Science is fundamental for our future social and economic wellbeing.
In Western Australia we’re focusing on areas where we have natural advantages, and an appropriate base of research and industrial capacity. Western Australia’s Science Statement, released by Premier Barnett in April 2015, represents a capability audit of relevant research and engagement expertise in our universities, research institutes, State Government agencies and other organisations. Mining and energy, together with agriculture, are traditional powerhouses, but the science priorities also reflect the globally significant and growing capabilities in medicine and health, biodiversity and marine science, and radio astronomy. It’s a great place to begin exciting new collaborations.
The Science Statement has also helped to align efforts across research organisations and industry. For instance, in 2015 an industry-led “Marine Science Blueprint 2050” was released, followed by the Premier commissioning a roundtable of key leaders from industry, Government, academia and community to develop a long-term collaborative research strategy. These meetings highlighted critical areas of common interest such as decommissioning, marine noise, community engagement and sharing databases.
“Opportunities abound for science and industry to work together to translate research into practical, or commercial, outcomes.”
Science, innovation and collaboration are integral to many successful businesses in Western Australia. In the medical field, a range of technological innovations have broadened the economy and created new jobs. Some of these success stories include Phylogica, Admedus, Orthocell, iCeutica, Dimerix, Epichem and Proteomics International. Another example in this space is the Phase I clinical trial facility, Linear Clinical Research, which was established with support from the State Government – 75% of the trials conducted to date come from big pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies in the USA.
Opportunities abound for science and industry to work together to translate research into practical, or commercial, outcomes. For example, the field of big data analytics is rapidly permeating many sectors. Perth’s Pawsey Centre, the largest public research supercomputer in the southern hemisphere, processes torrents of data delivered by many sources, including radioastronomy as the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array, is being developed in outback WA. In addition, local company DownUnder GeoSolutions has a supercomputer five times the size of Pawsey for massive geophysical analyses. In such a rich data environment, exciting new initiatives like the CISCO’s Internet of Everything Innovation Centre, in partnership with Woodside, is helping to drive innovation and growth.
Leading players in the resources and energy sector are also taking innovative approaches to enhance efficiency and productivity. Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton use remote-controlled driverless trucks, and autonomous trains, to move iron ore in the Pilbara. Woodside has an automated offshore facility, while Shell is developing its Prelude Floating Liquefied Natural Gas facility soon to be deployed off the northwest coast. Excitingly, 3 emerging companies (Carnegie, Bombora and Protean) are making waves by harnessing the power of the ocean to generate energy.
This high-tech, innovative environment is complemented by a rapidly burgeoning start-up ecosystem. In this vibrant sector, Unearthed runs events, competitions and accelerators to create opportunities for entrepreneurs in the resources space. Spacecubed provides fabulous co-working space for young entrepreneurs, including the recently launched FLUX for innovators in the resource sector. The online graphic design business Canva, established by two youthful Western Australians epitomises what entrepreneurial spirit and can-do attitude can achieve. In this amazingly interconnected world, the sky’s the limit.
Read next:Professor Barney Glover, Vice-Chancellor and President of Western Sydney University and Dr Andy Marks, Assistant Vice-Chancellor (Strategy and Policy) of Western Sydney University on Making innovation work.
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Curtin University researchers are a step closer to establishing a way for people with type-1 diabetes to introduce insulin into the body without the need for injections, through the development of a unique microcapsule.
People with type-1 diabetes, a condition where the immune system destroys cells in the pancreas, generally have to inject themselves with insulin daily and test glucose levels multiple times a day.
Dr Hani Al-Salami from Curtin’s School of Pharmacy is leading the collaborative project using cutting-edge microencapsulation technologies to design and test whether microcapsules are a viable alternative treatment for people with type-1 diabetes.
“Since 1921, injecting insulin into muscle or fat tissue has been the only treatment option for patients with type-1 diabetes,” Al-Salami says.
“The ideal way to treat the illness, however, would be to have something, like a microcapsule, that stays in the body and works long-term to treat the uncontrolled blood glucose associated with diabetes.”
The microcapsule contains pancreatic cells which can be implanted in the body and deliver insulin to the blood stream.
“We hope the microcapsules might complement or even replace the use of insulin in the long-term, but we are still a way off. Still, the progress is encouraging and quite positive for people with type-1 diabetes,” Al-Salami says.
