The award recognises the importance of her work on the influence of anthropogenic climate change on extreme weather events, and is supporting her research into a particular event that receives less attention than storms, floods or droughts, but potentially has more impact on human health and the environment.
“My research explores how heatwaves have changed, why they change, and how they will change in the future,” explains Perkins-Kirkpatrick, “as well as looking at how we measure them, and how to detect the human contribution from climate change that is affecting them.”
Heatwaves are prolonged periods of unusually hot weather and, according to the website Scorcher (developed by Perkins-Kirkpatrick), they kill more people annually than any other natural disaster. They can also damage infrastructure such as power supplies, which can become overloaded during peak air-conditioner use, and rail networks, where prolonged periods of intense heat can buckle train lines.
“Heatwaves are highly regional and very complex events, and are driven by changes in background temperatures due to climate change, but also things like weather systems, soil moisture, and long-term variability like the El Nino/Southern Oscillation,” explains Perkins-Kirkpatrick.
“Measuring them is not an easy task, as good quality daily temperature data are needed. Fortunately, there are good datasets available in Australia so we have a good picture of how they are changing here. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many parts of the world, such as South America, Africa and India.”
The subject matter sounds exciting but, according to Perkins-Kirkpatrick, she spends much of her time in front of a computer screen number-crunching.
“On a day-to-day basis, I’m processing big data from observations collected from all over Australia as well as those that are done globally. We’re not meteorologists, so we don’t go out and release weather balloons. For people like me, it’s very much about processing data,” says Perkins-Kirkpatrick.
The ability to analyse, interpret and discern trends in large datasets suggests Perkins-Kirkpatrick’s maths abilities are well honed. She admits, however, that a bad decision in high school has meant playing catch-up on her maths.
“Something that I didn’t do was keep up with my maths. I was pretty good at it in school, but I just never understood why I was learning differential equations, integrals … I just didn’t see the point. Lo and behold, I hit my career now, and I’m, ‘OK, whoops’,” she says.
Perkins-Kirkpatrick partly blames her older sister for this, who advised her not to take higher maths at school: “You’ll never need it,” her sister told her. So Perkins-Kirkpatrick’s advice to her younger self would be: “Don’t listen to your older sister, she doesn’t always know best.”
Although heatwaves are synonymous with summer, they can also develop in winter. They may not pack the punch of the sweltering temperatures experienced during summer, but they can have a disastrous effect on crops such as fruit trees, by interfering with their reproductive systems and inhibiting growth.
So how has climate change influenced heatwaves in the recent past, and what does the future hold?
“We can say with a high degree of certainty that heatwaves have increased since at least the 1950s,”explains Perkins-Kirkpatrick, “and that’s the case for pretty much everywhere on the globe where we’ve got good enough measurements.”
“Canberra over the last 50 years, for example, has seen a doubling in the number of heatwave days. Melbourne hasn’t seen much of a change in the number of heatwaves, but they have become hotter over the last 60 years. And Sydney has seen the heatwave season starting up to two or three weeks earlier.”
And the future looks anything but encouraging. According to Perkins-Kirkpatrick, the frequency, intensity and magnitude of heatwaves are all increasing, with frequency increasing fastest; and what is particularly concerning, these trends are also accelerating, meaning the rate of change is increasing too.
As with other areas of climate change research, Perkins-Kirkpatrick is attempting to make predictions; so it’s hardly surprising her favourite film reflects this.
“Back to the Future is pretty much my favourite movie trilogy of all time,” she says, recalling her childhood. “I recently gave a talk on how, in climate change, we look into the future, and managed to slip in a reference to Back to the Future.”
In 2001, the Human Genome Project, an international research project whose goal was to determine the sequence of genes that make up a human being, successfully mapped the human genome – the set of genetic instructions, like a recipe book, that contains all the information needed to assemble and form a person.
Thousands of individual human genomes have now been mapped, generating a vast amount of information on the structure and function of genes and revealing a highly complex and intricate genetic landscape that has led to new insights in biology, human evolution and the diagnosis of genetic disorders, such as Huntington’s disease and cystic fibrosis.
Harriet Dashnow, a PhD student in the Bioinformatics Group at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute (MCRI) in Melbourne, is one of the intrepid explorers navigating this terrain. Her research is seeking to understand how variations in the location and pattern of specific genes can lead to genetic disorders.
“One of the problems is that we’re very good at understanding simple mutations inside genes,” explains Dashnow, “but it’s clear that there are lots of different kinds of variation we don’t understand, and we have a lot of trouble testing for. So the focus of my PhD is to look at a particular type of variation called a microsatellite or a short tandem repeat.”
Short tandem repeats (STRs) are sequences of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) – the molecule that contains most of the genetic instructions for all living organisms – comprising 2–5 base pairs, which repeat throughout a human genome. Base pairs, linked nitrogen-containing biological compounds represented by A-T and C-G, are the building blocks of DNA.
Short tandem repeats can appear at thousands of different locations throughout the human genome, and are noteworthy for their high diversity within the population as well as their high mutation rates.
A repeated sequence, for example ATATATAT, will have a different number of copies of AT from one person to the next: “This is a kind of variation that we’re not good at measuring,” explains Dashnow, “so my work is trying to measure this variation so we can look for it in a clinical setting and figure out when it’s causing a disease.
“Genetic disorders such as ataxia [a dysfunction of the nervous system that affects movement] are often caused by these kinds of repetitive mutations, but it’s actually quite difficult to test for these using genome sequencing.”
Enter the interdisciplinary field of bioinformatics, which employs the power of computer science, statistics and engineering to analyse and interpret biological data in order to tackle some of the most challenging questions facing biology today.
“When I was undertaking the biochemistry and genetics part of my undergraduate degree I was starting to hear how computational methods were being used to solve biological questions,” says Dashnow. “It became increasingly clear to me that was the direction biology was going in. So it was going to be important for people to have these computational skills.”
Dashnow, who clearly thrives on challenges, undertook a double degree in science and arts – with majors in biochemistry, genetics and psychology – at the University of Melbourne. And she believes this has proved to be highly beneficial: “It has given me the ability and confidence to write, which has been incredibly valuable, and it’s something that people who just study science don’t always get an opportunity to explore.”
Although she enjoyed the experience of studying literature and psychology as part of her arts degree, Dashnow is a scientist at heart. “I’ve always wanted to be a scientist ever since I was very little. In primary school I thought I wanted to be a physicist, but when I started to take science classes in high school I became really fascinated by biology and genetics, and how genes make us who we are,” she says, recalling the moment when her path in science became apparent to her.
“It will become more and more common to sequence people’s genomes when they get sick,” says Dashnow. “So understanding and interpreting information provided by genome sequencing will allow us to diagnose more diseases and come up with appropriate treatments.”
Dashnow did a Master’s degree in Bioinformatics at the University of Melbourne then worked at VLSCI for over a year before starting a PhD. The research she is now undertaking for her PhD follows on from her Master’s work, and has already been recognised through the awarding of a highly competitive MCRI PhD top-up scholarship.
Dashnow is currently visiting the Broad Institute, a world-class genomics and biological research centre that emerged from initiatives at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she will undertake collaborative research on muscle disorders, furthering her knowledge and understanding in the field.
The workshop seeks to narrow the gender gap and improve gender diversity among engineering researchers, by providing support and practical information to female post-doctorates, lecturers and PhD candidates working in the engineering sector on how to manage the pressures faced by female academic engineers.
“The Future Women Leaders Conference is the first of its kind,” says Professor Ana Deletic, Associate Dean of Research at the Faculty of Engineering at Monash.
“The focus is on inspiring women in engineering to pursue an academic career, as well as providing opportunity for them to learn from the success of other female engineers.“
Gender diversity is still a major challenge for the science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) disciplines in Australia. This is particularly true for engineering, where, according the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) report: A strategy for inclusiveness, well-being and diversity in the engineering workplace, women make up less than 12% of the workforce.
The majority of the workshop’s attendees are post-doctoral researchers seeking to transition to an academic position. This is a critical time in the life of female researcher engineers – at this point the gender gap widens significantly.
“We’re truly excited about this gathering – we see it as a fundamental step in increasing diversity in engineering,” says Professor Karen Hapgood, Head of Department for Chemical Engineering at Monash University and co-chair of the workshop with Deletic.
“The group is likely to form a peer mentoring network as a result of this event, which will provide valuable ongoing support for attendees. Engineering research is a highly competitive field, so this kind of support is particularly beneficial.”
The workshop, which featured inspirational stories from successful women engineers from across the country, including Monash Provost and Senior Vice-President Professor Edwina Cornish and Dr Leonie Walsh from The Office of the Lead Scientist in Victoria, sought to address the gender gap by providing valuable insights in to the challenges faced by women in engineering.
The networking element of the workshop, according to Deletic, was particularly valuable. “Many attendees had not met other people in their situation, and were eager to talk through the common challenges they face,” says Deletic.
The Jack Hills are part of an ancient landscape of scorched red earth in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. But it wasn’t until 2001, when a rock from the hills was brought 800 km south to Curtin University’s John De Laeter Centre for Isotope Research (JDLC), that scientists discovered just how ancient this landscape really is. The Curtin scientists dated zircon crystals in the sample at 4.4 billion years, making it the oldest known Earth rock.
This groundbreaking research required a sophisticated measurement of trace elements in the crystal, and there are very few facilities in the world where this could have taken place. Zircon traps uranium in its crystal structure when it is formed. In principle, the radioactive decay of uranium into lead is like a ticking clock. If you can accurately measure how much lead has been created and how much uranium remains in a particular sample, you can work out when the crystal was formed. To do this, and to arrive at an age with an uncertainty of just 0.2%, Curtin researchers called upon the $4 million Sensitive High Resolution Ion Micro Probe (SHRIMP), the flagship technology of the JDLC. There are fewer than 20 SHRIMPs in the world, and Curtin is home to two of them.
“Zircon is like diamond – it’s forever,” explains JDLC Director, Professor Brent McInnes. Being a very hard and chemically inert material, zircon lasts for billions of years. The JDLC has world-renowned expertise in dating rocks by analysing the uranium-lead decay process in zircon.
The JDLC is also regularly put to more practical uses, such as aiding resource exploration in Western Australia. The SHRIMPs are the centrepieces of a suite of equipment worth $25 million, including scanning electron microscopes, transmission electron microscopes, ion beam milling instruments, laser probes and mass spectrometers.
“We are an open access lab,” explains McInnes. “These instruments can run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” The JDLC collaborates with research groups around the world and also assists the Geological Survey of Western Australia to make maps used to attract investment in mining and petroleum exploration. Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences researchers use the instruments to do similar work in China, controlling the Perth-based SHRIMPs remotely from Beijing.
The JDLC facilities have also been used to solve practical problems for industry partners. When exploration company Independence Group NL found tin in a gravel bed at the base of a WA river, they turned to the JDLC to help identify the origins of the ore. Was it from a local source or had it been transported from elsewhere and deposited in the riverbed? Using SHRIMP, the JDLC team measured the quantities of trace uranium and lead elements in the tin ore cassiterite and calculated its age. When they performed similar measurements on zircon from local granite, they found its age was the same. This showed the tin was local, and helped the Independence Group pinpoint the precise locations to drill exploratory holes. “We have an incredibleset of research tools that can be deployed to help industry reduce the risks and costs of exploration,” says McInnes.
“Recognising the gap, Curtin has set up a dedicated funding program, called Kickstart, to help translate lab research into commercial ventures.”
Collaborating with industry is a commonplace activity for John Curtin Distinguished Professor and Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor – Faculty of Science and Engineering, Moses Tadé. Industry possesses considerable experts, he says, yet still tends to approach academics when looking at something more fundamental. Tadé’s group brings a range of skills to the table, including expertise in multi-scale modelling, computational flow dynamics, reaction engineering and optimisation modelling. Collaboration is highly beneficial for both sides, he says.
