Tag Archives: manufacturing in Australia

Growth factor

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 incredible set 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.


The John De Laeter Centre for Isotope Research, led by Professor Brent McInnes (left) – which has a team of scientists, including Associate Professor Noreen Evans (right), and a $25 million suite of equipment – assists resource exploration in Western Australia.
The John De Laeter Centre for Isotope Research, led by Professor Brent McInnes (above top) – which has a team of scientists, including Associate Professor Noreen Evans (above bottom), and a $25 million suite of equipment – assists resource exploration in Western Australia.

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.

Cathal O’Connell

Small scale, big consequences

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.

Ogden also conducts chemical research with a group of metals known as lanthanoids, which are rare-earth elements. His recent work, in collaboration with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), discovered unique elongated nanoscale structures.

“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.

Scientists at Curtin’s Nanochemistry Research Institute investigate minerals at an atomic level, which can, for example, build an understanding of mineral loss in coral reefs.
Scientists at Curtin’s Nanochemistry Research Institute investigate minerals at an atomic level, which can, for example, build an understanding of mineral loss in coral reefs.

New direction

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.

Sarah Keenihan

Radar for driverless cars

Cohda Wireless, a global leader in in V2X (vehicle to everything) technology, demonstrated its V2X-Radar yesterday on the streets of Adelaide, South Australia.

The single antenna provides a new sensor for cars, including driverless cars, that can detect buildings, road signs and even older vehicles not equipped with car-to-car communications.

Unlike current technologies, Cohda’s V2X-Radar is unaffected by rain, snow or fog, and can ‘see’ around corners.

Cohda Wireless will demonstrate their V2X-Radar at the International Driverless Cars Conference, being held in Adelaide between 5–6 November and culminating with the first on road demonstration trials of driverless cars in the Southern Hemisphere as part of the ARRB Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative.

Cohda Wireless CEO Dr Paul Gray says the V2X-Radar is a low-cost addition to a standard V2X system that adds radar functionality to the V2X connected car and “improves their view of the world”.

“V2X systems are essential for driverless cars, extending their view beyond that of traditional sensors,” he says.  “V2X-Radar pushes this even further, allowing driverless cars to sense the environment in ways not previously imagined.”

“This technology has the opportunity to revolutionise the industry by addressing some of the key constraints of the technology so far.”

According to Gray, the V2X-Radar uses the IEEE 802.11 compliant wireless signals of current V2X systems to share sensor information between vehicles and infrastructure.

These radio signals bounce off walls, road signs and other vehicles as they travel from transmitter to receiver. V2X-Radar can use these radio waves to identify objects within that environment, including non-V2X equipped vehicles.

Combined with a 3D map, the V2X-Radar can provide highly accurate positioning and can also instantly detect vehicle speeds via Doppler measurements.

Cohda’s V2X-Radar is a software application that works with standard transmissions from any V2X system, whether it’s on a vehicle or on the roadside.

“The radar is standards-compliant, requiring no additional hardware in a V2X-equipped vehicle and no additional on-air messages. All it needs is our software in the receiving vehicle. V2X-Radar Currently works with the NXP Roadlink chipset,” says Gray.

Gray says V2X-Radar solved the ‘chicken-or-egg problem’ of delivering value for drivers in the early days when only a few ‘connected cars’ were on the road.

“The challenge of deploying V2X is providing clear benefits for early adopters,” he says. “V2X-Radar solves this problem because it uses standard V2X radio signals to sense the surrounding environment, transforming a standard V2X communications system into a 360-degree car radar.”

Delphi Automotive PLC, a company that will supply GM with connectivity technology to let cars “talk” with one another and provide drivers with critical safety in formation, uses Cohda’s safety applications software.

This story was first published on 2 November 2015 by The Lead. Read the original story here.

Saving grains

Each year, the fungal disease tan spot costs the Australian economy more than half a billion dollars. Tan spot, also known as yellow spot, is the most damaging disease to our wheat crops, annually causing an estimated $212 million in lost production and requiring about $463 million worth of control measures. Fungal disease also causes huge damage to barley, Australia’s second biggest cereal crop export after wheat. It should come as no surprise, then, that the nation’s newest major agricultural research facility, Curtin University’s Centre for Crop and Disease Management (CCDM), is focusing heavily on the fungal pathogens of wheat and barley.

Launched in early 2014, with the announcement of an inaugural bilateral research agreement between Curtin and the Australian Government’s Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), the CCDM already has a team of about 40 scientists, with that number expected to double by 2016.

“We are examining the interactions of plants and fungal pathogens, and ways and means of predicting how the pathogen species are going to evolve so that we might be better prepared,” says CCDM Director, Professor Mark Gibberd.

An important point of difference for the centre is that, along with a strongly relevant R&D agenda, its researchers will be working directly with growers to advise on farm practices. Influencing the development and use of faster-acting and more effective treatments is part of the CCDM’s big-picture approach, says Gibberd. This encompasses both agronomy (in-field activities and practices) and agribusiness (the commercial side of operations).

“We want to know more about the issues that challenge farmers on a day-to-day basis,” explains Curtin Business School’s John Noonan, who is overseeing the extension of the CCDM’s R&D programs and their engagement with the public. The CCDM, he explains, is also focused on showing impact and return on investment in a broader context.

Two initiatives already making a significant impact on growers’ pockets include the tan spot and Septoria nodorum blotch programs. Tan spot, Australia’s most economically significant wheat disease, is caused by the fungus Pyrenophora tritici-repentis. Septoria nodorum blotch is a similar fungal infection and Western Australia’s second most significant wheat disease.

Curtin University researchers were 2014 finalists in the Australian Museum Eureka Prize for Sustainable Agriculture for their work on wheat disease. Their research included the development of a test that enables plant breeders to screen germinated seeds for resistance to these pathogens and subsequently breed disease-resistant varieties. It’s a two-week test that replaces three years of field-testing and reduces both yield loss and fungicide use.

When fungi infect plants, they secrete toxins to kill the leaves so they can feed on the dead tissue (toxins: ToxA for tan spot, and ToxA, Tox1 and Tox3 for Septoria nodorum blotch). The test for plant sensitivity involves injecting a purified form of these toxins – 30,000 doses of which the CCDM is supplying to Australian wheat breeders annually.

“We have seen the average tan spot disease resistance rating increase over the last year or so,” says Dr Caroline Moffat, tan spot program leader. This means the impact of the disease is being reduced. “Yet there are no wheat varieties in Australia that are totally resistant to tan spot.”

“The development of fungicide resistance is one of the greatest threats to our food biosecurity, comparable to water shortage and climate change.”

Worldwide, there are eight variants of the tan spot pathogen P. tritici-repentis. Only half of them produce ToxA, suggesting there are other factors that enable the pathogen to infiltrate a plant’s defences and take hold. To investigate this, Moffat and her colleagues have deleted the ToxA gene in samples of P. tritici-repentis and are studying how it affects the plant-pathogen interaction.

During the winter wheat-cropping season, Moffat embarks on field trips across Australia to sample for P. tritici-repentis to get a ‘snapshot’ of the pathogen’s genetic diversity and how this is changing over time. Growers also send her team samples as part of a national ‘Stop the Spot’ campaign, which was launched in June 2014 and runs in collaboration with the GRDC. Of particular interest is whether the pathogen is becoming more virulent, which could mean the decimation of popular commercial wheat varieties.

Wheat fungal diseases can regularly cause a yield loss of about 15–20%. But for legumes – such as field pea, chickpea, lentil and faba bean – fungal infections can be even more devastating. The fungal disease ascochyta blight, for example, readily causes yield losses of about 75% in pulses. It makes growing pulses inherently risky, explains ascochyta blight program leader, Dr Judith Lichtenzveig.

In 1999, Western Australia’s chickpea industry was almost wiped out by the disease and has never fully recovered. With yield reliability and confidence in pulses still low, few growers include them in their crop rotations – to the detriment of soil health.

Pulse crops provide significant benefit to subsequent cereals and oilseeds in the rotation, says Lichtenzveig, because they add nitrogen and reduce the impact of soil and stubble-borne diseases. The benefits are seen immediately in the first year after the pulse is planted. The chickpea situation highlights the need to develop new profitable varieties with traits desired by growers and that suit the Australian climate.

The CCDM also runs two programs concerned with barley, both headed by Dr Simon Ellwood. His research group is looking to develop crops with genetic resistance to two diseases that account for more than half of all yield losses in this important Australian crop – net blotch and powdery mildew.

Details of the barley genome were published in the journal Nature in 2012. The grain contains about 32,000 genes, including ‘dominant R-genes’ that provide mildew resistance. The dominant R-genes allow barley plants to recognise corresponding avirulence (Avr) genes in mildew; if there’s a match between a plant R-gene and pathogen Avr genes, the plant mounts a defence response and the pathogen is unable to establish an infection. It’s relatively commonplace, however, for the mildew to alter its Avr gene so that it’s no longer recognised by the plant R-gene.

“This is highly likely when a particular barley variety with a given R-gene is grown over a wide area where mildew is prevalent, as there is a high selection pressure on mutations to the Avr gene,” explains Ellwood. This means the mildew may become a form that is unrecognised by the barley.

Many of the malting barley varieties grown in Western Australia, with the exception of Buloke, are susceptible to mildew. This contrasts with spring barley varieties being planted in Europe and the USA that have been bred to contain a gene called mlo, which provides resistance to all forms of powdery mildew.

Resistance to net blotch also occurs on two levels in barley. “As with mildew, on the first level, barley can recognise net blotch Avr genes early on through the interaction with dominant R-genes. But again, because resistance is based on a single dominant gene interaction, it can be readily lost,” says Ellwood. “If the net blotch goes unrecognised, it secretes toxins that allow the disease to take hold.”

