Science is fundamental for our future social and economic wellbeing.
In Western Australia we’re focusing on areas where we have natural advantages, and an appropriate base of research and industrial capacity. Western Australia’s Science Statement, released by Premier Barnett in April 2015, represents a capability audit of relevant research and engagement expertise in our universities, research institutes, State Government agencies and other organisations. Mining and energy, together with agriculture, are traditional powerhouses, but the science priorities also reflect the globally significant and growing capabilities in medicine and health, biodiversity and marine science, and radio astronomy. It’s a great place to begin exciting new collaborations.
The Science Statement has also helped to align efforts across research organisations and industry. For instance, in 2015 an industry-led “Marine Science Blueprint 2050” was released, followed by the Premier commissioning a roundtable of key leaders from industry, Government, academia and community to develop a long-term collaborative research strategy. These meetings highlighted critical areas of common interest such as decommissioning, marine noise, community engagement and sharing databases.
“Opportunities abound for science and industry to work together to translate research into practical, or commercial, outcomes.”
Science, innovation and collaboration are integral to many successful businesses in Western Australia. In the medical field, a range of technological innovations have broadened the economy and created new jobs. Some of these success stories include Phylogica, Admedus, Orthocell, iCeutica, Dimerix, Epichem and Proteomics International. Another example in this space is the Phase I clinical trial facility, Linear Clinical Research, which was established with support from the State Government – 75% of the trials conducted to date come from big pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies in the USA.
Opportunities abound for science and industry to work together to translate research into practical, or commercial, outcomes. For example, the field of big data analytics is rapidly permeating many sectors. Perth’s Pawsey Centre, the largest public research supercomputer in the southern hemisphere, processes torrents of data delivered by many sources, including radioastronomy as the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array, is being developed in outback WA. In addition, local company DownUnder GeoSolutions has a supercomputer five times the size of Pawsey for massive geophysical analyses. In such a rich data environment, exciting new initiatives like the CISCO’s Internet of Everything Innovation Centre, in partnership with Woodside, is helping to drive innovation and growth.
Leading players in the resources and energy sector are also taking innovative approaches to enhance efficiency and productivity. Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton use remote-controlled driverless trucks, and autonomous trains, to move iron ore in the Pilbara. Woodside has an automated offshore facility, while Shell is developing its Prelude Floating Liquefied Natural Gas facility soon to be deployed off the northwest coast. Excitingly, 3 emerging companies (Carnegie, Bombora and Protean) are making waves by harnessing the power of the ocean to generate energy.
This high-tech, innovative environment is complemented by a rapidly burgeoning start-up ecosystem. In this vibrant sector, Unearthed runs events, competitions and accelerators to create opportunities for entrepreneurs in the resources space. Spacecubed provides fabulous co-working space for young entrepreneurs, including the recently launched FLUX for innovators in the resource sector. The online graphic design business Canva, established by two youthful Western Australians epitomises what entrepreneurial spirit and can-do attitude can achieve. In this amazingly interconnected world, the sky’s the limit.
Read next:Professor Barney Glover, Vice-Chancellor and President of Western Sydney University and Dr Andy Marks, Assistant Vice-Chancellor (Strategy and Policy) of Western Sydney University on Making innovation work.
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1. Make sure there is a viable, readily accessible market that is sufficiently large to support a spin-off company.
2. The actual invention is only the trigger to start a company – you are establishing a company that will need to innovate on an ongoing basis if it wants to be successful. Make sure that innovation capability and desire exists and thrives in the spin-off.
3. Identify competent board and management capability to direct the business and generate revenue for the company. Most often the management capability is not the same people who carried out the research, but sometimes it can be. Without the right people running the show, the spin-off will not be successful.
4. Make sure you have sufficient funding available to get the company through to a viable revenue stream, and ideally flexible funding arrangements. Unexpected things will happen and you need capability to accommodate those changes.“
“Most start-ups are focused on development plans that contain binary events and marginal financing. This makes them vulnerable to unforeseen delays and additional development steps that require additional funding.
I believe that we should be looking to generate portfolios of innovation under experienced management teams that give our projects the best chance of success – and adequate funding to reach proof of concept in whatever market we are targeting – but at the same time help to spread risk.“
“Ensuring a strong board, CEO, and a quality management team will be critical to success. The availability of funds for programs is an often-discussed barrier to rapid progress. Underfunded companies and poorly thought-out product concepts or technologies are more likely to fail early.“
“1. For biotechnology R&D spin-off start-ups in Australia, major hurdles are the dearth of seed capital as well as access to large follow-on venture funds that are needed to build successful biotechnology companies.
2. There is a mismatch between the 10-year life span of a venture capital fund in Australia and the 15+ years needed to translate research findings into a novel drug or biologic product for improving human health.
3. Hence, these systemic issues are major impediments to building successful biotechnology companies in Australia and these issues need to be addressed.”
– Professor Maree Smith, Executive Director of the Centre for Integrated Preclinical Drug Development and Head of the Pain Research Group at The University of Queensland
There are two potential ‘valleys of death’ for R&D spin-off companies. One is in translating their research concepts into prototype products. The other is in maturing from prototype to full commercialisation.
“Taking the prototype through to full commercialisation was probably more difficult for us due to the complexities involved.
This included high-tech scale-up manufacturing, which we do at our bio-manufacturing facility in Malaga. Today, we have the ability to expand production as necessary, as well as refine and develop our processes in-house to accommodate new products and product improvements.
There was also a focus on generating sales once CardioCel was commercialised. Just because a product is approved doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be used straight away by the intended customers.
We’ve focused on educating the market about the benefits of CardioCel, such as its biocompatibility and lack of calcification (hardening) at the site of surgery. We’ve also built a strong global sales and marketing team who work closely with our customers to understand their needs.
As a result, we’ve seen continued quarter-on-quarter growth in CardioCel sales, and the product is now used in over 135 heart centres globally.“
“For pharmaceuticals the so called ‘second valley of death’ is by far the most significant.
Lack of funding often prevents companies from attempting to cross this valley and causes them to license their technology at an earlier stage and to realise rewards as the licensor takes their innovation to market.
For a small company with limited resources, the key to success here is to understand the commercialisation risks, link the higher-risk projects with partners and try to make that step themselves for markets with lower entry costs and higher clinical need.
If done well, they should end up with a portfolio approach with the risks mitigated but still significant opportunity for value appreciation.”
“SmartCap Technologies had substantial industry support to develop the prototype products, however even with this it was a very challenging process to deliver working prototypes.
SmartCap was exceedingly fortunate in that CRCMining provided substantially more financial support for SmartCap than originally envisaged, enabling it to finally deploy the prototype products. Those prototypes were sufficiently effective to generate commercial interest from some large mining companies.
So despite having robust plans in place, it always helps to have access to further funding, via investors or other stakeholders with a high level of commitment as well as deep pockets, to overcome unforeseen eventualities.”
“The biggest hurdle may be the combination of the two – translating research concepts (i.e. technical information associated with the technology) following commercialisation into an immature market.
Catapult‘s technology is not a consumer product and therefore is very high touch in terms of its service and client support. Due to the perceived complexity of the information obtained from the technology, part of the trick is to simplify the underlying research concepts to new markets that need a low touch product.”
“I would argue that you should have a prototype – before any spin-off. That way you can at least prove technical viability of your concept. Ideally you would also have done some level of customer validation.
The next step of full commercialisation is definitely the hardest.
In our case it was a matter of finding early customers that were willing to spend time assessing the product and its benefits – even though it was too early to commit to a purchase and full roll-out. This phase was key to understanding the market and adjusting our path.”
“The first phase is the most difficult – a poor prototype will show its deficiencies later in development. A prototype needs to demonstrate a safe and efficacious profile, and that it will meet the need you have defined in the target market.”
“We are in the middle of our valley of death translating our platform into the clinic and we have not yet overcome it. Data is key, but one needs the funds to produce the results! So, we are seeking investors wherever we can find them and buddying up to big pharmaceuticals who have the muscle to progress our technology.”
– Dr Jennifer Macdiarmid, pictured above with Dr. Himanshu Brahmbhatt, joint Chief Executive Officers and Directors
For the first time, scientists have observed ripples in the fabric of spacetime called gravitational waves, arriving at the earth from a cataclysmic event in the distant universe. This confirms a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity and opens an unprecedented new window onto the cosmos.
Gravitational waves carry information about their dramatic origins and about the nature of gravity that cannot otherwise be obtained. Physicists have concluded that the detected gravitational waves were produced during the final fraction of a second of the merger of two black holes to produce a single, more massive spinning black hole. This collision of two black holes had been predicted but never observed.
Leader of the Australian Partnership in Advanced LIGO Professor David McClelland from ANU, says the observation would open up new fields of research to help scientists better understand the universe.
“The collision of the two black holes was the most violent event ever recorded,” McClelland says.
“To detect it, we have built the largest experiment ever – two detectors 4000 km apart with the most sensitive equipment ever made, which has detected the smallest signal ever measured.”
Associate Professor Peter Veitch from University of Adelaide says the discovery was the culmination of decades of research and development in Australia and internationally.
“The Advanced LIGO detectors are a technological triumph and the discovery has provided undeniable proof that Einstein’s gravitational waves and black holes exist,” Veitch says.
“I have spent 35 years working towards this detection and the success is very sweet.”
Professor David Blair from UWA says the black hole collision detected by LIGO was invisible to all previous telescopes, despite being the most violent event ever measured.
“Gravitational waves are akin to sound waves that travelled through space at the speed of light,” Blair says.
“Up to now humanity has been deaf to the universe. Suddenly we know how to listen. The universe has spoken and we have understood.”
With its first discovery, LIGO is already changing how astronomers view the universe, says LIGO researcher Dr Eric Thrane from Monash University.
“The discovery of this gravitational wave suggests that merging black holes are heavier and more numerous than many researchers previously believed,” Thrane says.
“This bodes well for detection of large populations of distant black holes research carried out by our team at Monash University. It will be intriguing to see what other sources of gravitational waves are out there, waiting to be discovered.”
The success of LIGO promised a new epoch of discovery, says Professor Andrew Melatos, from The University of Melbourne.
