Extremely large optical telescopes, including the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), which is due to be built in Chile in 2021, will allow studies of stars and galaxies at the dawn of the universe, and will peer at planets similar to ours around distant stars.
The Square Kilometer Array (SKA), which will be constructed in Australia and South Africa over the next several years, will observe the transformation in the young universe that followed the formation of the first generation of stars and test Einstein’s theory of relativity.
Large-scale surveys of stars and galaxies will help us discover how elements are produced and recycled through galaxies to enrich the universe. The revolutionary sensitivity of the GMT will also be used to understand the properties of ancient stars born at the dawn of the universe.
On the largest scales, dark matter and dark energy comprise more than 95% of the universe, and yet their nature is still unknown. Australian astronomers will use next-generation optical telescopes to measure the growth of the universe and probe the unknown nature of dark matter and dark energy.
The long-anticipated detection of gravitational waves will also open a window into the most extreme environments in the universe. The hope is that gravitational waves generated by the collision of black holes will help us better understand the behavior of matter and gravity at extreme densities.
Closer to home, the processes by which interstellar gas is turned into stars and solar systems are core to understanding our very existence. By combining theoretical simulations with observations from the Australia Telescope Compact Array and the GMT, Australian astronomers will discover how stars and planets form.
And this far-reaching knowledge will inform new theoretical models to achieve an unprecedented understanding of the universe around us.
Over the past decade, Australian astronomers have achieved a range of major breakthroughs in optical and radio astronomy and in theoretical astrophysics.
Australian astronomers have precisely measured the properties of stars, galaxies and of the universe, significantly advancing our understanding of the cosmos. The mass, geometry, and expansion of the universe have been measured to exquisite accuracy using giant surveys of galaxies and exploding stars. Planetary astronomy has undergone a revolution, with the number of planets discovered around other stars now counted in the thousands.
In forming a strategy for the future, Australia in the Era of Global Astronomy assesses these and other scientific successes, as well as the evolution of Australian astronomy including it’s broader societal roles.
Astronomy is traditionally a vehicle for attracting students into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The report also highlights expanding the use of astronomy to help improve the standard of science education in schools through teacher-training programs.
Training aimed at improving the “transferrable” skills of graduate and postgraduate astronomy students will also help Australia improve its capacity for innovation.
The Australian astronomy community has greatly increased its capacity in training of higher-degree students and early-career researchers. However, Australian astronomy must address the low level of female participation among its workforce, which has remained at 20% over the past decade.
The past decade has seen a large rise in Australian scientific impact from international facilities. This move represents a watershed in Australian astronomical history and must be strategically managed to maintain Australia’s pre-eminent role as an astronomical nation.
The engagement of industry will become increasingly important in the coming decade as the focus of the scientific community moves from Australian-based facilities, which have often been designed and built domestically, towards new global mega-projects such as the SKA.
While a decade is an appropriate timescale on which to revisit strategic planning across the community, the vision outlined in the plan looked beyond the past decade, recommending far-reaching investments in multi-decade global projects such as the GMT and the SKA.
These recent long-term investments will come to fruition in the coming decade, positioning Australia to continue as a global astronomy leader in the future.
This article was first published by The Conversation on 24 August 2015. Read the original article here.
Australian and Chinese scientists have made significant progress in determining what causes soil acidification – a discovery that could assist in turning back the clock on degraded croplands.
James Cook University’s Associate Professor Paul Nelson says the Chinese Academy of Sciences sought out the Australian researchers because of work they had done in Australia and Papua New Guinea on the relationship between soil pH levels and the management practices that cause acidification.
Building on the JCU work, scientists examined a massive 3600 km transect of land in China, stretching from the country’s sub-arctic north to its central deserts. The work yielded a new advance that describes the mechanisms involved in soils becoming acidified.
Nelson says soil degradation is a critical problem confronting humanity, particularly in parts of the world such as the tropics where land use pressure is increasing and the climate is changing. “We can now quantify the effect of, for instance, shutting down a factory that contributes to the production of acid rain,” he says.
Nelson says the research found different drivers of soil acidification processes in different types of soil across northern China. “This information is vital for designing strategies that prevent or reverse soil acidification and to help land managers tailor their practices to maintain or improve soil quality,” he says.
The Patron of Soil Science Australia, former Australian Ambassador to the United Nations and for the Environment, The Honourable Penny Wensley AC, welcomed news of the advance.
“With 2015 designated by the United Nations as the International Year of Soils, this is a very important year for soil scientists around the world. We need to promote greater awareness of the importance of soils and soil health and the role soil science has to play in addressing national and global challenges.”
In the context of the International Year of Soils, Wensley says: “We want to encourage greater cooperation and exchanges between soil scientists, to accelerate progress in research and achieve outcomes that will deliver practical benefits to farmers and land managers, working in diverse environments.
“This research project, drawing on the shared expertise of soil scientists from Australia’s James Cook University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is an exciting illustration of what can be achieved through greater collaboration,” she says.
Acidification is one of the main soil degradation issues worldwide, accelerated by water leaching through the soil. It is related mostly to climate, and the overuse of nitrogen-based fertiliser.
“The greater understanding of soil acidification causes this study has delivered could help improve soil management practices, not only in Australia and China, but around the world,” says Wensley.
LANDTEM, an Australian invention that creates a 3D map of underground ore bodies has uncovered deposits worth A$4 billion in Australia and A$10 billion globally. The technology development was led by CSIRO scientist Dr Cathy Foley and is a great example of the commercial application of scientific research.
In some ways it was a stroke of good fortune that set Dr Cathy Foley and her colleagues on the path to inventing LANDTEM, a device that has revolutionised the way mining companies detect ore underground and uncovered deposits worth billions of dollars around the world.