On the second level, these toxins interact with certain gene products so that the plant cells become hypersensitised and die. By selecting for barley lines without the sections of genes that make these products, the crop will have a durable form of resistance. Indeed, Ellwood says his team has found barley lines with these characteristics. The next step is to determine how many genes control this durable resistance. “Breeding for host resistance is cheaper and more environmentally friendly than applying fungicides,” Ellwood adds.

“This is a massive achievement, and we have already shown that the use of more expensive chemicals can be justified on the basis of an increase in crop yield.”

Numerous fungicides are used to prevent and control fungal pathogens, and they can be costly. Some have a common mode of action, and history tells us there’s a good chance they’ll become less effective the more they’re used. “The development of fungicide resistance is one of the greatest threats to our food biosecurity ahead of water shortage and climate change,” says Gibberd. “It’s a very real and current problem for us.”

Fungicides are to grain growers what antibiotics are to doctors, explains Dr Fran Lopez-Ruiz, head of the CCDM’s fungicide resistance program. “The broad-spectrum fungicides are effective when used properly, but if the pathogens they are meant to control start to develop resistance, their value is lost.” Of the three main types of leaf-based fungicides used for cereal crops, demethylation inhibitors (DMIs) are the oldest, cheapest and most commonly used.

Lopez-Ruiz says that to minimise the chance of fungi becoming resistant, sprays should not be used year-in, year-out without a break. The message hasn’t completely penetrated the farming community and DMI-resistance is spreading in Australia. A major aim within Lopez-Ruiz’s program is to produce a geographical map of fungicide resistance. “Not every disease has developed resistance to the available fungicides yet, which is a good thing,” says Lopez-Ruiz.

DMIs target an enzyme called CYP51, which makes a cholesterol-like compound called ergosterol that is essential for fungal cell survival. Resistance develops when the pathogens accumulate several mutations in their DNA that change the structure of CYP51 so it’s not affected by DMIs.

In the barley disease powdery mildew in WA, a completely new set of mutations has evolved, resulting in the emergence of fungicide-resistant populations. The first of these mutations has just been identified in powdery mildew in Australia’s eastern states, making it essential that growers change their management tactics to prevent the development of full-blown resistance. Critical messages such as these are significant components of John Noonan’s communications programs.

tan spot

tan spot

tan spot
The CCDM is researching solutions to plant diseases such as powdery mildew in barley (above top), and Septoria nodorum blotch (above middle) in wheat, with Dr Caroline Moffat (above bottom) leading a program to tackle the wheat tan spot fungus.

Resistance to another group of fungicides, Qols, began to appear within two years of their availability here. They are, however, still widely used in a mixed treatment, which hinders the development of resistance. Lopez-Ruiz says it’s important we don’t end up in a situation where there’s no solution: “It’s not easy to develop new compounds every time we need them, and it’s expensive – more than $200 million to get it to the growers”.

The high cost of testing and registering products can deter companies from offering their products to Australian growers – particularly if, as in the case of legumes, the market is small.

To help convince the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority that it should support the import and use of chemicals that are already being safely used overseas, the CCDM team runs a fungicide-testing project for companies to trial their products at sites where disease pressures differ – for example, because of climate. This scheme helps provide infrastructure and data to fast-track chemical registrations.

“This is a massive achievement, and we have already shown that the use of more expensive chemicals can be justified on the basis of an increase in crop yield.”

A global problem

More than half of Australia’s land area is used for agriculture – 8% of this is used for cropping, and much of the rest for activities such as forestry and livestock farming. Although Australia’s agricultural land area has decreased by 15% during the past decade, from about 470 million to 397 million ha, it’s more than enough to meet current local demand and contribute to international markets.

Nevertheless, the world’s population continues to grow at a rapid rate, increasing demands for staple food crops and exacerbating food shortages. Australia is committed to contributing to global need and ensuring the sustained viability of agriculture. To this end, Professor Richard Oliver, Chief Scientist of Curtin’s Centre for Crop and Disease Management (CCDM), has established formal relationships with overseas institutions sharing common goals (see page 26). This helps CCDM researchers access a wider range of relevant biological resources and keep open international funding opportunities, particularly in Europe.

“The major grant bodies have a very good policy around cereal research where the results are freely available,” says Oliver. “There’s also the possibility to conduct large experiments requiring lots of space – either within glasshouses or in-field – which would be restricted or impossible in Australia.” It’s a win-win situation.

Branwen Morgan


Australian-designed SkinSuit worn on Space Station

It’s a long way from Melbourne to outer space, but that’s how far a SkinSuit invented at RMIT for astronauts has travelled as it undergoes trials that are – quite simply – out of this world.

The brainchild of aerospace engineer, RMIT alumnus and senior research associate Dr James Waldie, the SkinSuit has been worn by an astronaut inside the International Space Station (ISS) for the first time.

Denmark’s first astronaut, Andreas Mogensen, spent 10 days in the ISS last month and pulled on the SkinSuit to test its effectiveness in the weightless conditions.

Inspired by the striking bodysuit worn by Cathy Freeman at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Waldie and his collaborators have spent more than 15 years getting the suit into space.

“Seeing live video of Andreas wearing SkinSuit on board the ISS was thrilling – I felt an enormous sense of achievement that my concept was finally in orbit,” Waldie said.

Skin-tight and made of bi-directional elastics, SkinSuit has been designed to mimic the impact of gravity on the body to reduce the debilitating physical effects space flights have on astronauts’ bodies.

In the weightless conditions in space, astronauts can lose up to 2% bone mass per month.  Their spines can also stretch by up to 7cms, with most suffering mild to debilitating pain.  Following flight, astronauts have four times the risk of herniated discs as the general population.

It was while watching the Sydney Olympics, and seeing Freeman in her distinctive, skin-tight running suit that Waldie first wondered if such an outfit could help mimic the conditions on the ground for astronauts in orbit.

“Given the impact of atrophy on astronauts in space, I wondered if a suit like the one worn by Freeman could fool the body into thinking it was on the ground rather than in space, and therefore stay healthy,” he said.

The special design of the suit means it can impose a gradual increase in vertical load from the wearer’s shoulders to their feet, simulating the loading regime normally imposed by bodyweight standing on earth.

For the ISS flight, the European Space Agency wanted to explore if the suit could counteract the effects of spaceflight on the spine.

“We believe if we can reduce spinal elongation in space, we can reduce the stress on the intervertebral discs,” Waldie said.

“This should help with pain in-flight, and the chances of slipped discs post-flight.”

The suit has undergone rigorous ground and parabolic flight trials before being selected for the ISS mission.  It also had to pass a spaceflight qualification programme.

As the inventor and a Principal Investigator, Waldie flew to the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany, for the first on-orbit trial and was elated to see SkinSuit had finally been tested in space.

“It was really exciting but also very humbling, as there are so many people that have dedicated so much effort to this success. To share their passion, and see it all come to fruition, has been amazing.”

SkinSuit has been developed in collaboration with scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kings College London and the European Space Agency.  The suit was manufactured by Italian firm Dainese, best known for producing motorbike leathers for racing.

Enjoying his first space flight, European Space Agency astronaut Mogensen tested SkinSuit over two days as part of an operational and technical evaluation.

He took frequent height measurements, comfort and mobility surveys, skin swabs for hygiene assessments, and also exercised with the suit on the station’s bicycle ergometer.

Mogensen has since returned to Earth but is yet to publicly report his findings as he undergoes extensive debriefing.

Waldie spent more time at ESA in Germany with his collaborators, workshopping further design, sizing and manufacturing refinements for SkinSuit with his RMIT colleagues Arun Vijayan and Associate Professor Lijing Wang from the School of Fashion and Textiles.

This article was first published by RMIT University. Read the original article here.

Featured photo by European Space Agency. European Space Agency astronaut Andreas Mogensen wearing the SkinSuit on board the International Space Station. 

Fuelling the future

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%.

Professor Craig Buckley, Dean of Research and Professor of Physics at Curtin’s Faculty of Science and Engineering, is the lead investigator on an Australian Research Council Linkage Project on energy storage for Concentrating Solar Power (CSP), and a chief investigator with the SunShot CSP program. His team at Curtin’s Hydrogen Storage Research Group is using metal hydrides to develop a low cost hydrogen storage technology for CSP thermal energy plants such as solar power towers.

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.”

in text

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.

Rosslyn Beeby

Making mineral exploration easy

LANDTEM, an Australian invention that creates a 3D map of underground ore bodies has uncovered deposits worth A$4 billion in Australia and A$10 billion globally. The technology development was led by CSIRO scientist Dr Cathy Foley and is a great example of the commercial application of scientific research.

In some ways it was a stroke of good fortune that set Dr Cathy Foley and her colleagues on the path to inventing LANDTEM, a device that has revolutionised the way mining companies detect ore underground and uncovered deposits worth billions of dollars around the world.

The invention won Foley, the deputy director and science director of manufacturing in Australia’s national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the prestigious Clunies Ross award for innovation and commercialisation.

Dr Cathy Foley
Dr Cathy Foley

The story of the invention begins in the mid-1980s, when the discovery of high temperature superconductors opened the way for superconductivity to be used in everyday applications instead of only at extremely low temperatures.

The discovery provoked huge excitement around the world among scientists and engineers who set about seeking practical applications, no less so in Australia.

The CSIRO pulled together a team to collaborate on potential applications with industry: with Amalgamated Wireless Australasia (AWA) on electronics and communications; Nucleus Network and now Cochlear on medical devices; and BHP Billiton on improving the quality of steel fabrication by measuring extremely subtle magnetic fields.