“Humanity is at the start of something profound. Gravitational waves let us peer right into the heart of some of the most extreme environments in the Universe, like black holes and neutron stars, to do fundamental physics experiments under conditions that can never be copied in a lab on Earth,” Melatos says.
“It is very exciting to think that we now have a new and powerful tool at our disposal to unlock the secrets of all this beautiful physics.”
Dr Philip Charlton from CSU says the discovery opened a new window on the universe.
“In the same way that radio astronomy led to the discovery of the cosmic microwave background, the ability to ‘see’ in the gravitational wave spectrum will likely to lead to unexpected discoveries,” he says.
Professor Susan Scott, who studies General Relativity at ANU, says observing this black hole merger was an important test for Einstein’s theory.
“It has passed with flying colours its first test in the strong gravity regime which is a major triumph.”
“We now have at our disposal a tool to probe much further back into the Universe than is possible with light, to its earliest epoch.”
Australian technology used in the discovery has already spun off into a number of commercial applications. For example, development of the test and measurement system MOKU:Lab by Liquid Instruments; vibration isolation for airborne gravimeters for geophysical exploration; high power lasers for remote mapping of wind-fields, and for airborne searches for methane leaks in gas pipelines.
This information was first shared by Monash University on 12 February 2016. Read their news story here.
Remoteness, cultural differences and follow through on health issues from diagnosis to treatment are persistent barriers, says Selina Madeleine, Global Communications Manager of the Brien Holden Vision Institute.
The Indigenous eye care toolkit addresses these identified gaps in the system by allowing health workers to assess current health care practices, and includes referral flowcharts and information that can be sent electronically, as well as eye testing kits.
The toolkit is also made with consideration of Indigenous community perspectives, says Madeleine.
“I don’t think there’s anything quite like this out there, specifically targeting improved eye care outcomes within the Indigenous population,” she adds.
The kit has been used for five years across NSW and the Northern Territory and measurements over the last two years show an increase in optometry examinations from 51% to 97% and in ophthalmology services from 28% to 93%.
Follow through from use of the Indigenous eye care toolkit has also jumped, with the proportion of referred individuals with diabetic retinopathy who saw an ophthalmologist up from 25% to 54%, and those referred for cataracts and who received surgery up from just 3% to 32%.
More funding needed
The toolkit is now being disseminated to hundreds of other health care workers in these states and Madeleine says the Institute plans to role it out further.
“We would like to role this out in other states across Australia because it has been so successful in the places we’ve used it so far.”
Madeline says a lack of funding is all that is preventing the widespread adoption of the toolkit elsewhere.
The Jack Hills are part of an ancient landscape of scorched red earth in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. But it wasn’t until 2001, when a rock from the hills was brought 800 km south to Curtin University’s John De Laeter Centre for Isotope Research (JDLC), that scientists discovered just how ancient this landscape really is. The Curtin scientists dated zircon crystals in the sample at 4.4 billion years, making it the oldest known Earth rock.
This groundbreaking research required a sophisticated measurement of trace elements in the crystal, and there are very few facilities in the world where this could have taken place. Zircon traps uranium in its crystal structure when it is formed. In principle, the radioactive decay of uranium into lead is like a ticking clock. If you can accurately measure how much lead has been created and how much uranium remains in a particular sample, you can work out when the crystal was formed. To do this, and to arrive at an age with an uncertainty of just 0.2%, Curtin researchers called upon the $4 million Sensitive High Resolution Ion Micro Probe (SHRIMP), the flagship technology of the JDLC. There are fewer than 20 SHRIMPs in the world, and Curtin is home to two of them.
“Zircon is like diamond – it’s forever,” explains JDLC Director, Professor Brent McInnes. Being a very hard and chemically inert material, zircon lasts for billions of years. The JDLC has world-renowned expertise in dating rocks by analysing the uranium-lead decay process in zircon.
The JDLC is also regularly put to more practical uses, such as aiding resource exploration in Western Australia. The SHRIMPs are the centrepieces of a suite of equipment worth $25 million, including scanning electron microscopes, transmission electron microscopes, ion beam milling instruments, laser probes and mass spectrometers.
“We are an open access lab,” explains McInnes. “These instruments can run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” The JDLC collaborates with research groups around the world and also assists the Geological Survey of Western Australia to make maps used to attract investment in mining and petroleum exploration. Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences researchers use the instruments to do similar work in China, controlling the Perth-based SHRIMPs remotely from Beijing.
The JDLC facilities have also been used to solve practical problems for industry partners. When exploration company Independence Group NL found tin in a gravel bed at the base of a WA river, they turned to the JDLC to help identify the origins of the ore. Was it from a local source or had it been transported from elsewhere and deposited in the riverbed? Using SHRIMP, the JDLC team measured the quantities of trace uranium and lead elements in the tin ore cassiterite and calculated its age. When they performed similar measurements on zircon from local granite, they found its age was the same. This showed the tin was local, and helped the Independence Group pinpoint the precise locations to drill exploratory holes. “We have an incredibleset of research tools that can be deployed to help industry reduce the risks and costs of exploration,” says McInnes.
“Recognising the gap, Curtin has set up a dedicated funding program, called Kickstart, to help translate lab research into commercial ventures.”
Collaborating with industry is a commonplace activity for John Curtin Distinguished Professor and Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor – Faculty of Science and Engineering, Moses Tadé. Industry possesses considerable experts, he says, yet still tends to approach academics when looking at something more fundamental. Tadé’s group brings a range of skills to the table, including expertise in multi-scale modelling, computational flow dynamics, reaction engineering and optimisation modelling. Collaboration is highly beneficial for both sides, he says.
Ongoing projects include the development of solid oxide fuel cells with a Melbourne-based fuel cell company, and a project in partnership with a petroleum industry multinational to remove mercury from oil and gas. In recent years, sponsorship from leading minerals and exploration companies Chevron Australia and Woodside Energy has supported the growth of the Curtin Corrosion Engineering Industry Centre, of which Tadé is Director. The Centre looks to develop practical solutions to the problem of corrosion in gas pipelines, which can lead to costly leaks and dangerous explosions.
In another project, led by chemical engineer Professor Vishnu Pareek, Curtin has teamed up with Woodside to develop a more efficient way to regasify liquefied natural gas. Currently, natural gas from Australia is liquified so it can be transported efficiently by ship to overseas markets, particularly China. But once it gets there, the regasification process can burn up to 2% of the product. A new process being developed at Curtin uses the energy in the ambient air to aid regasification – a more efficient solution that will both increase profits and reduce CO2 emissions. “It’s very exciting,” says Tadé. “A big thing for the environment.”
Curtin has become a busy hub of innovation, with a spate of spin-off companies being created to translate the research. “We have a focused effort on commercialisation and research outcomes,” explains Rohan McDougall, Director of IP Commercialisation at Curtin.
Public funding of science and engineering research can often only take new technology to a certain level of development such as ‘proof-of-concept’. Securing funds from investors to turn pre-commercial work into a real-world product is tough as investors are wary at this early high-risk stage. “The gap is traditionally known as the ‘valley of death’,” says McDougall. Recognising this gap, Curtin has set up a dedicated funding program, called Kickstart, to help translate lab research into commercial ventures.
As well as the extra funding, commercialisation is aided at Curtin by strong links with the venture capital community and industry, which advise on commercialisation routes and intellectual property. The university also encourages an innovation environment by running contests in which staff and students describe technologies they are working on and that may have commercial applications.
This commercialisation focus has reaped dividends in terms of successful spin-off companies. In the medical space, Neuromonics sells a device for the treatment of the auditory condition tinnitus. In digital technology, iCetana has developed a video analytics technology for security applications. Skrydata, a data analytics company, provides a service for extracting patterns from big data. Sensear has developed sophisticated hearing equipment technology for high-noise environments such as oil and gas facilities.
One of the biggest recent success stories has been Scanalyse, which in 2013 won the prestigious Australian Museum Rio Tinto Eureka Prize for Commercialisation of Innovation. Scanalyse grew out of a collaboration between Curtin and Alcoa, one of the world’s largest aluminium producers. Alcoa called on Curtin’s experts to find a way to analyse the grinders used in their mills. Every time a grinder wore out, it was costing ~$100,000/hour in downtime. It was crucial to monitor the condition of these machines, but this required someone to climb inside and take measurements. Through their 2005 collaboration with Alcoa, spatial scientists at Curtin developed a laser scanning system capable of measuring 10 million points in just 30 minutes.
“At the same time, they developed a software tool that could be applied more generally,” explains McDougall. “So the business was established to look at the application of that technology to mills and other mine site equipment.”
Scanalyse has since found customers in more than 20 countries and is making an impact worldwide. In 2013, it was bought by Finnish engineering giant Outotec.
The nanoscale is so tiny it’s almost beyond comprehension. Too small for detection by the human eye, and not even discernible by most laboratory microscopes, it refers to measurements in the range of 1–100 billionths of a metre. The nanoscale is the level at which atoms and molecules come together to form structured materials.
The Nanochemistry Research Institute — NRI — conducts fundamental and applied research to understand, model and tailor materials at the nanoscale. It brings together scientists – with expertise in chemistry, engineering, computer simulations, materials and polymers – and external collaborators to generate practical applications in health, energy, environmental management, industry and exploration. These include new tests for cancer, and safer approaches to oil and gas transportation. Research ranges from government-funded exploratory science to confidential industry projects.
The NRI hosts research groups with specialist expertise in the chemical formation of minerals and other materials. “To understand minerals, it’s often important to know what is going on at the level of atoms,” explains Julian Gale, John Curtin Distinguished Professor in Computational Chemistry and former Acting Director of the NRI. “To do this, we use virtual observation – watching how atoms interact at the nanoscale – and modelling, where we simulate the behaviour of atoms on a computer.”
The mineral calcium carbonate is produced through biomineralisation by some marine invertebrates. “If we understand the chemistry that leads to the formation of carbonates in the environment, then we can look at how factors such as ocean temperature and pH can lead to the loss of minerals that are a vital component of coral reefs,” says Gale.