The story of the invention begins in the mid-1980s, when the discovery of high temperature superconductors opened the way for superconductivity to be used in everyday applications instead of only at extremely low temperatures.
The discovery provoked huge excitement around the world among scientists and engineers who set about seeking practical applications, no less so in Australia.
BHP Billiton held an internal meeting about the technology and it was there that some of the company’s geologists said that measuring subtle magnetic fields would be very valuable to them, providing the spark of the idea for LANDTEM.
Foley describes the moment as “serendipitous”, but says it’s also a reflection of the way CSIRO interacts with industry.
“Quite often when you’ve got something which is a platform technology that can be used in a lot of different ways, you start off thinking in a very diverse way or very open ended way so you’re not really sure where you’re going. And that’s why one of the things that differentiates the CSIRO from any other research organisations and particularly universities: we talk to industry a lot and get guidance from them,” she says.
“We might come up with the original science but then we engage with industry to say, ‘we’ve got this great idea, we think it could be useful there’. And they’ll say, ‘well, actually no, we think it could be useful over here’.”
LANDTEM consists of a big coil of wire placed on the ground above a potential ore deposit. It pulses a large changing current through the wire to create a magnetic field, and this in turn creates what’s known as an Eddy current in any conducting material nearby, such as an ore body underground.
Then the current is turned off, but an ore body’s current lingers for a tiny fraction of a second longer and by measuring this, LANDTEM can determine if there is an ore body and where it is. Crucially, it can discriminate between an actual ore body and the conducting soil that is so prevalent in Australia and that in the past would have led to muddled results.
Foley says the invention has helped mining companies find things they wouldn’t have found otherwise and find deeper ore bodies. It can also tell them whether it is worth the expense of putting a bore hole down to analyse the quality of the ore and where to put it.
Not all ore bodies are conducting, so LANDTEM is mainly used for finding silver, nickel and gold.
It’s one of a series of tools geologists use to find an ore body, and Foley says it has allowed many mining companies to cut out several of the steps needed in mineral exploration.
For instance, in Canada, Xstrata Nickel has bought three LANDTEM systems and is so confident about the technology that once it has located an ore body they don’t do much drilling at all and move straight on to mining instead.
When recognising the work of Foley and her colleague CSIRO engineer Keith Leslie at the Clunies Ross awards, the chair of the awards’ organising committee Professor Mike Hood said: “Their story demonstrates the importance of unwavering dedication in bringing a scientific discovery to market. Over the coming years LANDTEM will continue to play a major role in the worldwide discovery of new mineral deposits.”
Foley studied physics and education at Sydney’s Macquarie University with the intention of becoming a high school science teacher. “But I fell in love with research and I did my PhD in nitride semiconductors and did a smidgen of the early work that led to the white LED,” she says.
Having decided to pursue a career in research, Foley joined CSIRO as a post-doctoral fellow working in magnetics and was asked to join the team working on applications for the new high temperature superconductors.
Along with taking the new technology to industry to see how it could be used, another factor in the successful development and commercialisation of the LANDTEM is CSIRO’s ability to pull together a multidisciplinary team when an opportunity arises, in this case researchers in mineral resources, electrical engineering, devices, materials and cryogenics, and finally at the end, lawyers and business people.
“In order to be a survivor and also to really be profitable and commercially successful, you’ve got to recognise just how the world is changing and that you’ve got to be innovative, not just in your products but also in your business model and how you see yourself getting into the manufacturing world,” she says.
“Australia is at a really interesting point where the current Government has recognised this and I think got a whole lot of things in place.”
Foley says the Federal Government’s recently-announced Industry Growth Centres, which aim to forge better links between industry and Australia’s top researchers, are a promising start.
She sees potential in agile manufacturing, where the manufacturers make small numbers of specialised and customised products and can quickly re-conform to make another product.
“Instead of being a manufacturer who has a big factory, you actually buy time in a factory to do a certain thing, part of it, and then you might even ship it to somewhere else to get another bit done where there’s a specialist and so you end up with products which are done more in smaller batches rather than mass market because they’re more customised,” she says. “These days successful societies have to keep reinventing themselves and recognising where you can you use intellectual approaches rather than just brute labour.”
As a senior CSIRO executive, Foley is less involved in hands-on research than she used to be, but still finds it an exciting environment.
“It’s pretty exciting to think that the work you do actually has an enormous impact and can make a difference. And I think if you ask people I work with, they all say that’s what they love about working at CSIRO. We do things that actually change the world and I think that’s a nice thing to do,” she says.
– Christopher Niesche
This article was first published by Australia Unlimited on 20 August 2015. Read the original article here.
RMIT researchers are using state-of-the-art modelling techniques to study the effects of wind on cities, paving the way for design innovations in building, energy harvesting and drone technology.
The turbulence modelling studies will allow engineers to optimise the shape of buildings, as well as identify areas of rapid airflow within cities that could be used to harvest energy.
Researchers also hope to use the airflow studies to develop more energy efficient drones that use the power of updrafts during flight.
Dr Abdulghani Mohamed, from RMIT’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems research group, said simulations developed by the research team can visualise the shape of updrafts as they developed over buildings and show their variation over time.
“By analysing the interaction of wind with buildings, our research opens new possibilities for improving designs to take better advantage of nature,” he says.
“Buildings can be built to enhance airflow at street level and ventilation, while wind turbines can be precisely positioned in high-speed airflow areas for urban energy harvesting – providing free power for low-energy electronics.
“The airflow simulations will also help us further our work on energy harvesting for micro-sized drones, developing technology that can help them use updrafts to gain height quicker and fly for longer, without using extra energy.”