BHP Billiton held an internal meeting about the technology and it was there that some of the company’s geologists said that measuring subtle magnetic fields would be very valuable to them, providing the spark of the idea for LANDTEM.

Foley describes the moment as “serendipitous”, but says it’s also a reflection of the way CSIRO interacts with industry.

“Quite often when you’ve got something which is a platform technology that can be used in a lot of different ways, you start off thinking in a very diverse way or very open ended way so you’re not really sure where you’re going. And that’s why one of the things that differentiates the CSIRO from any other research organisations and particularly universities: we talk to industry a lot and get guidance from them,” she says.

“We might come up with the original science but then we engage with industry to say, ‘we’ve got this great idea, we think it could be useful there’. And they’ll say, ‘well, actually no, we think it could be useful over here’.”

LANDTEM consists of a big coil of wire placed on the ground above a potential ore deposit. It pulses a large changing current through the wire to create a magnetic field, and this in turn creates what’s known as an Eddy current in any conducting material nearby, such as an ore body underground.


Then the current is turned off, but an ore body’s current lingers for a tiny fraction of a second longer and by measuring this, LANDTEM can determine if there is an ore body and where it is. Crucially, it  can discriminate between an actual ore body and the conducting soil that is so prevalent in Australia and that in the past would have led to muddled results.
Foley says the invention has helped mining companies find things they wouldn’t have found otherwise and find deeper ore bodies. It can also tell them whether it is worth the expense of putting a bore hole down to analyse the quality of the ore and where to put it.

Not all ore bodies are conducting, so LANDTEM is mainly used for finding silver, nickel and gold.

It’s one of a series of tools geologists use to find an ore body, and Foley says it has allowed many mining companies to cut out several of the steps needed in mineral exploration.

For instance, in Canada, Xstrata Nickel has bought three LANDTEM systems and is so confident about the technology that once it has located an ore body they don’t do much drilling at all and move straight on to mining instead.

When recognising the work of Foley and her colleague CSIRO engineer Keith Leslie at the Clunies Ross awards, the chair of the awards’ organising committee Professor Mike Hood said: “Their story demonstrates the importance of unwavering dedication in bringing a scientific discovery to market. Over the coming years LANDTEM will continue to play a major role in the worldwide discovery of new mineral deposits.”

Foley studied physics and education at Sydney’s Macquarie University with the intention of becoming a high school science teacher. “But I fell in love with research and I did my PhD in nitride semiconductors and did a smidgen of the early work that led to the white LED,” she says.

Having decided to pursue a career in research, Foley joined CSIRO as a post-doctoral fellow working in magnetics and was asked to join the team working on applications for the new high temperature superconductors.

Along with taking the new technology to industry to see how it could be used, another factor in the successful development and commercialisation of the LANDTEM is CSIRO’s ability to pull together a multidisciplinary team when an opportunity arises, in this case researchers in mineral resources, electrical engineering, devices, materials and cryogenics, and finally at the end, lawyers and business people.

“In order to be a survivor and also to really be profitable and commercially successful, you’ve got to recognise just how the world is changing and that you’ve got to be innovative, not just in your products but also in your business model and how you see yourself getting into the manufacturing world,” she says.

“Australia is at a really interesting point where the current Government has recognised this and I think got a whole lot of things in place.”

Foley says the Federal Government’s recently-announced Industry Growth Centres, which aim to forge better links between industry and Australia’s top researchers, are a promising start.

She sees potential in agile manufacturing, where the manufacturers make small numbers of specialised and customised products and can quickly re-conform to make another product.

“Instead of being a manufacturer who has a big factory, you actually buy time in a factory to do a certain thing, part of it, and then you might even ship it to somewhere else to get another bit done where there’s a specialist and so you end up with products which are done more in smaller batches rather than mass market because they’re more customised,” she says. “These days successful societies have to keep reinventing themselves and recognising where you can you use intellectual approaches rather than just brute labour.”

As a senior CSIRO executive, Foley is less involved in hands-on research than she used to be, but still finds it an exciting environment.

“It’s pretty exciting to think that the work you do actually has an enormous impact and can make a difference. And I think if you ask people I work with, they all say that’s what they love about working at CSIRO. We  do things that actually change the world and I think that’s a nice thing to do,” she says.

– Christopher Niesche

This article was first published by Australia Unlimited on 20 August 2015. Read the original article here.

Pig and poultry welfare research receives $1 million grant

A $1 million grant from the South Australian government will go towards expanding the animal welfare research facilities at the University of Adelaide’s Roseworthy campus.

Roseworthy is home to one of Australia’s leading free-range pig and poultry research facilities, as well as the headquarters of the Pork Cooperative Research Centre.

The grant comes during renewed scrutiny in to pig farming practices, including the use of sow stalls or ‘gestation crates’. The practice is being banned in certain states and consumer demand is driving better welfare practices for farmed animals.

The money will be used to develop a remote animal behaviour monitoring system, an improved climate control system, and upgrades of the free-range poultry facility.

Professor Wayne Hein, Dean of Roseworthy campus, welcomed the grant.

“We have an outstanding collaborative hub at Roseworthy with some of the best animal science researchers in the country working at this site,” says Hein.

“Roseworthy is also the headquarters of the Pork Cooperative Research Centre. The strong alignment with the CRC on campus means that industry engagement in the research undertaken on the campus is seamless and beneficial to all parties.

“This funding will help establish the highest standards of animal welfare in animal production systems.”

This article was first published on The Lead on 30 July 2015. Read the original article here.

Robot automates bacteria screening in wine samples

A robotic liquid handling system at the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) is automating the screening of large numbers of malolactic bacteria strains.

Using miniaturised wine fermentations in 96-well microplates, the Tecan EVO 150 robotic system is screening bacteria for MLF efficiency and response to wine stress factors such as alcohol and low pH.

The bacteria are sourced from the AWRI’s wine microorganism culture collection in South Australia and elsewhere.

The robot can prepare and inoculate multiple combinations of bacteria strains and stress factors in red or white test wine, and then analyse malic acid in thousands of samples over the course of the fermentation.

In one batch, for example, 40 bacteria strains can be screened for MLF efficiency and response to alcohol and pH stress in red wine, with over 6000 individual L-malic acid analyses performed.

The AWRI says that this high-throughput approach provides a quantum leap in screening capabilities compared to conventional MLF testing methods and can be applied to a range of other research applications.

Additionally, the phenotypic data obtained from this research is being further analysed with genomic information, which will identify potential genetic markers for the stress tolerances of malolactic strains.

First published at foodprocessing.com.au on 22 July. Read the original article here.

This article was also published by The Lead on 22 July 2015. Read the article here.

Driverless car trials in South Australia

A major European carmaker will conduct the first on-road trials of driverless cars in the Southern Hemisphere in South Australia in November.

The testing by Volvo will be held in conjunction with an international conference on driverless cars in Adelaide.

Volvo will test the same vehicle being used in their “Drive Me” project in Sweden.

South Australia legalized the use of driverless cars on its roads earlier this year.

The testing is part of independent road research agency ARRB’s Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative.

ARRB Managing Director Gerard Walton said that automated vehicles are a short-term reality that Australia needs to be prepared for.

“The South Australian Government has been quick to recognise this,” he said.

“ARRB will establish how driverless technology needs to be manufactured and introduced for uniquely Australian driving behaviour, our climate and road conditions, including what this means for Australia’s national road infrastructure, markings, surfaces and roadside signage,” said Waldon.

Volvo’s testing will be undertaken in conjunction with Flinders University, Carnegie Mellon University, the RAA and Cohda Wireless.

The Premier of South Australia, Jay Weatherill said the technology promises to not only improve safety, reduce congestion and lower emissions, but also to provide a real opportunity for South Australia to become a key player in the emerging driverless vehicle industry.

“This trial presents a fantastic opportunity for South Australia to take a lead nationally and internationally in the development of this new technology and open up new opportunities for our economy,” he said.

The driverless car trials will take place on an expressway south of the capital city of Adelaide on 7–8 November 2015.

Multiple vehicles will conduct manoeuvres such as overtaking, lane changing, emergency braking and the use of on and off ramps.

The International Driverless Cars Conference will be hosted at the Adelaide Convention Centre and Tonsley precinct on 5–6 November 2015.

This article was first published by The Lead on 21 July 2015. Read the original article here.

The big business of hearables

It’s Friday night and the restaurant is packed. You’re out with friends and you realise that you can’t follow the conversation. You have to keep asking people to repeat themselves. You could get your ears checked… but you’re not old – how could you already have hearing loss?

Many people may unknowingly expose themselves to high-risk situations that affect their hearing health. Young Australians are particularly at risk through exposure to music players, live music venues and nightclubs where noise can reach dangerous levels.

“Hearing disability is truly the invisible handicap, we don’t see the problem, but it has real impact on the everyday functioning of those who suffer it,” says Professor Robert Cowan, CEO of the HEARing CRC, Australia’s hub for hearing healthcare research.

Part of the problem is the view that hearing loss is only an issue in old age. But the truth is that one in six Australians suffers from some form of hearing loss.

“When people have trouble reading fine print, they will generally straight away visit an optometrist or pick up a pair of magnifier glasses from a chemist, because it’s a socially acceptable disability and there is no associated stigma with wearing glasses,” says Cowan.

“But when someone has a hearing disability, they often choose to ignore it, or to blame others for mumbling or speaking too softly, and as a result they postpone assessment and treatment,” says Cowan.

Turn it up

“Hearing patients and professionals would both benefit from new hearing technology that provided a seamless fit into everyday life,” he says.

There’s plenty of new tech entering the market from consumer electronics powerhouses. According to Business Korea, Samsung is intending to develop a product for 2016, while Apple has already joined forces with hearing aid developers GM ReSound.