Researchers say the biggest challenge in the project to date has been creating a microcapsule that could carry the cells safely, for an extended period of time, without causing an unwanted reaction by the body such as inflammation or graft failure.
“We are currently carrying out multiple analyses examining various formulations and microencapsulating methods, in order to ascertain optimum engineered microcapsules capable of supporting cell survival and functionality,” Al-Salami says.
Leveraging the knowledge of researchers from the CSIRO and five of Australia’s top universities, as well as experts in the field, the CRCLCL is heading up efforts to deliver a low carbon built environment in Australia. Its ambitious aim is to cut residential and commercial carbon emissions by 10 megatonnes by 2020.
“The CRCLCL is at the forefront of driving technological and social innovation in the built environment to reduce carbon emissions,” says Prasad.
“We’re looking to bring emissions down, and in the process we want to ensure global competitiveness for Australian industry by helping to develop the next generation of products, technologies, advanced manufacturing and consulting services,” says Prasad.
CRCLCL activities range from urban sustainable design and solar energy to software and community engagement.
“By working effectively with government, researchers and industry, we employ an ‘end-user’ driven approach to research that maximises uptake and utilisation,” says Prasad.
ANSTO’s Synroc technology locks up radioactive elements in ‘synthetic rock’ allowing waste, like naturally occurring minerals, to be kept safely in the environment for millions of years.
Synroc technology offers excellent chemical durability and minimises waste and disposal volumes, decreasing environmental risks and lowering emissions and secondary wastes.
ANSTO’s Synroc team is developing a waste treatment processing plant using Synroc technology for Australia’s molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) waste; Mo-99 is the parent nuclide for technetium-99m, the most widely used radioisotope in nuclear medicine. The plant will be the first of its kind, and will lead the world in managing nuclear wastes from Mo-99 production.
Dr Daniel Gregg, leader of the Synroc waste form engineering team at ANSTO, says the plant will demonstrate Australia’s commitment to providing technology solutions to the global nuclear community.
“We hope to partner with others and build several more plants around the world using Synroc technology,” he says.
Gregg says several countries are looking to build new Mo-99 production facilities, and regulators want assurances that facilities will be able to treat the resulting waste streams.
“With national regulators around the world putting more and more pressure on waste producers to deal with nuclear wastes, opportunities exist for Synroc as a leading option for nuclear waste treatment.” This places Synroc and Australia in an enviable position, adds Gregg.
“Synroc is a cost-effective, environmentally responsible option to treat and appropriately dispose of nuclear wastes without leaving a burden to future generations.”
In developing the plant, the Synroc team has designed process engineering technology and a fully integrated pilot plant that can treat large volumes of waste under a continuous process mode.
The team is also collaborating with national laboratories around the world to demonstrate strategies to treat radioactive waste for commercial benefit.
The focus is on waste streams – such as the growing stockpiles of long-lived nuclear waste – that are problematic for existing treatment methods. The real advantage, says Gregg, is Synroc’s ability to immobilise these problematic waste forms.
“Waste producers are required to immobilise nuclear wastes, and Synroc and Australia will be at the forefront of waste management technology.”
1. Make sure there is a viable, readily accessible market that is sufficiently large to support a spin-off company.
2. The actual invention is only the trigger to start a company – you are establishing a company that will need to innovate on an ongoing basis if it wants to be successful. Make sure that innovation capability and desire exists and thrives in the spin-off.
3. Identify competent board and management capability to direct the business and generate revenue for the company. Most often the management capability is not the same people who carried out the research, but sometimes it can be. Without the right people running the show, the spin-off will not be successful.
4. Make sure you have sufficient funding available to get the company through to a viable revenue stream, and ideally flexible funding arrangements. Unexpected things will happen and you need capability to accommodate those changes.“
“Most start-ups are focused on development plans that contain binary events and marginal financing. This makes them vulnerable to unforeseen delays and additional development steps that require additional funding.
I believe that we should be looking to generate portfolios of innovation under experienced management teams that give our projects the best chance of success – and adequate funding to reach proof of concept in whatever market we are targeting – but at the same time help to spread risk.“
“Ensuring a strong board, CEO, and a quality management team will be critical to success. The availability of funds for programs is an often-discussed barrier to rapid progress. Underfunded companies and poorly thought-out product concepts or technologies are more likely to fail early.“
“1. For biotechnology R&D spin-off start-ups in Australia, major hurdles are the dearth of seed capital as well as access to large follow-on venture funds that are needed to build successful biotechnology companies.
