A range of mining companies, plus mining equipment, technology and service suppliers, and research organisations collaborated on the development of these technologies with funding from the Federal Government. It comes at a critical time for the industry, which faces increasing pressure to become more profitable and environmentally sustainable.
Conventional extraction methods are becoming harder and more expensive to implement as ore quality drops, mines get deeper and water becomes scarcer.
In an ideal scenario, miners could target the mineral they are after. However, mineral-bearing ores are heterogeneous with different levels of concentration. The challenge is to find ways to extract and process the ores and reject waste early in the extraction process.
Bringing tech to the process
Grade Engineering is an integrated approach to extracting metal more efficiently and improving the overall recovery of valuable ores from individual deposits. “It goes beyond the industry mindset that simply increasing throughout will bring more profit for a mining operation,” says Dr Ben Adair, CEO of CRC ORE. “It factors in the ore quantity and quality.”
Rejecting waste as early as possible in the mining process can significantly decrease the operating costs of a mine. Grade Engineering utilises a range of techniques and strategies that sorts and separates mined materials throughout all stages of the mining process.
Adair says the power Grade Engineering offers is a targeted assessment tailored to specific ores, which determines what lever has the potential to best maximise mine performance. Benefits include decreased costs; improved investment rate of return; reduced energy and water use with fewer emissions; delivery of higher feed grades and lower capital expenditure for start-up or expansion.
The next generation of mining simulation
CRC ORE’s Integrated Extraction Simulator provides insight into the entire process, from the mine to the mill. It combines existing industry standard simulation models with new models from diverse research and development sources. “It is the next generation of fast, reliable and accurate simulation across the value chain,” says Adair.
The purpose of the Lowitja Institute Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health CRC is to value the health and wellbeing of Australia’s First Peoples. As members of a global Indigenous family, we extend that purpose to our brothers and sisters across the world.
With that in mind, two 2016 activities were key achievements: a collaboration with The Lancet – published in April by the prestigious medical journal under the title ‘Indigenous and Tribal peoples’ health (The Lancet–Lowitja Institute Global Collaboration): a population study’ – and our first international Indigenous health and wellbeing conference.
The collaboration established a clear picture of Indigenous and
Tribal health relative to benchmark populations. It included data on 28 Indigenous populations from 23 countries covering approximately half the world’s 300 million Indigenous people.
What was critical – and unique to this study – was the participation of 65 contributors who were able to identify, at country level, the best-quality data available. Contributors came from all the major global regions: Africa, Asia, the Americas, the Pacific and Arctic Circle.
These regions of the world were also represented in our November conference when, underpinned by a strong cultural and scientific framework, more than 700 delegates met to celebrate, share and strengthen Indigenous knowledges.
Over three days, the program included keynote addresses by national and international experts, sessions arranged around the themes of identity, knowledge and strength, and a conference statement asserting that Indigenous peoples across the world have the right to self-determination, which, in turn underpins the right to health.
Through this work, the Lowitja Institute CRC supports networks of knowledge and collaboration, engages with the 2030 Sustainability Goals to which Australia is a signatory, and connects us to the
wider international community.
The CRC for Low Carbon Living (CRCLCL) has announced $500,000 in funding for a new national zero-energy homes project. The project will research consumer attitudes and aim to influence the building industry to construct new dwellings to zero-energy standards.
At present the energy efficiency of a home is measured according to the Nationwide House Energy Rating System (NatHERS). This star rating system measures the energy required to heat and cool a home, with new buildings being required to meet a minimum six-star rating.
Zero-energy homes, on the other hand, are homes that are carbon neutral across the year – they produceas much (or more) energy than they consume. All aspects of energy consumption are accounted for – not just heating and cooling, but also lighting, appliances and so on.
Project lead Dr Josh Byrne, senior research fellow with Curtin University’s Sustainability Policy Institute, believes that the current six-star requirement is merely “eliminating worst practice”. He has built two 10-star rated homes as part of his project, Josh’s House, which was part of the CRCLCL’s Living Labs project near Fremantle in Western Australia. Now he’s keen to bring zero-energy homes into the mainstream.
“It’s not just about bunging on more solar panels to offset the power usage, it’s about how the houses can be designed to perform better thermally,” Byrne says. “We know that simple things like orientation, cross-ventilation, and building air tightness can all dramatically reduce the build performance.”
The project team will be working with developers and builders from three different climate areas – WA, the ACT and Queensland – to design and build zero-energy display homes and present them alongside conventional homes to gauge the response from consumers. Instead of focusing on the sustainability benefits, they want to see how the public thinks zero-energy homes stack up on liveability. “We’re really interested in seeing how people respond to the look, feel and comfort of the zero-energy homes,” Byrne says.
The researchers will then present this data to the regulatory bodies, in the hope that an evidence-based approach will help shift the common perceptions that sustainable building practices are too costly and that there is no market demand for these homes.
With 100,000 new homes being built in Australia each year, moving to zero-energy homes would reduce carbon emissions by 700,000 tonnes. California has committed to achieving this by 2020, and members of the European Union are doing the same. Byrne thinks it’s more than possible here. “I would like to see us setting a realistic goal of achieving that within 10 years,” he says.
The stars are aligning for Australia to transition to 100% renewable energy. Our fossil fuel infrastructure is ageing, which means we will soon need to invest in new power generators. New technologies such as battery storage could revolutionise long-standing business models. With care, the transitions away from fossil fuels could offer greater job opportunities.
Our latest research, which corroborates previous work, shows the technology already exists to solve many of the remaining questions around technological capability. For instance, the fact that wind and solar don’t generate electricity when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining can be dealt with by installing a network of diverse generators across a wide area, or by increasing our use of energy storage.
One of the biggest remaining barriers to transition is cost. But this is also rapidly changing. Much work is going into reducing the cost of renewable energy, including the latest funding announcement from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) of A$92 million for 12 solar projects.
