The Science Behind Net Zero: Australian University Science 11

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critical transition Developing new industries Training the future workforce | Leading in innovation Transforming agriculture, p3 Four
our most crucial scientific innovations, p4 Science informing policy, p6 Issue 11, May 2024
we’ll make society’s
and most

Across the board

Achieving net zero is a grand challenge that relies on universities’ science innovation, deep history and escalating the journey forward.

Throughout history, humans have grappled with grand challenges that have shaped our existence, tested our resilience, and spurred innovation. From the Industrial Revolution and space exploration to the information age, these monumental quests transcended epochs, leaving indelible marks on our collective journey.

The current quest for sustainable energy spans the globe, and the energy transition to a net zero future is humankind’s next grand challenge to overcome. The transition to net zero is unprecedented and complex, but it is also a beacon of hope and a call to action.

Standing at the precipice of this mountainous task, we need to recognise that no single discipline can unravel these complex problems. Instead, the collective symphony of scientific minds will orchestrate our ascent.

For example, take the deep STEM expertise of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Their conservation and custodianship, sophisticated engineered systems, and complex technology development — woven into the fabric of this place for more than 65,000 years and continuing — provides sustainability blueprints for living in harmony with the land.

Australian universities have a critical role to play in cultivating the deep knowledge to unravel these wicked problems while fostering talent to secure Australia’s future STEM workforce.

Our universities nurture a mosaic of disciplines, each one necessary to ensure the success of a net zero future. Boosting biofuel production efficiency,

enhancing energy storage and conversion, developing the next generation of solar cells, protecting biodiversity through sustainable infrastructure development, and energy systems modelling — these incredible achievements are just snippets of the Australian university science innovations that are driving us towards net zero.

Key to our success will be a connected innovation system that smoothly takes great Australian ideas, turns them into products and services, and creates maximum value for society. The three parts of our innovation system need to work in cohesion — universities and research institutes generate ideas and drive the push and pull of the innovation system. Businesses transform and adopt research, and the government champions the efforts with strategic incentives and drives efficiencies — informed by the best science out there.

Creating this connected system is crucial, and the scientific knowhow, discoveries and outcomes from Australian universities are critical to its success.


Australian University Science advocates the value of university science to the broader community.

Australia’s strong science research and training is integral to driving new economies. Universities have a critical role as partners in establishing innovation and technological change in industry. As science delivers new insights and tools, new industries are emerging, and people with science skills will be essential to these new industries.

Australian University Science magazine highlights these stories, showcasing exceptional science teams and Australian science graduates working in industry. To provide feedback or suggestions, subscribe or order additional copies, visit

Welcome to Issue 11 of Australian University Science, the Australian Council of Deans of Science magazine, which showcases the impact and importance of university science in Australia. As the world is transitioning its energy production strategies from traditional carbon sources to more efficient and sustainable options, university science is at the forefront of research and innovation, generating new knowledge, products, technologies and processes. University science is also key to inspiring and preparing school and university students for rapidly growing careers in science and innovation, and ensuring we have the right workforce to effect this transformational change. Effective partnerships with engineering, business and social science faculties, community groups, industry and policymakers are also required, to translate discoveries into innovative and scalable technologies, drive entrepreneurship and financial sustainability, and enable policy change and community acceptance. Thank you to everyone who has contributed to this edition, notably including Sharath Sriram, President of Science Technology Australia, for his insightful and inspiring foreword.

Professor Melissa Brown, President, Australian Council of Deans of Science

Cover Image: Anita Ho-Baillie. Image: The University of Sydney/ Stefanie Zingsheim. Published 15 May 2024 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. © 2024

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



The Zero Net Emissions Agriculture Cooperative Research Centre (ZNE-Ag CRC) is Australia’s largest to date. It evolved from and relies on university science

Involving 11 university partners, three Indigenous organisations, and multiple industry partners and SMEs, the ZNE-Ag CRC has secured $300 million in funding over 10 years. The Federal Government’s contribution of $87 million is the largest in the CRC program’s history. Chair Debra Cousins details why university partners are critical to developing the innovative solutions needed to transition Australian agriculture to a zero net industry.

Many people don’t fully realise how important science is to everyday life. Everything we use, our food and drink, health, technology — none of this is possible without university science.

When this CRC was being considered, it was a kernel of an idea around a global problem of significance to Australia. The university science was already happening, with good collaborations between universities, government and industry. Once the conversations started, industry gravitated towards the project — people were ringing us up wanting to be involved.

