Australian University Science issue 1

Page 1

Issue 1 Sept 2019


Plant science unlocks unlimited clean energy fuel, p3 Crowd-sourcing solar energy, p4 Better not bigger: battery innovation goes to market, p6

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

Knowledge and impact University science has long been recognised for the stream of fundamental discoveries that stem from its research: from the origins of the cosmos and the causes of climate change to the most intrinsic parts of the atom. But university science is now much more than a catalyst for discovery. Through a multitude of collaborations — including with other research institutions and government, in Co-operative Research Centre partnerships, with the CSIRO, or directly with companies large and small — university science now engages at every stage of the cycle in which knowledge is turned into new and better ways of doing things. In the modern world, university scientists and students do more than explore, uncover and discover. They also use their knowledge to work closely with the people who produce the new technologies and practices that a changing world needs. Materials and processes we use every day stem from science. They are so common that many of us simply take them for granted. But whenever there is a great new kind of technology, advances in clean energy, or smarter ways to diagnose and treat disease, you can be sure that university science lies somewhere behind it. University teaching is also critical. It develops the science graduates who are an important part of the workforce and possess the finely honed skills to understand, manage and develop new technologies from cutting-edge science. As we endeavour to front the challenges of tomorrow, university science will deliver the tools and people we need to create a better future. Professor Ian Chubb AC FAA FTSE FACE FRSN


Exposing the impact of university science on innovation, entrepreneurship and employment. Universities have a critical role as partners in innovation and technological change. New industries emerge as science delivers new insights, tools, and the people with the science skills essential to develop these new industries. Australian University Science highlights this process, with the hydrogen



economy as the example in this first edition. It also showcases exceptional science teams and profiles the roles that Australian science graduates play in industry. To provide feedback or suggestions to the editors, subscribe to this publication or order additional copies, visit

Published 1 September 2019 by Refraction Media on behalf of the Australian Council of Deans of Science. Designed by Jon Wolfgang Miller. Printed in Australia by Blue Star Web. ISSN: 2652-2403 © 2019 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 FUTURE HYDROGEN ECONOMY IS SCAFFOLDED BY UNIVERSITIES Science expertise is key to delivering sustainable energy solutions emerging from the hydrogen economy. The world faces a huge challenge in sustainably delivering our energy needs. Hydrogen promises to become a major clean energy contributor, yet currently most of the world’s 70 million tonnes of hydrogen produced each year comes from hydrocarbon/coal processes such as coal gasification, with only around four per cent from ‘clean’ processes involving electrolysis (converting water into hydrogen and oxygen). Australian university science provides the basis on which the hydrogen industry has evolved and continues to innovate, playing an essential role as a partner in establishing innovation and technological change. This research is coming from surprising places, including centres of biology, chemistry and geology.


Using electrolysis to convert water into hydrogen — with a by-product of oxygen — is costly because it must use continuous grid power. At present, these energy-hungry and inefficient processes defeat the purpose of creating hydrogen as an energy source. At the Australian National University, chemistry professors Ron Pace and Rob Stranger have taken a leaf from nature, uncovering the process used by all photosynthetic organisms to use the sun’s energy to convert water into hydrogen and oxygen. This natural electrolysis is the most efficient method known and relies on a ‘chemical spark plug’ called the water oxidising complex. For decades, debate has raged about how the atoms that comprise water are used in this photosynthesis process. Profs Pace and Stranger used Australia’s fastest supercomputer at the ANU’s National Computational Infrastructure facility to model the chemical structure of the manganese atoms involved in this process and to decode the reasons behind its efficiency.

Their discovery has opened up opportunities to develop ‘artificial leaf’ technology with the capacity for potential unlimited future hydrogen production. Professor Pace now heads a $1.77 million project in partnership with Dr Gerry Swiegers and Dr Pawel Wagner at the University of Wollongong, which uses specially designed electrodes, made of Gor-Tex, to mimic natural surfaces. The materials will help the formation of hydrogen and oxygen gas bubbles to operate more efficiently and also allow them to use fluctuating power sources such as wind and solar energy.

Dr Kastoori Hingorani (left) and Professor Ron Pace (right) are developing artificial leaf technology at the Australian National University.