2. There is a mismatch between the 10-year life span of a venture capital fund in Australia and the 15+ years needed to translate research findings into a novel drug or biologic product for improving human health.
3. Hence, these systemic issues are major impediments to building successful biotechnology companies in Australia and these issues need to be addressed.”
– Professor Maree Smith, Executive Director of the Centre for Integrated Preclinical Drug Development and Head of the Pain Research Group at The University of Queensland
Bookshelves in offices around Australia groan under the weight of unimplemented reports of research findings. Likewise, the world of technology is littered with software and gadgetry that has failed to gain adoption, for example 3D television and the Apple Newton. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
The best are not always adopted. To change that, says Brown, developers need to know how their research solutions will be received and how to adapt them so people actually want them.
“Physical scientists, for example, benefit from understanding the political, social and economic frameworks they’re operating in, to position the science for real-world application,” she says.
The big-picture questions around knowledge and power, disadvantage and information access, political decision-making, community needs and aspirations, policy contexts and how values are economised – these are the domains of the social sciences. When social science expertise is combined with that of the physical sciences, for example, the research solutions they produce can have a huge impact. In the case of the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities, such solutions have influenced policy, strategy and regulations for the management of urban stormwater run-off, for example. Brown and her colleagues have found it takes a special set of conditions to cultivate this kind of powerful collaborative research partnership.
The CRC for Water Sensitive Cities has seen considerable growth. It started in 2005 as a $4.5 million interdisciplinary research facility with 20 Monash University researchers and PhD students from civil engineering, ecology and sociology. The facility grew over seven years to become a $120 million CRC with more than 85 organisations, including 13 research institutes and other organisations such as state governments, water utilities, local councils, education companies and sustainability consultancies. It has more than 230 researchers and PhD students, and its work has been the basis for strategy, policy, planning and technology in Australia, Singapore, China and Israel.
In a 2015 Nature special issue, Brown and Monash University colleagues Ana Deletic and Tony Wong, project leader and CEO respectively of the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities, shared their ‘secret sauce’ on bridging the gap between the social and biophysical sciences, which allowed them to develop a partnership blueprint for implementing urban water research.
8 tips to successful collaboration
Cultivating interdisciplinary dialogue and forming productive partnerships takes time and effort, skill, support and patience. Brown and her colleagues suggest the following:
1 Forge a shared mission to provide a compelling account of the collaboration’s overall goal and to maintain a sense of purpose for all the time and effort needed to make it work;
2 Ensure senior researchers are role models, contributing depth in their discipline and demonstrating the skills needed for constructive dialogue;
3 Create a leadership team composed of people from multiple disciplines;
4 Put incentives in place for interdisciplinary research such as special funding, promotion and recognition;
5 Encourage researchers to put their best ideas forward, even if unfinished, while being open to alternative perspectives;
6 Develop constructive dialogue skills by providing training and platforms for experts from diverse disciplines and industry partners to workshop an industry challenge and find solutions together;
7 Support colleagues as they move from being I-shaped to T-shaped researchers, prioritising depth early on and embracing breadth by building relationships with those from other fields;
8 Run special issues of single-discipline journals that focus on interdisciplinary research and create new interdisciplinary journals with T-shaped editors, peer-reviewers or boards.
A recent Stanford University study found almost 75% of cross-functional teams within a single business fail. Magnify that with PhD research and careers deeply invested in niche areas and ask people to work with other niche areas across other organisations, and it all sounds impossible. Working against resistance to collaborate requires time and effort.
Yet as research partnerships blossom, so do business partnerships. “Businesses don’t think of science in terms of disciplines as scientists do,” says Brown. “Researchers need to be able to tackle complex problems from a range of perspectives.”
Part of the solution lies in the ‘shape’ of the researchers: more collaborative interdisciplinary researchers are known as ‘T-shaped’ because they have the necessary depth of knowledge within their field (the vertical bar of the T), as well as the breadth (the horizontal bar) to look beyond it as useful collaborators – engaging with different ways of working.