Hearables, as they have been dubbed, are smart ear devices that feature 3D audio notification. By providing users with real time data, they help to build awareness of exposure to high levels of noise or to noisy environment for prolonged periods of time.

“Noise-induced hearing loss is akin to sunburn, it’s a combination of the loudness (i.e. like the UV rating), the duration of any exposure, and the frequency of exposure,” says Cowan.

Take ReSound’s iPhone-connected LiNX headphones. They connect to Apple products and allow the wearer to hone in on or deflect sounds with the touch of a screen, to dial down the noise around you, or direct the speech focus towards your dinner partners and away from the other table’s conversations, for example.

Tech such as this is increasingly big business. Wearable tech company Doppler Labs announced this month that they have raised US$17 million for its Here Active Listening System, that uses two wireless buds and a smartphone app to control what you hear and how you hear it. They also raised US$635,000 directly via crowd funding.

In Australia, Perth-based hearable Nuheara is the first wearables company to list on the ASX. Their tech, which was launched in June 2014, is a hybrid between assisted listening devices, Bluetooth earplugs and noise-cancelling headsets without cables or wires.

Cowan hopes that this technology will change the way people associate hearing aid technology with old age, and spur them to seek help much earlier.

We use our phones every day, and new apps that can help us hear or assess our risk of hearing loss can be at our fingertips, changing the way that we provide hearing healthcare,” he says.

“Hearables will increase our connectivity, and allow for individuals to personalise hearing care like never before.”

Kara J Norton


 – HEARing CRC


Australia’s energy future

Australia’s renewable resources include wind, solar, wave and geothermal energy, and there’s significant research happening to improve generation and storage technologies to overcome the inherent disadvantage of intermittent flow.

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) has completed 32 projects and is managing more than 200 others, including several large-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) plants and wind farms, which are considered the most advanced technologies in terms of making a short-term impact on our renewable electricity generation.

Australia’s CRC for Renewable Energy (ACRE), which operated 1996–2004, developed a state-of-the-art facility for testing grid-connected renewable energy systems, as well as small-capacity wind turbines for remote generation.

Australian scientists at the CRC for Polymers (CRC-P) have made big strides in the development of flexible, lightweight solar cells, which CEO Dr Ian Dagley describes as the “antithesis” of rigid rooftop solar cells. These lightweight cells offer intriguing possibilities: their flexibility means they can be placed on a variety of surfaces, from walls to windows, and they can operate indoors to help charge electrical devices.

They’re also attractive because they’re considerably cheaper to manufacture than silicon solar cells. Dagley says his CRC-P team has been working on refining the manufacturing technique, which uses low-cost components and reel-to-reel printers. One of the goals is to increase the lifespan of the cells, which is about five years, whereas rigid cells last roughly 30 years.

Meanwhile, the CRC for Low Carbon Living (CRCLCL) is looking at ways to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by developing smarter, more energy efficient buildings and cities. CEO Dr Deo Prasad says lower carbon buildings can be realised by optimising design to ensure maximum energy efficiency, through integration of next-generation technologies, such as solar PV cladding and heat and electricity capture systems for on-site energy offsets, and by using more sustainable building materials that need less energy to extract, process and manufacture. At the suburb and city scale, Prasad says decentralised renewable energy generation, reliable storage and smart grids, linked with information and communications technology-based intelligence, will lower carbon impacts.

“We recognise there is not going to be a silver bullet solution to carbon reductions,” says Prasad. “The approach needs to be holistic and driven by industry and governments.”

There are challenges associated with increased renewable energy levels, but Australia’s National Electricity Market seems to be handling integration well so far, says Dr Iain MacGill, joint director of the UNSW Centre for Energy and Environmental Markets. Studies by the Australian Energy Market Operator show it’s possible to operate the national grid with 100% renewables. “It won’t be cheap – just a lot cheaper than unchecked climate change,” MacGill says.

Russell Marsh, director of policy for the Clean Energy Council, emphasises the importance of commitment. “Investors need long-term certainty to ensure a rate of return,” says Marsh. “The Federal Government needs to lock in a firm, long-term target.”

MacGill agrees that the right policies can incentivise investment, but adds that it requires leadership and social consensus. “Australia is contradictory on clean energy. We have an early history and remarkable success in renewable energy deployment, and fantastic renewable resources. But we are also among the world’s largest coal and gas exporters,” he says.

“Will we take a leadership role, or do all we can to keep our international coal and gas customers buying from us?”


Remodelling energy

While coal and gas continue to be our dominant energy sources, the once-burgeoning renewables industry has been hindered by the Federal Government’s recent review of the Renewable Energy Target (RET). The review recommended scrapping the 20% target for renewable electricity generation by 2020, resulting in political deadlock and investor uncertainty across the renewable energy sector.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Australian head, Kobad Bhavnagri, says the review was especially damaging because it came “very close to making retroactive changes to a policy”.

“Whenever retroactive changes are made to policy it becomes, essentially, Ebola for investors,” he says. “When governments act unpredictably and destroy the value of existing assets, it scares people – for a long time.”

Australia generates more carbon emissions per person than any other OECD country. One-third are generated by the electricity sector, in which coal and natural gas account for roughly 85% of generating capacity. Renewables, mostly from hydropower, account for about 15%.

Reaching the 20% target during the next five years will not be cheap. At the time of the review it was estimated that another $18 billion of investment would be required to reach the target.

But the costs associated with increased generating capacity are yet to be weighed against the costs of potentially catastrophic climate change. Scientists have warned a 2°C increase in overall average temperatures from pre-industrial levels is the limit our planet can withstand before the effects of climate change become irreversible.

In December 2014, following the release by the International Energy Agency (IEA) of its report World Energy Outlook 2015, the agency’s chief economist and director of global energy economics, Dr Fatih Birol, told Bloomberg’s Business Week that global investment in renewable energy needs to quadruple to a yearly average of $1.6 trillion until at least 2040, to stay below that warming threshold.

Some of the world’s biggest economies have taken note. Estimates by the Climate Interactive indicate the US-China emissions deal, if implemented in full, could keep some 580 billion tonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere between now and 2030 – more than all global fossil fuel emissions from 1990 to 2013.

In 2014 – while China spent US$64 billion on large-scale clean energy projects, increasing its 2013 total by about US$10 billion – the USA spent nearly US$13 billion on utility-scale renewables and continued to expand production of its almost carbon-neutral shale gas reserves (see here for Australia’s progress).

Research by Bloomberg New Energy Finance found Australian investment in large-scale renewable energy in 2014 was US$223 million – the lowest in more than a decade. 2014 saw Australia nose-dive from 11th largest investor in commercial clean energy projects to 39th, behind developing nations such as Honduras and Myanmar.

The 2040 outlook

If Australia is serious about boosting its capacity for renewable energy, 2040 is a good deadline, says Iain MacGill, joint director (engineering) for the Centre for Energy and Environmental Markets at UNSW Australia – by then we’ll need “a major infrastructure transition”.

Russell Marsh is Director of Policy for the Clean Energy Council, the peak body representing Australia’s clean energy sector. “With the right level of support we could see the deployment of renewable energy at least double between 2020–2040,” he says. “But if the target is not extended beyond 2020, it is unlikely that we will see further growth.”

This view is backed by the Australian government’s Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics (BREE). In a November 2014 report looking towards mid-century electricity production, it reported “In the absence of potential new policy initiatives, the relative shares of fossil fuels and renewables in electricity generation are not likely to change significantly”.

In fact, BREE’s projections show renewable generating capacity remaining stable, meeting 20% of Australia’s total demand from 2020–2050. In this scenario, coal-fired power would still account for 65% of electricity by mid-century.

There are concerns that the current policy uncertainty is reaching a tipping point, which could see companies exiting Australia or going into distress.

Policy uncertainty  is taking a toll on  the business end of renewable energy.
Policy uncertainty is taking a toll on the business end of renewable energy.

In July 2014, RenewEconomy reported that Recurrent Energy, a US solar power plant developer being acquired by Canadian Solar, was planning to cease its Australian operations, citing concerns over policy uncertainty. Several other large international renewable energy companies, including Spain’s Acciona and US-based First Solar, have warned of possible exits, should the Renewable Energy Target be amended.

MacGill says exits are inevitable. “Why would an internationally focused renewable energy company stay if there is no prospect for their projects to go forward?

“They can, should and will depart at some point,” he says. “And with their departure, we will lose institutional capacity – such as people, money and industrial knowhow – which will inevitably
slow our ability to deploy clean energy, and increase its costs.”

Marsh agrees the risk to the industry is significant. “Every day, week and month that goes by with a cloud hanging over support for the renewable energy industry are days, weeks and months when our international competitors are racing ahead of us – and reaping billions of dollars in investment in this global growth market.”

Dr Deo Prasad, CEO of the CRC for Low Carbon Living, says that while the effects aren’t as dramatic, policy uncertainty also impacts the research community, especially “end-user driven projects where collaboration is essential”.

“Many a research direction and focus has had to change over the years, for the worse, due to policy uncertainty,” he adds.

Myles Gough

CRC for Low Carbon Living

CRC for Polymers (CRC-P)

Armour forged through collaboration

Forged from plough parts, heated in a makeshift iron forge and moulded into shape over a Stringybark log, the homemade armour worn by Ned Kelly and his gang is almost as famous as the man himself. Although the suit of armour deflected many bullets, it weighed in at just over 44kg, and left his hands and legs unprotected.

Now, the winner of the Cooperative Research Centres Association (CRC) Award for Excellence in Innovation 2015, the Defence Materials Technology Centre (DMTC), have developed a unique manufacturing process that produces armour with the same level of protection as traditional combat body armour, but is far lighter.

