Tag Archives: Innovation and science

SMART farms are outdoor laboratories where scientists and growers test out innovations

Smart science at regional universities driving future farms

Outside Armidale, in northern NSW, eight different properties covering 3900 hectares of woodland, grassland, water sources and pasture comprise the University of New England’s Sustainable Manageable Accessible Rural Technologies (SMART) Farms, an outdoor laboratory for the Precision Agriculture team.

These farms include a commercial sheep property, 1000-head cattle feedlot, long-term agronomy plots, a genomic research centre and teaching lab featuring innovative farming technologies that are tested, assessed and monitored on working farms.

UNE crop scientist Dr Richard Flavel says agricultural science works best when universities are in partnership with industry.

Related: Drones increase crop yield

“Universities have an opportunity to bring in expertise and to do the things that industry hasn’t got the time, or the economic drivers, to do themselves, and to really boost innovation.”

For more than three years, UNE scientists have gathered data from a wide network of more than 100 soil moisture probes that create a ‘living map’ reporting on the moisture levels across a segment of the property.

Other sensor networks report on the water use in trees, the growth of pasture and even the amount of honey being produced in the property’s beehives.

Water and its use is always a key focus of the university’s research.

Innovation in farming

Dr Flavel says regional universities are well placed to explore scientific solutions for some of the big challenges facing Australia’s farmers, most of these relating to how best to use limited water resources.

“All of the innovative systems that have come online in farming during the past 30 years — from no-till systems, to maintaining and improving groundcover, to retaining stubble — these are all essentially about managing water,” he says.

At UNE’s campus in Armidale, level-five water restrictions are in place following years of crippling drought.

“Farming in Australia is very responsive to our climate. Our growers are governed by when, and by how much water they get,” says Dr Flavel.

He says with just five per cent of Australia’s crops irrigated, cropping industries in Australia rely on rainfall, and most water for crops is stored in the soil.

“Our research looks at current water use by dryland crops and grazing pasture, and how best to make use of the water when it lands on paddocks,” he says.

University of New England researcher Dr Richard Flavel
University of New England crop scientist Dr Richard Flavel at the Precision Agriculture SMART farm outdoor laboratory.

Sub-soil profile changes could double yields

Decades of research in universities have delivered real improvements in agricultural topsoil structures, with growers now seeing remarkable improvements from techniques that improve soil sodicity, salinity and acidity. The next step is sub-soil management, explains Dr Flavel.

At the University’s SMART farm, moisture sensors show there’s still substantial water being held in sub-soils after harvest.

“When a crop has finished, the water in the sub-soil profile should have been used up and turned into wheat. High sub-soil water shows that plants haven’t been able to access water at depths — that’s a reduction of yield potential for the grower,” he says.

Sub-soils, which sit 15cm or deeper below the surface, are now recognised as an important area for further improvement. Addressing this problem is a focus for more research.

“We’re currently looking at ways to fix sodic or saline sub-soils to improve how much our plants can use the water that falls on the paddock,” says Dr Flavel.

“Unlocking water deep in the soil profile could potentially double yields in some situations.”

Treating hydrophobic soils

Another research area is the massive tracts of soil across Australia’s croplands — nearly five million hectares — which are non-wetting or water-repellent.

University scientists found that some particles of soil developed a water-resistant coating, leaving rainfall to evaporate from the surface rather than penetrate the ground for plants’ use.

“Understanding this phenomenon has involved some tricky physics at a microscopic level,” he says.

Dr Flavel’s research is looking at ways to address this problem, which can include wetting agents, bringing up clay from deep in the soil profile and changing crops.

“Growers are very innovative, and as a scientist that’s exciting. We’ve got a group which is keen to work with our scientists to find and adopt new discoveries.”

Fran Molloy

Cleaning up our waterways

Dr Steven Melvin, research fellow at the Australian Rivers Institute

Science at regional and rural universities can work with local land managers, government agencies and communities to monitor the health of waterways, assess problems on the ground, and to help develop evidence-based solutions that minimise human impact and deliver the best outcomes for sustainable communities.

At Griffith University, in south-east Queensland, the Australian Rivers Institute has a range of industry and government partners through the ARI Toxicology Research Program.

“Our research looks at the source of contaminants, their fate or where they end up, and the effect,” says Dr Steven Melvin, who is a research fellow at the ARI.

Tens of thousands of different chemicals enter our waterways, but most have a relatively low impact, he says. The ARI collaborates with industry and government agencies to identify contaminants that are potentially damaging and looks at ways to treat and remediate these.

