via blood vessels through a vein in the neck. In 2012, he teamed up with colleague and biomedical engineer Associate Professor Nicholas Opie to develop and trial the device. 

The device transmits signals to a computer, which translates the signals into commands like “click” and “drag”. The study participants can now search the internet, write emails and check their online banking.

2. Revolutionising laser research  

Lasers were invented by US physicist Theodore Maiman in the 1960s and promptly picked up by mainstream media and James Bond movies as death rays. Fast-forward to today and they are used in multiple industries, medical practice and research. 

University of South Australia and the University of Adelaide are now collaborating with the Department of Defence’s Science and Technology Group (DST) to build a new type of high-powered laser that combines multiple smaller lasers, fine-tuning the manufacturing process so it is cheaper and more efficient. 

DST says the ultrashort- and short- pulsed lasers are orders of magnitude more powerful than standard lasers and capable of vaporising or liquidising objects. 

“Our miniature laser technology and manufacturing processes are world-leading and will supercharge the DST’s laser system program,” says UniSA physicist Professor David Lancaster.

3. PERC solar cells

In September 1983, University of New South Wales School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering Scientia Professor Martin Green’s lab set the first world record for silicon solar cell efficiency — 18%. Later that year, in his report to the Australian National Energy Research, Development and Demonstration Program, Green suggested adding an extra layer on the back of a traditional cell architecture to improve light capture near the rear surface and optimise electron capture.

Known as PERC solar cells, this technology has revolutionised solar photovoltaics, raising efficiency and lowering the cost. These cells are now a commercial standard throughout the world, powering 85% of all new solar panel modules.

Green, who won the Global Energy Prize in 2018, spent three decades developing the idea with successive teams. PERC solar cells are now 40% efficient, with sales exceeding 

US$10 billion in 2017, and predicted to surpass US$1 trillion by 2040. It is estimated that they will save Australia at least $750 million in power production costs over the next decade.

4. Nanotech imaging advances

Nanotechnology has its roots in the 1980s, when the new scanning tunnelling microscopes allowed scientists to see and manipulate individual atoms. For five years, La Trobe University’s Prof Brian Abbey and Dr Eugeniu Balaur have worked on modifying the surface of conventional microscope slides at the nanoscale. 

The human eye can distinguish up to 10,000 different colours, but is far less sensitive to variations in intensity, which makes the addition of colours helpful when interpreting images. Typically, to identify cancer cells, medical imaging relies on staining or labelling cells to render them visible under the microscope, but it is still challenging to distinguish cancer cells from benign lesions.

Cancerous cells and healthy cells interact with light differently. Abbey and Balaur modified the microscope slide surfaces to make cancerous cells ‘light up’ with specific colours. The microscope slide developed from the research, NanoMslide, promises to revolutionise medical imaging.

“The key breakthrough came six years ago when we realised that, rather than working to improve microscopes, we could instead exploit recent breakthroughs in nanotechnology to revolutionise the humble microscope slide,” says Abbey.

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