Scientists and engineers have traditionally relied on building small-scale city replicas and testing them in wind tunnels to make detailed airflow predictions.
This time-consuming and expensive process is being gradually replaced with numerical flow simulations, also known as Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD).
The researchers – Mohamed, Professor Simon Watkins (RMIT), Dr Robert Carrese (LEAP Australia) and Professor David Fletcher (University of Sydney) – created a CFD model to accurately predict the highly complex and dynamic airflow field around buildings at RMIT’s Bundoora campus west, in Melbourne’s north.
The next stage in the research will involve an extensive flight test campaign to further prove the feasibility of the concept of long endurance micro-sized drones, for use in a number of industries including structural monitoring, land surveying, mobile temporary networks and pollution tracking.
This article was first published by RMIT University on 9 August 2015. Read the original article here.
The money will be used to develop a remote animal behaviour monitoring system, an improved climate control system, and upgrades of the free-range poultry facility.
Professor Wayne Hein, Dean of Roseworthy campus, welcomed the grant.
“We have an outstanding collaborative hub at Roseworthy with some of the best animal science researchers in the country working at this site,” says Hein.
“Roseworthy is also the headquarters of the Pork Cooperative Research Centre. The strong alignment with the CRC on campus means that industry engagement in the research undertaken on the campus is seamless and beneficial to all parties.
“This funding will help establish the highest standards of animal welfare in animal production systems.”
This article was first published on The Lead on 30 July 2015. Read the original article here.
Researchers have developed a new UV blocking material out of naturally occurring molecules found in algae and fish slime that can be used to make more effective sunscreen, bandages and contact lenses.
Organisms like algae and cyanobacteria have evolved to synthesise their own UV screening compounds, such as mycosporine-like amino acids (MAAs).
MAAs are commonly found in the creatures that eat algae and cyanobacteria as well – tropical fish like those found on the Great Barrier Reef accrue the material in their slime and eyes to protect themselves from harmful UV radiation.
“Mycosporines are present a little bit everywhere, in many types of organisms,” says Professor Vincent Bulone, co-author of the research paper and Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls at the University of Adelaide.
“We have attached these small UV absorbing molecules in a non-reversible manner to a polymer called chitosan, that you can extract from the shells of shrimp or crabs.”
The result is an all-natural UVA and UVB screening material. Thanks to the versatility of chitosan, it can be used in a cream for topical application, a transparent film for use in materials like bandages, or coated on objects like textiles and outdoor furniture to protect them from UV damage.
Current sunscreen formulas use a combination of materials in order to screen both UVA and UVB radiation, including some that can have a negative effect on health in the long-term, such as titanium dioxide.
“It outperforms some of the compounds that are already used on the market in terms of the UV absorption capacity. The good thing is that it’s completely natural. We’ve also tested them on cell cultures and know they are not toxic,”says Bulone.
“We know, under laboratory conditions, the MAAs have no harmful effects. So they can be used for wound healing dressings for instance. You don’t need to change that dressing as often and it facilitates the healing of the skin.”
The compound is also highly stable, even under high temperatures.
While chitosan is already widely used for many applications and easily extracted from crustacean waste products such as prawn shells, MAAs are more difficult to produce.
“Extracting it from algae would be a very expensive process, but it is possible to produce them by engineering bacteria. This has been since the early 90s. It’s not a cheap process, but it can be done.”
Bulone was recently installed as Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls at the University of Adelaide in South Australia.
“I’ve only started recently in South Australia. This work was done in my lab in Sweden. I still split my time, 70% in Adelaide and 30% in Sweden.”
Bulone is actively developing new collaborations within Australia and internationally to develop new concepts leading to increased crop production and quality for nutrition as well as protection of crops against devastating fungal pathogens. These developments rely on his long-standing expertise in the biochemistry of carbohydrates from plant and fungal cell walls.
This article was first published by The Lead on 29 July 2015. Read the original article here.
Scientists have identified two microbes that build bigger and more resilient feed crops, potentially boosting farmers’ bottom lines by millions of dollars.
The biotechnology research conducted at Flinders University in South Australia identified two strains of microbes that dramatically increase the ability of lucerne to fix atmospheric nitrogen, boosting the feed crop’s early growth and resilience, and ultimately its yield.
Research by medical biotechnology PhD student Hoang Xuyen Le drew on the hundreds of strains of endophytic actinobacteria, which grow naturally within legume roots. His research isolated and identified two strains of microbes that in laboratory and glasshouse trials were shown to promote growth in the shoots of the legume plants.
Nitrogen is absorbed by the plants through the formation of external nodules by symbiotic rhizobium bacteria that grow in the nodules. Franco says that following the inoculation of the lucerne seeds with spores of the actinobacteria, the nodules grew significantly larger, fixing greater amounts of nitrogen.
“Up to 50 or even 70 per cent more nitrogen was fixed,” says Franco.
The effect was to substantially improve the establishment of the lucerne, increase its resilience in drought conditions and also boost its yield.
“We found that our two main strains gave us a crop yield increase of 40 to 50 per cent in the glasshouse, and we would look for at least a 20 per cent improvement in the field,” says Franco.
He says as much as 25 per cent of the higher levels of nitrogen persisted in the soil, improving the growing conditions for subsequent crops.
The Flinders biotechnologists will now expand their trials on lucerne in the field, and will also look for similar effects in other legume crops, including peas, chick peas and faba and soya beans.
Further research is required to understand the underlying mechanism of the bugs: while it is likely that their natural propensity to produce bioactive compounds is partly responsible for increasing the general robustness of the inoculated lucerne by reducing disease, they may also be encouraging the growth of rhizobium bacteria in the soil.
Franco says that actinobacteria offer an environmentally friendly way of controlling disease, especially fungal root diseases such as Rhizoctonia, reducing the need for fossil-derived pesticides and fertiliser.