“Largely through industry-collaborative, university-led research, we now have advanced technology, such as reverse osmosis, which uses energy and pressure to treat wastewater by forcing it through a semi-permeable membrane that filters out minute chemical compounds that could cause effects in the environment.”

This article appears in Australian University Science issue 2.

Researchers from ANU make a surprising breakthrough for water innovation

University Science Delivering Water Innovation

Peter Mabbitt (left) and Kai Xun Chan (right) from the Australian National University Research School of Biology.

Unexpected outcomes

Scientists from the ANU Research School of Biology made a major breakthrough for world food security while investigating photosynthesis. They discovered that chloroplasts — which convert sunlight into sugars through photosynthesis — can also activate a chemical signal to close stomata on leaves to protect individual plants from losing vital water in drought. By boosting this chloroplast signal in barley plants, the team improved drought survival time by around 50%. The team is exploring ways to boost this chloroplast signal in different crops, through breeding, genetic or agronomic strategies.

Related: The future hydrogen economy is scaffolded by universities

Connecting with industry

More than five million hectares of agricultural land in Australia is hydrophobic, meaning the soil repels water. Global chemical company BASF co-funded research by scientists at Swinburne University, led by chemistry Professor David Mainwaring, with the CRC for Polymers, to develop solutions to help soil accept water. These new soil-wetting agents have increased crop yields. The multidisciplinary team has now patented two polymer surfactants and a soil diagnostic test.

Diverse Teamwork

Murdoch University’s Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Ecosystems is tackling clean-energy and fresh-water challenges with a cross-disciplinary approach. Researchers in aquatic biology and ecology, marine mammal ecology, fisheries, aquaculture, algal biotechnology, oceanography, human-use and habitat assessments, bioinformatics, economics and spatial sciences are all working together. One recent project tackled challenges around the release of aquaculture-bred fish into the wild environment.  

Students help scientists from Murdoch University’s Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Ecosystems release bream into the river

Creating real value

Inspired by plant experiments on the International Space Station, University of Queensland researchers are advancing the technology of ordinary glasshouses with a revolutionary “speed breeding” technique that can cut plant breeding time in half. Dr Lee Hickey and his team developed a ‘desktop breeding cabinet’ that will allow researchers to develop wheat, barley, canola and other crops adapted to drought, changed local soil and climate conditions.

Dr Lee Hickey from the University of Queensland developed a way to allow crops to adapt to drought in new water innovation
Dr Lee Hickey from the University of Queensland

The future is innovation

Collaboration between industry and research is vital. We know that unlocking the commercial value of Australian research will result in world-first, new-to-market innovation and new internationally competitive businesses. Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) are an excellent, longstanding example of how industry and researchers can work together to create these growth opportunities.

The CRC Programme supports industry-led collaborations between researchers, industry and the community. It is a proven model for linking researchers with industry to focus research and development efforts on progress towards commercialisation.

Importantly, CRCs also produce graduates with hands-on industry experience to help create a highly skilled workforce. The CRC Programme has been running for more than 25 years and has been extremely successful.

Since it began in 1990, more than $4 billion in funding has been committed to support the establishment of 216 CRCs and 28 CRC Projects. Participants have committed an additional $12.6 billion in cash and in-kind contributions.

CRCs have developed important new technologies, products and services to solve industry problems and improve the competitiveness, productivity and sustainability of Australian industries. The programme has produced numerous success stories; far too many for me to mention here. A few examples include the development of dressings to deliver adult stem cells to wounds; creating technology to increase the number of greenfields mineral discoveries; and spearheading a world-leading method for cleaning up the potentially toxic chemicals found in fire-fighting foams.

These examples demonstrate not just the breadth of work being done by the CRCs, but also the positive benefits they are delivering.

Click here to read KnowHow 2017.

KnowHow 2017

Senator the Hon Arthur Sinodinos AO is the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science in the Australian Government.

national press club address

Australia’s science vision centres on collaboration

Featured image: Australian Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, the Hon Arthur Sinodinos, addresses the National Press Club at Science meets Parliament 2017

The Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, the Hon Arthur Sinodinas, highlighted collaboration and ensuring all Australians understood the benefits of science as key areas of focus for the Government’s science ‘vision’ in an address to the National Press Club.

The Hon Sinodinas is the fourth Minister for Science in four years. This was his inaugural address to what Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel termed the ‘network of nerds’, a gathering of over 200 of Australia’s most senior scientists at Science meets Parliament.