The cost of building renewable energy
The cost of renewable energy is highly variable across the world and even within Australia. The picture is not simple, but it does help to start by looking at the big picture.
Average capital costs of constructing new wind, solar PV and ocean/tidal generators are already lower than equivalent coal generation infrastructure.
Research suggests that, overall, the cost of moving to 100% renewable energy is not significantly higher than the cost of hitting a lower target.
The capital cost of investment in renewable energy generation technologies is also falling rapidly. In its 2014 report on global renewable power generation costs, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) showed that the total cost of installation and operation over a lifetime of small-scale residential PV systems in Australia has fallen from US$0.35 to US$0.17 per kilowatt-hour between 2010 and 2014.
In part this has been because of reduced installation costs, together with our exceptional abundance of sunshine.
As a result, Australian new residential solar installation has soared to the fifth highest in the world. Installed capacity accounts for 9% of national electricity generation capacity and 2.8% of electrical energy generation.
The historical reductions in installation costs for wind energy are similar globally and in Australia. Recent 2016 reverse auctions in the Australian Capital Territory have received Australia’s lowest known contract price for renewables with bids at A$77 per megawatt-hour.
But the capital cost of building generation infrastructure is not the whole story. Once the generator is built, operations and maintenance costs also become important. For most renewables (biomass excluded) the fuel costs are zero because nature itself provides the fuel for free.
Other costs that we must consider are variable and fixed costs. Fixed costs, such as annual preventative maintenance or insurance, don’t change with the amount of electricity produced. Variable costs, such as casual labour or generator repairs, may increase when more electricity is produced.
The variable costs for some renewables (biomass, hydropower and large-scale solar PV) are lower than coal. For other renewable technologies they are only slightly higher. Fixed costs for almost all renewable technologies are lower than for coal.
We also need to think about costs beyond individual generators. The vastness of our Australian continent is a bonus and a challenge for building 100% renewable energy.
It can be used strategically to give a 100% renewables supply reliability by using an interconnected network of generators. For instance, it may be very sunny or windy in one region. Excess electricity produced in this region can fill a gap in electricity demand in less sunny or windy places elsewhere.
But this also poses challenges. To take advantage of the reliability that a highly distributed renewable electricity system can provide, we must also consider the costs associated with expanding the transmission network.
For example, in our research we investigated one possible 100% renewables electricity scenario. This was conservatively based on current technology and demand (conservative because technology is likely to change, and electricity demand has been unexpectedly falling). The scenario required a transmission grid two-and-a-half times larger than our current grid, including new cross-continental linkages between Western Australia and the Northern Territory, which currently stand alone from the well-integrated eastern Australian networks.
The challenges of transitioning to a renewable electricity sector are no doubt great, but our ageing generator infrastructure means that an overhaul will soon be due. Even though the price of electricity from old coal power plants is currently cheaper than that from many new renewable plants (because the former are already paid off), cost reductions mean a strong business case now exists for renewable technologies investment.
In a recent article on The Conversation, John Hewson wrote that “renewable energy is one of our most ‘shovel ready’ business opportunities”.
Now is the time to pre-empt the looming deadline for infrastructure overhaul to ensure future economic resilience for Australia.
– Bonnie McBain
This article was first published by The Conversationon September 8 2016. Read the original article here.
Stadium Australia, which hosted the athletics and opening ceremony at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, was the first structure to utilise the technology.
“Now a number of large buildings in Southeast Asia are using this technology, like the airports in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia has incorporated it into many of its shopping centres as well,” Beecham says.
“The buildings that were designed with the help of the software are able to harvest every single drop of water.”
The rainwater collected from the roofs is stored in large tanks and used to irrigate nearby fields or gardens. The recycled water is also used for the flushing of toilets to reduce the reliance on potable water.
Beecham partners with Australian drainage company Syfon to design state-of-the-art systems throughout Australasia.
His software allows Syfon to calculate the size of drainpipes and locate where hydraulic chambers need to be placed.
The company’s name is a play on siphonic systems, the method it uses to harvest rainwater.
Siphonic drainage systems convert open-air water mixtures into a pure water pressure system without any moving parts or electronics. Its hydraulic system allows the pipes to move large quantities of water very quickly.
Beecham says siphonic systems were used because the high pressures they created reduced the amount of additional energy required to pump water.
“Imagine if you had a pen in your hand and held it up and then dropped it to the floor. That’s an example of a solid object converting its potential energy into kinetic energy,” he says.
“Water can do the same thing. You get a very efficient drainage of your water where the pressure is so great it can even go uphill, and it also means you can run horizontal pipes for long distances.
“Its clever design of the hydraulics system creates a vacuum that sucks water in and converts the potential energy of rainfall into kinetic energy.”
This process allows large storage tanks to be placed away from the roof structure if more space is required.
Siphonic systems require a building of more than three stories to work and cannot be applied to residential homes.
Leveraging the knowledge of researchers from the CSIRO and five of Australia’s top universities, as well as experts in the field, the CRCLCL is heading up efforts to deliver a low carbon built environment in Australia. Its ambitious aim is to cut residential and commercial carbon emissions by 10 megatonnes by 2020.
“The CRCLCL is at the forefront of driving technological and social innovation in the built environment to reduce carbon emissions,” says Prasad.
“We’re looking to bring emissions down, and in the process we want to ensure global competitiveness for Australian industry by helping to develop the next generation of products, technologies, advanced manufacturing and consulting services,” says Prasad.
CRCLCL activities range from urban sustainable design and solar energy to software and community engagement.
“By working effectively with government, researchers and industry, we employ an ‘end-user’ driven approach to research that maximises uptake and utilisation,” says Prasad.
Climate change is affecting the Earth, through more frequent and intense weather events, such as heatwaves and rising sea levels, and is predicted to do so for generations to come. Changes brought on by anthropogenic climate change, from activities such as the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, are impacting natural ecosystems on land and at sea, and across all human settlements.
Increased atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO₂) levels – which have jumped by a third since the Industrial Revolution – will also have an effect on agriculture and the staple plant foods we consume and export, such as wheat.