This approach could be used to build an understanding of how minerals are produced biologically, potentially leading to medical and technological benefits, including applications in bone growth and healing, or even kidney stone prevention and treatment.
Gale anticipates that a better understanding of mineral geochemistry may also shed light on how and where metals are distributed. “If you understand the chemistry of gold in solution and how deposits form, you might have a better idea where to look for the next gold mine,” he explains.
There are also environmental implications. “Formation of carbonate minerals, especially magnesium carbonate and its hydrates, has been proposed as a means of trapping atmospheric carbon in a stable solid state through a process known as geosequestration. We work with colleagues in the USA to understand how such carbonates form,” says Gale.
Minerals science is also relevant in industrial settings. Calcium carbonate scaling reduces flow rates in pipes and other structures in contact with water. “As an example, the membranes used for reverse osmosis in water desalination – a water purification technology that uses a semipermeable membrane to remove salt and other minerals from saline water – can trigger the formation of calcium carbonate,” explains Gale. “This results in partial blockage of water flow through the membrane, and reduced efficiency of the desalination process.”
A long-term aim of research in this area is to design water membranes that prevent these blockages. There are also potential applications in the oil industry, where barium sulphate (barite) build-up reduces the flow in pipes, and traps dangerous radioactive elements such as radium.
Another problem for exploration companies is the formation of hydrates of methane and other low molecular weight hydrocarbon molecules. These can block pipelines and processing equipment during oil and gas transportation and operations, which results in serious safety and flow assurance issues. Materials chemist Associate Professor Xia Lou leads a large research group in the Department of Chemical Engineering that is developing low-dose gas hydrates inhibitors to prevent hydrate formation. “We also develop nanomaterials for the removal of organic contaminants in water, and nanosensors to detect or extract heavy metals,” she says.
“To understand minerals, it’s often important to know what is going on at the level of the atom.”
The capacity to control how molecules come together and then disassociate offers tantalising opportunities for product development, particularly in food science, drug delivery and cosmetics. In the Department of Chemistry, Professor Mark Ogden conducts nanoscale research looking at hydrogels, or networks of polymeric materials suspended in water.
“We study the 3D structure of hydrogels using the Institute’s scanning probe microscope,” says Ogden. “The technique involves running a sharp tip over the surface of the material. It provides an image of the topography of the surface, but we can also measure how hard, soft or sticky the surface is.” Ogden is developing methods for watching hydrogels grow and fall apart through heating and cooling. “We have the capability to do that sort of imaging now, and this in situ approach is quite rare around the world,” he says.
“We’ve identified lanthanoid clusters that can emit UV light and have magnetic properties,” explains Ogden. “Some of these can form single molecule magnets. A key outcome will be to link cluster size and shape to these functional properties.” This may facilitate guided production of magnetic and light-emitting materials for use in sensing and imaging technologies.
“If you understand the chemistry of gold … then you might have a better idea of where to start looking for the next gold mine.”
The NRI is working across several areas of chemistry and engineering to develop nanoscale tools for detecting and treating health conditions. Professor Damien Arrigan applies a nanoscale electrochemical approach to detecting biological molecules, also known as biosensing. He and his Department of Chemistry colleagues work at the precise junction between layered oil and water.
“We make oil/water interfaces using membranes with nanopores, some as small as 15 nanometres,” he says. “This scale delivers the degree of sensitivity we’re after.” The scientists measure the passage of electrical currents across the tiny interfaces and detect protein, which absorbs at the boundary between the two liquids. “As long as we know a protein’s isoelectric point – that is, the pH at which it carries no electrical charge – we can measure its concentration,” he explains.
The technique enables the scientists to detect proteins at nanomolar (10−6 mol/m3) concentrations, but they hope to shift the sensitivity to the picomolar (10−9 mol/m3) range – a level of detection a thousand times more sensitive and not possible with many existing protein assessments. Further refinement may also incorporate markers to select for proteins of interest. “What we’d like to do one day is measure specific proteins in biological fluids like saliva, tears or serum,” says Arrigan.
The team’s long-term vision is to develop highly sensitive point-of-need measurements to guide treatments – for example, testing kits for paramedics to detect markers released after a heart attack so that appropriate treatment can be immediately applied.
Also in the Department of Chemistry, Dr Max Massi is developing biosensing tools to look at the health of living tissues. His approach relies on tracking the location and luminescence of constructed molecules in cells. “We synthesise new compounds based on heavy metals that have luminescent properties,” explains Massi. “Then we feed the compounds to cells, and look to see where they accumulate and how they glow.”
The team synthesises libraries of designer chemicals for their trials. “We know what properties we’re after – luminescence, biological compatibility and the ability to go to the part of the cell we want,” says Massi.
For example, compounds can be designed to accumulate in lysosomes – the tiny compartments in a cell that are involved in functions such as waste processing. With appropriate illumination, images of lysosomes can then be reconstructed and viewed in 3D using a technique known as confocal microscopy, enabling scientists to assess lysosome function. Similar approaches are in development for disease states such as obesity and cancer.
Beyond detection, this technique also has potential for therapeutic applications. Massi has performed in vitro studies with healthy and cancerous cells, suggesting that a switch from detection to treatment may be possible by varying the amount of light used to illuminate the cells.
“A bit of light allows you to visualise. A lot of light will allow you to kill the cells,” explains Massi. His approach is on track for product development, with intellectual property protection filed in relation to using phosphorescent compounds to determine the health status of cells.
Improving approaches to cancer treatment is also an ongoing research activity for materials chemist Dr Xia Lou, who designs, constructs and tests nanoparticles for targeted photodynamic therapy, which aims to selectively kill tumours using light-induced reactive oxygen species.
“We construct hybrid nanoparticles with high photodynamic effectiveness and a tumour-targeting agent, and then test them in vitro in our collaborators’ laboratories,” she says. “Our primary interest is in the treatment of skin cancer. The technology has also extended applications in the treatment of other diseases.” Lou has successfully filed patents for cancer diagnosis and treatment that support the potential of this approach.
Spheres and other 3D shapes constructed at the nanoscale offer potential for many applications centred on miniaturised storage and release of molecules and reactivity with target materials. Dr Jian Liu in the Department of Chemical Engineering develops new synthesis strategies for silica or carbon spheres, or ‘yolk-shell’-structured particles. “Our main focus is the design, synthesis and application of colloidal nanoparticles including metal, metal oxides, silica and carbon,” says Liu.
Most of these colloidal particles are nanoporous – that is, they have a lattice-like structure with pores throughout. The applications of such nanoparticles include catalysis, energy storage and conversion, drug delivery and gene therapy.
“The most practical outcome of our research would be the development of new catalysts for the production of synthetic gases, or syngas,” he says. “It may also lead to new electrodes for lithium-ion batteries.” Once developed, nanoscale components for this type of rechargeable battery are expected to bring improved safety and durability, and lower costs.
Atomic Modelling matters in research
Professor Julian Gale leads a world-class research group in computational materials chemistry at the NRI. “We work at the atomic level, looking at fundamental processes by which materials form,” he says. “We can simulate up to a million atoms or more, and then test how the properties and behaviour of the atoms change in response to different experimental conditions.” Such research is made possible through accessing a petascale computer at WA’s Pawsey Centre – built primarily to support Square Kilometre Array pathfinder research.
The capacity to model the nanoscale behaviour of atoms is a powerful tool in nanochemistry research, and can give direction to experimental work. The calcium carbonate mineral vaterite is a case in point. “Our theoretical work on calcium carbonate led to the proposal that the mineral vaterite was actually composed of at least three different forms,” Gale explains. “An international team found experimental evidence which supported this idea.”
NRI Director Professor Andrew Lowe regards this capacity as an asset. “Access to this kind of atomic modelling means that our scientists can work within a hypothetical framework to test whether a new idea is likely to work or not before they commit time and money to it,” he explains.
Formally established in 2001, the Nanochemistry Research Institute began a new era in 2015 through the appointment of Professor Andrew Lowe as Director. Working under his guidance are academic staff and postdoctoral fellows, as well as PhD, Honours and undergraduate science students.
An expert in polymer chemistry, Lowe’s research background adds a new layer to the existing strong multidisciplinary nature of the Institute. “Polymers have the potential to impact on every aspect of fundamental research,” he says. “This will add a new string to the bow of Curtin University science and engineering, and open new and exciting areas of research and collaboration.”
Polymers are a diverse group of materials composed of multiple repeated structural units connected by chemical bonds. “My background is in water-soluble polymers and smart polymers,” explains Lowe. “These materials change the way they behave in response to their external environment – for example, a change in temperature, salt concentrations, pH or the presence of other molecules including biomolecules. Because the characteristics of the polymeric molecules can be altered in a reversible manner, they offer potential to be used in an array of applications, including drug delivery, catalysis and surface modification.”
Lowe has particular expertise in RAFT dispersion polymerisation, a technique facilitating molecular self-assembly to produce capsule-like polymers in solution. “This approach allows us to make micelles, worms and vesicles directly,” he says, describing the different physical forms the molecules can take. “It’s a novel and specialised technique that creates high concentrations of uniformly-shaped polymeric particles at the nanoscale.” Such polymers are candidates for drug delivery and product encapsulation.
New Chief Scientist Finkel is an outspoken advocate for science awareness and popularisation. He is a patron of the Australian Science Media Centre and has helped launch popular science magazine, Cosmos.
He is also an advocate for nuclear power, arguing that “nuclear electricity should be considered as a zero-emissions contributor to the energy mix” in Australia.
“The Academy is looking forward to the government’s announcement, but Finkel would be an excellent choice for this position. I’m confident he would speak strongly and passionately on behalf of Australian science, particularly in his advice to government,” he says.
“The AAS and ATSE have never been closer; we have worked together well on important issues facing Australia’s research community, including our recent partnership on the Science in Australia Gender Equity initiative.”
Holmes also thanked outgoing Chief Scientist for his strong leadership for science in Australia, including establishing ACOLA as a trusted source of expert, interdisciplinary advice to the Commonwealth Science Council.
“Since his appointment, Chubb has been a tireless advocate of the fundamental importance of science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills as the key to the country’s future prosperity, and a driving force behind the identification of strategic research priorities for the nation,” says Holmes.
