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.
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