Stressors on agribusiness, such as prolonged droughts and the spread of new pests and diseases, are exacerbated by climate change and need to be managed to ensure the long-term sustainability of Australia’s food production.
Increasing concentrations of CO₂ in the atmosphere significantly increase water efficiency in plants and stimulate plant growth, a process known as the “fertilisation effect”. This leads to more biomass and a higher crop yield; however, elevated carbon dioxide (eCO₂) could decrease the nutritional content of food.
“Understanding the mechanisms and responses of crops to eCO₂ allows us to focus crop breeding research on the best traits to take advantage of the eCO₂ effect,” says Dr Glenn Fitzgerald, a senior research scientist at the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources.
“The experiments are what we refer to as ‘fully replicated’ – repeated four times and statistically verified for accuracy and precision,” says Fitzgerald. “This allows us to compare our current growing conditions of 400 parts per million (ppm) CO₂ with eCO₂ conditions of 550 ppm – the atmospheric CO₂ concentration level anticipated for 2050.”
The experiments involve injecting CO₂ into the atmosphere around plants via a series of horizontal rings that are raised as the crops grow, and the process is computer-controlled to maintain a CO₂ concentration level of 550 ppm.
“We’re observing around a 25–30% increase in yields under eCO₂ conditions for wheat, field peas, canola and lentils in Australia,” says Fitzgerald.
Pests and disease
While higher CO₂ levels boost crop yields, there is also a link between eCO₂ and an increase in viruses that affect crop growth.
Spread by aphids, BYDV is a common plant virus that affects wheat, barley and oats, and causes yield losses of up to 50%.
“It’s a really underexplored area,” says Dr Jo Luck, director of research, education and training at the Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre. “We know quite a lot about the effects of drought and increasing temperatures on crops, but we don’t know much about how the increase in temperature and eCO₂ will affect pests and diseases.
“There is a tension between higher yields from eCO₂ and the impacts on growth from pests and diseases. It’s important we consider this in research when we’re looking at food security.”
This increased yield is due to more efficient photosynthesis and because eCO₂ improves the plant’s water-use efficiency.
With atmospheric CO₂ levels rising, less water will be required to produce the same amount of grain. Fitzgerald estimates about a 30% increase in water efficiency for crops grown under eCO₂ conditions.
But nutritional content suffers. “In terms of grain quality, we see a decrease in protein concentration in cereal grains,” says Fitzgerald. The reduction is due to a decrease in the level of nitrogen (N2) in the grain, which occurs because the plant is less efficient at drawing N2 from the soil.
The same reduction in protein concentration is not observed in legumes, however, because of the action of rhizobia – soil bacteria in the roots of legumes that fix N2 and provide an alternative mechanism for making N2 available.
“We are seeing a 1–14% decrease in grain-protein concentration [for eCO₂ levels] and a decrease in bread quality,” says Fitzgerald.
“This is due to the reduction in protein and because changes in the protein composition affect qualities such as elasticity and loaf volume. There is also a decrease of 5–10% in micronutrients such as iron and zinc.”
There could also be health implications for Australians. As the protein content of grains diminishes, carbohydrate levels increase, leading to food with higher caloric content and less nutritional value, potentially exacerbating the current obesity epidemic.
The corollary from the work being undertaken by Fitzgerald is that in a future CO₂-enriched world, there will be more food but it will be less nutritious. “We see an increase in crop growth on one hand, but a reduction in crop quality on the other,” says Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald says more research into nitrogen-uptake mechanisms in plants is required in order to develop crops that, when grown in eCO₂ environments, can capitalise on increased plant growth while maintaining N2, and protein, levels.
For now, though, while an eCO₂ atmosphere may be good for plants, it might not be so good for us.
ANSTO’s Synroc technology locks up radioactive elements in ‘synthetic rock’ allowing waste, like naturally occurring minerals, to be kept safely in the environment for millions of years.
Synroc technology offers excellent chemical durability and minimises waste and disposal volumes, decreasing environmental risks and lowering emissions and secondary wastes.
ANSTO’s Synroc team is developing a waste treatment processing plant using Synroc technology for Australia’s molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) waste; Mo-99 is the parent nuclide for technetium-99m, the most widely used radioisotope in nuclear medicine. The plant will be the first of its kind, and will lead the world in managing nuclear wastes from Mo-99 production.
Dr Daniel Gregg, leader of the Synroc waste form engineering team at ANSTO, says the plant will demonstrate Australia’s commitment to providing technology solutions to the global nuclear community.
“We hope to partner with others and build several more plants around the world using Synroc technology,” he says.
Gregg says several countries are looking to build new Mo-99 production facilities, and regulators want assurances that facilities will be able to treat the resulting waste streams.
“With national regulators around the world putting more and more pressure on waste producers to deal with nuclear wastes, opportunities exist for Synroc as a leading option for nuclear waste treatment.” This places Synroc and Australia in an enviable position, adds Gregg.
“Synroc is a cost-effective, environmentally responsible option to treat and appropriately dispose of nuclear wastes without leaving a burden to future generations.”
In developing the plant, the Synroc team has designed process engineering technology and a fully integrated pilot plant that can treat large volumes of waste under a continuous process mode.
The team is also collaborating with national laboratories around the world to demonstrate strategies to treat radioactive waste for commercial benefit.
The focus is on waste streams – such as the growing stockpiles of long-lived nuclear waste – that are problematic for existing treatment methods. The real advantage, says Gregg, is Synroc’s ability to immobilise these problematic waste forms.
“Waste producers are required to immobilise nuclear wastes, and Synroc and Australia will be at the forefront of waste management technology.”
Oceans cover about 71% of the Earth’s surface and contain more than 97% of the planet’s water. An estimated 80% of the world’s population lives within 100 km of the coast, and fish provide the bulk of the protein consumed by humans. But the marine ecosystem impacts of global warming on the biodiversity of ocean waters are difficult to determine.
