Australian University Science Issue 2

Page 1

Issue 2, March 2020


Nanoscale technology creating water from air: p3

First Peoples’ perspectives on water management: p4 Regional universities testing the farms of the future: p6

WATER FUTURES Developing new industries Training the future workforce | Leading in innovation

Big picture solutions

From catalysing new science to ‘pull’ water out of the air using smart fundamental chemistry, to regional universities implementing R&D directly on Australian farms, university science makes critical contributions to water security. Securing our water future is one of the great global challenges of our times. Australia’s comparative success in addressing our water challenges has much to do with the fact we have had a strong water research and teaching community that functions as an early warning system for emerging problems. Through the people working within and with Australian university science, we create world-leading expertise in water management problem identification and remediation. Universities engage at each stage of the innovation cycle to help water managers deliver water security to communities, industries, agriculture and the environment. We do this through research and training, and the translation of that work into improved water policy and management. This knowledge transfer is needed today more than ever before to contribute to the ‘wicked’ problem of equitable sharing of water as a highly contested resource. University science has the facilities, space and expertise to test R&D in the environment in which it will be used, and the commitment to train people to address these challenges. Our resilience to a changing climate and water system will rely on this inbuilt capacity and ingenuity. We still have many serious water security issues to surmount, as evidenced by the ongoing drought and the recent crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin. Advances will require a national architecture for identifying and funding research priorities. The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering and the Australian Academy of Science are working with the university sector to prepare a strategic vision for Australian water research in 2020. This national vision will require people that can bring together research knowledge with fast, effective delivery of solutions. This booklet provides just a few of the ways in which Australian university science is working to address our water challenges in urban and regional areas today and in the future. Professor Rob Vertessy Enterprise Professor (Water Resources), University of Melbourne


Exploring the achievements of university science in water innovation and research. As an increasingly dry continent, Australia faces immense water challenges. Australian universities play a critical role in undertaking research and development to assist in the identification of water management problems, the achievement of water security, and the creation of innovative solutions.



Australian University Science highlights the collaborative work of the science community in this second edition, and profiles the roles graduates play in industry. To provide feedback or suggestions to the editors, subscribe to this publication or order additional copies, visit

Cover Image: Shutterstock. Published 4 March 2020 by Refraction Media on behalf of the Australian Council of Deans of Science. Designed by Jon Wolfgang Miller. Printed in Australia by IVE. ISSN: 2652-2403. © 2020 Australian Council of Deans of Science, all rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any manner or form without written permission. If you would like to reproduce anything from this issue, email:


Clockwise from left: Professor Chiara Neto; the Namibian desert beetle; Professor Neto in her chemistry lab; the University of Sydney Nano Institute team.


Images: Stefanie Zingsheim/University of Sydney, James Anderson/Flikr

A remarkable new material developed by the University of Sydney can extract water from air, and could change our future relationship with water. 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. 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

MARCH 2020



WATER FOR COUNTRY Tapping into thousands of years of observation and water management by Australia’s First Peoples holds the key to future water policy in Australia.

Bachelor of Environmental Science, Australian Catholic University


Master of Science, Hydrogeology and Groundwater management, University of Technology Sydney


Team Leader, Aboriginal Water Initiative, NSW Department of Primary Industries

Bradley Moggridge is a Kamilaroi water scientist, a Fellow of the Peter Cullen Water and Environment Trust and a recent Young Tall Poppy Scientist of the Year in the ACT. Managing the aquifers, water catchments and rivers that span Australia’s arid lands lies deep in his blood. “My people have been interested in water for more than 65,000 years,” he says. Moggridge is a hydrogeologist who recently led Australia’s only Aboriginal water unit at the NSW Department of Primary Industries. His Master’s thesis, in 2005, at the University of Technology Sydney explored how Aboriginal knowledge was used to understand and access groundwater. “The flexibility that allows exploratory research through university science gave me the opportunity to connect the dots between hydrogeology, hydrogeochemistry and Aboriginal science,” he says. Moggridge is now completing his PhD at the University of Canberra, where his research links western science with traditional knowledge to develop best-practice methodologies for water planning and management tailored to specific landscapes. He says that his own heritage, as a Murri man from the Kamilaroi Nation of north-western New South Wales, deeply informs his work. Australia has been home to thousands of generations of its First Peoples despite its arid landscapes. Traditional knowledge about how to find water sites has been integral to the survival of Aboriginal people, says Moggridge. “Move away from the coastal regions and the river lands, and your dependence on surface water diminishes. In a dry landscape, knowing when, where and how to find water, where groundwater is the only source of water, that is how our people survived,” he says. “Aboriginal ways of thinking and managing country involve scientific processes and generations of observation — why there’s a stand of gum trees here, why birds go to a certain place — but it has been regarded as myth and legend.” Rangers in the Great Sandy Desert cite stories about one dryland location that had previously been a river. “Hydrogeologists drilling there found evidence of a paleo channel,” says Moggridge. “This is old, old knowledge. “Our stories hold the key to managing water on this continent. It’s a knowledge system that has survived changes in climate for millennia. Protecting water remains a cultural obligation. “The support of university science will let me continue my work, applying an Indigenous methodology to the way we manage water.” — Fran Molloy

Special Advisor, First Peoples Water, Water Stewardship Australia

Indigenous Water Research Specialist, CSIRO

PhD in water science, University of Canberra


THE WAR ON WASTE Karen Rouse leads a national effort to take valuable water research from university science to industry and end users.