Ongoing projects include the development of solid oxide fuel cells with a Melbourne-based fuel cell company, and a project in partnership with a petroleum industry multinational to remove mercury from oil and gas. In recent years, sponsorship from leading minerals and exploration companies Chevron Australia and Woodside Energy has supported the growth of the Curtin Corrosion Engineering Industry Centre, of which Tadé is Director. The Centre looks to develop practical solutions to the problem of corrosion in gas pipelines, which can lead to costly leaks and dangerous explosions.
In another project, led by chemical engineer Professor Vishnu Pareek, Curtin has teamed up with Woodside to develop a more efficient way to regasify liquefied natural gas. Currently, natural gas from Australia is liquified so it can be transported efficiently by ship to overseas markets, particularly China. But once it gets there, the regasification process can burn up to 2% of the product. A new process being developed at Curtin uses the energy in the ambient air to aid regasification – a more efficient solution that will both increase profits and reduce CO2 emissions. “It’s very exciting,” says Tadé. “A big thing for the environment.”
Curtin has become a busy hub of innovation, with a spate of spin-off companies being created to translate the research. “We have a focused effort on commercialisation and research outcomes,” explains Rohan McDougall, Director of IP Commercialisation at Curtin.
Public funding of science and engineering research can often only take new technology to a certain level of development such as ‘proof-of-concept’. Securing funds from investors to turn pre-commercial work into a real-world product is tough as investors are wary at this early high-risk stage. “The gap is traditionally known as the ‘valley of death’,” says McDougall. Recognising this gap, Curtin has set up a dedicated funding program, called Kickstart, to help translate lab research into commercial ventures.
As well as the extra funding, commercialisation is aided at Curtin by strong links with the venture capital community and industry, which advise on commercialisation routes and intellectual property. The university also encourages an innovation environment by running contests in which staff and students describe technologies they are working on and that may have commercial applications.
This commercialisation focus has reaped dividends in terms of successful spin-off companies. In the medical space, Neuromonics sells a device for the treatment of the auditory condition tinnitus. In digital technology, iCetana has developed a video analytics technology for security applications. Skrydata, a data analytics company, provides a service for extracting patterns from big data. Sensear has developed sophisticated hearing equipment technology for high-noise environments such as oil and gas facilities.
One of the biggest recent success stories has been Scanalyse, which in 2013 won the prestigious Australian Museum Rio Tinto Eureka Prize for Commercialisation of Innovation. Scanalyse grew out of a collaboration between Curtin and Alcoa, one of the world’s largest aluminium producers. Alcoa called on Curtin’s experts to find a way to analyse the grinders used in their mills. Every time a grinder wore out, it was costing ~$100,000/hour in downtime. It was crucial to monitor the condition of these machines, but this required someone to climb inside and take measurements. Through their 2005 collaboration with Alcoa, spatial scientists at Curtin developed a laser scanning system capable of measuring 10 million points in just 30 minutes.
“At the same time, they developed a software tool that could be applied more generally,” explains McDougall. “So the business was established to look at the application of that technology to mills and other mine site equipment.”
Scanalyse has since found customers in more than 20 countries and is making an impact worldwide. In 2013, it was bought by Finnish engineering giant Outotec.
Scientists who are leading the world on solar energy efficiency, helping to develop one-shot flu vaccines, and making portable biosensors to detect viruses are among the winners of the Australian Academy of Science’s annual honorific awards.
Each year the Academy presents awards to recognise scientific excellence, to researchers in the early stage of their careers through to those who have made life-long achievements.
This year’s announcement includes 17 award winnersacross astronomy, nanoscience, mathematics, chemistry, physics, environmental science and human health.
Professor Martin Green, sometimes known as the “father of photovoltaics”, has won the prestigious Ian Wark Medal and Lecture for his world-record breaking work improving solar efficiency.
Dr Jane Elith and Associate Professor Cyrille Boyer, who recently won awards in the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, will be the recipients of this year’s Fenner and Le Févre prizes.
The Academy President, Professor Andrew Holmes congratulated all the award winners for their work.
“These scientists are simply inspirational. They are working at the leading edges of their fields and of human knowledge, and they are developing innovations that will change and improve our society, our economy and our health,” says Holmes.
“This list of winners represents the best of Australia’s leading and emerging scientists; from researchers doing fundamental research to those building next generation technologies,” says Holmes.
The awards will be formally presented at the Academy’s annual three day celebration of Australian science, Science at the Shine Dome, in Canberra in May 2016.
Read more about the awardees and their research here.
This article was shared in a media release by the Australian Academy of Science on 23 November 2015. Featured image above: Aerial Shine Dome May 2015 credit Adi Chopra.
As the driest inhabited continent, and the country with the sixth largest coastline, Australia is poorly endowed with freshwater but fringed by huge expanses of ocean.
We often take it for granted but access to clean drinking water is a critical issue in a growing number of regions around the world. In Perth, drinking water has traditionally been sourced from surface water dams and groundwater reserves. But these supplies have significantly diminished since the 1980s through the combined impacts of rapid urban growth and protracted drought conditions. And with the southwest of Australia expected to suffer more severely than other parts of the continent from the impact of climate change, the situation is only expected to worsen.
The Water Corporation of Western Australia has been intensively exploring diversified options for boosting Perth’s drinking water, focusing on climate-independent sources. The most innovative option has been to use advanced treated wastewater to replenish groundwater resources impacted by the drying climate.
To help with their investigations, they turned to Curtin experts, including water chemist Dr Cynthia Joll. As Deputy Director of the Curtin Water Quality Research Centre (CWQRC), Joll is part of a team that researched the performance of the wastewater treatment procedures to make the process both safe and viable. Joll explains there are a large number of potential micropollutants that might need to be removed from a city’s wastewater before it can be safely recycled as drinking water. These include residual pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics, hormones and pain relief medications found in urine.
“The Centre developed the vast majority of the analytical methods for detecting these chemicals in treated wastewaters and then looked to see whether they were in secondary and tertiary – or advanced – treated wastewater,” says Joll.
The research ensured the WA Department of Health approved a pilot water recycling plant. The plant produced advanced treated wastewater of drinking quality, which was pumped into the groundwater aquifer. As a result, they completed a successful groundwater replenishment trial by the end of 2012, which was dubbed a “highly viable” option for securing WA’s drinking water supplies in the drying climate.
In late 2013, the WA government announced that groundwater replenishment was to go ahead as a major new climate-independent water source for Perth. It’s predicted that, by 2060, as much as 20% of Perth’s drinking water is likely to be supplied using this approach. The advanced treated wastewater will be used to replenish groundwater supplies that won’t be drawn for drinking purposes for decades. By the time it is added to Perth’s water supply and subjected to the drinking water treatment process, it will have been naturally filtered by passing through groundwater aquifers, Joll explains.
The CWQRC is also involved in a wide range of fundamental and applied research into other water quality issues. For Joll, who’s been fascinated by water quality chemistry for many years, it’s been particularly thrilling as a scientist to be involved in work of such high public significance. “To help bring it to full scale has been fabulous,” she says, adding that the success of the research means the work of the CWQRC is creating interest in other regions around the world that are already, or are anticipating, experiencing drinking water limitations.
Engineers at Curtin are also working on a water supply issue. As drinking water is pumped into cities, or wastewater is pumped out, small bubbles can form as the result of a drop in pressure from falling supplies in reservoirs or fluctuations in wastewater usage. These bubbles can damage the pumps that control supply.
Dr Kristoffer McKee, a lead researcher in Curtin’s rotating machine health monitoring project, and colleagues are analysing the vibrations made by the bubbles as they form. When the bubbles enter a pump, the pump applies pressure to the liquid, causing the bubbles to pop (implode) which releases energy. At its peak, millions of bubbles pop within milliseconds of each other.
“This popping eats away at the metal on the ‘impeller’ blades in the pump,” says McKee. As a result, this phenomenon decreases the pump’s ability to apply pressure and push the liquid in the desired direction. “It sounds like you’re pumping gravel.”
The process makes holes in the impeller blades, causing the pumps to seize up. But by the time technicians can detect the telltale sounds, the damage has already begun, says McKee. “It can cost many thousands of dollars to take a pump offline and change an impeller.” He says their approach has been to try to detect the start of the process, called cavitation, before damage becomes significant.
Building on the results of work by a University of Western Australia colleague, and in collaboration with Queensland University of Technology researchers, the Curtin University engineers placed accelerometers (sensors which measure acceleration associated with vibrations) on pumps in Queensland towns. They found they could use the data to map cavitation in 3D to show how a pump changes as cavitation occurs, says McKee.
“Once you see cavitation starting, you can stop your pump and make sure the pressure is correct,” he adds. It’s early days yet and the work needs more field testing, but the research could cut industry costs significantly.
“By 2060, as much as 20% of Perth’s drinking water is likely to be supplied by groundwater replenishment.”
The push to apply research outcomes is strong across Curtin, including in the field of marine and freshwater research. Much of this work is carried out at the university under the auspices of the Australian Sustainable Development Institute, which brings Curtin researchers together on research proposals that relate to sustainable development.
“It’s all about tackling the key issues facing society,” explains the Institute’s Executive Director, Mike Burbridge. “We know that there’s increasing pressure on water and water resources. The cross-disciplinary approach is hugely important at Curtin, but especially in the sustainability space. Major innovations have come about by taking ideas from one area and applying them in another.”
An interdisciplinary approach to solving oceanographic problems has become a hallmark of Curtin’s Centre for Marine Science and Technology (CMST), which fosters research connections across the university’s Departments of Imaging and Applied Physics, Applied Geology, and Environment and Agriculture, as well as with external organisations such as the Western Australian Energy Research Alliance, the Integrated Marine Observing System and the Australian Maritime College.
“It sets us apart from other marine science groups around Australia. We seem to have carved quite a niche for doing that within the Southern Hemisphere and beyond,” says Dr Christine Erbe, Director of the CMST. Erbe is working with a multidisciplinary team at the CMST within Curtin’s physics department in the area of bioacoustics to monitor and analyse the sounds made by marine animals and people at the beach (see News, p6).
In one project, researchers are looking at how to detect sharks in the water using off-the-shelf sonar systems – the type used by private and commercial fishermen that work by emitting acoustic signals reflected off objects in the water. “Many of us have engineering and physics backgrounds and apply that to biology,” says Erbe.
Professor David Antoine, head of Curtin’s Remote Sensing and Satellite Research Group, applies his expertise in the opposite direction, combining his background as a biologist with the use of highly sophisticated physics techniques to interpret changes in ocean colour.
Ocean colour activity is affected by the amount and type of particulate matter present – from phytoplankton to sediment. This matter affects how light penetrates into, and is scattered by, water. It can be expressed in physical terms such as the absorption (how much light is taken in by the water itself, as well as the particles or dissolved substances it contains) and reflectance (how much light is being scattered back compared to how much enters at the surface).
“If you have strong absorption, the water will look darker and you will have less light coming out of the water,” explains Antoine. Less absorption results in more scattering of light and different ocean hues. Understanding the changing spectral signatures that result from this play of light enables scientists to quantify, for example, amounts of phytoplankton – the tiny plants that float in ocean surface waters and drive marine food chains.
“Like terrestrial plant life, phytoplankton contains many pigments, particularly chlorophyll,” says Antoine. “And chlorophyll absorbs preferentially in the blue range on the visible light spectrum.”
As phytoplankton concentration increases in an area of ocean, the spectral signature of the water shifts from deep to light blue, then to green or brown, indicating a very large concentration of phytoplankton and highly productive waters. This can be measured in surface waters using an instrument called a radiometer – deployable from a ship, for example, or across huge areas via satellites.
While referred to as ‘satellite imagery’, it involves more than looking at nice pictures, Antoine says. His team is doing a rigorous quantitative analysis of the measured signal on each pixel of the image to look at geophysical properties and determine attributes such as phytoplankton concentration. “That can mean millions of individual observations on just one image, and billions of them when many years of observations are collected over the entire planet.”