Increasing concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide – the result of activities such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation – are acidifying and warming the world’s oceans.
One of the most widely documented effects of warming, according to Dr Adriana Vergés, senior lecturer in marine biology at the University of New South Wales, is the widening distribution of tropical fish as they move away from equatorial waters towards the poles, resulting in increasing numbers of tropical species appearing in temperate waters.
The marine ecosystem impacts from this warming has profound implications for the underwater environment and marine life.
“Species have three options in response to changing conditions – they die, adapt or move,” explains Vergés. “We are seeing a lot of movement. And because the rate of change is so fast, the question is: will species be able to keep up?”
The intrusion of tropical fish to temperate waters, referred to as tropicalisation, could have far-reaching repercussions for the health of these waters, their biodiversity and the industries that rely on them.
“When the tropical fish arrive, they overgraze on the seaweed and the whole system begins to shift,” says Vergés. “And we’re starting to see this in oceanic waters around northern NSW, where algal forests are disappearing.”
“In Australia, the two largest fisheries are abalone and rock lobster, whose preferred habitats are algal forests and seagrass meadows. If you lose algal forests, the abalone industry will collapse, with significant consequences for the fishing industry and the economy.”
The Abalone Council Australia Ltd estimates about 4500 tonnes of wild abalone were harvested in Australian waters last year, worth around $180 million. And according to Southern Rock Lobster Ltd, in 2011–12 rock lobster fishing produced around 3000 tonnes, worth nearly $175 million.
Vergés, however, is working to reverse some of the damage to the algal forests that threaten this industry.
Together with a number of volunteers, she is involved in Operation Crayweed, a project that aims to re-introduce crayweed – a vital habitat for lobsters, abalone and crayfish – to the waters around Sydney.
“The project is looking to bring crayweed back to the whole of Sydney. We’ve re-planted crayweed, and it has started to come back – we’re now on to our third generation. It’s a really good news environmental story, and we hope the fisheries will benefit too,” she says.
As well as helping to save the fisheries industry and reduce the marine ecosystem impacts in temperate waters around Sydney, Vergés is also involved in the Scientists in Schools national program, where she sparks enthusiasm for the wonders of the underwater world in seven and eight-year-olds.
“It’s so rewarding – children are natural scientists and they ask all the right questions. Speaking to a group of them is the closest I’ve felt to being a rock star. And they love absolutely anything to do with the sea. They are the best audience without a doubt,” says Vergés.
As the driest inhabited continent, and the country with the sixth largest coastline, Australia is poorly endowed with freshwater but fringed by huge expanses of ocean.
We often take it for granted but access to clean drinking water is a critical issue in a growing number of regions around the world. In Perth, drinking water has traditionally been sourced from surface water dams and groundwater reserves. But these supplies have significantly diminished since the 1980s through the combined impacts of rapid urban growth and protracted drought conditions. And with the southwest of Australia expected to suffer more severely than other parts of the continent from the impact of climate change, the situation is only expected to worsen.
The Water Corporation of Western Australia has been intensively exploring diversified options for boosting Perth’s drinking water, focusing on climate-independent sources. The most innovative option has been to use advanced treated wastewater to replenish groundwater resources impacted by the drying climate.
To help with their investigations, they turned to Curtin experts, including water chemist Dr Cynthia Joll. As Deputy Director of the Curtin Water Quality Research Centre (CWQRC), Joll is part of a team that researched the performance of the wastewater treatment procedures to make the process both safe and viable. Joll explains there are a large number of potential micropollutants that might need to be removed from a city’s wastewater before it can be safely recycled as drinking water. These include residual pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics, hormones and pain relief medications found in urine.
“The Centre developed the vast majority of the analytical methods for detecting these chemicals in treated wastewaters and then looked to see whether they were in secondary and tertiary – or advanced – treated wastewater,” says Joll.
The research ensured the WA Department of Health approved a pilot water recycling plant. The plant produced advanced treated wastewater of drinking quality, which was pumped into the groundwater aquifer. As a result, they completed a successful groundwater replenishment trial by the end of 2012, which was dubbed a “highly viable” option for securing WA’s drinking water supplies in the drying climate.
In late 2013, the WA government announced that groundwater replenishment was to go ahead as a major new climate-independent water source for Perth. It’s predicted that, by 2060, as much as 20% of Perth’s drinking water is likely to be supplied using this approach. The advanced treated wastewater will be used to replenish groundwater supplies that won’t be drawn for drinking purposes for decades. By the time it is added to Perth’s water supply and subjected to the drinking water treatment process, it will have been naturally filtered by passing through groundwater aquifers, Joll explains.
The CWQRC is also involved in a wide range of fundamental and applied research into other water quality issues. For Joll, who’s been fascinated by water quality chemistry for many years, it’s been particularly thrilling as a scientist to be involved in work of such high public significance. “To help bring it to full scale has been fabulous,” she says, adding that the success of the research means the work of the CWQRC is creating interest in other regions around the world that are already, or are anticipating, experiencing drinking water limitations.
Engineers at Curtin are also working on a water supply issue. As drinking water is pumped into cities, or wastewater is pumped out, small bubbles can form as the result of a drop in pressure from falling supplies in reservoirs or fluctuations in wastewater usage. These bubbles can damage the pumps that control supply.
Dr Kristoffer McKee, a lead researcher in Curtin’s rotating machine health monitoring project, and colleagues are analysing the vibrations made by the bubbles as they form. When the bubbles enter a pump, the pump applies pressure to the liquid, causing the bubbles to pop (implode) which releases energy. At its peak, millions of bubbles pop within milliseconds of each other.
“This popping eats away at the metal on the ‘impeller’ blades in the pump,” says McKee. As a result, this phenomenon decreases the pump’s ability to apply pressure and push the liquid in the desired direction. “It sounds like you’re pumping gravel.”