The DMTC developed a cutting edge manufacturing process for shaping ceramic boron carbide armour. Very difficult to manufacture, one of the key issues for the team was maintaining quality control as the material expanded and compressed in response to the heat of the production process.

“Up until recently, body armour design has been relatively simple, durable but so heavy you can’t move quickly…Think: the Ned Kelly suit,” says DMTC CEO Dr Mark Hodge. “Having optimal equipment enhances survivability. Mobility is a significant contributor to personnel protection and with less weight and more mobility, soldiers are able to get out of trouble more quickly,” he says.

Body armour designs trade off protection against weight and bulk reduction with highly protective systems often proving heavy and restrictive. Successive models have been designed to offer more comprehensive levels of protection, with vests made from industrial strength fibres to deform bullets upon impact, and plated metal inserts to provide extra protection to vital areas. Although significantly lighter than Kelly’s original armour, today’s combat body armour remains heavy and unwieldy, a troubling fact as soldiers carry up to 58kg of gear in certain situations.


As one of the hardest substances known to man, boron carbide is frequently used in the manufacturing of body armour. However up until now it was very difficult to bend boron carbide into a variety of different forms to be used for specific body shapes. As a result, heavier materials had to be used.

With this new near-net shaping technology developed by the DMTC, body armour made purely from boron carbide will allow for manufacturing of lighter armour panels such as helmet inserts and customised ballistic panels for combat vehicles.

The development of the specialised process will yield many benefits for the Australian defence industry, says Hodge. Rather than having to outsource research and development from another country, it is being done right at home. Allowing the defence industry to make adjustments and improvements at any time to accommodate the needs of defence personnel.

Contributions included academic support from The University of Melbourne and Swinburne University of Technology, advice from the DSTO, the Army’s Diggerworks Program, Australian Defence Apparel, and research and manufacturing expertise from BMT, CSIRO, and VCAMM. The collaboration allowed for strides in industrial design capability as well as guidance from the defence department as to what threats the armour should be designed to withstand.

“It would have been impossible to find all the expertise needed for the project under one roof,” Hodge says. “In order to source the appropriate equipment and variety of expertise, we needed a collaborative team that shared a common sense of purpose,” he says.

In the next 25 years Hodge says the integration of the unique net shaping process will be applied broadly to the defence industry due to the extensive use of boron carbide in combat body armour. However, this does not mean that work stops for Hodge.

“Bullets are made to defeat body armour, so we must learn the limits of the material so that we can continue to improve and offer the next level of protection.”

Kara Norton

Defence Materials Technology Centre (DMTC)

Cooperative Research Centres Association (CRC)

Taking medical device from design to life saver

When paramedics or emergency personnel discover a patient who has suffered massive facial or airway trauma, often in situations like a car crash, they may have to perform a cricothyrotomy, which involves stabbing a tube into the patient’s throat so they can breath.

It’s a procedure you want them to get right.

But in these life-threatening situations a paramedic or doctor may have only ever performed the procedure on a training device. It’s therefore doubly important that this device teaches them the correct technique in an accurate and realistic way it’s life or death.

Many doctors will now be training for complicated cricothyrotomies on a German-built Crico Trainer called ‘ADELAIDE’ designed by Robert White and Daniel Weiss in South Australia.

“The procedure, it’s not something that most doctors will have to use,” says White, one half of the WHITE + WEISS design team.

“No one really wants to stick a tube through your throat, but if you need it, they need to know how to do it properly, to prevent you from dying.”

A cricothyrotomy involves sticking a needle and cannula through the Adam’s apple, inserting a guide wire through the cannula in to the windpipe, removing the cannula, making a small incision at the base of the guide wire, threading a Melker Crico kit (an airway catheter and curved dilator) on to the wire, and finally removing the wire  thus clearing the patient’s airway.

Medical students practice the procedure on any number of trainers, simulators and manikins, but as Daniel Weiss says, they are not all very realistic.

“Beyond just the student learning it, it’s about muscle memory,” says Weiss. “In an emergency when you don’t have time to think, you need your muscle memory to work.”

The realistic Crico Trainer ADELAIDE was conceived by White and Weiss during their Masters of Industrial Design at the University of South Australia in 2012. It’s a practical course with real clients who have real design problems.

“This particular project started with the University of Adelaide medical school. They teach their students all sorts of procedures on all sorts of medical trainers. They found that there’s a number of these trainers they weren’t happy with,” White explains.

White and Weiss both decided to tackle the cricothyrotomy device, although they were working separately at the time. They were put in touch with Dr Chris Acott, the Southern Hemisphere’s foremost throat and neck expert.

The two designers attended Dr Acott’s workshops at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, training with doctors, seeing how they use the simulators and using them themselves. They had access to Dr Acott’s collection of Crico Trainers, many of which they realised were “pretty average”.

“The existing trainers were pretty basic,” says White. “There was a basic neck shape with an Adam’s apple and a skin that stretches over the top. They were missing obvious stuff  like a chin  which seems like a really basic thing.”

As they watched some doctors insert a tube and the designers realised they were coming in at an angle that would be impossible on a real person because the chin would be in the way.

“Dr Acott would catch it and remind them that they’d have to come in at an angle,” says White. “But if an instructor missed that, they student is going to learn that procedure incorrectly.”

After eight weeks of designing their individual versions of an improved Crico Trainer, White and Weiss took their prototypes to Dr Acott. He liked aspects of both, and suggested they combine the two.

In 2013 the men decided to continue the project outside of their Masters course, receiving a grant from ITEK, the University of South Australia’s commercialisation arm, to develop a prototype.

They worked through eight prototypes with Dr Acott before arriving at a model everyone was happy with.

It was a significant improvement on the available devices. The chin was an obvious addition, but many other smart touches also improved the usability and accuracy of the trainer.

“It was very cumbersome to put the skin on the old devices,” says White. “Ours is slotted where it can slip through and pull taut. You can use it again and again. We also added multiple layers of skin to add more realism.”

Crico Trainer ADELAIDE

Feel is an important part of the procedure – doctors have to find the Adam’s apple quickly and accurately to perform a cricothyrotomy. The team also added additional layers of skin and a squishy adhesive layer to enhance the feel.

“A lot of simulators are designed to simulate the perfect case scenario,” Weiss says. “But you’re not going to be looking at the perfect 30 year old male every time  there might be damage or irregularities. That’s something we tried to incorporate, making the throat adjustable.”

Once the device was finished, ITEK started to shop the idea around to medical simulation companies. German company VBM Medizintechnik GmbH took an interest.

A licensing agreement was written up, and VBM redeveloped their Crico Trainer from the ground up based on White and Weiss’ design. With a nod to the simulator’s South Australian origins, they named the trainer ADELAIDE, after the capital city of the state, and attached a label crediting White + Weiss and the University of South Australia for the design.

The team also won a number of awards for their design. They received a Gold Student Award from the Design Institute of Australia, a Premier’s Award from the Premier of South Australia, Jay Weatherill, and were national finalists in the James Dyson awards last year.

White + Weiss are working together again, this time employed by the University of South Australia as industrial designers at the Hills Innovation Centre at the industry cluster Tonsley.

Their current project is a nurse call device for aged care residents living with arthritis. Current devices are ill suited for elderly people with dexterity issues.

“They can use this type of device ten to thirty times a day. Most have small, fiddly buttons. They can have a lot of difficulty pressing it,” White says.

Their device doesn’t have a traditional button but rather a soft, flexible silicon bulb with an air pressure switch. Residents can squeeze it with minimal dexterity, use their whole hand or press it against an object. It’s an attractively designed device that lights up when activated – the result of nearly a year’s work.

“It’s currently making its way towards production. It should be underway in the next couple of months, once the tooling is ordered and underway. It should be in production and on the market later this year.”

– Jack Baldwin

This article was first published on The Lead South Australia on 4 June, 2015.

Lending fresh air to grain pest problem

The study is led by the Plant Biosecurity CRC, partnering with the Western Australian grower collective Mingenew-Irwin Group (MIG), and is part of the CRC’s program to find solutions to a global problem in the wheat industry that has intensified during the past decade – phosphine resistance. Phosphine is the industrial fumigant most widely used worldwide to kill and control beetles and weevils in stored grains, but its effectiveness is declining due to the development of resistance.

Former-owned and independent research company Kondinin Group has been engaged to trial an alternative practice called aeration. It’s been around as a concept for a long time but is not widely adopted. It requires cool, dry air to be pumped into stored grain. The CRC study has shown that this can be done simply and economically – and that it works.

“I think it’s pretty exciting in terms of looking for options and alternatives as well as supplementary solutions to combating insects in grain storage,” said Kondinin Group research manager and agricultural engineer Ben White, who has been running the experiment.

White and his team have been testing a simple set-up on 70 tonne cone-bottom silos – the typical type used throughout WA’s wheat belt. At the base of the silo, they place a 550 watt centrifugal fan that’s switched on and off according to ambient humidity and temperature as measured by an aeration controller mounted nearby. The conditions that cause the fan to switch on are determined by simple algorithms, one of which was developed many years ago and licensed by the CSIRO.

The aim is to only run the fans when ambient humidity is below 80%. If air temperature and humidity levels are suitable, air is pumped through the stored grain at the rate of 2–3 L per second, per tonne, which cools the grain. While this doesn’t kill insects, it reduces their activity significantly and creates conditions in which they are unable to breed.

Another benefit identified by the Kondinin trial is that aeration reduces proportions of non-sprouting grains. Aeration has been shown to produce a net benefit of over $2 per tonne, which is $140 per silo, and pays for the aeration system within a year. This is in addition to the other potential savings from reducing or eliminating phosphine use.