This kind of understanding can be applied, for example, in the local and global management of fish stocks, which rely on patterns of phytoplankton production. And because phytoplankton carry out photosynthesis – absorbing CO2 and releasing oxygen – understanding where, when and how much of this resource there is can provide vast amounts of information about the global carbon cycle. This, in turn, has major implications for managing climate change.
The potential significance of phytoplankton in this area is enormous, says Antoine, explaining that huge numbers of tiny plants floating across the world’s oceans act as a major sink for atmospheric carbon, sequestering around 50 gigatonnes of carbon per year. This is as much carbon fixation as is carried out by terrestrial plants, and the plankton uses about 500 times less biomass because it is more efficient at photosynthesis. A significant part of the CO2 released in the atmosphere by human activity is absorbed by this process and eventually sinks to the deep ocean and is buried in the ocean floor.
There’s perhaps no better indicator of how all of Earth’s habitats – marine, freshwater and terrestrial – are all intimately linked.
The nanoscale is so tiny it’s almost beyond comprehension. Too small for detection by the human eye, and not even discernible by most laboratory microscopes, it refers to measurements in the range of 1–100 billionths of a metre. The nanoscale is the level at which atoms and molecules come together to form structured materials.
The Nanochemistry Research Institute — NRI — conducts fundamental and applied research to understand, model and tailor materials at the nanoscale. It brings together scientists – with expertise in chemistry, engineering, computer simulations, materials and polymers – and external collaborators to generate practical applications in health, energy, environmental management, industry and exploration. These include new tests for cancer, and safer approaches to oil and gas transportation. Research ranges from government-funded exploratory science to confidential industry projects.
The NRI hosts research groups with specialist expertise in the chemical formation of minerals and other materials. “To understand minerals, it’s often important to know what is going on at the level of atoms,” explains Julian Gale, John Curtin Distinguished Professor in Computational Chemistry and former Acting Director of the NRI. “To do this, we use virtual observation – watching how atoms interact at the nanoscale – and modelling, where we simulate the behaviour of atoms on a computer.”
The mineral calcium carbonate is produced through biomineralisation by some marine invertebrates. “If we understand the chemistry that leads to the formation of carbonates in the environment, then we can look at how factors such as ocean temperature and pH can lead to the loss of minerals that are a vital component of coral reefs,” says Gale.
This approach could be used to build an understanding of how minerals are produced biologically, potentially leading to medical and technological benefits, including applications in bone growth and healing, or even kidney stone prevention and treatment.
Gale anticipates that a better understanding of mineral geochemistry may also shed light on how and where metals are distributed. “If you understand the chemistry of gold in solution and how deposits form, you might have a better idea where to look for the next gold mine,” he explains.
There are also environmental implications. “Formation of carbonate minerals, especially magnesium carbonate and its hydrates, has been proposed as a means of trapping atmospheric carbon in a stable solid state through a process known as geosequestration. We work with colleagues in the USA to understand how such carbonates form,” says Gale.
Minerals science is also relevant in industrial settings. Calcium carbonate scaling reduces flow rates in pipes and other structures in contact with water. “As an example, the membranes used for reverse osmosis in water desalination – a water purification technology that uses a semipermeable membrane to remove salt and other minerals from saline water – can trigger the formation of calcium carbonate,” explains Gale. “This results in partial blockage of water flow through the membrane, and reduced efficiency of the desalination process.”
A long-term aim of research in this area is to design water membranes that prevent these blockages. There are also potential applications in the oil industry, where barium sulphate (barite) build-up reduces the flow in pipes, and traps dangerous radioactive elements such as radium.
Another problem for exploration companies is the formation of hydrates of methane and other low molecular weight hydrocarbon molecules. These can block pipelines and processing equipment during oil and gas transportation and operations, which results in serious safety and flow assurance issues. Materials chemist Associate Professor Xia Lou leads a large research group in the Department of Chemical Engineering that is developing low-dose gas hydrates inhibitors to prevent hydrate formation. “We also develop nanomaterials for the removal of organic contaminants in water, and nanosensors to detect or extract heavy metals,” she says.
“To understand minerals, it’s often important to know what is going on at the level of the atom.”
The capacity to control how molecules come together and then disassociate offers tantalising opportunities for product development, particularly in food science, drug delivery and cosmetics. In the Department of Chemistry, Professor Mark Ogden conducts nanoscale research looking at hydrogels, or networks of polymeric materials suspended in water.
“We study the 3D structure of hydrogels using the Institute’s scanning probe microscope,” says Ogden. “The technique involves running a sharp tip over the surface of the material. It provides an image of the topography of the surface, but we can also measure how hard, soft or sticky the surface is.” Ogden is developing methods for watching hydrogels grow and fall apart through heating and cooling. “We have the capability to do that sort of imaging now, and this in situ approach is quite rare around the world,” he says.
“We’ve identified lanthanoid clusters that can emit UV light and have magnetic properties,” explains Ogden. “Some of these can form single molecule magnets. A key outcome will be to link cluster size and shape to these functional properties.” This may facilitate guided production of magnetic and light-emitting materials for use in sensing and imaging technologies.
“If you understand the chemistry of gold … then you might have a better idea of where to start looking for the next gold mine.”
The NRI is working across several areas of chemistry and engineering to develop nanoscale tools for detecting and treating health conditions. Professor Damien Arrigan applies a nanoscale electrochemical approach to detecting biological molecules, also known as biosensing. He and his Department of Chemistry colleagues work at the precise junction between layered oil and water.
“We make oil/water interfaces using membranes with nanopores, some as small as 15 nanometres,” he says. “This scale delivers the degree of sensitivity we’re after.” The scientists measure the passage of electrical currents across the tiny interfaces and detect protein, which absorbs at the boundary between the two liquids. “As long as we know a protein’s isoelectric point – that is, the pH at which it carries no electrical charge – we can measure its concentration,” he explains.
The technique enables the scientists to detect proteins at nanomolar (10−6 mol/m3) concentrations, but they hope to shift the sensitivity to the picomolar (10−9 mol/m3) range – a level of detection a thousand times more sensitive and not possible with many existing protein assessments. Further refinement may also incorporate markers to select for proteins of interest. “What we’d like to do one day is measure specific proteins in biological fluids like saliva, tears or serum,” says Arrigan.
The team’s long-term vision is to develop highly sensitive point-of-need measurements to guide treatments – for example, testing kits for paramedics to detect markers released after a heart attack so that appropriate treatment can be immediately applied.
Also in the Department of Chemistry, Dr Max Massi is developing biosensing tools to look at the health of living tissues. His approach relies on tracking the location and luminescence of constructed molecules in cells. “We synthesise new compounds based on heavy metals that have luminescent properties,” explains Massi. “Then we feed the compounds to cells, and look to see where they accumulate and how they glow.”
The team synthesises libraries of designer chemicals for their trials. “We know what properties we’re after – luminescence, biological compatibility and the ability to go to the part of the cell we want,” says Massi.
For example, compounds can be designed to accumulate in lysosomes – the tiny compartments in a cell that are involved in functions such as waste processing. With appropriate illumination, images of lysosomes can then be reconstructed and viewed in 3D using a technique known as confocal microscopy, enabling scientists to assess lysosome function. Similar approaches are in development for disease states such as obesity and cancer.
Beyond detection, this technique also has potential for therapeutic applications. Massi has performed in vitro studies with healthy and cancerous cells, suggesting that a switch from detection to treatment may be possible by varying the amount of light used to illuminate the cells.
“A bit of light allows you to visualise. A lot of light will allow you to kill the cells,” explains Massi. His approach is on track for product development, with intellectual property protection filed in relation to using phosphorescent compounds to determine the health status of cells.
Improving approaches to cancer treatment is also an ongoing research activity for materials chemist Dr Xia Lou, who designs, constructs and tests nanoparticles for targeted photodynamic therapy, which aims to selectively kill tumours using light-induced reactive oxygen species.
“We construct hybrid nanoparticles with high photodynamic effectiveness and a tumour-targeting agent, and then test them in vitro in our collaborators’ laboratories,” she says. “Our primary interest is in the treatment of skin cancer. The technology has also extended applications in the treatment of other diseases.” Lou has successfully filed patents for cancer diagnosis and treatment that support the potential of this approach.
Spheres and other 3D shapes constructed at the nanoscale offer potential for many applications centred on miniaturised storage and release of molecules and reactivity with target materials. Dr Jian Liu in the Department of Chemical Engineering develops new synthesis strategies for silica or carbon spheres, or ‘yolk-shell’-structured particles. “Our main focus is the design, synthesis and application of colloidal nanoparticles including metal, metal oxides, silica and carbon,” says Liu.
Most of these colloidal particles are nanoporous – that is, they have a lattice-like structure with pores throughout. The applications of such nanoparticles include catalysis, energy storage and conversion, drug delivery and gene therapy.
“The most practical outcome of our research would be the development of new catalysts for the production of synthetic gases, or syngas,” he says. “It may also lead to new electrodes for lithium-ion batteries.” Once developed, nanoscale components for this type of rechargeable battery are expected to bring improved safety and durability, and lower costs.
Atomic Modelling matters in research
Professor Julian Gale leads a world-class research group in computational materials chemistry at the NRI. “We work at the atomic level, looking at fundamental processes by which materials form,” he says. “We can simulate up to a million atoms or more, and then test how the properties and behaviour of the atoms change in response to different experimental conditions.” Such research is made possible through accessing a petascale computer at WA’s Pawsey Centre – built primarily to support Square Kilometre Array pathfinder research.
The capacity to model the nanoscale behaviour of atoms is a powerful tool in nanochemistry research, and can give direction to experimental work. The calcium carbonate mineral vaterite is a case in point. “Our theoretical work on calcium carbonate led to the proposal that the mineral vaterite was actually composed of at least three different forms,” Gale explains. “An international team found experimental evidence which supported this idea.”
NRI Director Professor Andrew Lowe regards this capacity as an asset. “Access to this kind of atomic modelling means that our scientists can work within a hypothetical framework to test whether a new idea is likely to work or not before they commit time and money to it,” he explains.
Formally established in 2001, the Nanochemistry Research Institute began a new era in 2015 through the appointment of Professor Andrew Lowe as Director. Working under his guidance are academic staff and postdoctoral fellows, as well as PhD, Honours and undergraduate science students.
An expert in polymer chemistry, Lowe’s research background adds a new layer to the existing strong multidisciplinary nature of the Institute. “Polymers have the potential to impact on every aspect of fundamental research,” he says. “This will add a new string to the bow of Curtin University science and engineering, and open new and exciting areas of research and collaboration.”
Polymers are a diverse group of materials composed of multiple repeated structural units connected by chemical bonds. “My background is in water-soluble polymers and smart polymers,” explains Lowe. “These materials change the way they behave in response to their external environment – for example, a change in temperature, salt concentrations, pH or the presence of other molecules including biomolecules. Because the characteristics of the polymeric molecules can be altered in a reversible manner, they offer potential to be used in an array of applications, including drug delivery, catalysis and surface modification.”
Lowe has particular expertise in RAFT dispersion polymerisation, a technique facilitating molecular self-assembly to produce capsule-like polymers in solution. “This approach allows us to make micelles, worms and vesicles directly,” he says, describing the different physical forms the molecules can take. “It’s a novel and specialised technique that creates high concentrations of uniformly-shaped polymeric particles at the nanoscale.” Such polymers are candidates for drug delivery and product encapsulation.
A project to chart the history of fires in the Southern Hemisphere during the past 100,000 years is using a surprising natural resource: ice.
The record of bushfires in Australia, South Africa and South America is revealed in tiny particles of soot trapped in deep ice across Antarctica.