Bachelor of Science (Hons), University of Exeter

Master of Environmental Studies at the University of Adelaide

Senior Environmental Assessment Officer, SA Planning

With a career spanning 20 years in the water sector, Karen Rouse is well placed to provide leadership in her role as CEO of Water Research Australia (Water RA). She serves on the Board of the Global Water Research Coalition and Water Industry Alliance, and led the CSIRO urban water research program looking at positive environmental outcomes for wastewater treatment. A native Brit, Rouse worked as a geologist in the energy and construction sectors in Australia before completing her Master of Environmental Studies at the University of Adelaide. The interdisciplinary nature of the course brought a seismic shift in her career. “The course I studied had science subjects such as conservation, biology and freshwater ecology, but it also included environmental economics, law and a synthesis subject,” she says. “That has enabled me to see how science gets into policy and practice, and to understand the systems that go around it.” Water RA transitioned from a Cooperative Research Centre with university partners 10 years ago to being fully industry funded today, coordinating collaborative research between universities to tackle water challenges. “Our members are roughly half universities and half industry, including water utilities, health regulators, consultants and a few small niche companies,” says Rouse. “We call them our big team.” A major challenge is to work out how to reuse water regardless of where it comes from, whether that be stormwater or treated wastewater, to treat it appropriately and then communicate that to the community. “In towns in western New South Wales where they’re running out of water, we are making sure people in leadership have access to accurate and evidence-based information with which to act,” she says. Water RA also delivers an acclaimed research leadership program that offers industry sponsorship to Honours, Master’s and PhD students, to make them ready for careers in the water sector. “Our success is a 95% rate of employment within the sector when they finish,” says Rouse. Students receive industry mentorship, attend leading industry conferences, and importantly, an ongoing program aimed at maintaining a lifelong research mindset. “It’s a risk as a scientist working in industry to become ‘frozen’ in time if you don’t continue to pursue new knowledge and actively keep up with your discipline. That’s where universities play a crucially important role.” — Brendan Fitzpatrick

Principal Strategist, Environment and Sustainability, SA Water

Theme Leader, Water for a Healthy Country Flagship, CSIRO

Manager, Source Water and Environment Research, SA Water

CEO, Water Research Australia

MARCH 2020



SMART SCIENCE AT REGIONAL UNIVERSITIES IS DRIVING OUR FUTURE FARMS The University of New England’s SMART farms are outdoor laboratories where scientists and growers test out innovations that make a real difference in the field.



soil moisture probes that create a ‘living map’ reporting on the moisture levels across a segment of the property. Other sensor networks report on the water use in trees, the growth of pasture and even the amount of honey being produced in the property’s beehives. Water and its use is always a key focus of the university’s research.


Flavel says regional universities are well placed to explore scientific solutions for some of the big challenges facing Australia’s farmers, most of these relating to how best to use limited water resources. “All of the innovative systems that have come online in farming during the past 30 years — from no-till systems, to maintaining and improving groundcover, to retaining stubble — these are all essentially about managing water,” he says. At UNE’s campus in Armidale, level-five water restrictions are in place following years of crippling drought. “Farming in Australia is very

responsive to our climate. Our growers are governed by when, and by how much water they get,” says Flavel. He says with just five per cent of Australia’s crops irrigated, cropping industries in Australia rely on rainfall, and most water for crops is stored in the soil. “Our research looks at current water use by dryland crops and grazing pasture, and how best to make use of the water when it lands on paddocks,” he says.