The process makes holes in the impeller blades, causing the pumps to seize up. But by the time technicians can detect the telltale sounds, the damage has already begun, says McKee. “It can cost many thousands of dollars to take a pump offline and change an impeller.” He says their approach has been to try to detect the start of the process, called cavitation, before damage becomes significant.
Building on the results of work by a University of Western Australia colleague, and in collaboration with Queensland University of Technology researchers, the Curtin University engineers placed accelerometers (sensors which measure acceleration associated with vibrations) on pumps in Queensland towns. They found they could use the data to map cavitation in 3D to show how a pump changes as cavitation occurs, says McKee.
“Once you see cavitation starting, you can stop your pump and make sure the pressure is correct,” he adds. It’s early days yet and the work needs more field testing, but the research could cut industry costs significantly.
“By 2060, as much as 20% of Perth’s drinking water is likely to be supplied by groundwater replenishment.”
The push to apply research outcomes is strong across Curtin, including in the field of marine and freshwater research. Much of this work is carried out at the university under the auspices of the Australian Sustainable Development Institute, which brings Curtin researchers together on research proposals that relate to sustainable development.
“It’s all about tackling the key issues facing society,” explains the Institute’s Executive Director, Mike Burbridge. “We know that there’s increasing pressure on water and water resources. The cross-disciplinary approach is hugely important at Curtin, but especially in the sustainability space. Major innovations have come about by taking ideas from one area and applying them in another.”
An interdisciplinary approach to solving oceanographic problems has become a hallmark of Curtin’s Centre for Marine Science and Technology (CMST), which fosters research connections across the university’s Departments of Imaging and Applied Physics, Applied Geology, and Environment and Agriculture, as well as with external organisations such as the Western Australian Energy Research Alliance, the Integrated Marine Observing System and the Australian Maritime College.
“It sets us apart from other marine science groups around Australia. We seem to have carved quite a niche for doing that within the Southern Hemisphere and beyond,” says Dr Christine Erbe, Director of the CMST. Erbe is working with a multidisciplinary team at the CMST within Curtin’s physics department in the area of bioacoustics to monitor and analyse the sounds made by marine animals and people at the beach (see News, p6).
In one project, researchers are looking at how to detect sharks in the water using off-the-shelf sonar systems – the type used by private and commercial fishermen that work by emitting acoustic signals reflected off objects in the water. “Many of us have engineering and physics backgrounds and apply that to biology,” says Erbe.
Professor David Antoine, head of Curtin’s Remote Sensing and Satellite Research Group, applies his expertise in the opposite direction, combining his background as a biologist with the use of highly sophisticated physics techniques to interpret changes in ocean colour.
Ocean colour activity is affected by the amount and type of particulate matter present – from phytoplankton to sediment. This matter affects how light penetrates into, and is scattered by, water. It can be expressed in physical terms such as the absorption (how much light is taken in by the water itself, as well as the particles or dissolved substances it contains) and reflectance (how much light is being scattered back compared to how much enters at the surface).
“If you have strong absorption, the water will look darker and you will have less light coming out of the water,” explains Antoine. Less absorption results in more scattering of light and different ocean hues. Understanding the changing spectral signatures that result from this play of light enables scientists to quantify, for example, amounts of phytoplankton – the tiny plants that float in ocean surface waters and drive marine food chains.
“Like terrestrial plant life, phytoplankton contains many pigments, particularly chlorophyll,” says Antoine. “And chlorophyll absorbs preferentially in the blue range on the visible light spectrum.”
As phytoplankton concentration increases in an area of ocean, the spectral signature of the water shifts from deep to light blue, then to green or brown, indicating a very large concentration of phytoplankton and highly productive waters. This can be measured in surface waters using an instrument called a radiometer – deployable from a ship, for example, or across huge areas via satellites.
While referred to as ‘satellite imagery’, it involves more than looking at nice pictures, Antoine says. His team is doing a rigorous quantitative analysis of the measured signal on each pixel of the image to look at geophysical properties and determine attributes such as phytoplankton concentration. “That can mean millions of individual observations on just one image, and billions of them when many years of observations are collected over the entire planet.”
This kind of understanding can be applied, for example, in the local and global management of fish stocks, which rely on patterns of phytoplankton production. And because phytoplankton carry out photosynthesis – absorbing CO2 and releasing oxygen – understanding where, when and how much of this resource there is can provide vast amounts of information about the global carbon cycle. This, in turn, has major implications for managing climate change.
The potential significance of phytoplankton in this area is enormous, says Antoine, explaining that huge numbers of tiny plants floating across the world’s oceans act as a major sink for atmospheric carbon, sequestering around 50 gigatonnes of carbon per year. This is as much carbon fixation as is carried out by terrestrial plants, and the plankton uses about 500 times less biomass because it is more efficient at photosynthesis. A significant part of the CO2 released in the atmosphere by human activity is absorbed by this process and eventually sinks to the deep ocean and is buried in the ocean floor.
There’s perhaps no better indicator of how all of Earth’s habitats – marine, freshwater and terrestrial – are all intimately linked.
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.
As the world becomes more urbanised, with 70% of people now living in cities, “there is an urgent need to make them more sustainable, more energy efficient, safer and cleaner,” says Dr Marlene Kanga, iOmniscient’s director. “Our products enable this to be done intelligently using video data from different sources to complement text and numerical data.”
The company’s technology can analyse images from anywhere – TV, YouTube, security cameras and personal and public sources – and from that provide real-time responses in complex and crowded environments. The technology can be employed wherever there are cameras.
It pinpoints faces in a crowd, counts people, manages crowds, detects abandoned objects, recognises license plates, and matches drivers to their vehicles. The technology works in more than 120 languages, including Arabic scripts and numerals and can operate indoors or outdoors, even in the harshest climates. It also accepts inputs from audio and chemical sensors.
The system has already been installed in oil and gas plants from Azerbaijan to Mexico, in airports, on railway systems including China’s High Speed Rail network, on campuses such as the University of San Francisco, and in Iraq’s Karbala mosque. As Rustom Kanga, CEO of iOmniscient puts it: “We can do everything that any video analysis supplier can do and do it better – and many things that no one else can do.”