The potential to capture atmospheric nitrogen offers a major environmental benefit.
The legume seed crop, based in the South East of South Australia, is the basis of a national feed industry worth close to $100 million a year.
“This is very good news all round,” says Franco.
This article was first published by The Lead on 22 July 2015. Read the original article here.
Researchers from the Far North Queensland university worked with children’s author, Emma Homes, to create a kids’ book, The Vanishing Frogs of Cascade Creek – now shortlisted for a Wilderness Society fiction prize.
“I was interested in the idea of using fictional characters to raise awareness of science. I think people remember more when you tell them a story,” said Homes.
Wildlife diseases such as chytrid fungus, which is killing frogs worldwide, can devastate animal populations, but are often not well publicised or understood by the general public.
That’s where JCU experts Dr Lee Berger and Dr Lee Skerratt came in, to help answer questions about chytrid fungus, and explain how a sick frog might be examined in the laboratory.
“Lee Berger told me about a suitable frog species to cover in the book – the waterfall frog – and its habitat in the rainforest of Northern Queensland. We went for a trip to the Daintree Rainforest together, which was helpful for the writing process,” said Homes.
Berger thinks the books are a fantastic way to educate the general public. “It’s great that these books raise awareness of wildlife disease – a neglected conservation issue. Similar to weeds and feral animals, introduced diseases can have catastrophic effects but often go under the radar.”
The Vanishing Frogs of Cascade Creek has recently been shortlisted for the Wilderness Society’s Environment Award for Children’s Literature in the fiction category.
Home’s second book in the ‘Ruthie’ series, Saving Wombats, is informed by Skerrat’s PhD and tackles the disease sarcoptic mange, which can affect wombats and other mammals.
This article was published by James Cook University on 20 July 2015.
ARRB Managing Director Gerard Walton said that automated vehicles are a short-term reality that Australia needs to be prepared for.
“The South Australian Government has been quick to recognise this,” he said.
“ARRB will establish how driverless technology needs to be manufactured and introduced for uniquely Australian driving behaviour, our climate and road conditions, including what this means for Australia’s national road infrastructure, markings, surfaces and roadside signage,” said Waldon.
The Premier of South Australia, Jay Weatherill said the technology promises to not only improve safety, reduce congestion and lower emissions, but also to provide a real opportunity for South Australia to become a key player in the emerging driverless vehicle industry.
“This trial presents a fantastic opportunity for South Australia to take a lead nationally and internationally in the development of this new technology and open up new opportunities for our economy,” he said.
The driverless car trials will take place on an expressway south of the capital city of Adelaide on 7–8 November 2015.
Multiple vehicles will conduct manoeuvres such as overtaking, lane changing, emergency braking and the use of on and off ramps.
The International Driverless Cars Conference will be hosted at the Adelaide Convention Centre and Tonsley precinct on 5–6 November 2015.
This article was first published by The Lead on 21 July 2015. Read the original article here.
“We had this idea of trying to figure out what acoustic signatures humans make, whether the sharks can hear them, and, if appropriate, whether we can somehow interrupt that,” says Erbe. These interruptions could then potentially be used to ‘hide’ or ‘mask’ the noises people make in the water from the sharks.
Western Australia is a pertinent place to work on this project, given the debate over baited drum lines to cull sharks, and the project has been funded by Western Australia’s Department of Commerce.
Initial recordings have been made of people in a pool swimming and snorkelling past a hydrophone – a microphone designed to record or listen to underwater sound. Erbe’s team records people swimming and surfing at beaches to see how far their noises travel. These sounds can then be played to sharks in enclosures at Ocean Park Aquarium in Shark Bay to check for any responses.
“If we see responses from the sharks, the next step is to figure out if we can mask the sounds of people in the water using artificial signals,” says Erbe. These artificial signals are band-limited white noise, created digitally. “We can see which frequencies, or part of the human sound signature, could be detected by the sharks and calculate the range limits at which that might occur. We can then design masking signals that fill in around them so those frequencies can’t be detected,” she says. The team will test these masking signals by playing them back to the sharks at Ocean Park Aquarium.
This masking technique is different to other approaches where loud sounds are played at beaches to scare sharks away. The problem with the loud sound approach, says Erbe, is that it potentially interferes with an entire underwater ecosystem. The masking approach, on the other hand, is targeted at frequencies and levels that only sharks can hear in the surf zone. “We’re not looking at scaring the sharks away, we’re just limiting them from detecting humans,” she says.
According to Erbe, a multidisciplinary approach is crucial to solving problems such as shark mitigation, and her team ranges from physicists to acousticians, engineers and marine biologists.
Team member Dr Miles Parsons is leading another project on the sonar detection of sharks with the aim of building an early warning system. “The solution will have to be a combination of detecting sharks and preventing them detecting us,” says Erbe.
Mechanical Engineering PhD Student Zahra Bagheri at the University of Adelaide in South Australia says that despite having low visual acuity and brains no bigger than a grain of rice, dragonflies are remarkably good at tracking prey.
“They’re not like mammals which have developed very good brains, and they have very low resolution eyes compared to other animals, but they can catch their prey more than 97 per cent of the time while they’re moving at very high speeds in very cluttered environments,” Bagheri says.
“That means they have adopted very efficient methods for target tracking.”
Bagheri is part of a team of engineers and neuroscientists that have used those methods to develop a machine vision algorithm that can be applied in a virtual reality simulation, allowing an artificial intelligence system to ‘pursue’ an object.
“Detecting and tracking small objects against complex backgrounds is a highly challenging task. Consider a cricket or baseball player trying to take a match-winning catch in the outfield,” Bagheri explains.
