Regional science innovation drives new carbon era

May 14, 2021

Advances in materials science are behind the growth of small businesses located in and around the Geelong Future Economy Precinct, encompassing Deakin University’s Waurn Ponds campus in Victoria.

Deakin Geelong carbon fibre innovation images

Right: Deakin’s Jon Partington founded Partington Advanced Engineering. Inset: Mandy de Souza. Far right: Salumeh Issazadeh.

The Geelong Future Economy Precinct is creating jobs through innovative business startups based on novel materials developed at Deakin University’s science faculty.

Home to advanced manufacturing organisations ISSRI, Carbon Nexus, Carbon Revolution and ManuFutures, the businesses in this precinct have created 2000 ‘knowledge’ jobs. The $11.5 million site, co-funded by the Victorian Government and Federal Government, will host a further 1000 knowledge economy jobs when completed in 2022.

Much of the precinct’s focus is on manufacturing carbon fibre, a super strong material found in everything from aeroplanes to racing cars and high-end tennis racquets. This manufactured metal substitute is highly prized for being lightweight as well as its strength, rigidity and durability.

Deakin University’s Professor Russell Varley’s core expertise is in polymer science, and he says university chemistry is fundamental to advanced manufacturing. 

“Everything we do here to create low-cost carbon fibre for next generation applications — whether it’s automotive, wind or aerospace — the solutions to all the challenges will be solved by further understanding the chemistry and how it relates to the structures of carbon fibre,” he says.

Working together

Co-locating in the precinct gives the university “seamless access to business for the translation of research”, says Dr Ben Spincer, executive director of Deakin Research Innovations. He says the arrangement also benefits businesses, which get greater access to students and to researchers.

Basic science research remains an important part of innovation.

“There is still that critical role research plays in looking at things at a more fundamental level,” says Spincer.

“Blue sky, aspirational research is still really important, but equally important and relevant is the ability to translate that experience and know-how into impactful world-ready opportunities.”

These opportunities include slicing the cost of carbon fibre and improving its stability.

Driving business, reducing costs

Technology developed by Deakin University researchers with Carbon Nexus — a purpose-built facility to research the manufacturing of carbon fibre — has reduced the energy used in production by 75 per cent, reduced production process times by a factor of five, and uses machinery costing less than half that of previous equipment.

Reducing costs will extend the market for this unique material. Deakin scientists also consider end-of-life disposal for carbon fibre materials as part of the development cycle.

“Recyclability and sustainability only comes from understanding the chemistry and developing new polymer systems that can truly be recycled and reused,” says Varley. “Our goal is to develop new polymers that last longer so they are more resource efficient, and can be recycled and reused again and again.”

Carbon Nexus is driving much of the business growth.

“Our mission at Carbon Nexus is to develop low-cost carbon fibre, and create a carbon fibre and composites industry for Australia,” says Varley, who is also on the Carbon Nexus Management Committee. “Around that has sprung a network of composite companies.”

Adjacent carbon fibre success stories include Carbon Revolution (producing high-performance wheels for the automotive industry) and Quickstep (manufacturer of composite aerospace components). Deakin University researchers help both organisations to resolve challenges, which range from improving paint resin quality to lowering production costs.

Improving thermal stability

Salumeh Issazadeh, a materials science PhD at Deakin University, is using her organic chemistry expertise to synthesise and design new materials that are inherently fire-retardant in their applications.

Her work addresses a common challenge in many advanced materials: the resins and polymers used in their construction are not thermally stable and, when heated, can emit potentially toxic smoke.  

Issazadeh has used different additives and new chemical formulations to create flame-retardant resins.

She says Deakin’s Institute for Frontier Materials hosts dozens of researchers in chemistry and materials science, with the university environment facilitating collaboration and knowledge sharing.

“Chemistry covers a very broad area; we have resin development, synthesis of carbon fibres, improving textile structures and water membranes – and we can all help each other,” says Issazadeh, adding that she has been able to advise colleagues in textile materials about improving thermal stability.

Dr Mandy de Souza (above) is a Senior Research Fellow at Deakin’s Institute for Frontier Materials, and has worked on these challenges for more than a decade. “My work looks at developing carbon fibre composites for automotive body panels, which — once painted — last for the life of the vehicle,” she says. 

She is continuing to work on the challenges of how composites age, and the complex interactions with surface finishes.

Varley says the success of the Institute for Frontier Materials is due to its range of disciplines and specialist expertise. 

“The Institute sits at the interface between chemistry, materials chemistry, polymer science, fibre science and engineering, and applying these different specialties is what delivers materials with next-generation performance,” he says.

— Fran Molloy

Sustainable carbon futures

Synthetic materials are frequently used in the making of carbon fibre, however it can be made using anything from cellulose, including cotton, bamboo and wood fibres.

Joint Deakin University and CSIRO chemistry PhD student Huma Khan says the composition of the ‘precursor fibre’ used to create carbon fibre materials is a closely guarded secret and, until now, Australia has imported these raw materials. 

Khan’s PhD research includes formulating the first Australian co-extruded wet spun precursor fibre, using Australian sugarcane waste provided by QUT. This is then converted into carbon fibre through a complex series of chemical processes. She is also using this approach to create hollow carbon fibres using similar lower-cost raw materials.

“These structures could potentially be filled with substances such as an electrolyte for inbuilt electrical storage so the body of a vehicle could be used to store energy, working as a structural battery without adding extra burden to the car engine,” says Khan.

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