Four ways university science is building sovereign capability

September 13, 2021

Australian university science has a long history of co-investing with major international and national organisations to build sovereign capability.

Image: Quantum microscope, by Aleksandr Kakinen

Australian university science has a long history of co-investing with major international and national organisations to build sovereign capability. Here are just four areas where these partnerships are pushing the limits of innovation.

1. In medical imaging and quantum technologies

We may be all made of star stuff, according to famous American astrophysicist Carl Sagan, but exactly what we are made of and what that looks like led physicists studying the fundamental state of matter to the weird world of quantum physics. Now, Australian scientists have used quantum technologies to create a microscope that can visualise at small scales with 35% more clarity than existing technology. 

This will lead to better medical imaging and improved navigation systems. “We’ve shown it’s possible to go beyond the limits of classical physics, to see things you could not see in a regular microscope,” says lead researcher Professor Warwick Bowen from the University of Queensland.

The research was published in Nature on 9 June, 2021

2. In advanced materials

Twenty years ago, Nobel-prize winning physicist and chemist Dr Richard Smalley discovered Boron Nitride Nanotubes (BNNT), a material 100 times stronger than steel, heat resistant up to 3000 degrees and harder than diamonds. Now, Deakin University have partnered in an Australian startup company Li-S Energy Ltd and used BNNT to create a quantum sulphur battery that could power mobile phones for over a week and electric cars for more than 1000 km. 

The research was undertaken at Deakin’s advanced manufacturing precinct in Geelong, leveraging the expertise of Deakin’s Institute for Frontier Materials and the facilities of Deakin’s ManuFutures scale-up accelerator. 

“These results are the culmination of 10 years of research into the development of lithium sulphur batteries and how that is influenced by advanced nanomaterials. The belief and investment in the research program from Li-S Energy have enabled us to bring our research toward a commercial reality,” say Professor Ying Chen and Dr Baozhi Yu, the project’s lead researchers.

3. In sourcing critical minerals

To get to zero emissions, or even close, requires a revolution in mining to supply critical minerals for batteries, solar panels and other renewable energy tech. The University of Adelaide’s Australian Critical Minerals Research Centre is a collaborative, cross-disciplinary effort to increase Australia’s sovereign supply of critical minerals. 

The Centre’s director, Associate Professor Carl Spandler says the list of critical minerals changes as new technologies emerge, and fundamental geology is needed to understand how and where these minerals are concentrated to ore levels in the Earth’s crust. “Zero emissions by 2050 means we need a lot of these metals in a short period of time,” says Spandler.  At the same time, students will need to be more multi-skilled, including being trained in cultural awareness, and understanding environmental implications even in the exploration stage, he says. “In the research space that’s a big shift because exploration geology has previously been a fairly siloed operation.”

4. In manufacturing and energy research

With colleagues from three Queensland universities (UQ, QUT and James Cook University), Professor Peter Talbot from QUT’s School of Chemistry and Physics developed and patented a process for producing complex nanoscale metal oxides based on decades of fundamental chemistry research. Spinning out two companies, the Very Small Particle Company and ScienceWorks Consultants, the researchers are using this novel  process to produce industrial catalysts for the reduction of greenhouse gases in exhaust flues and advanced battery materials for electric vehicles. 

Talbot now leads a team of QUT researchers that have produced Australia’s first lithium-ion battery after establishing the country’s only facility capable of such manufacturing.

Written by Heather Catchpole

First published in Australian University Science, issue 6

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