Tag Archives: water

Drops from thin air

The University of Sydney Nano Institute team

University science is behind some of the most profound innovations and breakthroughs in water research, from the development of cutting-edge techniques to maximise irrigation, to the creation of innovative new materials that can literally capture water from the air.

At the University of Sydney, the Advanced Capture of Water from the Atmosphere (ACWA) project applies nanoscale materials science to mimic the remarkable adaptation of desert beetles in Namibia, a region where just 1.4cm of rain falls each year. The beetle collects water vapour from the atmosphere, turning it into liquid via the intricate shapes of tiny bumps on its exoskeleton.

Biomimicry — learning from, and mimicking, clever strategies found in nature to solve human design challenges — is an important component of the work of the University of Sydney Nano Institute, co-led by chemist Professor Chiara Neto and physicist Professor Martijn de Sterke. Innovations from the research include a nanotextured surface which can repel bacteria, algae and other marine life from ships’ hulls, inspired by a lotus leaf; a nanoscale slippery surface, inspired by the pitcher plant, that can be used for microfluidic channels in bioengineering; and a stain-resistant paint base.

The Institute has attracted top-level researchers from chemistry, physics, materials science and bioengineering from across the university.

“We began with the idea of capturing water from the atmosphere by optimising the surface chemistry of a material so it would enable the formation of droplets out of humid air,” says Neto.

“We are now developing new devices that capture water from the atmosphere through condensation, using no external source of energy, by designing surfaces that spontaneously cool when exposed to the air,” she says.

Related: Software saves rainwater

The team has made two key breakthroughs. First, they have perfected the surface science of nanoscale ‘bumps’ shaped in a way to harvest a very thin film of water vapour, similar to the Namibian desert beetle.

Their second breakthrough is the development of an entirely new surface that is naturally chilled and causes water to condense into droplets. Wherever the atmosphere is above 30% humidity, this surface will automatically collect water vapour from the air.

The ACWA project is well on the way towards its ambitious goal to create materials that capture sufficient water from the atmosphere to alleviate the effect of drought by providing water for humans, animals and plants.

Patents are underway for exciting applications for the technology, including watering devices to use within greenhouses; a portable self-filling water bottle for bushwalkers and emergency crews; and small water stations to sustain wildlife in remote areas

Fran Molloy

This article appears in Australian University Science issue 2.

Water smart cities

Work at the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities will play a vital role in safeguarding the water supplies of our cities, managing our waste as a resource and protecting cities from floods – making them water smart cities.

Vertical gardens

A space-saving way to beautify buildings, vertical gardens increase urban biodiversity and improve local microclimates. With water supplies under increasing demand, the gardens must be able to flourish using sustainable watering practices. Perth landscaping firm Deep Green and CRC partner, the City of Subiaco, designed a vertical garden for a local library. Tailored to the local climate and using native plants that require minimal water, it is the first vertical garden in WA and it thrived in its first summer. CRC researchers are developing technologies that will enable the gardens to treat greywater from the buildings for reuse in landscape watering and to flush toilets in the same buildings. In Australia, this could save up to 50% of typical household water usage.

Water smart cities: urban wetlands

“Cities in Australia and the world are all facing significant challenges related to growing populations, water being one of them. Liveability within the city is very much dependent on how we manage water,” says Professor Wong. Artificial wetlands constructed in our cities are one of the most promising technologies for a sustainable, water-sensitive future, providing a way to process stormwater run-off while creating public amenities. The bodies of water act as holding reservoirs, trapping sediments and pollutants, while vegetation provides a biofilter that removes and, in some cases, converts pollutants into harmless substances. The CRC for Water Sensitive Cities is working to improve the technology and adapt it to treat not only stormwater during wet spells, but also wastewater and polluted groundwater during dry periods.

Water smart cities: hidden treasure in our sewers

Eliminating nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium from wastewater is an energy-intensive process necessary to avoid toxic algal blooms in our waterways. But in the right formulation, these elements can be used to make a precious resource: agricultural fertiliser. Led by Dr Damien Batstone, researchers from the Advanced Water Management Centre at the University of Queensland are developing a technique that uses bacteria to extract the nutrients, transforming the waste into fertiliser. Initial testing on farms has been successful and, in an added benefit, the approach generates methane, which can be burnt to generate electricity, improving energy efficiency.

– Jude Dineley


Irrigation innovation

This is an article in our nine-part series on Australia Asia innovation.

Water is the world’s most precious resource. Without proper supplies, farmers cannot meet the planet’s growing demand for food.

Yet global estimates suggest there are 275 million hectares of land whose irrigation systems desperately need modernisation: 55–60 million in China, 25 million in the US, and 2.5 million in Australia. The market has proved fertile for Rubicon Water.