Decades of research in universities have delivered real improvements in agricultural topsoil structures, with growers now seeing remarkable improvements from techniques that improve soil sodicity, salinity and acidity. The next step is sub-soil management, explains Flavel. At the University’s SMART farm, moisture sensors show there’s still substantial water being held in sub-soils after harvest. “When a crop has finished, the water

Images: University of New England, Science Photo Library, Reuters/David Gray, Steven Melvin

Outside Armidale, in northern NSW, eight different properties covering 3900 hectares of woodland, grassland, water sources and pasture comprise the University of New England’s Sustainable Manageable Accessible Rural Technologies (SMART) Farms, an outdoor laboratory for the Precision Agriculture team. These farms include a commercial sheep property, 1000-head cattle feedlot, long-term agronomy plots, a genomic research centre and teaching lab featuring innovative farming technologies that are tested, assessed and monitored on working farms. UNE crop scientist Dr Richard Flavel says agricultural science works best when universities are in partnership with industry. “Universities have an opportunity to bring in expertise and to do the things that industry hasn’t got the time, or the economic drivers, to do themselves, and to really boost innovation.” For more than three years, UNE scientists have gathered data from a wide network of more than 100

in the sub-soil profile should have been used up and turned into wheat. High sub-soil water shows that plants haven’t been able to access water at depths — that’s a reduction of yield potential for the grower,” he says. Sub-soils, which sit 15cm or deeper below the surface, are now recognised as an important area for further improvement. Addressing this problem is a focus for more research. “We’re currently looking at ways to fix sodic or saline sub-soils to improve how much our plants can use the water that falls on the paddock,” says Flavel. “Unlocking water deep in the soil profile could potentially double yields in some situations.”

Above: Soil bacteria can fix hydrophobic soil. Left: Drought-affected farms in NSW. Below, the UNE crop scientist Dr Richard Flavel at the Precision Agriculture SMART farm outdoor laboratory.


Another research area is the massive tracts of soil across Australia’s croplands — nearly five million hectares — which are non-wetting or water-repellent. University scientists found that some particles of soil develop a water-resistant coating, leaving rainfall to evaporate from the surface rather than penetrate the ground for plants’ use. “Understanding this phenomenon has involved some tricky physics at a microscopic level,” says Flavel. The team’s research looks at ways to address this problem, which can include wetting agents, bringing up clay from deep in the soil profile and changing crops. “Growers are very innovative, and as a scientist that’s exciting. We’ve got a group which is keen to work with our scientists to find and adopt new discoveries.” — Fran Molloy


CLEANING UP OUR WATERWAYS Science at regional and rural universities works with local land managers, government agencies and communities to monitor the health of waterways, and assess problems on the ground. They also develop evidence-based solutions that minimise human impact and deliver the best outcomes for sustainable communities. At Griffith University, in south-east Queensland, the Australian Rivers Institute (ARI) has a range of industry and government partners through the ARI Toxicology Research Program. “Our research looks at the source of contaminants, their fate or where they end up, and the effect,” says Dr Steven Melvin, who is a research fellow at the ARI.

Tens of thousands of different chemicals enter our waterways, but most have a relatively low impact, he says. The ARI collaborates with industry and government agencies to identify contaminants that are potentially damaging and looks at ways to treat and remediate these. “Largely through industry-collaborative, university-led research, we now have advanced technology, such as reverse osmosis, which uses energy and pressure to treat wastewater by forcing it through a semi-permeable membrane,” says Melvin. “This filters out minute chemical compounds that could cause effects in the environment.” – Fran Molloy

Dr Steven Melvin, research fellow at the Australian Rivers Institute

MARCH 2020



UNIVERSITY SCIENCE DELIVERING WATER INNOVATION Dr Peter Mabbitt (left) and Dr Kai Xun Chan (right) from the Australian National University Research School of Biology.

UNEXPECTED OUTCOMES Scientists from the ANU Research School of Biology made a major breakthrough for world food security while investigating photosynthesis. They discovered that chloroplasts — which convert sunlight into sugars through photosynthesis — can also activate a chemical signal to close stomata on leaves to protect individual plants from losing vital water in drought. By boosting this chloroplast signal in barley plants, the team improved drought survival time by around 50%. The team is exploring ways to boost this chloroplast signal in different crops, through breeding, genetic or agronomic strategies.



More than five million hectares of agricultural land in Australia is hydrophobic, meaning the soil repels water. Global chemical company BASF co-funded research by scientists at Swinburne University, led by chemistry Professor David Mainwaring, with the CRC for Polymers, to develop solutions to help soil accept water. These new soil-wetting agents have increased crop yields. The multidisciplinary team has now patented two polymer surfactants and a soil diagnostic test.

Murdoch University’s Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Ecosystems is tackling clean-energy and fresh-water challenges with a cross-disciplinary approach. Researchers in aquatic biology and ecology, marine mammal ecology, fisheries, aquaculture, algal biotechnology, oceanography, human-use and habitat assessments, bioinformatics, economics and spatial sciences are all working together. One recent project tackled challenges around the release of aquaculturebred fish into the wild environment.

Inspired by plant experiments on the International Space Station, University of Queensland researchers are advancing the technology of ordinary glasshouses with a revolutionary “speed breeding” technique that can cut plant breeding time in half. Dr Lee Hickey and his team developed a ‘desktop breeding cabinet’ that will allow researchers to develop wheat, barley, canola and other crops adapted to drought, changed local soil and climate conditions.


Images: ANU, Shutterstock, Peel Harvey Catchment Council, UQ