Led by Dr Ross Edwards, an Associate Professor in physics and astronomy at the John De Laeter Centre for Isotope Research, the research is being carried out by a Curtin University team that’s collaborating with an international group of scientists to analyse a 750 m-long core drilled from pristine Antarctic ice.
The concentrations of soot in the ice are minute (ranging from 20 parts per trillion to one part per billion) and extremely sensitive equipment is needed to detect them. “It took many years to come up with a method to analyse and detect these tiny particles,” says Edwards.
“Most of the fires on Earth are in the Southern Hemisphere, and the only way to understand the long-term impact of soot on the atmosphere is through Antarctic ice,” he explains.
“Antarctic ice is like the Earth’s hard drive. Up to now we’ve only been able to open a few of its folders, but now we’re starting to see that there is much more information than we thought.”
Antarctica is ideal for studying Southern Hemisphere fires. “It’s the remotest region on Earth, so any particles that get there are really well mixed, giving the background levels. Of course, there are no natural fires there. It’s a remote viewing point,” Edwards says.
Tracking bushfire history could shed light on past ecosystems and increase our understanding of Earth’s climate. Edwards hopes to go all the way back to a period before the El Niño Southern Oscillation phenomenon (which drives the climate in the Southern Hemisphere) became established. He also hopes to quantify the human influence on fires, by looking at ice that formed before people arrived in South America and Australia.
“The problem now is that we are overwhelmed with data and it takes a long time to work through it,” Edwards says.
Ways to work out from which continent the soot has come are still being developed, but Edwards has already noticed that fires were most common when Australia had been through a wet period. High rainfall in the interior of Australia leads to more vegetation growth, which then fuels fires when the dry weather returns.
Next, Edwards wants to analyse a core that covers a million years of data – and he’s already working with national and international collaborators to develop that project.
New Chief Scientist Finkel is an outspoken advocate for science awareness and popularisation. He is a patron of the Australian Science Media Centre and has helped launch popular science magazine, Cosmos.
He is also an advocate for nuclear power, arguing that “nuclear electricity should be considered as a zero-emissions contributor to the energy mix” in Australia.
“The Academy is looking forward to the government’s announcement, but Finkel would be an excellent choice for this position. I’m confident he would speak strongly and passionately on behalf of Australian science, particularly in his advice to government,” he says.
“The AAS and ATSE have never been closer; we have worked together well on important issues facing Australia’s research community, including our recent partnership on the Science in Australia Gender Equity initiative.”
Holmes also thanked outgoing Chief Scientist for his strong leadership for science in Australia, including establishing ACOLA as a trusted source of expert, interdisciplinary advice to the Commonwealth Science Council.
“Since his appointment, Chubb has been a tireless advocate of the fundamental importance of science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills as the key to the country’s future prosperity, and a driving force behind the identification of strategic research priorities for the nation,” says Holmes.
This article was first published on The Conversation on 26 October 2015. Read the original article here.
“Finkel is an energetic advocate for STEM across all levels of society, from schools and the general public to corporate leaders. We’re excited and optimistic about the fresh approach science and innovation is enjoying.”
“This is truly the most fantastic news. Finkel is an extraordinary leader. He has proven himself in personal scientific research. He has succeeded in business in competitive fields. It is difficult to think of anyone who would do this important job with greater distinction.”
“Finkel has a profound understanding of the place of science in a flourishing modern economy, as a scientist, entrepreneur and science publisher of real note. We look forward to working closely with Finkel, as we jointly pursue better links between STEM and industry.”
Australian scientists and science educators have been honoured at the annual Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science. The awards, introduced in 2000, are considered Australia’s most prestigious and highly regarded awards, and are given in recognition of excellence in scientific research, innovation and science teaching.
The awards acknowledge and pay tribute to the significant contributions that Australian scientists make to the economic and social betterment in Australia and around the world, as well as inspiring students to take an interest in science.
Previous winners include Professor Ryan Lister (Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year in 2014) for his work on gene regulation in agriculture and in the treatment of disease and mental health, and Debra Smith (Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools in 2010) for her outstanding contribution in redefining how science is taught in Queensland and across the rest of Australia.
This year’s winners were announced by the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull and Christopher Pyne, Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra yesterday, which was also attended by the Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb.
Professor Farquhar’s models of plant biophysics has led to a greater understanding of cells, whole plants and forests, as well as the creation of new water-efficient wheat varieties. His work has transformed our understanding of the world’s most important biological reaction: photosynthesis.
Farquhar’s most recent research on climate change is seeking to determine which trees will grow faster in a carbon dioxide enriched atmosphere. “Carbon dioxide has a huge effect on plants. My current research involves trying to understand why some species and genotypes respond more to CO2 than others,” he says. And he and colleagues have uncovered a conundrum: global evaporation rates and wind speeds over the land are slowing, which is contrary to the predictions of most climate models. “Wind speed over the land has gone down 15% in the last 30 years, a finding that wasn’t predicted by general circulation models we use to form the basis of what climate should be like in the future,” he says. This startling discovery means that climate change may bring about a wetter world.
“Our world in the future will be effectively wetter, and some ecosystems will respond to this more than others.”
Professor Farquhar will also receive $250,000 in prize money. Looking forward he is committed to important projects, such as one with the ARC looking at the complex responses of plant hydraulics under very hot conditions.
“It’s important to understand if higher temperatures will negatively affect the plants in our natural and managed ecosystems, and if higher temperatures are damaging, we need to understand the nature of the damage and how we can minimise it.”
You can find out more about the 2015 winners including profiles, photos and videos here.
“The full $20 billion accumulated in the fund will double Australia’s investment in medical research. This will allow more commercial spinoffs to be captured for the benefit of Australians through innovation, leading to economic activity and new, highly-skilled jobs,” says McCluskey.
With an initial contribution of $1 billion from the uncommitted balance of the Health and Hospitals Fund, and $1 billion provided per year until it reaches $20 billion, the MRFF will support basic and applied medical research – and will be the largest of its kind in the world.
To ensure the MRFF meets the needs of the medical research community, amendments to the Bill include directing funding towards transitional research, which attracts added research funding from the commercial sector. Also included are suggestions by the Australian Green Party, such as ensuring that funding for the Medical Research Council will not be shifted to the MRFF.
Researchers from the health, university, industry and independent medical research institute sectors will be able to access MRFF. It may also include interdisciplinary sectors such as medical physics, big data analytics and others contributing to national health and medical outcomes.
“Importantly, MRFF will also include initiatives that are currently not well supported by public research funding schemes,” says McCluskey. “For example, joint research with government or pharma [the pharmaceutical industry] in the development of new drugs and medical devices.”
The exact fields to be targeted will be determined by the Minister for Health, Sussan Ley. Advice will come from an independent board of experts including the CEO of NHMRC and eight experts in medical research and innovation, health policy, commercialisation, experience and knowledge in philanthropy, consumer issues, and translation of research into applications in frontline medical practice. The Minister will announce the members of the board shortly.
The MRFF will be established following Royal Assent of the Bill.
Curtin University researchers are creating snapshots of past Australian environments using the minute traces left behind by plants, animals and microorganisms. Dr Svenja Tulipani and Professor Kliti Grice from the WA-Organic and Isotope Geochemistry Centre looked for clues in sediments at Coorong National Park, South Australia, to find out how this system of coastal lagoons has changed since European settlement.
The Coorong Wetland is an ecologically significant area, but human water management practices and severe drought have led to increased salinity and less biodiversity, Tulipani explains. By examining microscopic molecular fossils, known as biomarkers, and their stable carbon and hydrogen isotopes, the researchers have identified the types of organisms that previously lived in the area, uncovering evidence for changes in water level and salinity due to changes in carbon and hydrogeological cycles.
“We found significant changes that started in the 1950s, at the same time that water management was intensified,” Tulipani says. “It affects the whole food web, including the birdlife and ecology,” Grice adds.
“We found significant changes that started in the 1950s, which was the same time that the water management was intensified.”
The project used Curtin’s world-class instruments for gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, as well as a new instrument that is capable of even better analysis.
“It allows for a new technique that reduces sample preparation time as the organic compounds can be analysed in more complex mixtures, such as whole oils or extracts of sediments and modern organisms,” Tulipani explains. “We can also identify more compounds this way.”
Tulipani has been able to use samples taken from the remote Kimberley region to examine an extinction event around 380 million years ago. Grice says the techniques are particularly relevant to the evolution of primitive vascular plants during this time period.
“In some locations of the Pilbara region, you can look at very early life from more than 2.5 billion years ago. You can go back practically to the beginning of life.”
Each year, the fungal disease tan spot costs the Australian economy more than half a billion dollars. Tan spot, also known as yellow spot, is the most damaging disease to our wheat crops, annually causing an estimated $212 million in lost production and requiring about $463 million worth of control measures. Fungal disease also causes huge damage to barley, Australia’s second biggest cereal crop export after wheat. It should come as no surprise, then, that the nation’s newest major agricultural research facility, Curtin University’s Centre for Crop and Disease Management (CCDM), is focusing heavily on the fungal pathogens of wheat and barley.
“We are examining the interactions of plants and fungal pathogens, and ways and means of predicting how the pathogen species are going to evolve so that we might be better prepared,” says CCDM Director, Professor Mark Gibberd.
An important point of difference for the centre is that, along with a strongly relevant R&D agenda, its researchers will be working directly with growers to advise on farm practices. Influencing the development and use of faster-acting and more effective treatments is part of the CCDM’s big-picture approach, says Gibberd. This encompasses both agronomy (in-field activities and practices) and agribusiness (the commercial side of operations).
“We want to know more about the issues that challenge farmers on a day-to-day basis,” explains Curtin Business School’s John Noonan, who is overseeing the extension of the CCDM’s R&D programs and their engagement with the public. The CCDM, he explains, is also focused on showing impact and return on investment in a broader context.
Two initiatives already making a significant impact on growers’ pockets include the tan spot and Septoria nodorum blotch programs. Tan spot, Australia’s most economically significant wheat disease, is caused by the fungus Pyrenophora tritici-repentis. Septoria nodorum blotch is a similar fungal infection and Western Australia’s second most significant wheat disease.
Curtin University researchers were 2014 finalists in the Australian Museum Eureka Prize for Sustainable Agriculture for their work on wheat disease. Their research included the development of a test that enables plant breeders to screen germinated seeds for resistance to these pathogens and subsequently breed disease-resistant varieties. It’s a two-week test that replaces three years of field-testing and reduces both yield loss and fungicide use.
When fungi infect plants, they secrete toxins to kill the leaves so they can feed on the dead tissue (toxins: ToxA for tan spot, and ToxA, Tox1 and Tox3 for Septoria nodorum blotch). The test for plant sensitivity involves injecting a purified form of these toxins – 30,000 doses of which the CCDM is supplying to Australian wheat breeders annually.
“We have seen the average tan spot disease resistance rating increase over the last year or so,” says Dr Caroline Moffat, tan spot program leader. This means the impact of the disease is being reduced. “Yet there are no wheat varieties in Australia that are totally resistant to tan spot.”
“The development of fungicide resistance is one of the greatest threats to our food biosecurity, comparable to water shortage and climate change.”
Worldwide, there are eight variants of the tan spot pathogen P. tritici-repentis. Only half of them produce ToxA, suggesting there are other factors that enable the pathogen to infiltrate a plant’s defences and take hold. To investigate this, Moffat and her colleagues have deleted the ToxA gene in samples of P. tritici-repentis and are studying how it affects the plant-pathogen interaction.
During the winter wheat-cropping season, Moffat embarks on field trips across Australia to sample for P. tritici-repentis to get a ‘snapshot’ of the pathogen’s genetic diversity and how this is changing over time. Growers also send her team samples as part of a national ‘Stop the Spot’ campaign, which was launched in June 2014 and runs in collaboration with the GRDC. Of particular interest is whether the pathogen is becoming more virulent, which could mean the decimation of popular commercial wheat varieties.