Some scholars, says Brown, tend to view their own discipline as having the answer to every problem and see other disciplines as being less valuable. In some ways that’s not surprising given the lack of exposure they may have had to other disciplines and the depth of expertise they have gained in their own.
“At the first meeting of an interdisciplinary team, they might try to take charge, for example talk but not listen to others or understand their contribution. But in subsequent meetings, they begin to see the value the other disciplines bring – which sometimes leaves them spellbound.
“It’s very productive once people reach the next stage in a partnership where they develop the skills for interdisciplinary work and there’s constructive dialogue and respect,” says Brown.
In a recent article in The Australian, CSIRO chief executive and laser physicist Dr Larry Marshall describes Australians as great inventors but he emphasises that innovation is a team sport and we need to do better at collaboration. He points out that Australia has the lowest research collaboration rates in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and attributes this fact to two things – insufficient collaboration with business and scientists competing against each other.
“Overall, our innovation dilemma – fed by our lack of collaboration – is a critical national challenge, and we must do better,” he says.
Brown agrees, saying sustainability challenges like those addressed by the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities are “grand and global challenges”.
“They’re the kind of ‘wicked problem’ that no single agency or discipline, on its own, could possibly hope to resolve.”
The answer, it seems, is interdisciplinary.
There’s a wealth of great advice that CRCs can tap into. For example the Antarctic Climate & Ecosystems CRC approached statistical consultant Dr Nick Fisher at ValueMetrics Australia, an R&D consultancy specialising in performance management, to find the main drivers of the CRC’s value as perceived by its research partners, so the CRC could learn what was working well and what needed to change.
Fisher says this kind of analysis can benefit CRCs at their formation, and can be used for monitoring and in the wind-up phase for final evaluation.
When it comes to creating world-class researchers who are T-shaped and prepped for research partnerships, Alison Mitchell, a director of Vitae, a UK-based international program dedicated to professional and career development for researchers, is an expert. She describes the Vitae Researcher Development Framework (RDF), which is a structured model with four domains covering the knowledge, behaviour and attributes of researchers, as a significant approach that’s making a difference to research careers worldwide.
The RDF framework uses four ‘lenses’ – knowledge exchange, innovation, intrapreneurship [the act of behaving like an entrepreneur while working with a large organisation] and entrepreneurship – to focus on developing competencies that are part and parcel of a next generation research career. These include skills for working with academic research partners and industry.
Featured image above: In his National Press Club address this week Australia’s Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, says lessons can be learned from The Swedish Vasa warship. Photo courtesy of Dennis Jarvis as per the Creative Commons License, image resized.
Over a series of workshops and activities, people from the media, policy advisers and parliamentarians share their insights on developing policy and how to engage key influencers.
With a host of esteemed speakers, the Science meetsParliamentprogram covers topics such as ‘what journalists need to turn your science into news’ and ‘science and politics, how do they mix?’. This year it also addressed what the National Innovation and Science Agenda means for scientists across Australia.
The event’s organisers, Science and Technology Australia, say that Science meets Parliament aims to “build links between scientists, politicians and policymakers that open up avenues for information and idea exchanges into the future”.
It also hopes to “stimulate and inform Parliament’s discussion of scientific issues that underpin Australia’s economic, social and environmental wellbeing”.
This year, Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Alan Finkel AO, spoke about a nation in transition, learning from failure and encouraging intelligent innovation. Finkel believes this requires thinking and operating at scale, and collaborative research to manage the issues and interactions that surround bold, innovative technology.
Click here to read the full transcript of Finkel’s address published by The Conversation on 2 March 2016.
Gaining industry experience and seeing how their research can have practical applications is important to early career researchers. Universities and industry are now working together to help provide graduates with the opportunity to work on commercial solutions for real-life problems.
“The partnership allowed me to do things that haven’t been done before, like use optical fibres as sensors instead of electrical sensors,” says Allwood, who will work with Bombora Wave Power to test the sensors.
There are other, similar Australian programs. CRCs offer a number of scholarships across 14 different fields of research, giving PhD students a chance to gain industry experience.
The Chemicals and Plastics GRIP has 20 industry partners offering training and funding, including Dulux and 3M. One student is treating coffee grounds to create a fertiliser to improve the soil quality of agricultural land.
Stories of ‘unicorn’ Initial Public Offerings and billionaires in their 30s are great. But it’s the creation of quality jobs that truly makes innovation a national priority.
