ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials scientists (l to r): Associate Professor Jenny Pringle, Dr Danah Al-Masri, Dr Mega Kar and Professor Douglas Macfarlane.
The ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials is taking teamwork to new levels.
The ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES) is an impressive knowledge hub that has significant runs on the board, including the creation of spin-off company AquaHydrex. Set up in Wollongong in 2012, the now Colorado-based energy company utilises fundamental science research outcomes to commercialise an innovative and cheaper way of producing hydrogen.
But talk to the teams that conduct research at ACES and the passion for knowledge translation, training and entrepreneurship are just part of the story. What comes through most clearly is that it’s simply a great place to work.
The ACES focus is on training the next generation of research leaders and providing manufacturing and industry opportunities across health, energy and smart materials. There are five international partners and seven Australian universities on board: the University of Wollongong, Deakin University, Monash University, the University of Tasmania, Australian National University, University of Melbourne and Swinburne University of Technology.
Deakin University Associate Professor Jenny Pringle says it’s a “strong, tight-knit community”. “Students get to hear about everything, it’s really diverse.”
Collaboration is facilitated through weekly dial-in meetings, and twice yearly national and international symposia. Students regularly present at workshops, and training in entrepreneurship and communications is prioritised.
A/Prof Pringle is project leader for thermal energy storage and battery materials, and a chief investigator at the Institute for Frontier Materials, an ACES collaboration partner, where she works with PhD graduate Dr Danah Al-Masri. With colleagues ACES Energy Theme leader Professor Douglas MacFarlane and Laureate Research Fellow Dr Mega Kar, their métier is creating cheaper, safer energy harvesting and storage systems. Dr Kar’s focus is on new battery materials to improve or replace lithium ion batteries, which are widely used in laptops and phones and can be expensive and, rarely, but catastrophically, unstable.
Dr Al-Masri is one of around 70 PhD students at ACES, more than three-quarters of whom come from overseas. “Efficient energy storage is such a complex problem — you have to collaborate and some of the best people are working across the world,” she says. “ACES’s strong international reputation allows us to come together.”
The centre draws in physicists, chemists, biologists and engineers, with the recognition that basic science is critical. “Exceptional science is at the core of everything the centre does,” says
A/Prof Pringle. The team works across the innovation system, from designing electrolytes — materials with an electric charge — to prototyping batteries that are tested in electric cars, laptops and mobile phones, always seeking energy storage’s holy grail: inexpensive materials that need to be charged less often, but hold their charge for longer.
“The critical outcome of our research shows we can outperform some of the lithium batteries out there, which has led to some patents and interest from industry,” says Dr Kar.
“Within ACES, we have a good gender balance and we encourage students from all backgrounds to focus on climate change and global warming. Storage is a hot topic right now and we need the best of the best to be involved,” she says.
Professor MacFarlane says that while it’s exciting to see the application of fundamental science come to fruition, the outcome from ACES is more than great basic science.
“One of our top priorities and our chief outcome is our bright young scientists – that’s what we produce mostly, and the science is the vehicle for that training. If we can produce exceptional science as well, that’s a bonus.”
— Heather Catchpole
This article appears in Australian University Science Issue 1.