Wheat fungal diseases can regularly cause a yield loss of about 15–20%. But for legumes – such as field pea, chickpea, lentil and faba bean – fungal infections can be even more devastating. The fungal disease ascochyta blight, for example, readily causes yield losses of about 75% in pulses. It makes growing pulses inherently risky, explains ascochyta blight program leader, Dr Judith Lichtenzveig.
In 1999, Western Australia’s chickpea industry was almost wiped out by the disease and has never fully recovered. With yield reliability and confidence in pulses still low, few growers include them in their crop rotations – to the detriment of soil health.
Pulse crops provide significant benefit to subsequent cereals and oilseeds in the rotation, says Lichtenzveig, because they add nitrogen and reduce the impact of soil and stubble-borne diseases. The benefits are seen immediately in the first year after the pulse is planted. The chickpea situation highlights the need to develop new profitable varieties with traits desired by growers and that suit the Australian climate.
The CCDM also runs two programs concerned with barley, both headed by Dr Simon Ellwood. His research group is looking to develop crops with genetic resistance to two diseases that account for more than half of all yield losses in this important Australian crop – net blotch and powdery mildew.
Details of the barley genome were published in the journal Nature in 2012. The grain contains about 32,000 genes, including ‘dominant R-genes’ that provide mildew resistance. The dominant R-genes allow barley plants to recognise corresponding avirulence (Avr) genes in mildew; if there’s a match between a plant R-gene and pathogen Avr genes, the plant mounts a defence response and the pathogen is unable to establish an infection. It’s relatively commonplace, however, for the mildew to alter its Avr gene so that it’s no longer recognised by the plant R-gene.
“This is highly likely when a particular barley variety with a given R-gene is grown over a wide area where mildew is prevalent, as there is a high selection pressure on mutations to the Avr gene,” explains Ellwood. This means the mildew may become a form that is unrecognised by the barley.
Many of the malting barley varieties grown in Western Australia, with the exception of Buloke, are susceptible to mildew. This contrasts with spring barley varieties being planted in Europe and the USA that have been bred to contain a gene called mlo, which provides resistance to all forms of powdery mildew.
Resistance to net blotch also occurs on two levels in barley. “As with mildew, on the first level, barley can recognise net blotch Avr genes early on through the interaction with dominant R-genes. But again, because resistance is based on a single dominant gene interaction, it can be readily lost,” says Ellwood. “If the net blotch goes unrecognised, it secretes toxins that allow the disease to take hold.”
On the second level, these toxins interact with certain gene products so that the plant cells become hypersensitised and die. By selecting for barley lines without the sections of genes that make these products, the crop will have a durable form of resistance. Indeed, Ellwood says his team has found barley lines with these characteristics. The next step is to determine how many genes control this durable resistance. “Breeding for host resistance is cheaper and more environmentally friendly than applying fungicides,” Ellwood adds.
“This is a massive achievement, and we have already shown that the use of more expensive chemicals can be justified on the basis of an increase in crop yield.”
Numerous fungicides are used to prevent and control fungal pathogens, and they can be costly. Some have a common mode of action, and history tells us there’s a good chance they’ll become less effective the more they’re used. “The development of fungicide resistance is one of the greatest threats to our food biosecurity ahead of water shortage and climate change,” says Gibberd. “It’s a very real and current problem for us.”
Fungicides are to grain growers what antibiotics are to doctors, explains Dr Fran Lopez-Ruiz, head of the CCDM’s fungicide resistance program. “The broad-spectrum fungicides are effective when used properly, but if the pathogens they are meant to control start to develop resistance, their value is lost.” Of the three main types of leaf-based fungicides used for cereal crops, demethylation inhibitors (DMIs) are the oldest, cheapest and most commonly used.
Lopez-Ruiz says that to minimise the chance of fungi becoming resistant, sprays should not be used year-in, year-out without a break. The message hasn’t completely penetrated the farming community and DMI-resistance is spreading in Australia. A major aim within Lopez-Ruiz’s program is to produce a geographical map of fungicide resistance. “Not every disease has developed resistance to the available fungicides yet, which is a good thing,” says Lopez-Ruiz.
DMIs target an enzyme called CYP51, which makes a cholesterol-like compound called ergosterol that is essential for fungal cell survival. Resistance develops when the pathogens accumulate several mutations in their DNA that change the structure of CYP51 so it’s not affected by DMIs.
In the barley disease powdery mildew in WA, a completely new set of mutations has evolved, resulting in the emergence of fungicide-resistant populations. The first of these mutations has just been identified in powdery mildew in Australia’s eastern states, making it essential that growers change their management tactics to prevent the development of full-blown resistance. Critical messages such as these are significant components of John Noonan’s communications programs.
Resistance to another group of fungicides, Qols, began to appear within two years of their availability here. They are, however, still widely used in a mixed treatment, which hinders the development of resistance. Lopez-Ruiz says it’s important we don’t end up in a situation where there’s no solution: “It’s not easy to develop new compounds every time we need them, and it’s expensive – more than $200 million to get it to the growers”.
The high cost of testing and registering products can deter companies from offering their products to Australian growers – particularly if, as in the case of legumes, the market is small.
To help convince the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority that it should support the import and use of chemicals that are already being safely used overseas, the CCDM team runs a fungicide-testing project for companies to trial their products at sites where disease pressures differ – for example, because of climate. This scheme helps provide infrastructure and data to fast-track chemical registrations.
“This is a massive achievement, and we have already shown that the use of more expensive chemicals can be justified on the basis of an increase in crop yield.”
A global problem
More than half of Australia’s land area is used for agriculture – 8% of this is used for cropping, and much of the rest for activities such as forestry and livestock farming. Although Australia’s agricultural land area has decreased by 15% during the past decade, from about 470 million to 397 million ha, it’s more than enough to meet current local demand and contribute to international markets.
Nevertheless, the world’s population continues to grow at a rapid rate, increasing demands for staple food crops and exacerbating food shortages. Australia is committed to contributing to global need and ensuring the sustained viability of agriculture. To this end, Professor Richard Oliver, Chief Scientist of Curtin’s Centre for Crop and Disease Management (CCDM), has established formal relationships with overseas institutions sharing common goals (see page 26). This helps CCDM researchers access a wider range of relevant biological resources and keep open international funding opportunities, particularly in Europe.
“The major grant bodies have a very good policy around cereal research where the results are freely available,” says Oliver. “There’s also the possibility to conduct large experiments requiring lots of space – either within glasshouses or in-field – which would be restricted or impossible in Australia.” It’s a win-win situation.
Collecting rock samples at 5200 m on a recent trip to the Tibetan Plateau, Professor Simon Wilde, from the Department of Applied Geology at Curtin University, was pleased to have avoided the symptoms of altitude sickness. The last time he conducted fieldwork in a similar environment had been about 20 years before in Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia, and he’d managed then to also avoid altitude headaches. Nonetheless, he says, Tibet was tough. Due to the atmospheric conditions, the Sun was intensely strong and hot but the ground was frozen. “It’s a strange environment,” he says.
Wilde was invited by scientists at the Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, to collect volcanic rock samples at the Tibetan site. The region is geologically significant because it is where the Indian tectonic plate is currently “driving itself under the Eurasian plate”, he explains. During their recent field trip, Wilde and his Chinese colleagues collected about 100 kg of rocks, which were couriered back to Guangzhou and Curtin for study. The researchers will be drawing on a variety of geochemistry techniques to analyse the material as they try to paint a picture of what happens when two continents collide, gaining insight into the evolution of Earth’s crust.
“We’re trying to unravel a mystery in a sense,” says Wilde. “We don’t have the full information, so we’re trying to use everything we can to build up the most likely story.”
The Guangzhou geochemists will be analysing trace elements in the rock samples to uncover information about their origins and formation. Back at Curtin, Wilde is working on determining the age of zircon crystals collected from the site, using a technique called isotopic analysis. This involves measuring the ratios of atoms of certain elements with different numbers of neutrons (isotopes) to reveal the age of crystals based on known rates of radioactive decay.
It’s work that’s providing a clearer picture of Earth’s early crustal development and is an area in which Wilde is internationally renowned (see profile, p18).
Gaining an idea of the past distribution of Earth’s continental crust has implications for the resources sector, Wilde explains. “It’s important for people working in metallogeny [the study of mineral deposits] to see where pieces of the crust have perhaps broken off and been redistributed,” he says. “There could be continuation of a mineral belt totally removed and on another continent.”
Continents collide: Copper in demand
Professor Brent McInnes, Director of the John De Laeter Centre for Isotope Research, is also interested in the collision of tectonic plates – to help supply China’s increasing demand for domestic copper. “The rapid urbanisation of China since the 1990s has created a significant demand for a strategic supply of domestic copper, used in air conditioners, electrical motors and in building construction,” explains McInnes. Most of the world’s supply of copper comes from a specific mineral deposit type known as porphyry systems, which are the exposed roots of volcanoes formed during tectonic plate collisions.
McInnes’ research involves taking samples from drill cores, rock outcrops and mine exposures in mountainous regions around the world to be studied back in the lab. Specifically, he and his research team are able to elucidate information about the depth, erosion and uplift rate of copper deposits using a technique called thermochronology – a form of dating that takes into account the ‘closure temperature’, or temperature below which an isotope is locked into a mineral. Using this information, scientists can reveal the temperature of an ore body at a given time in its geological history. This, in turn, provides information with important implications for copper exploration, such as the timing and duration of the mineralisation process, as well as the rate of exposure and erosion.
“Institutions such as the Chinese Academy of Sciences have been awarded large research grants to investigate porphyry copper deposits in mountainous terrains in southern and western China, and have sought to form collaborations with world-leading researchers in the field,” says McInnes.
“We’re trying to unravel a mystery, in a sense. We don’t have the full information, so we’re trying to use everything we can to build up the most likely story.”
Continents collide: Interpreting species loss
Professor Kliti Grice, founding Director of the WA-Organic and Isotope Geochemistry Centre, researches mass extinctions. As an organic and isotope geochemist, Grice (see profile, p12) studies molecular fossils in rock sediments from 2.3 billion years ago through to the present day, also known as biomarkers. These contain carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, or sulphur – unlike the rocks, minerals and trace elements studied by inorganic geochemists Wilde and McInnes.
Grice uses tools such as tandem mass spectrometry, which enables the separation and analysis of ratios of naturally occurring stable isotopes to reconstruct ancient environments. For example, carbon has two stable isotopes – carbon-12 and carbon-13 – and one radioactive isotope, carbon-14. The latter is commonly used for dating ancient artefacts based on its rate of decay. A change in carbon-12 to carbon-13 ratios in plant molecules, however – along with a change in hydrogen – can reveal a shift in past photosynthetic activity.
Grice has uncovered the environmental conditions during Earth’s five mass extinction events and has found there were similar conditions in the three biggest extinctions – the end-Permian at 252 million years ago (Ma), end-Triassic at 201 Ma and end-Devonian at 374 Ma. Among other things, there were toxic levels of hydrogen sulphide in the oceans. Grice discovered this by studying molecules from photosynthetic bacteria, which were found to be using toxic hydrogen sulphide instead of water as an electron donor when performing photosynthesis, thereby producing sulphur instead of oxygen.
“The end-Permian and end-Triassic events were almost identical in that they are both associated with massive volcanism, rising sea levels and increased run-off from land, leading to eutrophication,” Grice explains. Eutrophication occurs when introduced nutrients in water cause excessive algal growth, reducing oxygen levels in the environment. “There were no polar ice caps at these times, and the oceans had sluggish circulations,” she adds.
In 2013, Grice co-authored a paper in Nature Scientific Reports documenting that fossils in the Kimberley showed that hydrogen sulphide plays a pivotal role in soft tissue preservation. This modern day insight is valuable for the resources sector because these ancient environments provided the conditions for many major mineral and petroleum systems. “When you have these major extinction events associated with low oxygen allowing the organic matter to be preserved – along with certain temperature and pressure conditions over time – the materials break down to produce oil and gas,” Grice says.