Sheila Charlesworth, executive officer for MIG, says the study proves there are economic benefits to aeration, and her growers intend to implement it. In addition, growers from NSW and Queensland who travelled to WA to observe the method have since adopted it in their home states.

– Karen McGhee


Tracing security issues to the source

After running a series of consultation workshops with Australia’s defence and law enforcement agencies, the $80 million CRC has drawn up a five-year research roadmap for its data analytics projects.

These include using data streams to build a Wikipedia-style briefing resource on criminal activity, data privacy protection policies, and integrating different datasets across national and federal law agencies.

The CRC’s chief technical officer Dr Brenton Cooper said building machine learning, or “machine enablement”, is a critical component of data analytics. Sophisticated machines can collate and scan a vast volume of material, and are programmed to pick out key phrases, figures and spikes in social media activity that could be relevant to counterterrorism operations. The information will be used to build digital technology tools for defence.

“We’re building an app called Beat the News,” he said. “The idea is to develop a warning system based on data from a wide range of freely available sources that can map social responses to things such as food prices, cost-of-living pressures, crime rates and local news events.”

The app is being designed as a data analytics tool for defence strategists, and Cooper explained that the system is focused on mapping “population-level events” as reflected by social media patterns, rather than individual use. “We’re not going to be interested in what Joe Bloggs is doing,” Cooper said.

The CRC is also working on a project to build a rapid-response briefing tool that will collate data and present a Wikipedia-style page of information on an emerging threat. Cooper uses the example of a ship that might be suspected of smuggling drugs into Australian waters.

“We’re working on a system that could rapidly pull together all the information that’s needed on that particular ship – where its last port was, where it went on its most recent voyages, and whether any of those ports are implicated in global drug smuggling operations,” he explained.

“Instead of being swamped with information options – which is what happens when you use Google to find something – we’re building a tool that will provide analysts with the information they need, quickly and efficiently.”

Another data issue facing Australia’s police forces, and other law enforcement agencies such as customs, is the lack of a central data repository. Can state and federal data sets be combined? It’s not as simple as it sounds.

“It’s a complex and sensitive area of data management,” Cooper said. “There are questions to be resolved around data ownership, access and responsibility for maintaining a centralised data repository.”

Privacy is also a key research area, as is public education about how data analytics can be used to benefit society. The Cronulla race riots that occurred in Sydney in 2005 predate Twitter by just a year, and Cooper said it’s possible that data analytics of a spike in Twitter activity (had the mini-blog site been around) would have predicted that tensions were likely to erupt.

“People might be uneasy about data analysis of social media activity, but we’re looking at patterns not individuals. It’s a bigger social picture.”

Rosslyn Beeby


A field guide to frogs can now fit in your pocket

With more than 200 frog species in Australia, compiling an electronic field guide – in the form of an app – would be a daunting task. But that is exactly what JCU researcher Dr Conrad Hoskin and PhD student Stewart MacDonald have achieved, along with Professor Gordon Grigg (UQ) and David Stewart.
After three long years of hard work, the “Frogs of Australia – eGuide” has just been released for sale on iTunes and is compatible with iPhones, iPads and iPod touch.


The app is the most comprehensive available on the market, and the only one to feature up-to-date descriptions, location maps, call sounds and images of nearly all 238 known frog species in Australia. (Images and call data are missing for just a few frogs that are extremely rare or thought extinct.)

The app has a number of easy-to-use navigation options and also plots your position and allows you to search for local frogs. “There is nothing like this app on the market,” Dr Hoskin says. “It took the four of us years to complete, with plenty of time and effort going into getting the app together with all the text, maps, photos, and calls.”

“Field guides are really only useful if they’re comprehensive and ours is the only app that covers all currently described frog species,” said Stewart MacDonald, who developed the app.

“We will be constantly updating the app as new frog data comes in, and an Android version is currently in development.”

As for the ethos behind all the hard work that went into making the app, Dr Hoskin says they made it as a resource for the community. “It is important that people learn and love the wonderful world of frogs. It is comprehensive, so that frogs will be identified correctly. Ultimately we hope it will help frogs, the most threatened of all wildlife groups.”

Open your mind

Back in 1990, the internet was just a twinkle in the eye of a few scientists at The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Mobile phones were awkward bricks wielded by showy stockbrokers. Personal computers had not yet made the transition from the office to the home.

Fast forward 25 years, and more people have access to mobile phones than working toilets. Technology has revolutionised global communications, culture and business. Video chat software Skype has more than 300 million active users.

While three billion of us already have internet access, Google plans to supply the rest using high-altitude balloons (Project Loon) and solar powered drones (Project Titan) to beam wi-fi across developing nations.

Even language is no longer the barrier it used to be, with the advent
of real-time translation technologies enabling communication without a human translator. As of January 2015, we are using Google Translate to make one billion translations per day.

So what do the next 25 years have in store? “The general trend is that technology is becoming more and more a part of everyday life,” says Professor Rafael Calvo, a software engineer at the University of Sydney. While some are questioning how technology may be affecting us adversely, Calvo is researching how computers may
be able to contribute positively to our mental health. “Positive computing is changing the design of technologies to take into account the wellbeing and happiness of people,” he says.

For example, games have been designed to encourage ‘pro-social’ behaviours. In one study at Stanford, researchers built a game where players were either given the power to fly like Superman or take a virtual helicopter ride. After playing, the participants who had the superpower were more likely to help someone in need.

Though computers are traditionally seen to have a blindspot for emotions, recent advances are paving the way for computers to notice and adapt to our moods – a phenomenon called affective computing. “Some new cameras have a setting where they only take a photo when you smile,” says Calvo.

Calvo’s team has developed software to assist moderators of Australia’s leading online youth mental health service, ReachOut.com. It can detect when someone is depressed, and possibly at risk of suicide, and alert a human moderator. His group has also teamed up with the Young and Well CRC to build an online hub where young people can download apps to help improve their wellbeing.

For Calvo, this technology represents a transformation in how software is being made – aiming to improve wellbeing, not just productivity. “Our work is centred on influencing how people develop software. Australia leads the world in this field.”

New technologies could also change the way we learn, says Professor Judy Kay from the University of Sydney. Kay and her team are exploring the use of touchscreen tabletops in the classroom as tools for students to work together. They can also help teachers monitor each group’s work. “This technology can distinguish the actions and speech of each person in a group to determine how well the group is progressing and how well they collaborate,” she says.

The movie Her presents a future in which we will have intelligent virtual personal assistants to help organise our lives. We can already tell Siri to “Call Mum” or ask Google if we need an umbrella today. But this is only the beginning.

Meet Anna Cares. She’s a friendly brunette who lives inside your tablet or smartphone as an intelligent virtual agent. Developed by Clevertar (a spin-out from the computer science labs at Flinders University), Anna is being developed for the aged care space. She can already remind you to take your medication and give timely advice based on the weather.

Dr Martin Luerssen is an artificial intelligence specialist from Flinders who works on the project. He says intelligent assistant technology has been enabled by the convergence of several advances over the past 10 years, including astonishing progress in computational and sensing capabilities, as well as speech and language technologies. Meanwhile, affective computing approaches are bringing improvements to understanding human gestures and expressions.
“This enables us to create very natural, human-like interactions,” says Luerssen.

“By 2040, we expect that there will be more Australians retired than working – we cannot afford not to have this kind of technology,” adds Professor David Powers from Flinders.

We already use voice-operated technology, but now an app called Focus, developed by the Smart Services CRC, enables you to interact hands-free with a smartphone using eye movement alone – for example, you can increase font size with the blink of an eye.

“Australia leads the world in this field.”

By 2040, it is plausible we will be able to control computers with our minds using brain-computer interfaces (BCI), such as a cap covered in electrodes that can transmit brainwaves to a computer via electroencephalogram (EEG). In 2006, technology by BrainGate enabled patients with total ‘locked-in’ syndrome (where a patient is aware but cannot move or communicate verbally due to paralysis) to move a computer cursor just by thinking, thereby giving them a way to communicate. In 2010, Australian entrepreneur Tan Le unveiled a commercially available EEG headset, enabling anyone with careful concentration to give their computer simple instructions with their thoughts.

But the process is slow. “At the moment, typing with BCI can take seconds per character,” says Powers. Flinders University researchers are working on new technologies where users can type by thinking of words rather than just characters, speeding up the process.

In a field where the sudden emergence of a new technology can change the entire landscape in just a year or two, who knows how we will be communicating in 2040?

“One thing I can say with confidence is that we are very bad at predicting the future!” says Kay.

– Cathal O’Connell



Australia leads in manufacturing innovation

Engineering design and high-value products such as carbon fibre aircraft components are taking Australia to the forefront of global manufacturing innovation.

Australia continues to be a global innovator in manufacturing says Professor Murray Scott, chief executive of the CRC for Advanced Composite Structures (CRC-ACS).

“There are plenty of good news stories to be told about Australian manufacturing. We just need to be reminded of them a bit more often,” he says.

Professor Scott will be speaking on future challenges facing Australia’s manufacturing sector at the CRC Association’s annual conference at Parliament House in Canberra on 26 May. He’ll be part of a panel discussing what drives manufacturing innovation and will be emphasising the role the CRC program has played in creating new products, skills and export markets.

“The CRCs are still the best mechanism for engaging in the kind of long-term, industry-focussed research that’s needed to drive high-impact outcomes for manufacturing,” Professor Scott says.

Over the past 25 years, the CRC program has been behind many success stories in innovative Australian manufacturing, and CRC-ACS has been a standout.