Using mobile devices, iOmniscient’s software can also “monitor garbage and vandalism, understand traffic congestion, assess riots and commotions and provide inputs for big data systems analysing information relevant to a city,’’ adds Kanga. “The technology has its own ‘smarts’, with the ability to minimise nuisance alarms, diagnose itself, and determine whether all cameras are working effectively.”
The starting point for this remarkable technology was a single patent acquired in 2001 from the CRC for Sensor Signal and Information Processing. Founders Marlene and Rustom Kanga and Ivy Li then invested extensively in the company to expand its scope and product range. Today, it has 26 patents covering multiple technologies. Sales are mainly made through major systems integrators such as Siemens and Motorola. They also partner with other major technology providers like Microsoft, EMC and Oracle.
The company is working on improving its technology through four engineering centres in Sydney, Toronto, Chennai and Singapore, where they continue to develop robust in-house technology, train postgraduates, and maintain a strong lead in the ownership of its intellectual property.
R&D: 26 patents covering multiple technologies
Reach: Azerbaijan, Canada, China, India, Iraq, Mexico, USA, Singapore
At a glance: Established in 2001, iOmniscient is one of Australia’s great software export success stories. 95% of sales are overseas and it has offices in Canada, Singapore, India and more.
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.
The study found that the global deforestation rate since 2010 – 3.3 million hectares per year – is less than half that during the 1990s (7.2 million hectares per year).
This global slowdown is due to better management of tropical forests. Since 2010 the tropics lost 5.5 million hectares of forest per year, compared to 9.5 million hectares per year during the 1990s.
Sub-tropical, temperate, and boreal climatic regions had relatively stable forest areas.
Satellite data showed tropical forests degraded (damaged but not cleared) since 2000 are six times as extensive as all tropical deforestation since 1990, far more than in other climatic regions.
“While some of this tropical degradation reflects the temporary impacts of logging, the real fear is that much is the leading edge of gradual forest conversion,” Sloan says.
High rates of tropical deforestation and degradation mean that tropical forests were a net emitter of carbon to the atmosphere, unlike forests of other climatic regions.
“But tropical forests are emitting only slightly more carbon than they are absorbing from the atmosphere due to regrowth, so with slightly better management they could become a net carbon sink and contribute to fighting climate change,” Sloan says.
Despite growing demand for forest products, rates of plantation afforestation have fallen since the 2000s and are less than required to stop natural forest exploitation. Demand for industrial wood and wood fuel increased 35% in the tropics since 1990.
“The planting of forests for harvest is not increasing as rapidly as demand, so natural forests have to take the burden,” Sloan says.
Northern, richer countries had steady or increasing forest areas since 1990. Their forests are increasingly characterised by plantations meant for harvest.
While natural forests expanded in some high-income countries, collectively they declined by 13.5 million hectares since 1990, compared to a gain of 40 million hectares for planted forests.
Sloan says that investment in forest management in poorer tropical countries where management and deforestation were worst may herald significant environmental gains.
“But attention must extend beyond the forest sector to agricultural and economic growth, which is rapid in many low-income and tropical countries and which effect forests greatly,” Sayer says.
Background to Study
The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) released the Global Forest Resources Assessment 2015 (FRA 2015) on September 7 2015. The FAO began publishing FRA reports in 1948 to assess the global state of forest resources, given concerns over shortages of forest products. The FAO has published FRA reports at regular intervals since on the basis of individual reports from countries, numbering 234 for the FRA 2015. FRA reports now survey a wide array of forest ecological functions, designations, and conditions in addition to forest areas for each country.
For the first time, the FRA 2015 report was realised by dozens of international experts who undertook independent analyses of FRA data, resulting in 13 scholarly articles published in a special issue of the journal Forest Ecology and Management (2015 volume 352).
The data and trends highlighted in these articles are a significant advance for the global scientific and conservation communities. This article constitutes one of 13 published in Forest Ecology and Management and integrates their major findings.
This article was first published by James Cook University on 8 September 2015. Read the original article here.
After a stint working as an environmental consultant trawling swampland in Sydney and Wollongong, Jayne Hanford has gone back to uni to do a postgrad researching one of Australia’s least favourite invertebrates – mosquitoes.
“Bugs are really cool,” says Jayne, with characteristic enthusiasm. “They’re like little aliens when you look at them under a microscope, and there’s a lot of diversity.”
Jayne’s research at The University of Sydney looks at what conditions can create mosquito-free urban wetlands and preserve urban wetland biodiversity.
“I’m the only person researching the aquatic environment – there are people working on tic pathogens, bees, spiders, ants and bats in urban areas,” says Jayne, describing the diversity of research being undertaken at her lab.
There is currently little research on biodiversity in urban wetlands – and what research is available is somewhat disjointed.
While the conditions conducive for mosquitoes are well understood in natural wetlands, as are the conditions for creating high biodiversity, these findings haven’t been applied to urban wetland ecology.
“I hadn’t really thought about mosquitoes before, I was more interested in the protection of biodiversity, and thought it would be interesting to look at that in an urban context,” says Jayne.
Her main supervisor at the uni, Associate Professor Dieter Hochuli is focused on urban ecology, so Jayne took the opportunity to undertake research into how biodiversity and mosquito populations are linked in urban wetlands.
“The councils I’ve spoken to would really like to know if their wetlands do have mosquitoes because it influences how they manage them in the future.”
As wetland vegetation are often good breeding grounds for mosquitoes, Jayne’s research will assist councils to understand the biodiversity value of a wetland and whether it poses a risk to public health from mosquito-borne diseases.
This understanding will lead to better management of a wetland’s biodiversity while minimising risks from mosquitos. And could allow for the integration of biodiversity and stormwater and wastewater management strategies with public health programs.