For example, the Permian-Triassic extinction event – during which up to 95% of marine and 70% of terrestrial species disappeared – produced several major petroleum reserves. That includes deposits in Western Australia’s Perth Basin, says Grice, “and probably intervals in the WA North West Shelf yet to be discovered.”
Professor of geology at Curtin University Dr Zheng-Xiang Li considers himself a very lucky man. Born in a village in Shandong Province, East China, he fondly remembers the rock formations in the surrounding hills. But he was at school during the end of the Cultural Revolution – a time when academic pursuit was frowned upon and it was very hard to find good books to read. “Fortunately, I had some very good teachers who encouraged my curiosity,” recalls Li.
He went on to secure a place at the prestigious Peking University to study geology and geophysics. And in 1984, when China’s then leader Deng Xiaoping sent a select number of students overseas, Li took the opportunity to study for a PhD in Australia. With an interest in plate tectonics and expertise in palaeomagnetism, he’s since become an authority on supercontinents.
It is widely accepted that the tectonic plates – which carry the continents – are moving, and that a supercontinent, Pangaea, existed 320–170 million years ago. Li’s research
is aimed at understanding how ‘Earth’s engine’ drives the movement of the plates.
His work has been highly influential, showing that another supercontinent, Rodinia, formed about 600 million years before Pangaea. And evidence is mounting that there was yet another ancient supercontinent before that, known as Nuna, which assembled about 1600 million years ago.
Li suspects there is a cycle wherein supercontinents break up and their components then disperse around the globe, before once again coming together as a new supercontinent.
“The supercontinent cycle is probably around 600 million years. We are in the middle of a cycle: halfway between Pangaea and a fresh supercontinent,” he says.
“We are at the start of another geological revolution. Plate tectonics revolutionised geology in the 1960s. I think we are now in the process of another revolution,” Li adds, undoubtedly excited by his work.
“The meaning of life can be described by three words beginning with ‘F’ – family, friends and fun,” he says. “And for me, work falls in the fun part.”
Compelled to move to Perth in 1972 because “there were no meaningful jobs in geoscience in the UK at the time”, John Curtin Distinguished Professor Simon Wilde carved out an illustrious career in the decades that followed his PhD at the University of Exeter.
“My work is largely focused on Precambrian geology, divided between Northeast Asia, the Middle East, India and Western Australia,” explains Wilde, from the Department of Applied Geology at Curtin University. In 2001, Wilde received extensive media attention for his discovery of the oldest object ever found on Earth – a tiny 4.4 billion-year-old zircon crystal dug up in the Jack Hills region of Western Australia.
His zircon expertise and vast knowledge of early-Earth crustal growth and rock dating have taken him to many of the key areas in the world where Archean (more than 2.5 billion-year-old) rocks are exposed. Of these international investigations, perhaps the most impressive have been his contributions to understanding the geology of North China. Part of the first delegation of foreign researchers to visit the Aldan Shield in Siberia in 1988, along with several top Chinese geoscientists, Wilde has since fostered friendships and collaborations with colleagues in five top Chinese universities, as well as the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences.
“I have been to China more than 100 times and published more than 100 papers on Chinese geology, including major reviews of the North China Craton and the Central Asian Orogenic Belt, where I am a recognised expert.”
The Institute for Geoscience Research (TIGeR) at Curtin University is designated as a high-impact Tier 1 centre – the most distinguished research grouping within the university – providing a focus for substantial activity across a specific field of study. Wilde stepped down as Director in February 2015, having championed TIGeR research, provided advice and allocated funding for the eight years since the Institute was formed. He is confident that his research and the foundations he has built for the centre will continue to support innovative geoscience and exciting collaboration initiatives – in which he is certain to continue playing a major part.
The complex engineering that drives renewable energy innovation, global satellite navigation, and the emerging science of industrial ecology is among Curtin University’s acknowledged strengths. Advanced engineering is crucial to meeting the challenges of climate change and sustainability. Curtin is addressing these issues in several key research centres.
Bioenergy, fuel cells and large energy storage systems are a focus for the university’s Fuels and Energy Technology Institute (FETI), launched in February 2012. The institute brings together a network of more than 50 researchers across Australia, China, Japan, Korea, Denmark and the USA, and has an array of advanced engineering facilities and analytic instruments. It also hosts the Australia-China Joint Research Centre for Energy, established in 2013 to address energy security and emissions reduction targets for both countries.
Curtin’s Sustainable Engineering Group (SEG) has been a global pioneer in industrial ecology, an emerging science which tracks the flow of resources and energy in industrial areas, measures their impact on the environment and works out ways to create a “circular economy” to reduce carbon emissions and toxic waste.
And in renewable energy research, Curtin is developing new materials for high temperature fuel cell membranes, and is working with an award-winning bioenergy technology that will use agricultural crop waste to produce biofuels and generate electricity.
Solar’s big shot
Curtin’s hydrogen storage scientists are involved in one of the world’s biggest research programs to drive down the cost of solar power and make it competitive with other forms of electricity generation such as coal and gas. They are contributing to the United States SunShot Initiative – a US$2 billion R&D effort jointly funded by the US Department of Energy and private industry partners to fast track technologies that will cut the cost of solar power, including manufacturing for solar infrastructure and components.
SunShot was launched in 2011 as a key component of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, which aims to double the amount of renewable energy available through the grid and reduce the cost of large-scale solar electricity by 75%.
CSP systems store energy in a material called molten salts – a mixture of sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate, which are common ingredients in plant fertilisers. These salts are heated to 565°C, pumped into an insulated storage tank and used to produce steam to power a turbine to generate electricity. But it’s an expensive process. The 195 m tall Crescent Dunes solar power tower in Nevada – one of the world’s largest and most advanced solar thermal plants – uses 32,000 tonnes of molten salt to extend operating hours by storing thermal energy for 10 hours after sunset.
Metal hydrides – compounds formed by bonding hydrogen with a material such as calcium, magnesium or sodium – could replace molten salts and greatly reduce the costs of building and operating solar thermal power plants. Certain hydrides operate at higher temperatures and require smaller storage tanks than molten salts. They can also be reused for up to 25 years.
At the Nevada plant, molten salt storage costs an estimated $150 million, – around 10–15% of operation costs, says Buckley. “With metal hydrides replacing molten salts, we think we can reduce that to around $50–$60 million, resulting in significantly lower operation costs for solar thermal plants,” he says. “We already have a patent on one process, so we’re in the final stages of testing the properties of the process for future scale-up. We are confident that metal hydrides will replace molten salts as the next generation thermal storage system for CSP.”
From biomass to fuel
John Curtin Distinguished Professor Chun-Zhu Li is lead researcher on a FETI project that was awarded a grant of $5.2 million by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency in 2015 to build a pilot plant to test and commercialise a new biofuel technology. The plant will produce energy from agricultural waste such as wheat straw and mallee eucalypts from wheatbelt farm forestry plantations in Western Australia.
“These bioenergy technologies will have great social, economic and environmental benefits,” says Li. “It will contribute to the electricity supply mix and also realise the commercial value of mallee plantations for wheatbelt farmers. It will make those plantations an economically viable way of combating the huge environmental problem of dryland salinity in WA.”
Li estimates that WA’s farms produce several million tonnes of wheat straw per year, which is discarded as agricultural waste. Biomass gasification is a thermochemical process converting biomass feedstock into synthesis gas (syngas) to generate electricity using gas engines or other devices.
One of the innovations of the biomass gasification technology developed at FETI is the destruction of tar by char or char-supported catalysts produced from the biomass itself. Other biomass gasification systems need water-scrubbing to remove tar, which also generates a liquid waste stream requiring expensive treatment, but the technology developed by Li’s team removes the tar without the generation of any wastes requiring disposal. This reduces construction and operation costs and makes it an ideal system for small-scale power generation plants in rural and remote areas.
Li’s team is also developing a novel technology to convert the same type of biomass into liquid fuels and biochar. The combined benefits of these bioenergy/biofuel technologies could double the current economic GDP of WA’s agricultural regions, Li adds. future scale-up. We are confident that metal hydrides will replace molten salts as the next generation thermal storage system for CSP.”
Keeping renewables on grid
Professor Syed Islam is a John Curtin Distinguished Professor with Curtin’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computing. It’s the highest honour awarded by the university to its academic staff and recognises outstanding contributions to research and the wider community. Islam has published widely on grid integration of renewable energy sources and grid connection challenges. In 2011, he was awarded the John Madsen Medal by Engineers Australia for his research to improve the prospect of wind energy generation developing grid code enabled power conditioning techniques.
Islam explains that all power generators connected to an electricity network must comply with strict grid codes for the network to operate safely and efficiently. “The Australian Grid Code specifically states that wind turbines must be capable of uninterrupted operation, and if electrical faults are not immediately overridden, the turbines will be disconnected from the grid,” he says.
“Wind energy is a very cost effective renewable technology. But disturbances and interruptions to power generation mean that often wind farms fall below grid code requirements, even when the best wind energy conversion technology is being used.”
Islam has led research to develop a system that allows a faster response by wind farm voltage control technologies to electrical faults and voltage surges. It has helped wind turbine manufacturers meet grid regulations, and will also help Australia meet its target to source 20% of electricity from renewable energy by 2020.
Islam says micro-grid technology will also provide next-generation manufacturing opportunities for businesses in Australia. “There will be new jobs in battery technology, in building and operating micro-grids and in engineering generally,” he says.
“By replacing the need for platinum catalysts, we can make fuel cells much cheaper and more efficient, and reduce dependence on environmentally damaging fossil fuels.”
Cutting fuel cell costs
Professor San Ping Jiang from FETI and his co-researcher Professor Roland De Marco at University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland recently received an Australian Research Council grant of $375,000 to develop a new proton exchange membrane that can operate in high-temperature fuel cells. It’s a materials engineering breakthrough that will cut the production costs of fuel cells, and allow more sustainable and less polluting fuels such as ethanol to be used in fuel cells.
Jiang, who is based at Curtin’s School of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, has developed a silica membrane that can potentially operate at temperatures of up to 500°C. Fuel cells directly convert chemical energy of fuels suchas hydrogen, methanol and ethanol into electricity and provide a lightweight alternative to batteries, but they are currently limited in their application because conventional polymer-based proton exchange membranes perform most efficiently at temperatures below 80°C. Jiang has developed a membrane that can operate at 500°C using heteropoly acid functionalised mesoporous silica – a composite that combines high proton conductivity and high structural stability to conduct protons in fuel cells. His innovation also minimises the use of precious metal catalysts such as platinum in fuel cells, reducing the cost.
“The cost of platinum is a major barrier to the wider application of fuel cell technologies,” Jiang says. “We think we can reduce the cost significantly, possibly by up to 90%, by replacing the need for platinum catalysts. It will make fuel cells much cheaper and more efficient, and reduce dependence on environmentally damaging fossil fuels.”
He says the high temperature proton exchange membrane fuel cells can be used in devices such as smartphones and computers, and in cars, mining equipment and communications in remote areas.
Doing more with less
The SEG at Curtin University has been involved in energy efficiency and industrial analysis for just over 15 years. It’s been a global leader in an emerging area of sustainability assessment known as industrial ecology, which looks at industrial areas as ‘ecosystems’ that can develop productive exchanges of resources.
Associate Professor Michele Rosano is SEG’s Director and a resource economist who has written extensively on sustainability metrics, charting the life cycles of industrial components, carbon emission reduction and industrial waste management. They’re part of a process known as industrial symbiosis – the development of a system for neighbouring industries to share resources, energies and by-products. “It’s all about designing better industrial systems, and doing more with less,” Rosano says.