This article was first published on The Conversation on 26 October 2015. Read the original article here.
“Finkel is an energetic advocate for STEM across all levels of society, from schools and the general public to corporate leaders. We’re excited and optimistic about the fresh approach science and innovation is enjoying.”
“This is truly the most fantastic news. Finkel is an extraordinary leader. He has proven himself in personal scientific research. He has succeeded in business in competitive fields. It is difficult to think of anyone who would do this important job with greater distinction.”
“Finkel has a profound understanding of the place of science in a flourishing modern economy, as a scientist, entrepreneur and science publisher of real note. We look forward to working closely with Finkel, as we jointly pursue better links between STEM and industry.”
Australian scientists and science educators have been honoured at the annual Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science. The awards, introduced in 2000, are considered Australia’s most prestigious and highly regarded awards, and are given in recognition of excellence in scientific research, innovation and science teaching.
The awards acknowledge and pay tribute to the significant contributions that Australian scientists make to the economic and social betterment in Australia and around the world, as well as inspiring students to take an interest in science.
Previous winners include Professor Ryan Lister (Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year in 2014) for his work on gene regulation in agriculture and in the treatment of disease and mental health, and Debra Smith (Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools in 2010) for her outstanding contribution in redefining how science is taught in Queensland and across the rest of Australia.
This year’s winners were announced by the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull and Christopher Pyne, Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra yesterday, which was also attended by the Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb.
Professor Farquhar’s models of plant biophysics has led to a greater understanding of cells, whole plants and forests, as well as the creation of new water-efficient wheat varieties. His work has transformed our understanding of the world’s most important biological reaction: photosynthesis.
Farquhar’s most recent research on climate change is seeking to determine which trees will grow faster in a carbon dioxide enriched atmosphere. “Carbon dioxide has a huge effect on plants. My current research involves trying to understand why some species and genotypes respond more to CO2 than others,” he says. And he and colleagues have uncovered a conundrum: global evaporation rates and wind speeds over the land are slowing, which is contrary to the predictions of most climate models. “Wind speed over the land has gone down 15% in the last 30 years, a finding that wasn’t predicted by general circulation models we use to form the basis of what climate should be like in the future,” he says. This startling discovery means that climate change may bring about a wetter world.
“Our world in the future will be effectively wetter, and some ecosystems will respond to this more than others.”
Professor Farquhar will also receive $250,000 in prize money. Looking forward he is committed to important projects, such as one with the ARC looking at the complex responses of plant hydraulics under very hot conditions.
“It’s important to understand if higher temperatures will negatively affect the plants in our natural and managed ecosystems, and if higher temperatures are damaging, we need to understand the nature of the damage and how we can minimise it.”
You can find out more about the 2015 winners including profiles, photos and videos here.
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.
“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.
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.
Collecting rock samples at 5200 m on a recent trip to the Tibetan Plateau, Professor Simon Wilde, from the Department of Applied Geology at Curtin University, was pleased to have avoided the symptoms of altitude sickness. The last time he conducted fieldwork in a similar environment had been about 20 years before in Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia, and he’d managed then to also avoid altitude headaches. Nonetheless, he says, Tibet was tough. Due to the atmospheric conditions, the Sun was intensely strong and hot but the ground was frozen. “It’s a strange environment,” he says.
Wilde was invited by scientists at the Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, to collect volcanic rock samples at the Tibetan site. The region is geologically significant because it is where the Indian tectonic plate is currently “driving itself under the Eurasian plate”, he explains. During their recent field trip, Wilde and his Chinese colleagues collected about 100 kg of rocks, which were couriered back to Guangzhou and Curtin for study. The researchers will be drawing on a variety of geochemistry techniques to analyse the material as they try to paint a picture of what happens when two continents collide, gaining insight into the evolution of Earth’s crust.
“We’re trying to unravel a mystery in a sense,” says Wilde. “We don’t have the full information, so we’re trying to use everything we can to build up the most likely story.”
The Guangzhou geochemists will be analysing trace elements in the rock samples to uncover information about their origins and formation. Back at Curtin, Wilde is working on determining the age of zircon crystals collected from the site, using a technique called isotopic analysis. This involves measuring the ratios of atoms of certain elements with different numbers of neutrons (isotopes) to reveal the age of crystals based on known rates of radioactive decay.
It’s work that’s providing a clearer picture of Earth’s early crustal development and is an area in which Wilde is internationally renowned (see profile, p18).
Gaining an idea of the past distribution of Earth’s continental crust has implications for the resources sector, Wilde explains. “It’s important for people working in metallogeny [the study of mineral deposits] to see where pieces of the crust have perhaps broken off and been redistributed,” he says. “There could be continuation of a mineral belt totally removed and on another continent.”
Continents collide: Copper in demand
Professor Brent McInnes, Director of the John De Laeter Centre for Isotope Research, is also interested in the collision of tectonic plates – to help supply China’s increasing demand for domestic copper. “The rapid urbanisation of China since the 1990s has created a significant demand for a strategic supply of domestic copper, used in air conditioners, electrical motors and in building construction,” explains McInnes. Most of the world’s supply of copper comes from a specific mineral deposit type known as porphyry systems, which are the exposed roots of volcanoes formed during tectonic plate collisions.
McInnes’ research involves taking samples from drill cores, rock outcrops and mine exposures in mountainous regions around the world to be studied back in the lab. Specifically, he and his research team are able to elucidate information about the depth, erosion and uplift rate of copper deposits using a technique called thermochronology – a form of dating that takes into account the ‘closure temperature’, or temperature below which an isotope is locked into a mineral. Using this information, scientists can reveal the temperature of an ore body at a given time in its geological history. This, in turn, provides information with important implications for copper exploration, such as the timing and duration of the mineralisation process, as well as the rate of exposure and erosion.
“Institutions such as the Chinese Academy of Sciences have been awarded large research grants to investigate porphyry copper deposits in mountainous terrains in southern and western China, and have sought to form collaborations with world-leading researchers in the field,” says McInnes.
“We’re trying to unravel a mystery, in a sense. We don’t have the full information, so we’re trying to use everything we can to build up the most likely story.”
Continents collide: Interpreting species loss
Professor Kliti Grice, founding Director of the WA-Organic and Isotope Geochemistry Centre, researches mass extinctions. As an organic and isotope geochemist, Grice (see profile, p12) studies molecular fossils in rock sediments from 2.3 billion years ago through to the present day, also known as biomarkers. These contain carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, or sulphur – unlike the rocks, minerals and trace elements studied by inorganic geochemists Wilde and McInnes.
Grice uses tools such as tandem mass spectrometry, which enables the separation and analysis of ratios of naturally occurring stable isotopes to reconstruct ancient environments. For example, carbon has two stable isotopes – carbon-12 and carbon-13 – and one radioactive isotope, carbon-14. The latter is commonly used for dating ancient artefacts based on its rate of decay. A change in carbon-12 to carbon-13 ratios in plant molecules, however – along with a change in hydrogen – can reveal a shift in past photosynthetic activity.
Grice has uncovered the environmental conditions during Earth’s five mass extinction events and has found there were similar conditions in the three biggest extinctions – the end-Permian at 252 million years ago (Ma), end-Triassic at 201 Ma and end-Devonian at 374 Ma. Among other things, there were toxic levels of hydrogen sulphide in the oceans. Grice discovered this by studying molecules from photosynthetic bacteria, which were found to be using toxic hydrogen sulphide instead of water as an electron donor when performing photosynthesis, thereby producing sulphur instead of oxygen.
“The end-Permian and end-Triassic events were almost identical in that they are both associated with massive volcanism, rising sea levels and increased run-off from land, leading to eutrophication,” Grice explains. Eutrophication occurs when introduced nutrients in water cause excessive algal growth, reducing oxygen levels in the environment. “There were no polar ice caps at these times, and the oceans had sluggish circulations,” she adds.
In 2013, Grice co-authored a paper in Nature Scientific Reports documenting that fossils in the Kimberley showed that hydrogen sulphide plays a pivotal role in soft tissue preservation. This modern day insight is valuable for the resources sector because these ancient environments provided the conditions for many major mineral and petroleum systems. “When you have these major extinction events associated with low oxygen allowing the organic matter to be preserved – along with certain temperature and pressure conditions over time – the materials break down to produce oil and gas,” Grice says.
For example, the Permian-Triassic extinction event – during which up to 95% of marine and 70% of terrestrial species disappeared – produced several major petroleum reserves. That includes deposits in Western Australia’s Perth Basin, says Grice, “and probably intervals in the WA North West Shelf yet to be discovered.”
Compelled to move to Perth in 1972 because “there were no meaningful jobs in geoscience in the UK at the time”, John Curtin Distinguished Professor Simon Wilde carved out an illustrious career in the decades that followed his PhD at the University of Exeter.
“My work is largely focused on Precambrian geology, divided between Northeast Asia, the Middle East, India and Western Australia,” explains Wilde, from the Department of Applied Geology at Curtin University. In 2001, Wilde received extensive media attention for his discovery of the oldest object ever found on Earth – a tiny 4.4 billion-year-old zircon crystal dug up in the Jack Hills region of Western Australia.
His zircon expertise and vast knowledge of early-Earth crustal growth and rock dating have taken him to many of the key areas in the world where Archean (more than 2.5 billion-year-old) rocks are exposed. Of these international investigations, perhaps the most impressive have been his contributions to understanding the geology of North China. Part of the first delegation of foreign researchers to visit the Aldan Shield in Siberia in 1988, along with several top Chinese geoscientists, Wilde has since fostered friendships and collaborations with colleagues in five top Chinese universities, as well as the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences.
“I have been to China more than 100 times and published more than 100 papers on Chinese geology, including major reviews of the North China Craton and the Central Asian Orogenic Belt, where I am a recognised expert.”
The Institute for Geoscience Research (TIGeR) at Curtin University is designated as a high-impact Tier 1 centre – the most distinguished research grouping within the university – providing a focus for substantial activity across a specific field of study. Wilde stepped down as Director in February 2015, having championed TIGeR research, provided advice and allocated funding for the eight years since the Institute was formed. He is confident that his research and the foundations he has built for the centre will continue to support innovative geoscience and exciting collaboration initiatives – in which he is certain to continue playing a major part.