“They have seconds or less to spot the ball, track it and predict its path as it comes down against the brightly coloured backdrop of excited fans in the crowd – all while running or even diving towards the point where they predict it will fall!”
This is known as selective attention. Dr Steve Wiederman is leading the dragonfly project, and conducted the original research recording the responses of neurons in the dragonfly brain.
“Selective attention is fundamental to humans’ ability to select and respond to one sensory stimulus in the presence of distractions,” Dr Wiederman says.
“Precisely how this works in biological brains remains poorly understood, and this has been a hot topic in neuroscience in recent years,” he says.
“The dragonfly hunts for other insects, and these might be part of a swarm – they’re all tiny moving objects. Once the dragonfly has selected a target, its neuron activity filters out all other potential prey.”
“It has diverse applications. It can be used in surveillance, wildlife monitoring, smart cars and even bionic vision.”
The team has emulated that ability with their algorithm. Rather than trying to perfectly centre the target in its field of view, Bagheri says the system locks on to the background and lets the target move against it.
“This reduces distractions from the background and gives time for underlying brain-like motion processing to work. It then makes small movements of its gaze and rotates towards the target to keep the target roughly frontal,” Bagheri says.
Because the algorithm is based on a dragonfly’s small brain and limited vision, it can rival insects’ abilities as well as those of more elaborate machine vision systems – all with relatively low complexity.
“It’s shown that we can do it with very low resolution cameras and very limited computational resources. It doesn’t need high-performance computers or anything like that.”
This bio-inspired “active vision” system has been tested in virtual reality worlds composed of various natural scenes. The Adelaide team has found that it performs just as robustly as the state-of-the-art engineering target tracking algorithms, while running up to 20 times faster.
“We are hoping to test it on a robot – we’re working on that right now. It has diverse applications. It can be used in surveillance, wildlife monitoring, smart cars and even bionic vision.”
Bagheri is lead author of the paper, titled Properties of Neuronal Facilitation that Improve Target Tracking in Natural PursuitSimulations, which was published this week in the Journal of The Royal Society Interface.
Australia’s renewable resources include wind, solar, wave and geothermal energy, and there’s significant research happening to improve generation and storage technologies to overcome the inherent disadvantage of intermittent flow.
The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) has completed 32 projects and is managing more than 200 others, including several large-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) plants and wind farms, which are considered the most advanced technologies in terms of making a short-term impact on our renewable electricity generation.
Australia’s CRC for Renewable Energy (ACRE), which operated 1996–2004, developed a state-of-the-art facility for testing grid-connected renewable energy systems, as well as small-capacity wind turbines for remote generation.
Australian scientists at the CRC for Polymers (CRC-P) have made big strides in the development of flexible, lightweight solar cells, which CEO Dr Ian Dagley describes as the “antithesis” of rigid rooftop solar cells. These lightweight cells offer intriguing possibilities: their flexibility means they can be placed on a variety of surfaces, from walls to windows, and they can operate indoors to help charge electrical devices.
They’re also attractive because they’re considerably cheaper to manufacture than silicon solar cells. Dagley says his CRC-P team has been working on refining the manufacturing technique, which uses low-cost components and reel-to-reel printers. One of the goals is to increase the lifespan of the cells, which is about five years, whereas rigid cells last roughly 30 years.
Meanwhile, the CRC for Low Carbon Living (CRCLCL) is looking at ways to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by developing smarter, more energy efficient buildings and cities. CEO Dr Deo Prasad says lower carbon buildings can be realised by optimising design to ensure maximum energy efficiency, through integration of next-generation technologies, such as solar PV cladding and heat and electricity capture systems for on-site energy offsets, and by using more sustainable building materials that need less energy to extract, process and manufacture. At the suburb and city scale, Prasad says decentralised renewable energy generation, reliable storage and smart grids, linked with information and communications technology-based intelligence, will lower carbon impacts.
“We recognise there is not going to be a silver bullet solution to carbon reductions,” says Prasad. “The approach needs to be holistic and driven by industry and governments.”
There are challenges associated with increased renewable energy levels, but Australia’s National Electricity Market seems to be handling integration well so far, says Dr Iain MacGill, joint director of the UNSW Centre for Energy and Environmental Markets. Studies by the Australian Energy Market Operator show it’s possible to operate the national grid with 100% renewables. “It won’t be cheap – just a lot cheaper than unchecked climate change,” MacGill says.
Russell Marsh, director of policy for the Clean Energy Council, emphasises the importance of commitment. “Investors need long-term certainty to ensure a rate of return,” says Marsh. “The Federal Government needs to lock in a firm, long-term target.”
MacGill agrees that the right policies can incentivise investment, but adds that it requires leadership and social consensus. “Australia is contradictory on clean energy. We have an early history and remarkable success in renewable energy deployment, and fantastic renewable resources. But we are also among the world’s largest coal and gas exporters,” he says.
“Will we take a leadership role, or do all we can to keep our international coal and gas customers buying from us?”
While coal and gas continue to be our dominant energy sources, the once-burgeoning renewables industry has been hindered by the Federal Government’s recent review of the Renewable Energy Target (RET). The review recommended scrapping the 20% target for renewable electricity generation by 2020, resulting in political deadlock and investor uncertainty across the renewable energy sector.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Australian head, Kobad Bhavnagri, says the review was especially damaging because it came “very close to making retroactive changes to a policy”.
“Whenever retroactive changes are made to policy it becomes, essentially, Ebola for investors,” he says. “When governments act unpredictably and destroy the value of existing assets, it scares people – for a long time.”
Australia generates more carbon emissions per person than any other OECD country. One-third are generated by the electricity sector, in which coal and natural gas account for roughly 85% of generating capacity. Renewables, mostly from hydropower, account for about 15%.