Sinodinas said innovation has become a buzzword that “excites socially mobile, inner-city types; but for other Australians, creates anxiety – about job losses and insecurity.”

However Australians need to be prepared for disruption as “the new constant”, he warned.

“We need to manage the transition from the resources boom to more balanced, broad-based growth.

“This is against the backdrop of heightened uncertainty and slower economic growth, and a yearning for more protectionist measures.”

Sinodinas went on to quote Atlassian co-founder and highly successful tech entrepreneur Mike Canon-Brookes, who recently questioned if the government was “dodging the question of job losses as a result of innovative change.”

“The Government has started a conversation with the Australian people to address just that question. We’re about helping your business to respond to disruption and stay viable in the future. We want to create a culture of innovation across the board.”

Australia’s climate science and energy future

Overall, the mood at Science meets Parliament, which brings 200 science, technology, engineering and maths professionals and researchers to Canberra to pitch their programs to politicians – about a third of whom volunteer their time – was positive and researchers were happy to be heard.

national press club address
Science meets Parliament brings together 200 STEM professionals, researchers and Australian politicians.

“Science meets Parliament is a great event. It is about recognising the contribution of scientists. Scientists and politicians should be natural communicators,” said Sinodinas.

He also addressed criticisms of the Government’s commitment to climate change science at the National Press Club address.

“We haven’t turn our back on climate science, we made sure it is properly looked after and protected and that will provide its own insight into climate science information. We are also trying to deal with this issue at the same time as we deal with the affordability and reliability of energy.”

Science at the forefront of the next election

Last night both the Minister and Opposition Leader the Hon Bill Shorten presented their vision of science at a gala dinner. Sinodinas extolled Australia’s national research infrastructure, including the Australian Synchrotron and the Square Kilometre Array, a 3000-dish radio antennae that will offer an unique glimpse into the universe’s early history. He also emphasised we need to “nail collaboration”.

“As a country, if we want to have control over our economic destiny, we want to have world class companies operating out of Australia. To do that we need to nail collaboration.

“Finding the money for the next stage of the research infrastructure is a challenge.”

Shorten also highlighted collaboration as an essential goal, and reiterated the Opposition’s goal to invest 3% of GDP in science R&D by 2030.

“Science research and innovation are not niche areas. They should be frontline for all of us.

“The issues that scientists deal with are political and there needs to be this engagement,” said Shorten.

“Science research and innovation are economic, environmental and practical issues that are vital to adapting to technological change and will allow us to compete in the Asian market. It shapes the way that we learn and teach.”

national press club address
Opposition Leader the Hon Bill Shorten with Refraction Media Head of Content Heather Catchpole (left) and CEO Karen Taylor-Brown (right)

He also emphasized the need for job security for postgraduate researchers, a sentiment widely echoed by scientists attending the Science meets Parliament event.

“For all of those postdoc researchers who spend years, we owe you certainty in terms of support,” said Shorten.

“We can’t complain about fake news when the facts don’t suit the stories. We see you as essential to the future. Science will be at the forefront of the next election.”

– Heather Catchpole

commercialisation

Commercialisation boost for businesses

The Turnbull Government has announced that twenty businesses across Australia will be offered $11.3 million in Entrepreneurs’ Programme grants to help boost commercialisation and break into new international markets.

A 3-D printed jaw joint replacement, termite-proof building materials and a safer way to store grain outdoors are amongst the diverse products and services that will be fast-tracked.

The grants range from $213,000 to $1 million and are matched dollar-for-dollar by recipients.

So far, the Government has invested $78.1 million since commencement of this initiative – helping 146 Australian businesses to get their products off the ground.

The grants help businesses to undertake development and commercialisation activities like product trials, licensing, and manufacturing scale-up—essential and often challenging steps in taking new products to market.

Projects supported by today’s grant offers will address problems and meet needs in key industries including food and agribusiness, mining, advanced manufacturing and medical technologies.

The 20 projects to receive commercialisation support include:

  • a safer, cheaper and more efficient outdoor grain storage solution for the agricultural industry
  • recycling technology for fats, oils and greases from restaurants that will save money and reduce pollution
  • a lighter, stronger and more flexible concrete product
  • an anti-theft automated security system for the retail fuel industry
  • a cheaper, faster and safer decontamination process for mine drainage
  • smaller, cheaper and more patient-friendly MRI technology used for medical diagnostics
  • a 3-D printed medical device for jaw joint replacements that reduces surgery risk and improves patient quality-of-life
  • insect and termite-proof expansion joint foam for the building industry, combining a two-step process into a single product.