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.”
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.
“I’m delighted that my role in politics takes me right into the engineering sphere,” Karen says. “I always enjoyed being an engineer, and quite frankly if I get the opportunity to introduce myself as an engineer or a politician, I will always go for engineer.”
Karen’s interest in engineering started early. “When I was eight years old I remember being absolutely fascinated by the washing machine,” says Karen, recounting a childhood memory, “and how the agitator turned the same amount in a clockwise and anti-clockwise direction every time.”
This curiosity of how things work drove Karen to study engineering at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), where, in 1983, she and a fellow student were the first two female graduates in mechanical engineering from the university.
According to Graduate Careers Australia, with women representing less than 9% of bachelor degree graduates in mechanical engineering in 2014, and the gender imbalance increasing as female participation in STEM wanes, there is still a dearth of women entering STEM.
As a trailblazer for women in engineering, Karen believes barriers to women entering STEM can be overcome.
“Some of the limitations are self-imposed,” Karen believes. “We should be making sure that as girls are going through the education system, they understand that every career choice is open to them. And with careers advisors too, we have to make sure there isn’t an unintentional gender bias in the advice that’s being given to women.”
After graduating, Karen cut her teeth working at power stations and petrochemical sites across Queensland and interstate. This was the mid-1980s, a time of significant industrial volatility in the Australian oil industry.
Karen’s supervisory role often meant receiving delegations from shop stewards; individuals elected by workers to represent them in dealings with management. “Shop stewards were pointing out to me the reasons why they couldn’t do the things I was asking them to do,” says Karen, as she described some of her early experiences in this demanding environment. “This encouraged me to go off and study industrial relations (IR). I was attracted to IR to see how I could make things better at the work place.”
As a natural communicator, Karen pursued her interests in IR joining the Chamber of Manufacturers as an industrial advocate in the Metals, Engineering and Construction industry.
“If you’re going to communicate, first and foremost you have to be a good listener,” explains Karen. “You have to listen to what people are saying to you in the first place before you can respond and work through a solution.”
With Karen’s communication skills honed in IR, and refined while running her own Human Resources and IR consultancy, Karen decided to pursue a long-held interest in politics. And with characteristic drive and determination she was elected for the seat of McPherson, southern Gold Coast in 2009.
“The adversarial parts of IR are similar to the adversarial parts of politics, says Karen. “In IR you are working closely with employers and employees trying to achieve an outcome that’s in the best interests of that business. The same thing applies in politics, but on a larger scale because you’re looking at what is in the best interests of Australia.”
Karen’s engineering background and career path afford her a unique perspective on the potential future for STEM in Australia.
“I think there will be exciting new careers in analysing big data,” says Karen. “So we’ll need people who are going to be able to analyse that data and turn it into usable information. So I think there will be plenty of opportunities for data analysts and people with higher maths skills.”
“There will also be lots of opportunities in the coming years in astronomy, and particularly is marine sciences where we are already world-leaders,” says Karen.
The complex engineering that drives renewable energy innovation, global satellite navigation, and the emerging science of industrial ecology is among Curtin University’s acknowledged strengths. Advanced engineering is crucial to meeting the challenges of climate change and sustainability. Curtin is addressing these issues in several key research centres.
Bioenergy, fuel cells and large energy storage systems are a focus for the university’s Fuels and Energy Technology Institute (FETI), launched in February 2012. The institute brings together a network of more than 50 researchers across Australia, China, Japan, Korea, Denmark and the USA, and has an array of advanced engineering facilities and analytic instruments. It also hosts the Australia-China Joint Research Centre for Energy, established in 2013 to address energy security and emissions reduction targets for both countries.
Curtin’s Sustainable Engineering Group (SEG) has been a global pioneer in industrial ecology, an emerging science which tracks the flow of resources and energy in industrial areas, measures their impact on the environment and works out ways to create a “circular economy” to reduce carbon emissions and toxic waste.
And in renewable energy research, Curtin is developing new materials for high temperature fuel cell membranes, and is working with an award-winning bioenergy technology that will use agricultural crop waste to produce biofuels and generate electricity.
Solar’s big shot
Curtin’s hydrogen storage scientists are involved in one of the world’s biggest research programs to drive down the cost of solar power and make it competitive with other forms of electricity generation such as coal and gas. They are contributing to the United States SunShot Initiative – a US$2 billion R&D effort jointly funded by the US Department of Energy and private industry partners to fast track technologies that will cut the cost of solar power, including manufacturing for solar infrastructure and components.
SunShot was launched in 2011 as a key component of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, which aims to double the amount of renewable energy available through the grid and reduce the cost of large-scale solar electricity by 75%.
CSP systems store energy in a material called molten salts – a mixture of sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate, which are common ingredients in plant fertilisers. These salts are heated to 565°C, pumped into an insulated storage tank and used to produce steam to power a turbine to generate electricity. But it’s an expensive process. The 195 m tall Crescent Dunes solar power tower in Nevada – one of the world’s largest and most advanced solar thermal plants – uses 32,000 tonnes of molten salt to extend operating hours by storing thermal energy for 10 hours after sunset.
Metal hydrides – compounds formed by bonding hydrogen with a material such as calcium, magnesium or sodium – could replace molten salts and greatly reduce the costs of building and operating solar thermal power plants. Certain hydrides operate at higher temperatures and require smaller storage tanks than molten salts. They can also be reused for up to 25 years.
At the Nevada plant, molten salt storage costs an estimated $150 million, – around 10–15% of operation costs, says Buckley. “With metal hydrides replacing molten salts, we think we can reduce that to around $50–$60 million, resulting in significantly lower operation costs for solar thermal plants,” he says. “We already have a patent on one process, so we’re in the final stages of testing the properties of the process for future scale-up. We are confident that metal hydrides will replace molten salts as the next generation thermal storage system for CSP.”
From biomass to fuel
John Curtin Distinguished Professor Chun-Zhu Li is lead researcher on a FETI project that was awarded a grant of $5.2 million by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency in 2015 to build a pilot plant to test and commercialise a new biofuel technology. The plant will produce energy from agricultural waste such as wheat straw and mallee eucalypts from wheatbelt farm forestry plantations in Western Australia.
“These bioenergy technologies will have great social, economic and environmental benefits,” says Li. “It will contribute to the electricity supply mix and also realise the commercial value of mallee plantations for wheatbelt farmers. It will make those plantations an economically viable way of combating the huge environmental problem of dryland salinity in WA.”
Li estimates that WA’s farms produce several million tonnes of wheat straw per year, which is discarded as agricultural waste. Biomass gasification is a thermochemical process converting biomass feedstock into synthesis gas (syngas) to generate electricity using gas engines or other devices.
One of the innovations of the biomass gasification technology developed at FETI is the destruction of tar by char or char-supported catalysts produced from the biomass itself. Other biomass gasification systems need water-scrubbing to remove tar, which also generates a liquid waste stream requiring expensive treatment, but the technology developed by Li’s team removes the tar without the generation of any wastes requiring disposal. This reduces construction and operation costs and makes it an ideal system for small-scale power generation plants in rural and remote areas.
Li’s team is also developing a novel technology to convert the same type of biomass into liquid fuels and biochar. The combined benefits of these bioenergy/biofuel technologies could double the current economic GDP of WA’s agricultural regions, Li adds. future scale-up. We are confident that metal hydrides will replace molten salts as the next generation thermal storage system for CSP.”
Keeping renewables on grid
Professor Syed Islam is a John Curtin Distinguished Professor with Curtin’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computing. It’s the highest honour awarded by the university to its academic staff and recognises outstanding contributions to research and the wider community. Islam has published widely on grid integration of renewable energy sources and grid connection challenges. In 2011, he was awarded the John Madsen Medal by Engineers Australia for his research to improve the prospect of wind energy generation developing grid code enabled power conditioning techniques.
Islam explains that all power generators connected to an electricity network must comply with strict grid codes for the network to operate safely and efficiently. “The Australian Grid Code specifically states that wind turbines must be capable of uninterrupted operation, and if electrical faults are not immediately overridden, the turbines will be disconnected from the grid,” he says.
“Wind energy is a very cost effective renewable technology. But disturbances and interruptions to power generation mean that often wind farms fall below grid code requirements, even when the best wind energy conversion technology is being used.”
Islam has led research to develop a system that allows a faster response by wind farm voltage control technologies to electrical faults and voltage surges. It has helped wind turbine manufacturers meet grid regulations, and will also help Australia meet its target to source 20% of electricity from renewable energy by 2020.
Islam says micro-grid technology will also provide next-generation manufacturing opportunities for businesses in Australia. “There will be new jobs in battery technology, in building and operating micro-grids and in engineering generally,” he says.
“By replacing the need for platinum catalysts, we can make fuel cells much cheaper and more efficient, and reduce dependence on environmentally damaging fossil fuels.”
Cutting fuel cell costs
Professor San Ping Jiang from FETI and his co-researcher Professor Roland De Marco at University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland recently received an Australian Research Council grant of $375,000 to develop a new proton exchange membrane that can operate in high-temperature fuel cells. It’s a materials engineering breakthrough that will cut the production costs of fuel cells, and allow more sustainable and less polluting fuels such as ethanol to be used in fuel cells.
Jiang, who is based at Curtin’s School of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, has developed a silica membrane that can potentially operate at temperatures of up to 500°C. Fuel cells directly convert chemical energy of fuels suchas hydrogen, methanol and ethanol into electricity and provide a lightweight alternative to batteries, but they are currently limited in their application because conventional polymer-based proton exchange membranes perform most efficiently at temperatures below 80°C. Jiang has developed a membrane that can operate at 500°C using heteropoly acid functionalised mesoporous silica – a composite that combines high proton conductivity and high structural stability to conduct protons in fuel cells. His innovation also minimises the use of precious metal catalysts such as platinum in fuel cells, reducing the cost.