A recent report from the Office of the Chief Economist showed Australia added about one million jobs from 2006–11. Start-up companies added 1.4 million jobs, whereas older companies shed 400,000 jobs over the same period. But it’s not any start-up that matters; only 3.2% of start-ups take off in a dramatic fashion, providing nearly 80% of those new jobs. While Australia has a relatively high rate of companies starting up, the key seems to be getting more of them into high-growth mode.
When Israel faced a massive influx of immigrants after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, it turned to innovation as a means of providing jobs. Given the country’s lack of natural resources, they didn’t have a choice. A population of four million people taking in one million more meant Israel had to become an innovative economy.
They grew their investment in research and development dramatically – to the point where Israel is now one of only two countries consistently spending more than 4% of GDP on R&D.
Israel has translated that spending into high-tech export success. Now, multinational technology company Intel employs over 10,000 Israelis. The Israeli Government is hands-on in its approach to de-risking early stage companies. But this is not achieved through government spending alone. In fact, the Israeli Government’s share of total R&D spending is just one-third of that of Australia, and its higher education sector is just one half. Business carries the lion’s share of R&D spending in Israel, making up 80% of the total, compared with 60% in Australia.
If we want jobs, we need innovation. We are in a unique period when there seems to be complete political agreement on this point. If we want innovation, we should take lessons from wherever we can learn them to develop the Australian system. A lesson from Israel is to use government spending more effectively at the early stages of company development to shift more start-ups into high-growth mode. If we could double the current 3.2% of today’s start-ups that become high-growth companies, we could provide more rewarding jobs for Australia’s future.
Israel concentrates almost 100% of its government innovation support for business on small and medium-sized enterprises. The comparable figure for Australia is 50% – a big hint for what we could do differently to fire up our start-up sector.
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.
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.
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.
Photo from left: Refraction founders Heather Catchpole and Karen Taylor-Brown, with Production Manager Heather Curry and Publishing Co-ordinator Jesse Hawley.
Refraction Media, a Sydney-based publishing start-up, was announced Australia’s Best Small Publisher at the 2015 Publish Awards. Specialising in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), Refraction Media came out on top in a category that included sport, luxury and lifestyle at the industry’s night-of-nights.
The jurors at the 2015 Publish Awards said:
“Refraction Media outclassed the other entrants. For a start up operation that’s only two years old, the company has managed to capitalise on an untapped market with incredible skill and with many clever, innovative and successful media streams.”
Publishing’s leaders, representing titles such as Vogue, the Australian Women’s Weekly and Gourmet Traveller, competed for accolades at the 2015 Publish Awards alongside youth disrupters such as Junkee, Vice and Pedestrian.tv while business and industry like In the Black and Australian Pharmacist brought their A-game.
Amongst the glitz and glamour at the 2015 Publish Awards, science valiantly flew its flag with New Scientist‘s Australasia reporter Michael Slezak a finalist for Journalist of the Year (Consumer/Custom) and COSMOS magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Dr Elizabeth Finkel, a finalist for Single Article of the year for her piece ‘The buzz around brain stimulation‘.
With a strong presence on the main stage and by sharing the language and aesthetics of mass publishers, science publishers are taking science out of a niche audience and placing it firmly at the centre of a dynamic industry of interactivity, sharing and scrolling.
As science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) becomes more visual, accessible and dynamic, especially to Australia’s youth, engagement and participation rates will climb. This future STEM-skilled workforce is critical to Australia’s future prosperity. STEM graduates will facilitate innovation and collaboration.
Refraction Media fills a unique niche in the market that connects science and technology with the general public. Since its launch in 2013, Refraction has printed over half a million magazines across eight titles, shared 16 in-depth science study guides with schools, produced 13 3D animations, edited 17 scientific white papers, developed two e-learning platforms and created the worldwide, one-and-only virtual tour of a nuclear reactor.
Refraction produce two websites, for news at the nexus of research and industry, www.sciencemeetsbusiness.com.au; and careerswithcode.com.au, which aims to inspire high school students to combine their passion – whether it’s music, arts, business, sports or the environment – with STEM skills to create the careers of the future.
Refraction Media has demonstrated that rather than being ‘niche’, specialising in science uncovers a world of opportunity and discovery.
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.”
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.
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.