The CRC bid gained momentum because partners recognised that reducing emissions needed a concerted, nationally coordinated effort. There are



87,000 Small to Medium Enterprises in Australian agriculture — small farming families, as well big corporations, all moving towards farming sustainable food. But agriculture contributes 16% of our emissions nationally — mostly methane from cows and sheep.

To tackle this challenge, we need to build on fundamental university research, while testing existing and emerging solutions at commercial scale. No single technology will get us to net zero emissions. The solution will be several technologies that together lead to low emissions, and we’ll need to draw from innovations from many disciplines.

CRC producer sites will demonstrate how these technologies can work together in farming systems, and create pathways to low-emissions agriculture. We need to know what we come up with is effective, impactful and doesn’t affect the farmer’s bottom line.

The CRC builds on technologies already being developed by The University of Queensland, The University of Western Australia, the University of New England, The University of Melbourne, as well as many others, and their established networks with government and industry.

Continued engagement with community, consumers, government, industry and universities is critical to addressing research challenges as they emerge, and create uniquely Australian solutions that suit our industry.

Australia has an important agricultural sector, and first-class scientists. In the next five years we’ll need more PhD students to get involved. People in plant and animal genetics, agronomy, spatial science, data science, animal science, biochemistry, microbiology, chemical engineering and RNA technologies, as well as carbon modelling to understand and measure change, and social science for ensuring we have the best adoption techniques in place.

This is an incredible opportunity for scientists who want to get into deep research and be involved in solving a global problem.

— Dr Debra Cousins, Chair, ZNE-Ag CRC

Dr Debra Cousins


Australia plans to reach net zero emissions by 2050. With the transformation underway, the country’s universities are spearheading the scientific innovations critical to achieving national targets in renewable energy, storage, and reduction of emissions through agriculture and infrastructure.


University science paved the way for Australia as a pioneer in photovoltaics. PERC solar cells, the brainchild of UNSW Scientia Professor Martin Green, continue to be the world’s most commercially viable silicon solar cell technology, reaching 25% efficiency.

Professor Anita Ho-Baillie, John Hooke Chair of Nanoscience at The University of Sydney, is boosting that efficiency by stacking together two different light-absorbing materials to expand the spectrum of sunlight solar cells can soak up. Perovskite forms the top layer to harvest high-energy rays, while the bottom silicon layer absorbs

“They’re working in tandem, making them more efficient in converting solar energy into electricity — up to 40%,” says Ho-Baillie. “We’re hoping to produce more power with less or the same amount of area, effectively reducing cost. And the more power we produce, the shorter the energy

Solar also powers the production of green hydrogen, another renewable energy

source. Professor Tianyi Ma, a materials chemist at RMIT University, harnesses sunlight for his solar-to-hydrogen generator. This device is designed to float on water, with a photocatalyst-coated top layer that directly converts solar to hydrogen without the intermediate electricity generation and costly battery energy storage.

This simplifies the otherwise complex process of producing green hydrogen. “This results in lower costs and can potentially lead to large-scale utilisation of renewable energy,” Ma says. “And because it’s floating, it doesn’t occupy land space.”

Industry is hot on the trail of these next-generation technologies. Ho-Baillie is collaborating with Sydney-based solar tech startup SunDrive, while Ma is working with industry partners and has recently been awarded a funding grant from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

Emerging avenues of research across the university ecosystem are integral to advancing renewable energy. Ho-Baillie’s group, for instance, includes undergrads as well as graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. “We’re educating and training the next generation to make renewable energy better,” she says.


While renewable energy is vital to realising net zero, storage is key to securing constant supply. For many, batteries are

synonymous with energy storage.

University of Sydney professor of chemistry Thomas Maschmeyer and his research group formulated lithium-sulfur batteries. These can store more energy than lithium-ion ones and are a lowercost and safer alternative.

The team also developed a novel electrolyte flexible enough to fit different anode types. As a result, lithiumsulfur batteries can match different configurations to power drones, electric vehicles and even electric planes.

In 2015, Maschmeyer founded energy storage startup Gelion, a spinout of his research at The University of Sydney. The company has since announced breakthroughs in lithium sulfur batteries that double the range of EVs and enable electric aviation. It is now globally positioned with partners in the UK and the US, poised to integrate its sulfur cathode platform technology into products spanning all current lithium battery applications. All these successes were made possible by Maschmeyer and his research group’s foundational scientific work at the university level.

“Batteries help us use our energy resources more efficiently, allowing us to change the model from centralised power with long transmission lines to local power with short transmission lines,”

Professor Anita Ho-Baillie
Professor Tianyi Ma

Maschmeyer says. “We need batteries to support the energy transition.”