“The cost of platinum is a major barrier to the wider application of fuel cell technologies,” Jiang says. “We think we can reduce the cost significantly, possibly by up to 90%, by replacing the need for platinum catalysts. It will make fuel cells much cheaper and more efficient, and reduce dependence on environmentally damaging fossil fuels.”
He says the high temperature proton exchange membrane fuel cells can be used in devices such as smartphones and computers, and in cars, mining equipment and communications in remote areas.
Doing more with less
The SEG at Curtin University has been involved in energy efficiency and industrial analysis for just over 15 years. It’s been a global leader in an emerging area of sustainability assessment known as industrial ecology, which looks at industrial areas as ‘ecosystems’ that can develop productive exchanges of resources.
Associate Professor Michele Rosano is SEG’s Director and a resource economist who has written extensively on sustainability metrics, charting the life cycles of industrial components, carbon emission reduction and industrial waste management. They’re part of a process known as industrial symbiosis – the development of a system for neighbouring industries to share resources, energies and by-products. “It’s all about designing better industrial systems, and doing more with less,” Rosano says.
Curtin and SEG have been involved in research supported by the Australian’s Government’s Cooperative Research Centres Program to develop sustainable technologies and systems for the mineral processing industry at the Kwinana Industrial Area, an 8 km coastal industrial strip about 40 km south of Perth. The biggest concentration of heavy industries in Western Australia, Kwinana includes oil, alumina and nickel refineries, cement manufacturing, chemical and fertiliser plants, water treatment utilities and a power station that uses coal, oil and natural gas.
Rosano says two decades of research undertaken by Curtin at Kwinana is now recognised as one of the world’s largest and most successful industrial ecology projects. It has created 49 industrial symbiosis projects, ranging from shared use of energy and water to recovery and reuse of previously discarded by-products.
“These are huge and complex projects which have produced substantial environmental and economic benefits,” she says. “Kwinana is now seen as a global benchmark for the way in which industries can work together to reduce their footprint.”
An example of industrial synergies is waste hydrochloric acid from minerals processing being reprocessed by a neighbouring chemical plant for reuse in rutile quartz processing. The industrial ecology researchers looked at ways to reuse a stockpile of more than 1.3 million tonnes of gypsum, which is a waste product from the manufacture of phosphate fertiliser and livestock feeds. The gypsum waste is used by Alcoa’s alumina refinery at Kwinana to improve soil stability and plant growth in its residue areas.
The BP oil refinery at Kwinana also provides hydrogen to fuel Perth’s hydrogen fuel-cell buses. The hydrogen is produced by BP as a by-product from its oil refinery and is piped to an industrial gas facility that separates, cleans and pressurises it. The hydrogen is then trucked to the bus depot’s refuelling station in Perth.
Rosano says 21st century industries “are serious about sustainability” because of looming future shortages of many raw materials, and also because research has demonstrated there are social, economic and environmental benefits to reducing greenhouse emissions.
“There is a critical need for industrial ecology, and that’s why we choose to focus on it,” she says. “It’s critical research that will be needed to save and protect many areas of the global economy in future decades.”
Planning for the future
Research by Professor Peter Teunissen and Dr Dennis Odijk at Curtin’s Department of Spatial Sciences was the first study in Australia to integrate next generation satellite navigation systems with the commonly used and well-established Global Positioning System (GPS) launched by the United States in the 1990s.
Odijk says a number of new systems are being developed in China, Russia, Europe, Japan, and India, and it’s essential they can interact successfully. These new Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) will improve the accuracy and availability of location data, which will in turn improve land surveying for locating mining operations and renewable energy plants.
“The new systems have an extended operational range, higher power and better modulation. They are more robust and better able to deal with challenging situations like providing real-time data to respond to bushfires and other emergencies,” says Odijk.
“When these GNSS systems begin operating over the next couple of years, they will use a more diverse system of satellites than the traditional GPS system. The challenge will be to ensure all these systems can link together.”
Integrating these systems will increase the availability of data, “particularly when the signals from one system might be blocked in places like open-pit mines or urban canyons – narrow city streets with high buildings on both sides.”
Teunissen and Odijk’s research on integrating the GNSS involves dealing with the complex challenges of comparing estimated positions from various satellites, as well as inter-system biases, and developing algorithms. The project is funded by the Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information, and includes China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, which is now operating across the Asia-Pacific region.
Upgraded bio-security measures to combat fruit fly will be introduced in Australia, bringing added confidence to international trade markets.
South Australia is the only mainland state in Australia that is free from fruit flies – a critical component of the horticultural industries’ successful and expanding international export market.
A new national Sterile Insect Technology facility in Port Augusta, located in the north of South Australia, will produce billions of sterile male fruit flies – at the rate of 50 million a week – to help prevent the threat of fruit fly invading the state.
The new measures will help secure producers’ access to important citrus and almond export markets including the United States, New Zealand and Japan, worth more than $800 million this year.
The Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) introduces sterile flies into the environment that then mate with the wild population, ensuring offspring are not produced.
Macquarie University Associate Professor Phil Taylor says the fly, know as Qfly because they come from Queensland, presents the most difficult and costly biosecurity challenge to market access for most Australian fruit producers.
“Fruit flies, especially the Queensland fruity fly, present a truly monumental challenge to horticultural production in Australia,” he says.
“For generations, Australia has relied on synthetic insecticides to protect crops, but these are now banned for many uses. Environmentally benign alternatives are needed urgently – this is our goal.
The impetus behind this initiative is to secure and improve trade access both internationally and nationally for South Australia.
It will increase the confidence of overseas buyers in the Australian product and make Australia a more reliable supplier. Uncertainty or variation of quality of produce would obviously be a concern for our trading partners.”
South Australia’s Agriculture Minister Leon Bignell says the $3.8 million centre would produce up to 50 million sterile male Qflies each week.
South Australian company HeliostatSA has partnered with Indian company Global Wind Power Limited to develop a portfolio of projects in India and Australia over the next four years. It will begin with an initial 150 megawatts in Concentrated Solar Powered (CSP) electricity in Rajashtan, Indian using a solar array.
The projects are valued at $2.5 billion and will further cement HeliostatSA as a leader in the global renewable energy sector.
Heliostat CEO Jason May says India had made a commitment to reaching an investment target of USD $100 billion of renewable energy by 2019 and has already secured $20 billion.
“India is looking for credible, renewable energy partners for utility scale projects,’’ says May.
“We bring everything to the table that they require such as size, project development experience, capital funding, field design capability, the latest technology, precision manufacturing and expertise.’’
Each solar array is made of thousands of heliostats, which are mirrors that track and reflect the suns thermal energy on to a central receiver. The energy is then converted into electricity. Each HeliostatSA mirror is 3.21 x 2.22 metres with optical efficiency believed to be the most accurate in the world. This reduces the number of mirrors required, reducing the overall cost of CSP while still delivering the same 24-hour electricity outputs.
The heliostats and their high tech components are fabricated using laser mapping and steel cutting technology.
The mirrors are slightly parabolic and components need to be cut and measured to exact requirements to achieve the strict operational performance.
“There is strong global interest in CSP with thermal storage for 24-hour power. At the moment large-scale batteries which also store electricity are very expensive. Constant advances in CSP storage technology over the next 10 years will only add to the competitive advantage,’’ says May.
– John Merriman
This article was first published by The Lead South Australia on 25 August 2015. Read the original article here.
“We can rebuild him. We have the technology.”
– The Six Million Dollar Man, 1973
Science is catching up to science fiction. Last year a paralysed man walked again after cell treatment bridged a gap in his spinal cord. Dozens of people have had bionic eyes implanted, and it may also be possible to augment them to see into the infra-red or ultra-violet. Amputees can control bionic limb implant with thoughts alone.
We are witnessing a reshaping of the clinical landscape wrought by the tools of technology. The transition is giving rise to a new breed of engineer, one trained to bridge the gap between engineering on one side and biology on the other.
Enter the “biofabricator”. This is a role that melds technical skills in materials, mechatronics and biology with the clinical sciences.
21st century career
If you need a new body part, it’s the role of the biofabricator to build it for you. The concepts are new, the technology is groundbreaking. And the job description? It’s still being written.
It is a vocation that’s already taking off in the US though. In 2012, Forbes rated biomedical engineering (equivalent to biofabricator) number one on its list of the 15 most valuable college majors. The following year, CNN and payscale.com called it the “best job in America”.
These conclusions were based on things like salary, job satisfaction and job prospects, with the US Bureau of Labour Statistics projecting a massive growth in the number of biomedical engineering jobs over the next ten years.
Meanwhile, Australia is blazing its own trail. As the birthplace of the multi-channel Cochlear implant, Australia already boasts a worldwide reputation in biomedical implants. Recent clinical breakthroughs with an implanted titanium heel and jawbone reinforce Australia’s status as a leader in the field.
I’ve recently helped establish the world’s first international Masters courses for biofabrication, ready to arm the next generation of biofabricators with the diverse array of skills needed to 3D print parts for bodies.
These skills go beyond the technical; the job also requires the ability to communicate with regulators and work alongside clinicians. The emerging industry is challenging existing business models.
Life as a biofabricator
Day to day, the biofabricator is a vital cog in the research machine. They work with clinicians to create a solution to clinical needs, and with biologists, materials and mechatronic engineers to deliver them.
Biofabricators are naturally versatile. They are able to discuss clinical needs pre-dawn, device physics with an electrical engineer in the morning, stem cell differentiation with a biologist in the afternoon and a potential financier in the evening. Not to mention remaining conscious of regulatory matters and social engagement.
Our research at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES) is only made possible through the work of a talented team of biofabricators. They help with the conduits we are building to regrow severed nerves, to the electrical implant designed to sense an imminent epileptic seizure and stop it before it occurs, to the 3D printed cartilage and bone implants fashioned to be a perfect fit at the site of injury.
As the interdisciplinary network takes shape, we see more applications every week. Researchers have only scratched the surface of what is possible for wearable or implanted sensors to keep tabs on an outpatient’s vitals and beam them back to the doctor.
Meanwhile, stem cell technology is developing rapidly. Developing the cells into tissues and organs will require prearrangement of cells in appropriate 3D environments and custom designed bioreactors mimicking the dynamic environment inside the body.