“My research will look at what we need to create a really good network of wetlands for conservation in urban areas that tick all the boxes,” explains Jayne.
“They must be visually appealing, be places for recreation, provide a habitat for wildlife, improve water quality, minimise mosquito or weed infestations – and avoid making people sick. People can walk their dogs around them, and they benefit biodiversity.”
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.
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.
The Great Ocean Road, about 200 km southwest of Melbourne, draws millions of tourists to view the spectacular cliffs and limestone stacks known as the Twelve Apostles, carved by relentless Bass Strait waves and winds. But this region is as rich in fossil fuels as it is in scenic beauty, and several commercial gas fields have been opened in the Otway Basin along the continent’s southern margin.
There is also the CRC for Greenhouse Gas Technologies’ (CO2CRC) flagship carbon capture and storage (CCS) trial: the CO2CRC Otway Project – the world’s largest demonstration of its kind.
Since the project started in 2008, the Australian government, US Department of Energy and CRC partners have funded the injection of more than 65,000 tonnes of CO2 into the Otway Basin’s depleted gas fields, without leakage or measurable effect on soil, groundwater or atmosphere.
The project was further boosted by $25 million in Australian government funding in February this year. “The wide-scale deployment of CCS is critical to reduce carbon emissions as quickly and cost-effectively as possible,” says CO2CRC chief executive Tania Constable. “This funding will enable CO2CRC to embark on a new program of research to improve CCS technologies.”
Australia is well-endowed with natural resources. Its known uranium reserves are the world’s largest, and it is rich in natural gas. Traditionally, the most important resource has been coal: Australia has the fourth largest coal reserves globally and is the world’s second biggest coal exporter behind Indonesia. Coal exports – which have grown 5% annually over the past decade – will earn $36 billion in 2014–2015.
Figures like these have led Prime Minister Tony Abbott to declare coal “an essential part of our economic future”. Professor Chris Greig, Director of the University of Queensland’s Energy Initiative, a cohort of research expertise across all energy platforms, anticipates the country will continue to be reliant on fossil fuels, including coal, until at least mid-century. But just how far beyond that depends on how the world – particularly China, one of Australia’s biggest coal customers – addresses future climate change.
In 2014, the US-China emissions deal set China a goal to source 20% of its energy from zero-emissions sources and peak its CO2 emissions by 2030. In August 2014, amid worsening public sentiment over air pollution, the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau announced that it would be phasing out coal-fired power in the capital’s six main districts by 2020.
China has been pouring money into the development of renewable energy technologies, spending an estimated US$64 billion on large-scale clean energy projects in 2014 alone. This was five times more than the next biggest spender, according to market analyst Bloomberg New Energy Finance. China is also investing heavily in CCS technologies, with at least 12 projects currently underway.
There are several pathways toward reducing emissions from the electricity sector – from the adoption of nuclear energy and greater uptake of renewable sources and natural gas, to more efficient power plants and modified diesel engines that can burn liquefied coal. CCS, however, is one of the most promising methods for reducing emissions from coal-fired power stations. Capture technologies isolate and pump CO2 underground to be stored in the pores of rocks (see graphic page 29).
Rajendra Pachauri, who until early 2015 was Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told the UN 2014 Climate Summit in New York, in September 2014: “With CCS it is entirely possible for fossil fuels to continue to be used on a large scale”.
Dianne Wiley, CO2CRC’s program manager for CCS, says CO2 capture technologies are already available to install. Their deployment is limited by high costs, but there have been strong successes. Wiley points to the commercial scale Boundary Dam Integrated Carbon Capture and Sequestration Demonstration Project in Saskatchewan, Canada – the world’s first large-scale power plant to capture and store its carbon emissions – as a good example of what’s possible with CCS technology. It became operational in October 2014 and, its operators say, is already “exceeding performance expectations”. The CAN$1.3 billion cost of the system should drop by around 30% in subsequent commercial plants, says Brad Page, CEO of the Global CCS Institute.
Greig says that investment decisions in favour of CCS in Australia won’t happen until more work is done to find high-capacity storage basins around the continent that can safely and reliably store CO2 emissions for several decades.
Constable says the recent injection of capital from the Federal Government to the Otway Project will help the CRC take the necessary steps to meet this challenge. She says it will “lower the costs of developing and monitoring CO2 storage sites, enhance regulatory capability and build community confidence in geological storage of CO2 as a safe, permanent option for cutting emissions from fossil fuels”.
Retrofitting CCS technology to existing plants isn’t an option: Greig likens that to “building a brand new garage onto the side of a house that’s falling down – you just don’t do it”. CCS would therefore require investment in new coal-fired power stations.
“A well-conceived energy policy for the electricity generation sector would see ageing, low-efficient plants replaced with high-efficiency ultra-supercritical [coal] plants,” says Greig, adding that these plants have lower emissions simply by virtue of their efficiency and could achieve emissions reductions of 25% compared to existing plants.
How CCS works
The first step of carbon capture and storage (CCS) is capture. It involves separating CO2 from other gases in the exhaust stream from a fossil fuel power plant or some other industrial facility. This can be done with solvents that absorb CO2 or with ceramic and polymer membranes that act as filters. Once isolated, CO2 is compressed into a state in which the difference between liquid and gas can no longer be distinguished. It is then transported via pipeline to a prospective storage site. Here, the CO2 is injected into an underground reservoir, such as a geologic formation or depleted oil field. The CO2 has to enter the rocks without fracturing them, and can then be stored underground for thousands of years.
It’s estimated that wild dogs cost Australian farmers more than $65 million each year – a small part of the estimated $1 billion annual price of animal pests to agriculture. Pest monitoring is an important part of ensuring control strategies are effective, and automated technologies that promise more efficient and detailed monitoring are under investigation.
Southern Downs Regional Council in Queensland is working with Australian agricultural tech company Ninox Robotics to spot wild dogs and other pests in their region. The project involves using unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) equipped with thermal imaging cameras, which can map dozens of square kilometres of countryside in a few hours.