University science is making hydrogen storage breakthroughs possible as well.

Kondo-Francois Aguey-Zinsou, also a professor of chemistry at the University of Sydney, is working on hydride materials for hydrogen storage. These materials include metals and lightweight chemical elements capable of absorbing hydrogen like a sponge and storing it in compact form. They can store hydrogen in larger amounts and more safely than hydrogen’s current liquefied or compressed gas form.

Building scientific expertise in universities helps accelerate the progress of energy storage. “We need storage technologies if we are to deploy renewable energy at scale,” says Aguey-Zinsou. “Hydrogen will be part of that mix.”


Soil carbon sequestration can play a pivotal role in reducing Australia’s agricultural sector emissions.

“Evidence suggests carbon improves soil biodiversity and water retention and decreases erosion,” says Dr Elaine Mitchell, a Research Associate in soil carbon at QUT. “Drawing carbon out of the atmosphere where it’s causing harm and putting it into the soil means healthier, more productive soils.”

Universities are planting the scientific

seeds to help bolster farmers’ soil carbon sequestration capabilities. Mitchell’s research, for instance, involves understanding how effective land management can generate long-term soil carbon gains. She’s investigating time-controlled grazing — grazing cattle at a higher density for a shorter duration — which has been shown to increase soil carbon stocks.

Additionally, she found that legumes, particularly species of Desmanthus, have deep tap roots, channelling carbon deep into the soil. They also contain compounds called tannins, “so when the cattle eat them, they reduce the production of methane in their guts,” Mitchell says.

Meanwhile, Annette Cowie, Senior Principal Research Scientist – Climate at the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries and Adjunct Professor at the University of New England Armidale campus, is exploring biochar, a carbon-rich form of charcoal, with researchers at UNE’s School of Environmental and Rural Science.

“As a soil amendment, biochar is much more stable and durable than carbon sequestered by building natural soil organic matter,” she says.

Cowie adds that biochar is effective at building the soil’s nutrient- and waterholding capacity and reduces its nitrous oxide emissions.

Mitchell views soil carbon sequestration as a “short-term bridging solution allowing us to buy time while other technologies are developed and implemented.

“It shouldn’t take away the focus from reducing emissions.”


Energy-efficient buildings are another component of the net zero transition. “Materials and design are critical as we move towards low-energy buildings,” says Dr Mark Dewsbury, senior lecturer at the University of Tasmania.

Dewsbury studies the hygrothermal performance of buildings, with a guiding motto of “build tight, ventilate right.”

Hygro refers to moisture, while thermal pertains to heat flow throughout the building envelope and how that envelope is designed relative to climate.

He notes that vented cavities behind cladding systems remove heat for improved cooling and allow water vapour to escape, reducing the risk of mould growth. When it comes to heating, placing insulation directly behind lining systems avoids losing heat. These findings inform recommendations for the Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme, and published guides for architects and builders. Recycling of building materials will play another role.

Concrete, for example, requires energy to mine, mix and transport but can be reused from demolished building sites instead.

“We need to be designing and constructing net zero buildings today so we meet our net zero goals by 2050,” says Dewsbury.

— Rina Caballar

Professor Thomas Maschmeyer (left) and researchers
MAY 2024 5
Right: Professor Annette Cowie


The push towards a Net Zero economy has turned Australia’s energy landscape into a dauntingly complex place.

University science is helping governments to navigate this labyrinth in three ways: through informing the numbers that measure progress towards net zero — and the consequences of not reaching it; through fundamental research driving innovation; and through partnerships that can fast-track technologies that will shift the dial.

Firstly, university science has the capacity to inform policy by providing accurate models of climateimpacting emissions needed to meet Australia’s net zero goals, says research director of Western Sydney University’s Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, Professor Ben Smith. The first step is designing better measurement processes. Victorian non-profit organisation The Superpower

University science is uniquely placed to inform government policy: ensuring debate is grounded in scientific fact, and coordinating between industry, government and society.

Institute and the universities of Melbourne, NSW, Swinburne and Wollongong have grouped together to modernise greenhouse gas monitoring. In many areas, we are still in the dark about the extent and impact of fossil fuel emissions, Smith says.

“Next-generation measurement and prediction is an area where disciplinary and technological expertise need to come together, and of course universities have strong capability.”

University science can also inform policy through communication. Scientists must be at the forefront of the conversation about the push towards net zero, because they can provide the scientific facts behind the policies, says UNSW Dean of Science and Scientia Professor Sven Rogge.

“This will help dispel the spread of misinformation that can impede developments across energy transition

projects critical to our pursuit of a sustainable future,” he says.