Imagine the ability to arrange stem cells in 3D surrounded by other supporting cells and with growth factors distributed with exquisite precision throughout the structure, and to systematically probe the effect of those arrangements on biological processes. Well, it can already be done.
Those versed in 3D bioprinting will enable these fundamental explorations.
Besides academic research, biofabricators will also be invaluable to medical device companies in designing new products and treatments. Those engineers with an entrepreneurial spark will look to start spin-out companies of their own. The more traditional manufacturing business model will not cut it.
As 3D printing evolves, it is becoming obvious that we will require dedicated printing systems for particular clinical applications. The printer in the surgery for cartilage regeneration will be specifically engineered for the task at hand, with only critical variables built into a robust and reliable machine.
Appropriately trained individuals will also find roles in the public service, ideally in regulatory bodies or community engagement.
For this job of tomorrow, we must train today and new opportunities are emerging biofab-masters-degree. We must cut across the traditional academic boundaries that slow down such advances. We must engage with the community of traditional manufacturers that have skills that can be built upon for next generation industries.
Australia is also well placed to capitalise on these emerging industries. We have a traditional manufacturing sector that is currently in flux, an extensive advanced materials knowledge base built over decades, a dynamic additive fabrication skills base and a growing alternative business model environment.
– Gordon Wallace & Cathal D. O’Connell
This article was first published by The Conversation on 31 August 2015. Read the original article here.
LANDTEM, an Australian invention that creates a 3D map of underground ore bodies has uncovered deposits worth A$4 billion in Australia and A$10 billion globally. The technology development was led by CSIRO scientist Dr Cathy Foley and is a great example of the commercial application of scientific research.
In some ways it was a stroke of good fortune that set Dr Cathy Foley and her colleagues on the path to inventing LANDTEM, a device that has revolutionised the way mining companies detect ore underground and uncovered deposits worth billions of dollars around the world.
The story of the invention begins in the mid-1980s, when the discovery of high temperature superconductors opened the way for superconductivity to be used in everyday applications instead of only at extremely low temperatures.
The discovery provoked huge excitement around the world among scientists and engineers who set about seeking practical applications, no less so in Australia.
BHP Billiton held an internal meeting about the technology and it was there that some of the company’s geologists said that measuring subtle magnetic fields would be very valuable to them, providing the spark of the idea for LANDTEM.
Foley describes the moment as “serendipitous”, but says it’s also a reflection of the way CSIRO interacts with industry.
“Quite often when you’ve got something which is a platform technology that can be used in a lot of different ways, you start off thinking in a very diverse way or very open ended way so you’re not really sure where you’re going. And that’s why one of the things that differentiates the CSIRO from any other research organisations and particularly universities: we talk to industry a lot and get guidance from them,” she says.
“We might come up with the original science but then we engage with industry to say, ‘we’ve got this great idea, we think it could be useful there’. And they’ll say, ‘well, actually no, we think it could be useful over here’.”
LANDTEM consists of a big coil of wire placed on the ground above a potential ore deposit. It pulses a large changing current through the wire to create a magnetic field, and this in turn creates what’s known as an Eddy current in any conducting material nearby, such as an ore body underground.
Then the current is turned off, but an ore body’s current lingers for a tiny fraction of a second longer and by measuring this, LANDTEM can determine if there is an ore body and where it is. Crucially, it can discriminate between an actual ore body and the conducting soil that is so prevalent in Australia and that in the past would have led to muddled results.
Foley says the invention has helped mining companies find things they wouldn’t have found otherwise and find deeper ore bodies. It can also tell them whether it is worth the expense of putting a bore hole down to analyse the quality of the ore and where to put it.
Not all ore bodies are conducting, so LANDTEM is mainly used for finding silver, nickel and gold.
It’s one of a series of tools geologists use to find an ore body, and Foley says it has allowed many mining companies to cut out several of the steps needed in mineral exploration.
For instance, in Canada, Xstrata Nickel has bought three LANDTEM systems and is so confident about the technology that once it has located an ore body they don’t do much drilling at all and move straight on to mining instead.
When recognising the work of Foley and her colleague CSIRO engineer Keith Leslie at the Clunies Ross awards, the chair of the awards’ organising committee Professor Mike Hood said: “Their story demonstrates the importance of unwavering dedication in bringing a scientific discovery to market. Over the coming years LANDTEM will continue to play a major role in the worldwide discovery of new mineral deposits.”
Foley studied physics and education at Sydney’s Macquarie University with the intention of becoming a high school science teacher. “But I fell in love with research and I did my PhD in nitride semiconductors and did a smidgen of the early work that led to the white LED,” she says.
Having decided to pursue a career in research, Foley joined CSIRO as a post-doctoral fellow working in magnetics and was asked to join the team working on applications for the new high temperature superconductors.
Along with taking the new technology to industry to see how it could be used, another factor in the successful development and commercialisation of the LANDTEM is CSIRO’s ability to pull together a multidisciplinary team when an opportunity arises, in this case researchers in mineral resources, electrical engineering, devices, materials and cryogenics, and finally at the end, lawyers and business people.
“In order to be a survivor and also to really be profitable and commercially successful, you’ve got to recognise just how the world is changing and that you’ve got to be innovative, not just in your products but also in your business model and how you see yourself getting into the manufacturing world,” she says.
“Australia is at a really interesting point where the current Government has recognised this and I think got a whole lot of things in place.”
Foley says the Federal Government’s recently-announced Industry Growth Centres, which aim to forge better links between industry and Australia’s top researchers, are a promising start.
She sees potential in agile manufacturing, where the manufacturers make small numbers of specialised and customised products and can quickly re-conform to make another product.
“Instead of being a manufacturer who has a big factory, you actually buy time in a factory to do a certain thing, part of it, and then you might even ship it to somewhere else to get another bit done where there’s a specialist and so you end up with products which are done more in smaller batches rather than mass market because they’re more customised,” she says. “These days successful societies have to keep reinventing themselves and recognising where you can you use intellectual approaches rather than just brute labour.”
As a senior CSIRO executive, Foley is less involved in hands-on research than she used to be, but still finds it an exciting environment.
“It’s pretty exciting to think that the work you do actually has an enormous impact and can make a difference. And I think if you ask people I work with, they all say that’s what they love about working at CSIRO. We do things that actually change the world and I think that’s a nice thing to do,” she says.
– Christopher Niesche
This article was first published by Australia Unlimited on 20 August 2015. Read the original article here.
RMIT researchers are using state-of-the-art modelling techniques to study the effects of wind on cities, paving the way for design innovations in building, energy harvesting and drone technology.
The turbulence modelling studies will allow engineers to optimise the shape of buildings, as well as identify areas of rapid airflow within cities that could be used to harvest energy.
Researchers also hope to use the airflow studies to develop more energy efficient drones that use the power of updrafts during flight.
Dr Abdulghani Mohamed, from RMIT’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems research group, said simulations developed by the research team can visualise the shape of updrafts as they developed over buildings and show their variation over time.
“By analysing the interaction of wind with buildings, our research opens new possibilities for improving designs to take better advantage of nature,” he says.
“Buildings can be built to enhance airflow at street level and ventilation, while wind turbines can be precisely positioned in high-speed airflow areas for urban energy harvesting – providing free power for low-energy electronics.
“The airflow simulations will also help us further our work on energy harvesting for micro-sized drones, developing technology that can help them use updrafts to gain height quicker and fly for longer, without using extra energy.”
Scientists and engineers have traditionally relied on building small-scale city replicas and testing them in wind tunnels to make detailed airflow predictions.
This time-consuming and expensive process is being gradually replaced with numerical flow simulations, also known as Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD).
The researchers – Mohamed, Professor Simon Watkins (RMIT), Dr Robert Carrese (LEAP Australia) and Professor David Fletcher (University of Sydney) – created a CFD model to accurately predict the highly complex and dynamic airflow field around buildings at RMIT’s Bundoora campus west, in Melbourne’s north.
The next stage in the research will involve an extensive flight test campaign to further prove the feasibility of the concept of long endurance micro-sized drones, for use in a number of industries including structural monitoring, land surveying, mobile temporary networks and pollution tracking.
This article was first published by RMIT University on 9 August 2015. Read the original article here.
This article is part of The Conversation’s series on the Science and Research Priorities recently announced by the Federal Government. You can read the introduction to the series by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb, here.
Chief Defence Scientist, Defence Science and Technology
The national science and research priorities have been developed with the goal of maximising the national benefit from research expenditure, while strengthening our capacity to excel in science and technology.
Cybersecurity has been identified as a research priority due to Australia’s increasing dependence on cyberspace for national well-being and security. Cyberspace underpins both commercial and government business; it is globally accessible, has no national boundaries and is vulnerable to malicious exploitation by individuals, organised groups and state actors.
Cybersecurity requires application of research to anticipate vulnerabilities, strengthen cyber systems to ward off attacks, and enhance national capability to respond to, recover from, and continue to operate in the face of a cyber-attack.
Cyberspace is a complex, rapidly changing environment that is progressed and shaped by technology and by how the global community adopts, adapts and uses this technology. Success in cyberspace will depend upon our ability to “stay ahead of the curve”.
Research will support the development of new capability to strengthen the information and communications systems in our utilities, business and government agencies against attack or damage. Investment will deliver cybersecurity enhancements, infrastructure for prototype assessment and a technologically skilled workforce.
Accordingly, priority should be given to research that will lead to:
Highly secure and resilient communications and data acquisition, storage, retention and analysis for government, defence, business, transport systems, emergency and health services
Secure, trustworthy and fault-tolerant technologies for software applications, mobile devices, cloud computing and critical infrastructure
Director of the Centre for Crime Policy and Research, Flinders University
Sensible science and research on cybersecurity must be premised upon informed, rather than speculative, “what if”, analysis. Researchers should not be beholden to institutional self-interest from whichever sector: government; business; universities; or security/defence agencies.
We need to be clear about what the cybersecurity threat landscape looks like. It is a variable terrain. Terms such as “cyber-terrorism” tend to get used loosely and given meanings as diverse as the Stuxnet attack and the use of the internet by disenchanted converts to learn how to build a pipe bomb.