Reaching the 20% target during the next five years will not be cheap. At the time of the review it was estimated that another $18 billion of investment would be required to reach the target.
But the costs associated with increased generating capacity are yet to be weighed against the costs of potentially catastrophic climate change. Scientists have warned a 2°C increase in overall average temperatures from pre-industrial levels is the limit our planet can withstand before the effects of climate change become irreversible.
In December 2014, following the release by the International Energy Agency (IEA) of its report World Energy Outlook 2015, the agency’s chief economist and director of global energy economics, Dr Fatih Birol, told Bloomberg’s Business Week that global investment in renewable energy needs to quadruple to a yearly average of $1.6 trillion until at least 2040, to stay below that warming threshold.
Some of the world’s biggest economies have taken note. Estimates by the Climate Interactive indicate the US-China emissions deal, if implemented in full, could keep some 580 billion tonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere between now and 2030 – more than all global fossil fuel emissions from 1990 to 2013.
In 2014 – while China spent US$64 billion on large-scale clean energy projects, increasing its 2013 total by about US$10 billion – the USA spent nearly US$13 billion on utility-scale renewables and continued to expand production of its almost carbon-neutral shale gas reserves (see here for Australia’s progress).
Research by Bloomberg New Energy Finance found Australian investment in large-scale renewable energy in 2014 was US$223 million – the lowest in more than a decade. 2014 saw Australia nose-dive from 11th largest investor in commercial clean energy projects to 39th, behind developing nations such as Honduras and Myanmar.
The 2040 outlook
If Australia is serious about boosting its capacity for renewable energy, 2040 is a good deadline, says Iain MacGill, joint director (engineering) for the Centre for Energy and Environmental Markets at UNSW Australia – by then we’ll need “a major infrastructure transition”.
Russell Marsh is Director of Policy for the Clean Energy Council, the peak body representing Australia’s clean energy sector. “With the right level of support we could see the deployment of renewable energy at least double between 2020–2040,” he says. “But if the target is not extended beyond 2020, it is unlikely that we will see further growth.”
This view is backed by the Australian government’s Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics (BREE). In a November 2014 report looking towards mid-century electricity production, it reported “In the absence of potential new policy initiatives, the relative shares of fossil fuels and renewables in electricity generation are not likely to change significantly”.
In fact, BREE’s projections show renewable generating capacity remaining stable, meeting 20% of Australia’s total demand from 2020–2050. In this scenario, coal-fired power would still account for 65% of electricity by mid-century.
There are concerns that the current policy uncertainty is reaching a tipping point, which could see companies exiting Australia or going into distress.
In July 2014, RenewEconomy reported that Recurrent Energy, a US solar power plant developer being acquired by Canadian Solar, was planning to cease its Australian operations, citing concerns over policy uncertainty. Several other large international renewable energy companies, including Spain’s Acciona and US-based First Solar, have warned of possible exits, should the Renewable Energy Target be amended.
MacGill says exits are inevitable. “Why would an internationally focused renewable energy company stay if there is no prospect for their projects to go forward?
“They can, should and will depart at some point,” he says. “And with their departure, we will lose institutional capacity – such as people, money and industrial knowhow – which will inevitably
slow our ability to deploy clean energy, and increase its costs.”
Marsh agrees the risk to the industry is significant. “Every day, week and month that goes by with a cloud hanging over support for the renewable energy industry are days, weeks and months when our international competitors are racing ahead of us – and reaping billions of dollars in investment in this global growth market.”
Dr Deo Prasad, CEO of the CRC for Low Carbon Living, says that while the effects aren’t as dramatic, policy uncertainty also impacts the research community, especially “end-user driven projects where collaboration is essential”.
“Many a research direction and focus has had to change over the years, for the worse, due to policy uncertainty,” he adds.
The Great Ocean Road, about 200 km southwest of Melbourne, draws millions of tourists to view the spectacular cliffs and limestone stacks known as the Twelve Apostles, carved by relentless Bass Strait waves and winds. But this region is as rich in fossil fuels as it is in scenic beauty, and several commercial gas fields have been opened in the Otway Basin along the continent’s southern margin.
There is also the CRC for Greenhouse Gas Technologies’ (CO2CRC) flagship carbon capture and storage (CCS) trial: the CO2CRC Otway Project – the world’s largest demonstration of its kind.
Since the project started in 2008, the Australian government, US Department of Energy and CRC partners have funded the injection of more than 65,000 tonnes of CO2 into the Otway Basin’s depleted gas fields, without leakage or measurable effect on soil, groundwater or atmosphere.
The project was further boosted by $25 million in Australian government funding in February this year. “The wide-scale deployment of CCS is critical to reduce carbon emissions as quickly and cost-effectively as possible,” says CO2CRC chief executive Tania Constable. “This funding will enable CO2CRC to embark on a new program of research to improve CCS technologies.”
Australia is well-endowed with natural resources. Its known uranium reserves are the world’s largest, and it is rich in natural gas. Traditionally, the most important resource has been coal: Australia has the fourth largest coal reserves globally and is the world’s second biggest coal exporter behind Indonesia. Coal exports – which have grown 5% annually over the past decade – will earn $36 billion in 2014–2015.
Figures like these have led Prime Minister Tony Abbott to declare coal “an essential part of our economic future”. Professor Chris Greig, Director of the University of Queensland’s Energy Initiative, a cohort of research expertise across all energy platforms, anticipates the country will continue to be reliant on fossil fuels, including coal, until at least mid-century. But just how far beyond that depends on how the world – particularly China, one of Australia’s biggest coal customers – addresses future climate change.