One of its projects – developing technologies for composite wing trailing edge devices such as flaps and ailerons for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner commercial aircraft – is creating more than 3,300 direct and local flow-on jobs in Australia and will earn more than $4 billion in manufacturing export revenue over the life of the aircraft construction program. The production parts are manufactured in Port Melbourne and shipped to the 787 assembly plant in the United States.

And, when the US President Barack Obama visited Australia in 2011, he gave a nod to the project in his speech to federal parliament. “Our workers are creating new partnerships and new products, like the advanced aircraft technologies we build together in Victoria,” President Obama said.

CRC-ACS innovations include novel assembly methods for composite structures, retrofit technologies to improve the crash safety of military helicopters, and lightweight composite clamps to repair oil & gas pipelines.

“Most things in modern society are underpinned by engineering, and Australia already has a global reputation for innovative design. It is one of our acknowledged strengths in manufacturing,” Professor Scott says.

“A major characteristic of the many CRC success stories has been the high knowledge content that has contributed to new products and skills. Developing unique approaches to design and manufacture of high quality products is a critical factor in achieving commercial success, and the CRC program brings industry and researchers together to do that.”

The CRC Association’s annual conference is celebrating 25 years of science impact and achievement by the national research program. The CRCs were created in 1990 to bring scientists and industries together to work on some of the biggest challenges facing Australia.

These have included better bushfire science, manufacturing, digital technology, biosecurity, sustainable farming, water management and mental health issues underpinning the unacceptably high suicide rate among young people.

“The CRCs are an Australian success story. They were designed to create research impact, and their 25 year record of achievement speaks for itself,” says CRC Association chief executive Dr Tony Peacock.

Details of the conference program can be found at http://australia2040.com.au/

Uncertainty the core of policy design

Australia’s politicians should give up the idea of trying to design national policies based on inflexible and failure-prone future forecasts.

“Uncertainty and risk management should be at the core of national policy design,” says Australian National University economist and public policy research fellow, Professor Warwick McKibbin.

“A lot of policies in Australia are designed on the assumption that we can know the future, that it’s predictable. And when that inevitably turns out not to be the case, these policies collapse into chaos amid accusations of mismanagement and broken political promises.”

Professor McKibbin, who is also a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution think-tank in Washington DC, is one of the opening speakers at the Cooperative Research Centres Association’s annual conference at Parliament House in Canberra on 26 May.

The CRC conference is celebrating 25 years of science impact and achievement by the national research program. Federal industry and science minister Ian Macfarlane and Professor McKibbin will be part of an opening session that will present policy perspectives on what the next 25 years may hold for Australian science and innovation.

Professor McKibbin says the failure of Australia’s carbon pricing mechanism, and current uncertainties surrounding the renewable energy industry, should provide valuable lessons for future policy design.

“Climate policy should be designed to better manage risk by creating a flexible framework that balances expected environmental benefits against economic costs over time,” he says.

“It should be policy that encourages innovations, like alternative energy technologies, that will reduce emissions, but it shouldn’t claim to use science to set inflexible and precise targets for emission reduction at a point in time.

“Science should form the basis of a climate or carbon pricing policy, but the policy goals shouldn’t be tied to specific outcomes that claim to be the result of scientific calculations. That’s setting policy up to fail, and it will fail because it doesn’t allow for uncertainty and change.”

Professor McKibbin says a “stable and credible” policy environment is needed to shape Australia’s future in what will be a major global area of innovation.

“There are many ways to price carbon, and Australia needs to look at ways that will balance competing interests both at a national and global level,” he says.

“The best way to do that is plan for change and uncertainty instead of trying to lock down policy into prescriptive detail.”

The CRC program was created in 1990 to bring scientists and industries together to work on some of the biggest challenges facing Australia.

These have included better bushfire science, manufacturing, digital technology, biosecurity, sustainable farming, water management and mental health issues underpinning the unacceptably high suicide rate among young people.

“The CRCs are an Australian success story. They were designed to create research impact, and their 25 year record of achievement speaks for itself,” says CRC Association chief executive Dr Tony Peacock.

Details of the conference program can be found at http://australia2040.com.au/

The need for risk

In February 2015, at the Australian International Airshow in Avalon, Victoria, Professor Xinhua Wu unveiled the world’s first 3D-printed jet engine.

Wu is the head of the Monash Centre for Additive Manufacturing (MCAM). The Centre, in collaboration with CSIRO, Deakin University and the University of Queensland, is leading initiatives to develop 3D printing and put Australia at the forefront of the global aerospace industry.

MCAM has partnered with French aerospace company Microturbo (Safran) whose work involves seeking out new manufacturing processes that make components lighter and cheaper than traditional ones, without reduction in performance. The two organisations pooled their expertise in additive manufacturing of metal to print two engines – one on display in Avalon and the other at Safran in Toulouse, France.

Bridging the gap between research and industry remains a goal for many nations, and the example of MCAM is a useful starting point for discussing the role universities could play in this.

Research and development is inherently risky, with high rates of failure. Companies are under pressure to deliver commercial returns to investors, yet the time frame for major innovations to be made often spans decades.

“Universities combine capability with tenacity – and odds are they’ll still be there in 25 years.”

Universities are in a position to assist industry innovation, however, because they have the capacity to apply resources to long-term projects and are willing to allow sufficient time for the process of discovery and application. They combine capability with tenacity. And while there are no guarantees, the odds are good that your university research partner will still be there in five, 10, or 25 years.

The world’s first 3D-printed  jet engine is the result of intense collaboration across academia and industry, led by the Monash Centre for Additive Manufacturing.
The world’s first 3D-printed jet engine is the result of intense collaboration across academia and industry, led by the Monash Centre for Additive Manufacturing.

For maximum benefit, commercially and otherwise, collaborations between industry and academia should focus on building enduring relationships that go beyond a single project or contact. Ideally, these partnerships should facilitate engagement at multiple levels.

Another way to offset the risks of R&D is for universities to address problems that entire industries need to solve, consulting multiple players in those industries to uncover what the major issues are. In the case of MCAM, the need for lighter, stronger parts is common across the aerospace industry, so its relationship with Safran has been a catalyst for relationships with Airbus, Boeing and defence contractor Raytheon.

These relationships are intensely collaborative, as university researchers work with their industry partners from the very early stages of each project.

This process is a far cry from the movie trope of the lone genius scientist who spends years in the laboratory, makes a miraculous discovery and only then emerges into the daylight. It’s about teams of experts investing the precious resources of time and trust for the long term – for it is from this investment that real gains will come.

Professor Margaret Gardner is an Australian academic, community leader and economist, and the current Vice-Chancellor of Monash University.
Professor Margaret Gardner is an Australian academic, community leader and economist, and the current Vice-Chancellor of Monash University.



Science Australia’s business heart

The outcome is loud and clear, the government wants to use CRCs to put science at the heart of Australian business.

CRCs will remain a feature of the Australian innovation landscape. The government only wants to support CRCs that are highly industry focused and only for a single term of up to 10 years. The application process is going to simplified to make it easier and more attractive for business to bid for a CRC.

In a bold and exciting move, they’ll be a new stream in the CRC Program called CRC-Projects (CRC-P). These will again address highly focussed industry issues but at a smaller, more nimble level than a full CRC (which are generally 7 year enterprises of maybe $100 million of activity). CRC-Ps will be up to three years, up to $3.0 million of government support and will be open for application three times a year. This is a huge development to open the CRC Program up more readily to smaller businesses and more specific projects.

Reviewer David Miles recommendations are aimed to discourage CRCs going on for very long terms. While this is a big concern for those addressing long-term innovation issues, the intent is to make the CRC concentrate on solving the problem at hand and exiting, leaving the industry players better off. This is a particularly interesting approach from Mr Miles because, prior to the commencement of his review, there was one train of thought that success in a CRC meant an ongoing body. The previous Parliamentary Secretary, Bob Baldwin, had publicly asked why more CRCs don’t continue as self-sufficient organisations beyond their government funding period?

Miles downplays the importance of an ongoing organisation in his review, making it clear that the real benefits from a CRC come when the industry players involved implement the research.

Miles also sees the industry training role of CRCs as very effective and important, encouraging more of them to do more in training postgraduates for industry roles.

CRCs that are not specifically aimed at solving industry issues are the potential losers in this Review. Time and again, the review says industry should be “front and centre” of the CRC program, arguing that when the Program tries to do everything, it achieves less. But Miles holds out a possible future for “non-industry” CRCs, encouraging other Government departments to directly fund CRCs through the Department of Industry and Science, Miles points out that this happens already (the Department of Defence funds the Defence Materials Technology Centre through the CRC Program). He points out that the CRC model works and is effective, but the Industry Department shouldn’t have to front for the cost of CRCs outside its portfolio area.

So while it is disappointing that some important areas of research may not qualify for CRCs anymore, the government is leaving the door open for other government departments to participate in the CRC Program.

For Australian business, the CRC Program should become more flexible and simpler for them to get involved in.

Dr. Tony Peacock

Chief Executive

Cooperative Research Centres Association


Growing the north

NEW OPPORTUNITIES abound for Australia’s farm industries to expand food exports into Asian markets following landmark free trade agreements with Japan and Korea in 2014.

The Japan-Australia Economic Partnership Agreement (JAEPA) came into force on 15 January 2015, allowing Australian exporters to benefit from two rounds of tariff cuts in the first half of this year. The Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement (KAFTA) took effect on 12 December 2014, and eliminates tariffs for 84% of Australia’s exports to Korea.

Minister for Industry and Science, Ian Macfarlane, welcomed the agreements as delivering long-term benefits to the national economy, particularly to research and agriculture.

“This is a huge opportunity as Japan is our second largest trading partner and Korea is our fourth, with combined two-way goods and services trade worth more than $100 billion,” he said.