The Invasive Animals CRC (IA CRC), NSW Department of Primary Industries and CRC partners have developed camera trap technology with facial recognition software – similar to that used by Facebook to tag your friends – to identify individual dogs and help combat the wild dog problem. Initial tests in northern NSW were able to pinpoint individual dogs with 87% accuracy. The researchers are seeking further funding to turn the technology into user-friendly software for widespread use.
Future versions could monitor other pests including feral cats, and threatened species, says IA CRC researcher Paul Meek. “Technology is providing us with new opportunities to carry out research and management,” says Meek. “And it’s already changing the way we do things.”
Drones streamline cattle musters
Mustering cattle on large Australian stations is a time consuming, expensive and sometimes dangerous operation. Before mustering can begin, graziers need to locate livestock using helicopters, horses, quadbikes and motorbikes, sometimes setting up remote camps.
By mapping the cattle’s location, drone technology under development by the CSIRO could potentially halve mustering costs, says project leader and farming systems specialist Dr Dave Henry. Using an off-the-shelf drone and thermal camera, the researchers accurately located cattle on the Lansdown Research Station near Townsville in 2013, and they are seeking funding for large-scale trials – the next step towards a marketable product.
“Technology is providing us with new opportunities to carry out research and management.”
Using sensors, drones could also monitor feed in paddocks, optimising animal production and minimising environmental impact. “Ultimately, graziers and land managers could manage cattle and their environment, and their whole farm business, in a more precise, timely and informed manner,” says Henry.
Satellites drive precision tractors
Precision agriculture uses sensing technologies, from satellites to drones, to help automate tasks like sowing and harvesting. The benefits of satellite positioning in agriculture are substantial, with an analysis by Allen Consulting predicting it will pump up to $28 billion into the Australian economy by 2030.
A collaboration including the CRC for Spatial Information (CRCSI) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency has developed positioning technology for a driverless tractor using GPS and the Japanese Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS). In summer trials in the Riverina, NSW, the tractor navigated rows of crops to an accuracy of 5 cm.
Existing technologies rely on mobile phone coverage and a costly, dense networkof ground-based antennas called reference stations. These improve the accuracy of the machinery’s satellite-derived position from several metres to a few centimetres.
But mobile coverage and expensive antennas “are barriers to adoption in remote Australia,” says Dr Phil Collier, CRCSI research director. The researchers’ alternative requires fewer reference stations, instead transmitting position corrections to the tractor via a satellite communication channel unique to QZSS. This approach promises multiple benefits for farmers in remote areas.
Traversing the same ground each time, the tractors use less fuel and reduce erosion. The day may even come where fleets of robotic tractors work overnight, says Collier.
Managing bushfire threat
Automation can also play a major role in predicting and managing the threat of bushfires. Typically, emergency services and researchers rely upon observations by satellites, from aircraft and on the ground.
Drones could provide valuable extra data, says Dr Thomas Duff, a Bushfire & Natural Hazards CRC researcher at the University of Melbourne who specialises in simulations that predict fire behaviour. In contrast to helicopters, unmanned vehicles eliminate risks to pilots, and are cheaper and more manoeuvrable, enabling more detailed observations.
With Country Fire Authority Victoria, researchers at the CSIRO
are using drones to make observations of controlled fires for use in bushfire simulations. The RISER (Resilient Information Systems for Emergency Response) collaboration based at the University of Melbourne is monitoring grasslands to better understand how they dry out each year. Duff says this research is critical to more accurate predictions of fire behaviour.
We can expect to be manufacturing and exporting cheap, lightweight solar cells (electrical devices that convert light energy into electricity) to the rest of the world by 2019, taking renewable energy to remote and off-grid communities such as emergency refugee camps.
This prediction came from Professor David Officer, head of the polymer solar cell program at the CRC for Polymers (CRC-P), which is developing design and manufacturing processes for commercially viable polymer solar cells based on a light-sensitive dye.
Officer described the cells as a “people’s technology” for the future. His optimism is based on patents recently secured by the CRC-P for components that will provide a competitive edge over other consortia developing similar cells. CEO Dr Ian Dagley said CRC-P researchers have also pioneered new cost-effective manufacturing techniques that, for commercial reasons, currently remain secret.
Polymer cells exploit the same photovoltaic principle as silicon- and glass-based rooftop solar panels. Unlike those bulky panels, however, polymer cells are flexible and lightweight and, as a result, can be incorporated onto a wide range of surfaces – from walls to sunshades. Transparent versions can even be used in windows. They can also operate indoors, enabling electricity recycling.
Crucially, however, polymer cells are considerably cheaper to manufacture. Silicon cells, for example, require expensive equipment and carefully controlled conditions, while the polymer product can be produced in minutes with minimal labour using reel-to-reel printers, presenting new opportunities for Australian manufacturing. Officer estimated that, using methods developed by the CRC-P, polymer cells can be produced that cost no more than 50 cents per watt – that’s less than half the price to which the silicon solar cell industry aspires.
Dye-sensitised solar cells first created much excitement when they were invented 23 years ago, but have failed to deliver commercially on their early promise. So far, only one company – Wales-based G24 Power – is manufacturing the cells, and only on a small scale.
A key obstacle has been the cost of materials. “We’ve been trying to develop a cost-effective solution to producing the solar cells using inexpensive materials, some of which we’ve made ourselves and can scale up quite easily,” explained Dagley.
The CRC has achieved its materials and fabrication advances through a collaboration of expertise across five partner institutions: the University of Wollongong – where Officer developed new techniques that synthesise cheap organic dyes – the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation and the Universities of Newcastle, Queensland and NSW.
The CRC-P is investigating opportunities with sufficiently large markets to make manufacturing the cells cost-effective, which Officer said has been another obstacle to commercialisation. One contender is in horticulture, where transparent cells incorporated into greenhouses could power cooling and water pumps. The cells may even be able to promote plant growth by transmitting only beneficial wavelengths of light.