The study found that the global deforestation rate since 2010 – 3.3 million hectares per year – is less than half that during the 1990s (7.2 million hectares per year).
This global slowdown is due to better management of tropical forests. Since 2010 the tropics lost 5.5 million hectares of forest per year, compared to 9.5 million hectares per year during the 1990s.
Sub-tropical, temperate, and boreal climatic regions had relatively stable forest areas.
Satellite data showed tropical forests degraded (damaged but not cleared) since 2000 are six times as extensive as all tropical deforestation since 1990, far more than in other climatic regions.
“While some of this tropical degradation reflects the temporary impacts of logging, the real fear is that much is the leading edge of gradual forest conversion,” Sloan says.
High rates of tropical deforestation and degradation mean that tropical forests were a net emitter of carbon to the atmosphere, unlike forests of other climatic regions.
“But tropical forests are emitting only slightly more carbon than they are absorbing from the atmosphere due to regrowth, so with slightly better management they could become a net carbon sink and contribute to fighting climate change,” Sloan says.
Despite growing demand for forest products, rates of plantation afforestation have fallen since the 2000s and are less than required to stop natural forest exploitation. Demand for industrial wood and wood fuel increased 35% in the tropics since 1990.
“The planting of forests for harvest is not increasing as rapidly as demand, so natural forests have to take the burden,” Sloan says.
Northern, richer countries had steady or increasing forest areas since 1990. Their forests are increasingly characterised by plantations meant for harvest.
While natural forests expanded in some high-income countries, collectively they declined by 13.5 million hectares since 1990, compared to a gain of 40 million hectares for planted forests.
Sloan says that investment in forest management in poorer tropical countries where management and deforestation were worst may herald significant environmental gains.
“But attention must extend beyond the forest sector to agricultural and economic growth, which is rapid in many low-income and tropical countries and which effect forests greatly,” Sayer says.
Background to Study
The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) released the Global Forest Resources Assessment 2015 (FRA 2015) on September 7 2015. The FAO began publishing FRA reports in 1948 to assess the global state of forest resources, given concerns over shortages of forest products. The FAO has published FRA reports at regular intervals since on the basis of individual reports from countries, numbering 234 for the FRA 2015. FRA reports now survey a wide array of forest ecological functions, designations, and conditions in addition to forest areas for each country.
For the first time, the FRA 2015 report was realised by dozens of international experts who undertook independent analyses of FRA data, resulting in 13 scholarly articles published in a special issue of the journal Forest Ecology and Management (2015 volume 352).
The data and trends highlighted in these articles are a significant advance for the global scientific and conservation communities. This article constitutes one of 13 published in Forest Ecology and Management and integrates their major findings.
This article was first published by James Cook University on 8 September 2015. Read the original article here.
South Australian company HeliostatSA has partnered with Indian company Global Wind Power Limited to develop a portfolio of projects in India and Australia over the next four years. It will begin with an initial 150 megawatts in Concentrated Solar Powered (CSP) electricity in Rajashtan, Indian using a solar array.
The projects are valued at $2.5 billion and will further cement HeliostatSA as a leader in the global renewable energy sector.
Heliostat CEO Jason May says India had made a commitment to reaching an investment target of USD $100 billion of renewable energy by 2019 and has already secured $20 billion.
“India is looking for credible, renewable energy partners for utility scale projects,’’ says May.
“We bring everything to the table that they require such as size, project development experience, capital funding, field design capability, the latest technology, precision manufacturing and expertise.’’
Each solar array is made of thousands of heliostats, which are mirrors that track and reflect the suns thermal energy on to a central receiver. The energy is then converted into electricity. Each HeliostatSA mirror is 3.21 x 2.22 metres with optical efficiency believed to be the most accurate in the world. This reduces the number of mirrors required, reducing the overall cost of CSP while still delivering the same 24-hour electricity outputs.
The heliostats and their high tech components are fabricated using laser mapping and steel cutting technology.
The mirrors are slightly parabolic and components need to be cut and measured to exact requirements to achieve the strict operational performance.
“There is strong global interest in CSP with thermal storage for 24-hour power. At the moment large-scale batteries which also store electricity are very expensive. Constant advances in CSP storage technology over the next 10 years will only add to the competitive advantage,’’ says May.
– John Merriman
This article was first published by The Lead South Australia on 25 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.
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.