Beef, dairy, honey, herbs, cordials, juices and soft drinks were just a few examples of homegrown food exports that will benefit from greater access to Asian markets, he said.

OVER 25 YEARS, the CRC Program has helped target and secure access to Asia for some of Australia’s biggest food export industries. Australian scientists working in areas such as plant and livestock genetics, food processing, soil nutrients, biosecurity, and improved supply chain management have been vital to establishing links with Asian universities and business leaders.

The Australian Seafood CRC developed new markets for dried, salted and brined products such as mussels, scallops and squid in Japan and Hong Kong. The former CRC for Beef Genetic Technologies used genomics to improve the quality of beef export products and secure new markets in Asia, and the Sheep CRC has made Australian lamb a premium product.

The Desert Knowledge CRC, which transitioned into the CRC for Remote Economic Participation (CRC-REP) and its research consultancy Ninti One, also worked on developing primary industry opportunities for Northern Australia that could benefit Indigenous communities. These include precision pastoral management technologies, potential bush food industries and barramundi aquaculture.

The Asian Development Bank estimates that Asia will account for almost half of the world’s economic output by 2050, and there will be strong global competition for the region’s markets and investment. Australia currently accounts for only 5% of global food trade, although our food exports are worth more than $30 billion a year. At current production levels, we could supply around 2% of Asia’s food requirements. But could we increase that figure significantly if Northern Australia was developed to grow, and transport, more crops for Asian markets?

IN 2014, THE COALITION government commissioned a White Paper on Developing Northern Australia – an area north of the Tropic of Capricorn stretching around three million square kilometres across Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland.

A decade ago, agricultural production in Northern Australia was worth around $4.4 billion a year, and was dominated by beef, sugar and bananas. By 2010, this grew to $5.2 billion – around 11% of Australia’s total agricultural production – and included crops such as guar beans, chia, chickpeas, soybeans and wild rice.

In a submission to the Federal Government’s National Food Plan Green Paper in 2012, Australian-owned company SunRice emphasised the critical role of water in food production.

“This is a huge opportunity… with combined two-way goods and services trade worth more than $100 billion.”

“Australia’s food security is directly related to water security,” the SunRice submission said. “At the peak of the recent drought when water allocations to rice farmers were reduced to almost zero, rice production in Australia fell from an annual average above one million tonnes to just 19,000 tonnes. This level of production was far short of meeting even our domestic needs, and is a prime example of the importance of water in growing food to feed our nation and others.”

Rice is being grown again in the Burdekin region in north Queensland, and there are suggestions that improved genetics and better understanding of the northern climate could secure Australia’s rice industry against future dramatic production losses due to prolonged drought.

AUSTRALIA IS A GLOBAL leader in sustainable rice production, with around 1500 farms in New South Wales and Victoria feeding up to 20 million people a day around the world.

Our rice farmers are the world’s most water efficient, using 50% less water than the global average to produce each kilogram of rice. They were also Australia’s first farm sector to develop a biodiversity strategy and a plan to reduce greenhouse emissions.

Australian-owned company SunRice submitted a statement to the Australian Federal Government emphasising that our future food security relies on the availability of water.

Rice was an early, and enduring, success story for the CRCs. The CRC for Sustainable Rice Production started in 1997 at the Yanco Agricultural Institute, near Leeton in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, and concluded on 30 June 2005. It is a classic example of how a CRC can fast-track research results by working with partners in academic research, industry, government and – in this case, specifically – rice research colleagues in China and Japan. In just over seven years, the CRC’s many achievements included better pest controls, improved plant breeding systems, better milling and drying techniques, sustainable irrigation levels, a groundwater management program that was adopted as a UNESCO benchmark, new rice-based food products, and an assessment of salt tolerant wild rice varieties that could be grown in Northern Australia.

In 2003, the CRC’s director Dr Laurie Lewin was awarded one of Australia’s most prestigious science awards, the Farrer Memorial Medal, for his work with the CRC in breeding new rice varieties that are better suited to Australian conditions. In his recipient’s oration, Lewin stressed the importance of genetics to future global food security.

“Recent improvements in plant breeding have been rapid and it is now an exciting time to be involved in this science,” he said. “The rice genome has been sequenced and breeders now have a range of exciting tools to meet the important challenges. It is only 50 years since the Watson and Crick model for DNA was published, but the new genetics has given access to new tools including genetic markers and genetic transformation techniques.”

THE CSIRO ESTIMATES that the area for potential irrigated agriculture, supported by groundwater, in Northern Australia is between 50,000–120,000 ha. But water is only part of the solution to developing northern agriculture and new markets in Asia.

In a Food and Fibre Supply Chain study with the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, the CSIRO identified three challenges to expanding agriculture in the north to supply Asian markets: sourcing capital investment, cost-efficient production and supply, and establishing new and viable export markets.

GrowNORTH is a research and development consortium that evolved from a Federal Government pledge to develop a northern agriculture CRC, prior to Macfarlane and Prime Minister Tony Abbott announcing plans to create five Industry Growth Centres under the Industry Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda.

“The north isn’t likely to become Asia’s food bowl, but it has the potential to become a reliable and important exporter of high quality food and seriously smart research skills.”

GrowNORTH CEO Mike Guerin says that harnessing the economic potential of the north proved to be “a wicked problem” – a social planning term that means there are complex and often conflicting interdependencies – in the past, chiefly because of “imposed ideas” that ignored geographic, social and climatic differences.

“Large-scale agriculture in the north is a high risk investment, and there have been failures in the past largely because of inadequate planning, financing and management. There’s also been a tendency to ignore, or attempt to work against, what makes the north a unique region,” he says.

“Sustainable development in the north is possible, but it must benefit all Australians. It can’t be viewed as a kind of frontier goldrush for lucrative Asian markets. The north isn’t likely to become Asia’s food bowl, but it has the potential to become a reliable and important exporter of high quality food and seriously smart research skills.

“If we get it right – and we accept that we will need to take the time, resources and patience to do that – Australia can gain a global reputation for using transformative research and economic modelling to create a world-class example of sustainable regional development.

“We will be a world leader in sustainable development, and researchers will come to the north to see how it’s done.”

GUERIN SAYS RESEARCH must look at “bigger picture” issues
in the north, rather than narrowly focusing on advancing single industries.

“We need to look at infrastructure, community support, building a skilled workforce that lives in the north, environmental outcomes, competing land uses and ways that agricultural diversity can benefit local economies,” he says.

“It’s a huge undertaking, and there will be valuable lessons along the way, but the benefits will be significant.”

Rod Reeve, managing director of the CRC-REP, says that building
robust local economies across remote areas in the north is vital to the region’s development. The CRC is working on plans to create more than 100 new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses in the north over the next decade, as well as more than 1200 small-to-medium enterprises.

It also aims to increase the productivity of remote pastoral
industries by around $300 million, and has developed a technology that could revolutionise the way cattle are managed in rangelands across the world. Reeve explains this technology as a remote sensing system that allows pastoral station managers to track and weigh cattle at watering points across a huge area, and to manage nutritional feeding programs.

“It’s an innovative system that gathers data on things like the numbers and profiles of the herd, conditions for market, growth rates and whether cows are pregnant or dry,” he says.

“All this can be done remotely, and potentially could replace the expense of aerial mustering which stresses cattle and makes them lose condition.”

The technology was developed by Ninti One and is in the final stages of a pilot study prior to commercialisation and local manufacture.

“We’re hoping it can be manufactured in Alice Springs,” says Reeve. “All the technology has been tested and developed in remote areas in the north, so it would be great to see its commercialisation go on to benefit a local economy.

Rosslyn Beeby





The next 25 years of Australian R&D

Federal cabinet ministers, CRC program leaders and policy experts will discuss the research challenges of the next 25 years in areas such as manufacturing, health, communications and the development of Australia’s north next week as part of the Australia 2040 forum.

The designs, products and services developed by CRCs are part of our everyday life; from soft contact lenses and tooth mousse that helps repair dental enamel to new materials for aircraft wing surfaces that reduce fuel use and cut global carbon emissions. In food alone, CRCs have transformed the quality of Australian lamb, assessed salt tolerance in rice, improved the health of commercial pig herds, and developed new strategy for fisheries in the face of rising ocean temperatures.

The CRCs were established in 1990 to bring scientists and industries together to work on some of the biggest challenges facing Australia. These have included better bushfire science, manufacturing, digital technology, biosecurity, sustainable farming, water management and mental health issues underpinning the unacceptably high suicide rate among young people.

“The CRCs are an Australian success story. They were designed to create research impact, and their 25 year record of achievement speaks for itself,” says CRC Association chief executive Dr Tony Peacock.

“It’s a unique program and it works equally well across economic, social and environmental research areas. The critical factor in their success is that each CRC has well-defined goals and their management, research and industry investors all agree on those goals and work toward them.”

Peacock says economic analysis has shown that while the CRCs represent less than 1.6% of Federal science funding, they drive a further $4 in investment for every dollar invested by the government.

“The CRCs have always aimed for what is now recognised as vitally important to Australia’s future – creating research impact,” he says.

The CRC’s annual conference will open on 25 May, with former CSIRO chief executive Megan Clark delivering the Ralph Slatyer address on science and society at the Australian War Memorial theatre.

On 26 May, there will be a one-day forum at Parliament House, where speakers will include Federal industry minister Ian Macfarlane, communication minister Malcolm Turnbull and CRC leaders Dr Jane Burns (Young & Well CRC), Professor Mike Aitken (Capital Markets CRC) and Professor Murray Scott (CRC for Advanced Composite Structures).

Details of the conference program can be found at http://australia2040.com.au/