“Universities will play an increasingly important role in working with a number of key stakeholders — including industry, government and the general public — in ensuring that any decisions on policy in reaching net zero are based on accurate, validated information that is both scientifically sound and socially responsible.”

It’s a tightrope walk: universities must lean into their research credentials without stepping over into areas that industry or community groups are better placed to handle, says Libby Robin, Emeritus Professor at ANU and an author of ACOLA Australia’s Energy Transition Research Plan

Rather than duplicating the advice offered by consultancies, universities should help industrial scientists communicate their work with broader


audiences, including technical audiences, and feed practical case studies back into academic discussions, Robin says.

“This can be achieved through universities’ unique partnerships with public institutions, such as museums, traditional owners and the ‘next generation’ of creative thinkers who have to live with the world to come,” she says.


One example of universities already influencing policy design is the NSW Decarbonisation Innovation Hub. Here Smith leads a network of scientists focused on the challenges and opportunities of changing current land use and primary industry practices to reduce or offset emissions, while securing cobenefits for people, and the environment.

“The state government’s thinking behind creating a Hub to consolidate decarbonisation efforts is based on the very idea that universities are uniquely placed to bring together the right actors from research, government, industry and community to develop effective solutions, and promote or seed their widespread adoption,” Smith says.

He says addressing climate change requires a transdisciplinary approach, that


the research sector’s wide reach of inquiry is well placed to lead.

“It is doing this by collaborating with industry and communities for implementation, and governments to overcome barriers through regulatory or policy changes, or incentives such as carbon and biodiversity offset programs.”


With Australia positioning itself as a global net zero high technology hub, success will involve access to research that may not yet be in the public domain, and translating it for commercial applications, Smith says.

“There is an excellent value proposition for businesses to engage with the university sector to access relevant knowledge, and for universities to engage with industry to facilitate impact of their research and to access R&D funding,” he says.

To successfully inform net zero policy, universities must not only supply quality research that can ground debates, but contribute to those debates by making that data accessible and understandable to government, communities and industry.

In this way universities can play a full part in helping Australia achieve its net zero goals. — Rachel Williamson

MAY 2024 7
Professor Sven Rogge, Professor Libby Robin, Professor Ben Smith


Research and innovation across diverse disciplines are accelerating our journey to cleaner, more sustainable energy


Biologists are advancing sustainable energy through genetic modifications of algae and plants, boosting biofuel production efficiency and cutting reliance on fossil fuels. These biofuels are remarkable for their superior yield, producing far more oil per acre than traditional crops. Research in action: University of Queensland researchers, together with the Technical University of Munich, have sped up the process for turning sugarcane into a key green aviation fuel ingredient. This opens doors for producing sustainable plastics, rubbers and food additives more efficiently.



By developing new materials and optimising designs, physicists are pushing solar panels beyond traditional efficiency boundaries. Innovations like integrating perovskite layers into silicon-based panels are a key breakthrough, enabling next-generation solar panels to absorb a broader spectrum.

Research in action: In 2020, scientists from UNSW and The University of Sydney produced a new generation of experimental solar cells that pass strict international standards for heat and humidity — an important step towards commercially viable high-efficiency perovskite solar cells.


Geologists are crucial to the green energy transition, discovering and sustainably extracting critical minerals like lithium and cobalt, essential for battery technology. Innovative geophysical techniques and remote sensing technology are revealing deposits with lower environmental impact.

Research in action: Researchers at the University of Adelaide have discovered why rocks called cold eclogites vanished from geological records over a billion years ago. This fundamental science suggests new methods for locating critical minerals by examining rock chemistry changes during this period.


Chemistry is advancing toward net zero, innovating battery technologies like sodium-sulfur and solid-state systems, crucial for renewable energy and electric vehicles. These enhance energy storage and conversion, vital for integrating renewables and improving vehicle safety and efficiency.

Research in action: In April 2023, QUT deployed Australia’s first largescale sodium-sulfur battery at a WA mine site, showcasing a scalable, highcapacity energy storage system that excels in extreme heat.


Using complex models and algorithms, mathematicians can simulate energy systems, optimise energy network efficiency, and meticulously track our progress towards ambitious climate goals. These models enable us to forecast energy demands, evaluate potential renewable energy sources, and strategise on reducing carbon footprints.

Research in action: Established in 2017, the One Earth Climate Model (OECM) is a collaboration between the University of Technology Sydney, The University of Melbourne, and the German Aerospace Center. It generates detailed carbonreduction pathways and strategies for countries, regions and key industries worldwide.


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