The Entrepreneurs’ Programme commercialisation grants help Australian entrepreneurs, researchers and small and medium businesses find commercialisation solutions.

It aims to:

• accelerate the commercialisation of novel intellectual property in the form of new products, processes and services;
• support new businesses based on novel intellectual property with high growth potential; and
• generate greater commercial and economic returns from both public and private sector research and facilitate investment to drive business growth and competitiveness.

This information was first shared by the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science on 17 August 2016.

research funding

$22.6 million research funding

The Australian Government just announced that it will invest $22.6 million in new research funding for 11 CRC-Projects (CRC-Ps), with funding to start from July 2016. The Department of Industry, Innovation and Science received ninety-one applications in the first round for CRC-Ps, speaking volumes to the level of interest by business as well as the highly competitive nature of the bid process.

CRC-Ps were developed by the government in response to the Miles Review handed down last year. David Miles recommended that three rounds be held every year. The next CRC-P round is expected to open in August 2016 with outcomes announced in November and funding from January 2017. The schedule for anticipated CRC and CRC-P funding rounds can be found here.

“Improving collaboration between researchers and industry to cultivate a more innovative and entrepreneurial economy is a key pillar of the Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda,” said the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, The Hon Christopher Pyne.

“We’ve placed industry at the front and centre of the CRC Programme so we can build on our strengths in high quality research to improve the competitiveness, productivity and sustainability of Australian industries.”

Successful CRC-P 1st Selection Round Projects can be found here.

Funded Projects

  • The future integrated driver monitoring solution for heavy vehicles
  • Hydrocarbon fuel technology for hypersonic air breathing vehicles
  • Printed solar films for value-added building products for Australia
  • Translational R&D to accelerate sustainable omega-3 production
  • CRC-P for Innovative Prefabricated Building Systems
  • An antibody based in vitro diagnostic for metastatic cancer
  • High performance optical telemetry system for ocean monitoring
  • Combined carbon capture from flue gas streams and mineral carbonation
  • Strengthening Australia’s radiopharmaceutical development capabilities
  • Innovation in Advanced Multi-Storey Housing Manufacture
  • Future Oysters CRC-P

Outcomes of stage one of the 18th selection round of CRCs are expected in July and applications will open for those invited to Stage Two. Final outcomes are expected to be known by the end of the year.

This article was first published by the CRC Association on 22 June 2016. Read the original article here

No backing away

No backing away

We have had periods of better funding of some areas of science. We’ve had periods where it was easier for university researchers to get grants. But we’ve never had a time when the major parties have been competing to improve the whole innovation system with such vigour. Australia’s future will be better for it.

Yesterday’s National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) announced by the Prime Minister and Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, is a new, higher, benchmark. There is over $1 billion in 25 or so measures, but the NISA goes a lot further – it puts new governance on innovation and science in Australia. We will now have a Cabinet subcommittee for Innovation and Science.

Innovation Australia becomes Innovation and Science Australia, with statutory powers. These measures alone should mean we finally get an Australian Innovation System that is worthy of the name, “system”. More important than the new money is the fact that it is virtually all ongoing funds. In my opinion, Ian Chubb will retire a satisfied man having railed against the endless “non-ongoing” science programs that wind-up just as they start performing. No longer will we have the farce of our national infrastructure facing closure every year or so.

I went into this morning’s briefing with a list of 12 expectations: five things I expected; five I hoped for; one I dreamed for; and one I hoped the government wouldn’t go for. I’m pleased to say, that I was able to tick every box. The government has blown past my expectations and delivered a great package.

There are a few minor issues. For example, start-ups might face a funding drought until the tax deduction rules are in place. Who is going to invest if a 20% tax advantage is just around the corner? Fast and effective implementation is needed.

The Prime Minister made it clear that NISA is a start. He sees constant adjustment and an agile approach. This is needed. Not only is it necessary in the economic climate that we face, but in the political environment as well. The Australian Labour Party (ALP) got in early last Friday with a raft of proposals on innovation – many we see in this package. A political environment where parties are battling it on a contest of ideas about Australia’s future? That’s exciting for sure.   The government won’t be able to use NISA as a one-off to keep a few people happy. They’ll need to keep reviewing and improving — I cannot see the ALP backing away from innovation and science anytime soon.

You can view the National Innovation and Science Agenda here.

– Dr Tony Peacock

KnowHow founder Tony Peacock is the CEO of the CRC Association and 2014 Monash University Churchill Fellow at The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.