Curtin and SEG have been involved in research supported by the Australian’s Government’s Cooperative Research Centres Program to develop sustainable technologies and systems for the mineral processing industry at the Kwinana Industrial Area, an 8 km coastal industrial strip about 40 km south of Perth. The biggest concentration of heavy industries in Western Australia, Kwinana includes oil, alumina and nickel refineries, cement manufacturing, chemical and fertiliser plants, water treatment utilities and a power station that uses coal, oil and natural gas.
Rosano says two decades of research undertaken by Curtin at Kwinana is now recognised as one of the world’s largest and most successful industrial ecology projects. It has created 49 industrial symbiosis projects, ranging from shared use of energy and water to recovery and reuse of previously discarded by-products.
“These are huge and complex projects which have produced substantial environmental and economic benefits,” she says. “Kwinana is now seen as a global benchmark for the way in which industries can work together to reduce their footprint.”
An example of industrial synergies is waste hydrochloric acid from minerals processing being reprocessed by a neighbouring chemical plant for reuse in rutile quartz processing. The industrial ecology researchers looked at ways to reuse a stockpile of more than 1.3 million tonnes of gypsum, which is a waste product from the manufacture of phosphate fertiliser and livestock feeds. The gypsum waste is used by Alcoa’s alumina refinery at Kwinana to improve soil stability and plant growth in its residue areas.
The BP oil refinery at Kwinana also provides hydrogen to fuel Perth’s hydrogen fuel-cell buses. The hydrogen is produced by BP as a by-product from its oil refinery and is piped to an industrial gas facility that separates, cleans and pressurises it. The hydrogen is then trucked to the bus depot’s refuelling station in Perth.
Rosano says 21st century industries “are serious about sustainability” because of looming future shortages of many raw materials, and also because research has demonstrated there are social, economic and environmental benefits to reducing greenhouse emissions.
“There is a critical need for industrial ecology, and that’s why we choose to focus on it,” she says. “It’s critical research that will be needed to save and protect many areas of the global economy in future decades.”
Planning for the future
Research by Professor Peter Teunissen and Dr Dennis Odijk at Curtin’s Department of Spatial Sciences was the first study in Australia to integrate next generation satellite navigation systems with the commonly used and well-established Global Positioning System (GPS) launched by the United States in the 1990s.
Odijk says a number of new systems are being developed in China, Russia, Europe, Japan, and India, and it’s essential they can interact successfully. These new Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) will improve the accuracy and availability of location data, which will in turn improve land surveying for locating mining operations and renewable energy plants.
“The new systems have an extended operational range, higher power and better modulation. They are more robust and better able to deal with challenging situations like providing real-time data to respond to bushfires and other emergencies,” says Odijk.
“When these GNSS systems begin operating over the next couple of years, they will use a more diverse system of satellites than the traditional GPS system. The challenge will be to ensure all these systems can link together.”
Integrating these systems will increase the availability of data, “particularly when the signals from one system might be blocked in places like open-pit mines or urban canyons – narrow city streets with high buildings on both sides.”
Teunissen and Odijk’s research on integrating the GNSS involves dealing with the complex challenges of comparing estimated positions from various satellites, as well as inter-system biases, and developing algorithms. The project is funded by the Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information, and includes China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, which is now operating across the Asia-Pacific region.
Australia’s new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has announced what he calls a “21st-century government”. This article is part of The Conversation’s series focusing on what such a government should look like.
Change is in the air. According to our new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, his will be a 21st century government. But what does this entail? And what is the role of science and innovation in such a government?
The challenge for a genuinely 21st century Australian government is how to wrap its arms around the future in such a way that it improves Australia’s ability to capitalise on its research capacity and create new jobs, industries and opportunities for the coming century.
A 21st century ministry
The expanded Industry, Innovation and Science portfolio will now encompass digital technology and engineering, which together comprise the engine that has driven explosive growth in Silicon Valley, Israel and other forward-looking places.
We need to invest broadly in science research to feed the technology and engineering engine. But how do we bridge the funding “valley of death” between research and industry, and convert our excellent research outcomes into proven technologies?
We have companies aplenty that can pick up and commercialise proven technologies, but they are rightly cautious about licensing the rights to research outcomes. To address this problem, the US government directly invests nearly ten times more than we do as a percentage of GDP to fund business feasibility studies intended to convert research outcomes into proven technologies.
To drive our innovation agenda harder, a 21st century government could consider grants and development contracts specifically to support the translation of research outcomes into proven technologies.
Private sector investment into Australian start-up companies is lacking. In the US and Israel, more than 10% of GDP derives from venture-capital backed companies. In Australia it is 0.2%.
If we could increase the contribution to the economy by these companies from 0.2% to, say, 2%, then the benefits would be significant. To do so we will need to encourage new domestic and international sources of private funding, teach skills in technology assessment, and give further consideration to the rules around employee stock options and crowd-sourced funding.
At the same time, the fresh line-up of political leaders can help advance the national psyche beyond a state of gloom. They can acknowledge the fantastic benefits innovation has already brought to established industries.
Banking and resources, for example, have invested heavily in innovation to improve efficiency, and the largest iron mining companies in Australia continue to operate with positive operating margins despite depressed international prices.
Science and technology advances operate across broad sectors of the economy, contributing to accelerated growth in major export industries such as agriculture. Improvements to farm machinery and practices will make our farming more efficient, while adoption of digital technology to track our goods from field to retail outlet will provide the proof of origin that will allow our exporters to charge premium prices.
To the extent that the government will invest in new programs to support innovation, they should be carefully conceived, long term and national in scope, and large in scale. At the same time, existing programs could be consolidated to focus on those that have the most impact.
Sink or swim
I sometimes hear criticism of the Australian workforce, but I strongly disagree with that criticism. I have employed many engineers and scientists in the US and in Australia, and the Australian staff have been every bit as talented and dedicated as their US counterparts.
Unfortunately, unlike in the US, a substantial fraction of our creative workforce is locked out of commercial development activities because of the lack of mobility between university and industry jobs.
A 21st century government could help by adopting ratings systems that measure and reward engagement between universities and industry, and value time spent by research staff working in industry as much as they value publications and citations.
Of course, like footballers, innovators thrive when the rules of the game are clear and consistently applied. Industry is as one with government in recognising the importance of strong regulations. What is needed in most industries is a lead regulator to coordinate the regulatory oversight.
This approach does not replace the expertise of the various regulators, it just coordinates them. The key is for regulations to enable rather than stifle innovation while ensuring that community concerns and safety requirements are properly addressed.
We are already operating in an era of digital disruption. Science and technology will further dominate our future as we build a world ever more like those imagined by science fiction. In this world, machines offer their services to each other, buy and sell products and exchange information in real time. Manufacturing and service provision will be highly flexible and products will be individualised to customer needs.
Our industries must be agile and ready to transform, so that they will add value in a complex global supply chain, thereby creating new wealth that will be invested in services, health and other industries, with net creation of jobs.
The only thing we know for sure is that the next ten years will change more rapidly than the past ten years. I am confident that as the newly appointed Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Christopher Pyne, recognises the urgency to embrace these changes and will introduce policies and practices to capture the opportunities in what is proving to be a sink or swim world. The latter is preferable.
In any given week, Tingay might be discussing a galaxy census, monitoring solar flares for the US Air Force or investigating the beginning of the universe.
Tingay is the Director of the Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy at Curtin University, Deputy Director of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research and Director of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA). Still less than two years old, the MWA has already entered uncharted territory, collecting data that will uncover the birth of stars and galaxies in the very early universe and produce an unprecedented galaxy catalogue of half a million objects in the sky. The MWA could also one day provide early warning of destructive solar flares that can knock out the satellite communications we rely on.
“To date, we’ve collected upwards of four petabytes of data and all the science results are starting to roll out in earnest now,” he says.
“It’s an amazing feeling for the team to have pulled together, delivered the instrument, and to do things that no one ever expected we could do when we did the planning.”
The project sees Curtin University lead a prestigious group of partners, including Harvard University and MIT, in four countries. And while the MWA is a powerful telescope in its own right, it paves the way for what is arguably the biggest science project on the planet – the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).
The promise of this multi-billion dollar telescope, which will be built across Western Australia and South Africa, drove Tingay to move to Perth seven years ago. “I like to be close to the action, building and operating telescopes, and using them to do interesting experiments that no one else has done before – in close physical proximity.”
His team of 55 researchers at Curtin University are working on the astrophysics, engineering and ICT challenges of the SKA.
“Curtin is an amazing place to work,” he says. “It’s focused on a few very high-impact developments and making sure that they’re properly funded and resourced.
“Periodically, I sit down and think: ‘Where else in the world would I rather be?’ and every time I conclude that for radio astronomy Curtin University in Perth is the best place to be.”
Today NASA announced the paradigm shifting discovery of flowing water on Mars. This extraterrestrial salty water bodes well for a water cycle on Mars, and potential hosting of Martian life. What mysteries lie on Mars, we may find out soon – but for the infinite mysteries that lie beyond – we have the Earth’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), manned by the Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy.
The engineering challenges behind building the world’s biggest radio telescope are vast, but bring rewards beyond a better understanding of the universe.
Since its inception, the Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy has established itself as an essential hub for astronomy research in Australia. Known as CIRA, the organisation brings together engineering and science expertise in one of Australia’s core research strengths: radio astronomy.
CIRA’s Co-Directors, Professors Steven Tingay and Peter Hall, were on the team who pitched Australia’s successful bid to host part of the SKA – a radio telescope that will stretch across Australia and Africa. The SKA’s two hosting nations were announced in May 2012 and the project forms the main focus of research at CIRA. And for good reason: the SKA-low – a low-frequency aperture array consisting of a quarter of a million individual antennas in its first phase – will be built in Western Australia at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO), about 800 km north of Perth.
The near-flat terrain and lack of radio noise from electronics and broadcast media in this remote region allow for great sky access and ease of construction. At Phase 1, SKA-low will cover the project’s lowest-frequency band, from 50 MHz up to 350 MHz – with antennas covering approximately 2 km at the core, stretching out to 50 km along three spiral arms.
“Out of 10 organisations in a similar number of countries, CIRA is the largest single contributor to the low frequency array consortium,” says Hall, the Director responsible for engineering at CIRA.
Far from a traditional white dish radio telescope, which mechanically focuses beams, the SKA-low will be a huge array of electronic antennas with no moving parts. Its programmable signal processors will be able to focus on multiple fields of view and perform several different processes simultaneously. “You can point at as many directions as you want with full sensitivity – that’s the beauty of the electronic approach,” says Senior Research Fellow Dr Randall Wayth, an astronomer and signal processing specialist at CIRA.
One of the major scientific goals of SKA-low is to help illuminate the events of the early universe, particularly the stage of its formation known as the ‘epoch of reionisation’. Around 13 billion years ago, all matter in the early universe was ionised by radiation emitted from the earliest stars. The record of this reionisation carries with it telltale radio signatures that reveal how those early stars formed and turned into galaxies. Observing this directly for the first time will allow astronomers to unlock fundamental new physics.
“To see what’s going on there at the limits of where we can see in time and space, you have to have telescopes that are sensitive to wide-field, diffuse structures, and that are exquisitely calibrated. You have to be able to reject the foreground universe and local radio frequency interference,” says Hall. This sensitivity to diffuse structures will make SKA-low and its precursor, the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), essential instruments in studying the epoch of reionisation.
The SKA-low will also be important in studying time domain astronomy, which consists of phenomena occurring over a vast range of timescales. One example is the field of pulsar study. Pulsars are incredibly dense rotating stars that, much like a lantern in a lighthouse, emit a beam of radiation at extremely regular intervals. This regularity makes pulsars useful tools for a variety of scientific applications, including accurate timekeeping.
By the time the radio signal from a distant pulsar travels across space and reaches Earth, it is dispersed. But with the right telescope, you can calibrate against this dispersion, and trace back the original regular signal.