References to “warfare” can be misleading. A lot of what we face is not “war” but espionage, crime and political protest. More than two decades into the lifecycle of the internet, we have not yet had an electronic Pearl Harbour event.
Cybersecurity depends upon human and social factors, not just technical defences. We need to know our “enemies” as well as ourselves better, in addition to addressing technical vulnerabilities.
We should be sceptical about magic bullet solutions of any kind. Good defences and secure environments depend upon cooperation across units, a degree of decentralisation, and built-in redundancy.
Director, Security Business Team at NICTA
Cybersecurity is an essential underpinning to success in our modern economies.
It’s a complex area and there are no magic bullet solutions: success requires a range of approaches. The national research priorities for cybersecurity highlight key areas of need and opportunity.
The technologies we depend on in cyberspace are often not worthy of our trust. Securing them appropriately is complex and often creates friction for users and processes. Creation of secure, trustworthy and fault-tolerant technologies – security by design – can remove or reduce security friction, improving overall security posture.
Australia has some key capabilities in this area, including cross-disciplinary efforts.
The ability to detect and monitor vulnerabilities and intrusions and to recover from failure is critical, yet industry reports indicate that the average time to detect malicious or criminal attack is around six months. New approaches are needed, including improved technological approaches as well as collaboration and information sharing.
Success in translating research outcomes to application – for local needs and for export – will be greater if we are also able to create an ecosystem of collaboration and information sharing, especially in the fast-moving cybersecurity landscape.
Director, Advanced Cyber Security Research Centre at Macquarie University
Cyberspace is transforming the way we live and do business. Securing cyberspace from attacks has become a critical need in the 21st century to enable people, enterprises and governments to interact and conduct their business. Cybersecurity is a key enabling technology affecting every part of the information-based society and economy.
The key technological challenges in cybersecurity arise from increased security attacks and threat velocity, securing large scale distributed systems, especially “systems of systems”, large scale secure and trusted data driven decision making, secure ubiquitous computing and pervasive networking and global participation.
In particular, numerous challenges and opportunities exist in the emerging areas of cloud computing, Internet of Things and Big Data. New services and technologies of the future are emerging and likely to emerge in the future in the intersection of these areas. Security, privacy and trust are critical for these new technologies and services.
For Australia to be a leader, it is in these strategic areas of cybersecurity that it needs to invest in research and development leading to new secure, trusted and dependable technologies and services as well as building capacity and skills and thought leadership in cybersecurity of the future.
Director of Security Research Institute at Edith Cowan University
ICT is in every supply chain or critical infrastructure we now run for our existence on the planet. The removal or sustained disruption of ICT as a result of lax cybersecurity is something we can no longer overlook or ignore.
The edge between cyberspace and our physical world is blurring with destructive attacks on physical infrastructure already occurring. The notion of the nation state, and its powers and its abilities to cope with these disruptions, are also significantly being challenged.
The ransacking of countries’ intellectual property by cyber-enabled actors is continuing unabated, robbing us of our collective futures. These are some of the strong indicators that currently we are getting it largely wrong in addressing cybersecurity issues. We cannot persist in developing linear solutions to network/neural security issues presented to us by cyberspace. We need change.
The asymmetry of cyberspace allows a relatively small nation state to have significant advantage in cybersecurity, Israel being one strong example. Australia could be the next nation, but not without significant, serious, long-term, collaborative investments by government, industry, academy and community in growing the necessary human capital. This initiative is hopefully the epoch of that journey.
Professor of Computing and Information Systems, and Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research Collaboration and Infrastructure) at University of Melbourne
There are more than two million actively trading businesses in Australia and more than 95% have fewer than 20 employees. Such businesses surely have no need for full-time cybersecurity workers, but all must have someone responsible to make decisions about which IT and security products and services to acquire.
At least historically, new technologies have been developed and deployed without sufficient attention to the security implications. So bad actors have found ways to exploit the resulting vulnerabilities.
More research into software design and development from a security perspective, and research into better tools for security alerts and detection is essential. But such techniques will never be perfect. Research is also needed into ways of better supporting human cyberanalysts – those who work with massive data flows to identify anomalies and intrusions.
New techniques are needed to enable the separation of relevant from irrelevant data about seemingly unconnected events, and to integrate perspectives from multiple experts. Improving technological assistance for humans requires a deep understanding of human cognition in the complex, mutable and ephemeral environment of cyberspace.
The cybersecurity research agenda is thus only partly a technical matter: disciplines such as decision sciences, organisational behaviour and international law all must play a part.
Professor of Physics and Program Manager at the Centre for Quantum Computation & Communication Technology at UNSW
Cybersecurity is essential for our future in a society that needs to safeguard information as much as possible for secure banking, safe transportation, and protected power grids.
Quantum information technology will transform data communication and processing. Here, quantum physics is exploited for new technologies to protect, transmit and process information. Classical cryptography relies on mathematically hard problems such as factoring which are so difficult to solve that classical computers can take decades. Quantum information technology allows for an alternative approach to this problem that will lead to a solution on a meaningful timescale, such as minutes in contrast to years. Quantum information technology allows for secure encoding and decoding governed by fundamental physics which is inherently unbreakable, not just hard to break.
Internationally, quantum information is taking off rapidly underlined by large government initiatives. At the same time there are commercial investments from companies such as Google, IBM, Microsoft and Lockheed Martin.
Due to long term strategic investments in leading academic groups Australia remains at the forefront globally and enjoys a national competitive advantage in quantum computing and cybersecurity. We should utilise the fact that Australia is a world leader and global player in quantum information science to provide many new high technology industries for its future.
The brain is amazingly complex, with around 86 billion nerve cells. The challenge for researchers to create bench-top brain tissue from which they can learn about how the brain functions, is an extremely difficult one.
The value of bench-top brain tissue is huge. Pharmaceutical companies spend millions of dollars testing therapeutic drugs on animals, only to discover in human trials that the drug has an altogether different level of effectiveness. We’re not sure why, but the human brain differs distinctly from that of an animal.
A bench-top brain that accurately reflects actual brain tissue would be significant for researching not only the effect of drugs, but brain disorders like schizophrenia, and degenerative brain disease.
ACES Director and research author Professor Gordon Wallace (pictured above with Rodrigo Lozano and Elise Stewart) said that the breakthrough is significant progress in the quest to create a bench-top brain that will enable important insights into brain function, in addition to providing an experimental test bed for new drugs and electroceuticals.
“We are still a long way from printing a brain but the ability to arrange cells so as they form neuronal networks is a significant step forward,” says Wallace.
To create their six-layered structure, researchers developed a custom bio-ink containing naturally occurring carbohydrate materials. The custom materials have properties that allow accurate cell dispersion throughout the structure, whilst providing a rare level of protection to the cells.
The bio-ink is then optimised for 3D-printing, and developed for use in a standard cell culturing facility without the need for expensive bio-printing equipment.
The result is a layered structure like brain tissue, in which cells are accurately placed and remain in their designated layer.
“This study highlights the importance of integrating advances in 3D-printing, with those in materials science, to realise a biological outcome,” says Wallace.
“This paves the way for the use of more sophisticated printers to create structures with much finer resolution.”
The triumphant team of Australian roboticists who smashed their way to victory at the RoboCup world soccer championship in China – snatching the trophy for the second year in a row – return home on Monday and will be holding a media conference at UNSW.
They will afterwards provide demonstrations of the robots in action in a special soccer pitch where the robots train. Also available will be video and high-resolution images of the robots and team members, as well as the team’s victorious finals match in Hefei, west of Shanghai in China, on 22 July. (Most of the team have been travelling on holidays since then.)
Australia’s RoboCup World Champions Media Conference
RoboCup is an international competition of 300 teams from 47 counties that fosters innovation in robotics and artificial intelligence. The premier category is the Standard Platform League, in which squads compete on an indoor soccer court with robots operating entirely autonomously – with no control by humans or computers during the game. This year’s tournament was fought between Naos, 58 cm-tall humanoid robots that whose artificial intelligence and tactics were developed by young software designers and engineers.
RoboCup was founded in 1997 with the goal of developing a robot team good enough to beat the human champions of the FIFA World Cup by 2050.
Co-lead researcher Dr Nicholas Calvert says sarcoma is a group of rare cancers arising from bone, muscle and cartilage.
“While they are rare, they can be very aggressive and early detection is vital to successful treatment, which can involve chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgical treatment,” he says.
Calvert says it is difficult to predict tumour responsiveness to chemotherapy because there are over 70 different types of sarcoma with significant variation in the genetic profile of cells within each type.
Chemotherapy in this area is generally guided by research on chemotherapy efficacy on a specific tumour type or those that are similar.
“So successfully predicting whether a patient’s tumour will be similar to another patient’s tumour of the same type is very difficult,” says Calvert.
“Especially given there are only around 1200 new cases per year which does not provide a large enough trial to test different chemotherapy regimens.”
Gene library and cell cultures methods considered
One of the methods under review involves researchers analysing DNA from tumour cells and comparing them to an international library of genes to identify whether they have any mutations that will help or prevent a chemotherapy drug from working.
Another method involves growing tumour cells in the lab and then exposing them to different chemotherapy drugs to see which kill the cells and at what dose.
Finally, mouse xenograft will be considered where tumour cells are grown in lab mice which are then subjected to different chemotherapy drugs to see which kill the cells and at what dose.
Calvert says once this pilot study is completed they will expand it to a national trial to identify which of these tests is effective and reliable to select chemotherapy drugs.
“If we can identify a test that will allow us to take a sample of tumour, and identify how it will respond to chemotherapy it will have significant benefit for not only those with sarcoma but also other cancers,” says Calvert.
He says this ‘personalised medicine’ approach aims to confirm a tumour will respond to an agent before it is even given, and avoid the significant and sometimes life-threatening side effects of some the chemotherapy agents.
Sarcoma has approximately 1200 new cases diagnosed each year in Australia and accounts for approximately 1% of all adult malignancies and 15% of paediatric malignancies.
– Teresa Belcher
This article was originally published on Science Network Western Australia. Read the original article here.