In 2014, the US-China emissions deal set China a goal to source 20% of its energy from zero-emissions sources and peak its CO2 emissions by 2030. In August 2014, amid worsening public sentiment over air pollution, the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau announced that it would be phasing out coal-fired power in the capital’s six main districts by 2020.
China has been pouring money into the development of renewable energy technologies, spending an estimated US$64 billion on large-scale clean energy projects in 2014 alone. This was five times more than the next biggest spender, according to market analyst Bloomberg New Energy Finance. China is also investing heavily in CCS technologies, with at least 12 projects currently underway.
There are several pathways toward reducing emissions from the electricity sector – from the adoption of nuclear energy and greater uptake of renewable sources and natural gas, to more efficient power plants and modified diesel engines that can burn liquefied coal. CCS, however, is one of the most promising methods for reducing emissions from coal-fired power stations. Capture technologies isolate and pump CO2 underground to be stored in the pores of rocks (see graphic page 29).
Rajendra Pachauri, who until early 2015 was Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told the UN 2014 Climate Summit in New York, in September 2014: “With CCS it is entirely possible for fossil fuels to continue to be used on a large scale”.
Dianne Wiley, CO2CRC’s program manager for CCS, says CO2 capture technologies are already available to install. Their deployment is limited by high costs, but there have been strong successes. Wiley points to the commercial scale Boundary Dam Integrated Carbon Capture and Sequestration Demonstration Project in Saskatchewan, Canada – the world’s first large-scale power plant to capture and store its carbon emissions – as a good example of what’s possible with CCS technology. It became operational in October 2014 and, its operators say, is already “exceeding performance expectations”. The CAN$1.3 billion cost of the system should drop by around 30% in subsequent commercial plants, says Brad Page, CEO of the Global CCS Institute.
Greig says that investment decisions in favour of CCS in Australia won’t happen until more work is done to find high-capacity storage basins around the continent that can safely and reliably store CO2 emissions for several decades.
Constable says the recent injection of capital from the Federal Government to the Otway Project will help the CRC take the necessary steps to meet this challenge. She says it will “lower the costs of developing and monitoring CO2 storage sites, enhance regulatory capability and build community confidence in geological storage of CO2 as a safe, permanent option for cutting emissions from fossil fuels”.
Retrofitting CCS technology to existing plants isn’t an option: Greig likens that to “building a brand new garage onto the side of a house that’s falling down – you just don’t do it”. CCS would therefore require investment in new coal-fired power stations.
“A well-conceived energy policy for the electricity generation sector would see ageing, low-efficient plants replaced with high-efficiency ultra-supercritical [coal] plants,” says Greig, adding that these plants have lower emissions simply by virtue of their efficiency and could achieve emissions reductions of 25% compared to existing plants.
How CCS works
The first step of carbon capture and storage (CCS) is capture. It involves separating CO2 from other gases in the exhaust stream from a fossil fuel power plant or some other industrial facility. This can be done with solvents that absorb CO2 or with ceramic and polymer membranes that act as filters. Once isolated, CO2 is compressed into a state in which the difference between liquid and gas can no longer be distinguished. It is then transported via pipeline to a prospective storage site. Here, the CO2 is injected into an underground reservoir, such as a geologic formation or depleted oil field. The CO2 has to enter the rocks without fracturing them, and can then be stored underground for thousands of years.
The toolkit is a one-stop shop of practical knowledge to arm farmers and land managers with the information and connections they need to combat pest animals.
IA CRC digital communications manager Keryn Lapidge said, “We are pleased to have the Minister for Agriculture, Barnaby Joyce, officially launch PestSmart Connect today, recognising this as an important knowledge hub for tackling pest animal problems such as wild dogs, which have become a really big economic and social issue for Australian farmers.”
The website also links to the FeralScan website and app which provides people with the capability to map pest animal sightings and damage and then to use this information to track and control the problem.
“This website is really strong on connecting people and communities. A feature is the ‘connect’ portal which aims to provide contact details of agencies, organisations and groups that are active in pest animal management and can provide people with services, useful advice or assistance – at a practical on-ground level, but also at a policy level,” she said.
The PestSmart Connect website features pest animal species that are a having a major impact on biodiversity and agriculture in Australia including wild dogs, foxes, feral cats, rabbits and carp. There are handy glovebox guides, videos about trapping and baiting, case studies and links to assistance.
“We hope this will be a useful knowledge hub for farmers and land managers and we plan to continue to improve the resource over time,” Lapidge said.
The PestSmart Connect website www.pestsmart.org.au is the culmination of ten years of information gathering and research by the IA CRC – Australia’s largest integrated pest animal management research organisation.
Photograph courtesy of Ausveg and Vegetables Australia
During his Summer Science Scholarship at UQ, Mr Godfrey investigated if drones could be used to spread the beneficial Californicus mite, a predatory mite which feeds on pest leaf eating mites onto crops infected with two spotted mites.
Godfrey said two spotted mites ate chlorophyll in leaves, reducing plant vigour and crop yield.
“As corn grows, it is very difficult to walk between the crop to spread beneficial bugs,” he said.
“A drone flying over the crop and distributing the insects from above is a much more efficient and cost-effective method.”
Godfrey began his project at the Agriculture and Remote Sensing Laboratory at UQ’s Gatton Campus, learning how drones function, before spending time at Rugby Farms to gain insight into potential uses for drones.
“I built a specific drone for the project, tailoring the number of propellers, stand, and size of the motor to suit the drone’s application,” he said.
“My initial concept for the ‘Bug Drone’ came from a seed spreader, and in the end I built an attachment to the drone that can be used to spread the mites over the crop from the air.”
Initial designs using a cylinder-shaped container to hold the mites weren’t practical as it couldn’t hold enough of the predatory mites to make the process efficient.