“One of the great things you can do with a low frequency telescope such as the SKA-low is get a very good look at the pulsar signal,” says Hall. “As well as stand-alone SKA-low pulsar studies, the measurement of hour-to-hour dispersion changes can be fed to telescopes at higher frequencies, vastly improving their ability to do precision pulsar timing.”
“It’s a big advantage having the critical mass of people in this building to make things happen.”
It’s not just astronomy research that is benefiting from the construction of the SKA-low and its precursors (two precursor telescopes are in place at the MRO: the MWA and the Australian Square Kilometre Array Precursor telescope, ASKAP). In order to make the most out of the aperture array telescopes, some fundamental engineering challenges need to be solved. Challenges such as how to characterise the antennas to ensure that they meet design specifications, or how to design a photovoltaic system to power the SKA without producing too many unwanted emissions. Solving these problems requires both a deep understanding of the fundamental physics involved as well as knowledge of how to engineer solutions around those physics.
The projected construction timeframe for SKA-low is 2018–2023, but there is already infrastructure in place to begin testing its design and operation. Consisting of 2048 fixed dual-polarisation dipole antennas arranged in 128 ‘tiles’, the MWA boasts a wide field of view of several hundred square degrees at a resolution of arcminutes. It has provided insight into the challenges that will arise during the full deployment of SKA-low, not the least of which is managing the volume of data resulting from the measurements.
“The MWA already has a formidable data rate. We transmit 400 megabits per second down to Perth, and processing that is a substantial challenge,” says Wayth. The challenge is a necessary one, as the stream of data that comes from a fully operational SKA-low will be orders of magnitude larger.
“While doing groundbreaking science, the MWA is just manageable for us at the moment in terms of data rate. It teaches us what we have to do to handle the data.”
Continued CIRA developments at the MRO have included the construction of an independently commissioned prototype system, the Aperture Array Verification System 0.5 (AAVS0.5). The results from testing it in conjunction with the MWA surprised the engineers and scientists. “Engineers know that building even a tiny prototype teaches you a lot,” says Hall.
In their case, some carefully-matched cables turned out to be mismatched in their electrical delay lengths. Using the AAVS0.5, they have already been able to improve the MWA calibration. “We were able to feedback that engineering science into the MWA astronomy calibration model, and we now have a better model to calibrate and clean the images from the MWA,” says Hall.
Following the success of AAVS0.5, over the next two years CIRA will be leading the construction of the much larger AAVS1, designed to mimic a full SKA-low station.
Developing the SKA-low and its precursors is an huge effort, demanding the best in astrophysics, engineering and data processing. CIRA is uniquely positioned to accomplish this feat, with a large research staff, fully equipped engineering laboratory and access to the nearby Pawsey Supercomputing Centre for data processing. “CIRA has astronomers and engineers, as well as people who do both. We have all the skills to do these things in-house,” says Hall.
“It’s a big advantage having the critical mass of people in this building to make things happen,” says Wayth. “It’s a rare case where the sum of the parts really is greater than the whole.”
Opportunities for students and early-career researchers to engage in the project are already underway. Dozens of postgraduate research projects commencing in 2015 will involve the MWA, AAVS and ASKAP directly. Topics range from detecting the radio signature of fireballs to investigating the molecular chemistry of star formation. As well as producing novel scientific outcomes, these projects will feed valuable test data into the major scientific investigations slated for the SKA as it becomes operational.
A Supercomputer in the backyard
The scale of SKA, and the resultant flood of data, requires the rapid development of methods to process data. The Pawsey Supercomputing Centre – a purpose-built powerhouse named after pioneering Australian radio astronomer Dr Joe Pawsey and run by the Interactive Virtual Environments Centre (iVEC) – includes a supercomputer called Galaxy, dedicated to radio astronomy research. A key data challenge is finding ways in which the signal processing method can be split up and processed simultaneously, or ‘parallelised’, so that the full force of the supercomputing power can be used. The proximity of the signal processing experts at CIRA to iVEC means that researchers can continually prototype new ways of parallelising the data, with the goal being to achieve real-time analysis of data streaming in from the SKA.
“These awards recognise research organisations’ success in creatively transferring knowledge and research outcomes into the broader community,” said KCA Executive Officer, Melissa Geue.
“They also help raise the profile of research organisations’ contribution to the development of new products and services which benefit wider society and sometimes even enable companies to grow new industries in Australia.”
Details of the winners are as follows:
The Best Commercial deal is for any form of commercialisation in its approach, provides value-add to the research institution and has significant long term social and economic impact:
University of Melbourne – Largest bio tech start-up for 2014
This was for Australia’s largest biotechnology deal in 2014 which was Shire Plc’s purchase of Fibrotech Therapeutics P/L – a University of Melbourne start-up – for US$75 million upfront and up to US$472m in following payments. Fibrotech develops novel drugs to treat scarring prevalent in chronic conditions like diabetic kidney disease and chronic kidney disease. This is based on research by Professor Darren Kelly (Department of Medicine St. Vincent’s Hospital).
Shire are progressing Fibrotech’s lead technology through to clinical stages for Focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, which is known to affect children and teenagers with kidney disease. The original Fibrotech team continues to develop the unlicensed IP for eye indications in a new start-up OccuRx P/L.
Best Creative Engagement Strategy showcases some of the creative strategies research organisations are using to engage with industry partner/s to share and create new knowledge:
Defence Science and Technology Group –Defence Science Partnerships (DSP) reducing red tape with a standardised framework
The DSP has reduced transaction times from months to weeks with over 300 agreements signed totalling over $16m in 2014-15. The DSP is a partnering framework between the Defence Science Technology Group of the Department of Defence and more than 65% of Australian universities. The framework includes standard agreement templates for collaborative research, sharing of infrastructure, scholarships and staff exchanges, simplified Intellectual Property regimes and a common framework for costing research. The DSP was developed with the university sector in a novel collaborative consultative approach.
The People’s Choice Awards is open to the wider public to vote on which commercial deal or creative engagement strategy project deserves to win. The winner this year, who also nabbed last years’ award is:
Swinburne University of Technology – Optical data storage breakthrough leads the way to next generation DVD technology – see DVDs are the new cool tech
Using nanotechnology, Swinburne Laureate Fellowship project researchers Professor Min Gu, Dr Xiangping Li and Dr Yaoyu Cao achieved a breakthrough in data storage technology and increased the capacity of a DVD from a measly 4.7 GB to 1,000 TB. This discovery established the cornerstone of a patent pending technique providing solutions to the big data era. In 2014, start-up company, Optical Archive Inc. licensed this technology. In May 2015, Sony Corporation of America purchased the start-up, with knowledge of them not having any public customers or a final product in the market. This achievement was due to the people, the current state of development and the intellectual property within the company.
Upgraded bio-security measures to combat fruit fly will be introduced in Australia, bringing added confidence to international trade markets.
South Australia is the only mainland state in Australia that is free from fruit flies – a critical component of the horticultural industries’ successful and expanding international export market.
A new national Sterile Insect Technology facility in Port Augusta, located in the north of South Australia, will produce billions of sterile male fruit flies – at the rate of 50 million a week – to help prevent the threat of fruit fly invading the state.
The new measures will help secure producers’ access to important citrus and almond export markets including the United States, New Zealand and Japan, worth more than $800 million this year.
The Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) introduces sterile flies into the environment that then mate with the wild population, ensuring offspring are not produced.
Macquarie University Associate Professor Phil Taylor says the fly, know as Qfly because they come from Queensland, presents the most difficult and costly biosecurity challenge to market access for most Australian fruit producers.
“Fruit flies, especially the Queensland fruity fly, present a truly monumental challenge to horticultural production in Australia,” he says.
“For generations, Australia has relied on synthetic insecticides to protect crops, but these are now banned for many uses. Environmentally benign alternatives are needed urgently – this is our goal.
The impetus behind this initiative is to secure and improve trade access both internationally and nationally for South Australia.
It will increase the confidence of overseas buyers in the Australian product and make Australia a more reliable supplier. Uncertainty or variation of quality of produce would obviously be a concern for our trading partners.”
South Australia’s Agriculture Minister Leon Bignell says the $3.8 million centre would produce up to 50 million sterile male Qflies each week.
The Fellowship provides $25,000 to support recipients with their research and foster the careers of female scientists.
Rummer says she is honoured to receive the award, which will help support her work on predicting how sharks and other fish will cope with rapidly changing oceans.
“Fish have been evolutionary winners, but we don’t know how they will adapt with the rapid changes taking place in the oceans now.
Some will be winners, some will be losers as the climate changes, and that’s a problem not just for the oceans, but also for the communities that depend on fish for protein.
Fish have been on the planet for hundreds of millions of years. It’s up to us to ensure they’re here for the next 100 million years.”
Rummer’s research examines how ‘oxygen transport’ works in fish and how it is affected by stress and their ability to adapt to their habitats.
To get a better understanding of the capacity of fish to adapt, Rummer is working with sharks on the Great Barrier Reef, in Papua New Guinea, and in French Polynesia.
Her L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship will help expand her work in the world’s largest shark sanctuary in Moorea, French Polynesia.
There she will study sicklefin lemon and black-tip reef sharks, which may be less able to adapt to future ocean conditions.
“In the long term, understanding how sharks will respond to future ocean conditions will help us make wise decisions needed to protect and conserve the world’s fish populations in general,” Rummer says.
Rummer’s work has attracted global scientific and media attention. She is also a strong advocate for improving the status of women in science.
Dr Jodie Rummer, marine biologist, James Cook University, Townsville
Dr Jodie Rummer is fascinated by fish and their ability to deliver oxygen to their muscles 20 to 50 times more efficiently than we can. Her global research into salmon, mackerel, hagfish, and now sharks explains why fish dominate the oceans, and has given her the opportunity to swim with sharks in the world’ largest shark sanctuary, in French Polynesia.
This article was first published by James Cook University on 8 September 2015. Read the original article here.
After a stint working as an environmental consultant trawling swampland in Sydney and Wollongong, Jayne Hanford has gone back to uni to do a postgrad researching one of Australia’s least favourite invertebrates – mosquitoes.
“Bugs are really cool,” says Jayne, with characteristic enthusiasm. “They’re like little aliens when you look at them under a microscope, and there’s a lot of diversity.”
Jayne’s research at The University of Sydney looks at what conditions can create mosquito-free urban wetlands and preserve urban wetland biodiversity.
“I’m the only person researching the aquatic environment – there are people working on tic pathogens, bees, spiders, ants and bats in urban areas,” says Jayne, describing the diversity of research being undertaken at her lab.
There is currently little research on biodiversity in urban wetlands – and what research is available is somewhat disjointed.
While the conditions conducive for mosquitoes are well understood in natural wetlands, as are the conditions for creating high biodiversity, these findings haven’t been applied to urban wetland ecology.
“I hadn’t really thought about mosquitoes before, I was more interested in the protection of biodiversity, and thought it would be interesting to look at that in an urban context,” says Jayne.
Her main supervisor at the uni, Associate Professor Dieter Hochuli is focused on urban ecology, so Jayne took the opportunity to undertake research into how biodiversity and mosquito populations are linked in urban wetlands.
“The councils I’ve spoken to would really like to know if their wetlands do have mosquitoes because it influences how they manage them in the future.”
As wetland vegetation are often good breeding grounds for mosquitoes, Jayne’s research will assist councils to understand the biodiversity value of a wetland and whether it poses a risk to public health from mosquito-borne diseases.
This understanding will lead to better management of a wetland’s biodiversity while minimising risks from mosquitos. And could allow for the integration of biodiversity and stormwater and wastewater management strategies with public health programs.
“My research will look at what we need to create a really good network of wetlands for conservation in urban areas that tick all the boxes,” explains Jayne.
“They must be visually appealing, be places for recreation, provide a habitat for wildlife, improve water quality, minimise mosquito or weed infestations – and avoid making people sick. People can walk their dogs around them, and they benefit biodiversity.”