At sites across the globe, Rubicon Water’s installations measure and control water flow, making hundreds of small changes daily to send precise amounts of water to farmers when needed – the magic of algorithms, wireless telemetry, solar power, sensors, smart gates and valves.

“Our systems have now been deployed in China, Spain, Chile, New Zealand, France, Mexico, Italy, USA and Canada,” says Melbourne engineer David Aughton, who – with four enterprising colleagues with expertise in software development and irrigation system operation – founded irrigation innovation company Rubicon Water in 1995.

Along the way, the group teamed up with the University of Melbourne’s Professor Iven Mareels and scientists of the CRC for Sensor Signal and Information Processing, and jointly developed the Total Channel Control System for automating and revitalising outdated irrigation systems.

“That big team effort is ongoing with the university in systems control engineering and smart software for intelligently moving water,” adds Aughton.

Small-scale pilot projects kicked off in 2002 in Victoria’s irrigation districts and in Coleambally, NSW, followed by large-scale deployments in 2005 and now deployments in Australia, China and the US.

Today, Rubicon Water delivers smart, green automation, sensor measuring and control technologies for drought-stricken irrigators from two offices in China, three in the US, and other strategically placed sales offices. Staff numbers have grown from 60 in 2008, to over 200 employees in 2014.

Rubicon is an Australian innovation success story involved in massive irrigation projects in China.

HQ: Melbourne

R&D: 15,000 products sold

Reach: Spain, Chile, New Zealand, France, Mexico, China, Italy, USA, Canada

At a glance: Established in 1995, Rubicon is a private, Australian-owned company with 200 employees and sales offices in the US, China, Spain, Mexico and New Zealand. It also has a research partnership with the University of Melbourne’s School of Engineering.

Aughton says that their state-of-the-art manufacturing plant in Shepparton has exported 15,000 Rubicon gates, meters and products globally.

In Australia, Rubicon has multi-million dollar modernisation contracts in the Goulburn–Murray districts, in Murray Irrigation in southern NSW, in the Ord Valley in Queensland, and is involved in massive irrigation projects in China. The Fen River Irrigation District in China’s Yellow River Basin, for example, covers 100,000 hectares and supplies water on rotation to hundreds of thousands of small landholders growing crops and vegetables.

Fen River Irrigation Authority Director, Li Ming Xing, says he “highly recommends” Total Channel Control, due in part to Rubicon saving 75% of the costs of alternative technologies. – Paul Hendy

Next: Microtechnology manufacturing success

Leading sustainable design

With bachelor degrees in civil engineering and science and a PhD in environmental sociology, Dr Briony Rogers is uniquely placed for her present research role. She’s tackling the technical and social challenges required to make our urban water systems more sustainable and resilient to the impacts of climate change, a growing population and increasing urbanisation.

As a civil engineer, Rogers spent five years working for private infrastructure services consultancy GHD where she was responsible for civil engineering design and project management on a range of water infrastructure projects both in Australia and Vietnam. She was passionate about sustainability, but recalls that by the time designs landed on her desk, most of the big decisions influencing sustainability and resilience had already been made.
Rogers decided to take on doctoral research at Monash University and investigate processes of social change in relation to sustainable infrastructure and technology. “I drew on my technical understanding, but with the recognition that to implement new approaches, social systems would have to change as well,” she says.

Now, as a Research Fellow for the Monash University Water for Liveability Centre and the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities, Rogers works with key stakeholders to design strategies and new methods to build the “social capital” required to transform the way we plan, design and manage our urban water systems. Rogers’ interdisciplinary background means she can act as a bridge between various stakeholders, from engineers and ecologists to landscape architects, as well as organisations such as local councils, state government departments and private enterprise.

The big picture goal, Rogers says, is to transition to “water sensitive cities”, in which decentralised, low energy technologies are integrated with centralised networks to build resilience in the face of an unpredictable future. This requires thinking outside the square, she adds, and recognising that water infrastructure “is not just a pipe underground”, but a valuable part of the urban landscape, providing benefits that can enhance the liveability of a city. She gives an example of green cities that are irrigated using harvested stormwater to reduce extreme heat during heatwaves.

“We’ve been building our water systems in large-scale, centralised modes for a couple of hundred years, so it is very difficult to change our approach,” Rogers says. “That’s partly why this type of research is so important – to understand what is locking us into traditional systems, so we can overcome those barriers to support innovation not just in rhetoric, but in practice.”

Rogers was this year selected by the International Social Science Council to be one of 20 early-career World Social Science Fellows in the area of sustainable urbanisation.

– Gemma Chilton