“I used corflute material to make a large enough storage device for the mites,” Mr Godfrey said.
“The seed spreader then acts as the distributer as it has a small motor powering it.”
The device is controlled remotely from the ground.
“We’ve tested the product at Rugby Farms and I’ve successfully proved the concept that drones can be used to spread beneficial bugs,” Mr Godfrey said.
“There is still a lot of work to be done, but the most difficult part is to work out how to control the volume of bugs being distributed at the one time.
“The next step is to monitor the crops and to see what happens after the bugs have been dropped.
“Remote sensing with precision agriculture is an interesting field, and it has opened my eyes to the career opportunities in this field,” he said.
In the environment, big data can be used to discover new resources, and monitor the health of the resources we rely on, such as clean water and air. ANSTO is at the forefront of big data analysis and precision modelling in environmental studies at both national and international scales.
Particle accelerators are used to analyse samples at a molecular level with extremely high precision. At ANSTO, they have been integral to identifying a potential water source in the Pilbara area in northern WA, as well as measuring air quality in Australian and Asian cities.
Despite its remoteness, the Pilbara contains major export centres, such as Port Hedland, which rely heavily on sustainable use of water. In March 2014, ANSTO’s Isotopes for Water project released the results of their investigation into water quality, sustainability and the age of groundwater in the arid Pilbara region, to determine its viability as a future water resource to support the growth of the area.
“A large, potentially sustainable resource was verified by using nuclear techniques,” explains Dr Karina Meredith of ANSTO, who leads the project investigating water sources. “The outcome of this seven-year study provides a greater degree of certainty of water supply for the Pilbara.”
By calculating the age of water, ANSTO researchers can determine whether it can be drawn off sustainably, and where replacement (known as ‘recharging’) will be sufficient to maintain reservoir levels. Levels of carbon-14 in groundwater decay naturally over time, and by measuring minute traces of this radiocarbon in the groundwater with ANSTO’s STAR accelerator, scientists like Meredith can tell how old the water is. “We’ve found it’s about 5000 years old, and what was really interesting is that one of the areas had waters that were approximately 40,000 years old,” says Meredith.
Her calculations show it will be OK to drink the 5000-year-old water, as the reservoir is sufficiently recharged by water from cyclones. The 40,000-year-old vintage won’t be flowing through kitchen taps, however, as this region isn’t recharged fast enough, she says.
For more than a decade, Dr David Cohen of ANSTO has used the same accelerators to track down the sources of fine particle air pollution in Australian and Asian cities. Air pollution particles come in different sizes, but fine particles are the most damaging to human health – they penetrate deep into the lungs and have been linked to cardiovascular disease.
Cohen is the data coordinator of an international study of fine particle air pollution that takes samples in cities across 15 countries in Asia and Australasia. Combining the fingerprints detected using STAR with wind back trajectories, he’s shown that the air in Hanoi, for example, can contain dust from the Gobi Desert in Mongolia and pollution from Chinese coal-fired power stations some 500–1500 km away.
In addition, to reveal the sources of air pollution nationally, Cohen’s team has recently completed a study of the Upper Hunter region of NSW, which found significant fingerprints from domestic wood burning.
“In winter, up to 80% of the fine particles were coming from wood,” says Cohen. “So the most effective way to reduce winter air pollution would be to regulate burning wood.”
The British colonies of the South Pacific called an inter-colonial commission in 1883 to consider matters of common interest. German and French intentions in the Pacific, quarantine and trade issues loomed large. So too did the rabbit, which less than 25 years after its introduction to Australia from Europe was considered “so serious a national evil” it could not be left “to the efforts of individuals for its remedy”.
Within five years, Henry Parkes had sponsored an international competition offering the astounding sum of £25,000 to fix the problem. This sparked an ongoing quest for biological controls for Australia’s number one vertebrate pest. Where Louis Pasteur and others had tried and failed, the CSIRO succeeded, twice, with new viral controls: myxoma virus in the 1950s and rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV, also known as rabbit calicivirus) in the 1990s. Myxoma received a boost in the 1960s when a new carrier for the virus, the European rabbit flea, was introduced.
The Invasive Animals CRC (IA CRC) is hoping to mirror that success with a new program aimed at improving the impact of RHDV. “When we brought RHDV to Australia, only one strain, a Czech strain, was available to us,” said Dr Brian Cooke, from the IA CRC and the University of Canberra, who has spent his career battling rabbits using biological controls.
“We now understand that another strain – RCV-A1, which doesn’t cause the disease – was already here. This immunises some rabbits, which is why RHDV was less effective in wetter, higher production areas where it is more prevalent. In arid Australia, generally without RCV-A1, around 85% of rabbits died.”
Under the RHD-Boost Program, the IA CRC searched the world for more effective RHDV strains, eventually importing and screening 38 naturally varying strains. After additional tests, six were further investigated, and two virus strains – both from South Korea – demonstrated advantages over the existing Czech strain. One also showed an ability to overcome the partial protection from the problematic RCV-A1 calicivirus.
CEO of the CRC, Andreas Glanznig, said the discovery is encouraging but there are more steps to take before a new RHDV strain can be released. “Myxoma and RHDV are the only two examples of wide-scale viral biocontrol for vertebrate animals – ever.”
The rewards are “potentially huge”, he said. “These two viruses have so far delivered more than $70 billion in value to Australia and prevented untold environmental damage.” Myxoma still kills about half the rabbits born in Australia today, at zero cost.
With rabbit numbers on the rise, Australia needs to stay on the front foot. “It is imperative that we have a pipeline of new RHDV strains to keep rabbit biocontrol effective. The alternative will undo decades of management of Australia’s most costly vertebrate pest,” said Glanznig.