Potential demand for imported hydrogen in China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore could reach 3.8 million tonnes by 2030. The QUT Redlands Research Facility is already geared up to generate hydrogen gas from seawater using solar power generated by its concentrated solar array. The project received funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency to develop next-generation technologies in electrolysis, energy storage and chemical sensing to produce hydrogen without any carbon dioxide emissions. The facility is led by Professor Ian Mackinnon, who possesses deep science expertise in geology and chemistry, and also heads QUT’s Institute for Future Environments. The first shipment of green hydrogen was exported from the facility, to Japan, in March 2019 as part of a collaboration between QUT and the University of Tokyo, which uses proprietary technology owned by JXTG, Japan’s largest petroleum conglomerate. It’s just one of the ways in which Australian science expertise, led by universities, is driving a new economy forward. — Fran Molloy

Using electrolysis to convert water into hydrogen and oxygen produces clean, unlimited fuel.

Professor Ian Mackinnon heads QUT’s Redlands Research Facility, which generates hydrogen gas from seawater.




SOLAR ENTREPRENEUR GETS HER START IN UNIVERSITY SCIENCE An innovative funding approach gave solar entrepreneur Emma Jenkin her breakthrough into an untapped energy market. Residential rooftop photovoltaics (PV) remains one of Australia’s hottest energy options, with the Clean Energy Council reporting, in December 2018, that two million Australian households had installed solar panels on their homes. The energy market is a complex sector, which needs to be dynamic to meet fast-changing consumer requirements and global pressures. In Australia, energy is also a politically delicate area, ripe for disruption. Solar entrepreneur Emma Jenkin, co-founder of DC Power Co, is uniquely qualified to be part of a revolutionary change in Australia’s energy sector thanks to her strong insight into data analytics and her merged commerce/science background. Jenkin completed a Bachelor of Science at the University of Melbourne then worked in industry before co-founding DC Power Co, an Australian solar energy retail start-up that has completed the world’s most popular equity crowdfunding campaign to date — raising $2.5 million from more than 17,500 investors. Jenkin is a self-confessed ‘maths geek’ who completed first-year university maths while still in high school, then started an engineering degree before moving to a combined Bachelor of Science and Commerce degree, where she majored in maths and statistics. “Our research revealed an appetite across Australia to have more energy independence in the face of distrust around the electricity sector,” she says. “PV solar is driven by people’s desire to take on renewables for cost savings, for self-sufficiency and for the environment.” Jenkin’s co-founders — Nic Frances Gilley, Monique Conheady and Nick Brass — have all worked in environmental, energy or carbon trading markets, she says. Their aim is to drive mass efficiency and buying power for member households. Research shows that nearly 20 per cent of rooftop solar systems don’t function properly, and DC Power Co uses analytics to identify nonperformance and is the only company that alerts customers when their systems don’t work. “We spotted a need for an energy company that focused on solar households,” she explains. — Brendan Fitzpatrick Bachelor of Science/Commerce, University of Melbourne



Executive Director, UBS commodity index training

Project Manager, Carbon Bridge Ltd

Executive, Cool nrg International

Director, FIIG Securities

Co-Founder and CFO, DC Power Co


CHEMISTRY EXPERTISE LED TO CSIRO LEGACY OF LOWERING EMISSIONS University science collaborations have geared CSIRO research director Dr David Harris to uncover ways to move to a sustainable global energy system. Dr David Harris is a scientist who leads CSIRO’s Low Emissions Technologies Program, a research team exploring ways to lower carbon emissions from renewable and coal-based systems. His research during the past 30 years has focused on improving the efficiency of systems that generate electricity and power. As the son of a mechanic and an artist growing up in rural New South Wales, Harris credits his BSc in Industrial Chemistry, from the University of NSW, for giving him the practical foundation for understanding big processes such as steel and glass manufacturing and the use of chemistry and physics in industry. For his PhD, Harris worked with BHP’s Newcastle steelworks researching the processes of degradation of metallurgical coke in high-temperature blast furnaces. “We identified some really interesting chemical and physical processes that Bachelor of Science, UNSW

PhD (Industrial Chemistry), UNSW

you wouldn’t normally associate with steelmaking,” he explains. In collaboration with the University of Queensland, University of Newcastle and University of NSW, as well as coal industry partners, these findings led Harris to investigate combustion, mass-transformation and, ultimately, gasification in advanced power generation technologies. “Not many of these advanced coal technologies were installed in Australia, but those processes led to the technology we are now developing for conversion of ammonia to hydrogen and then separation of hydrogen for other uses,”

Technical Officer, School of Chemical Engineering, UNSW

Program Manager, CRC for Black Coal Utilisation

he says, referring to CSIRO’s ammoniato-hydrogen fuelling technologies, which range from synthesis gas to new industries for renewable energy exports. “Now we're looking at hydrogen-based energy systems, with that hydrogen coming from coal, gas, renewable energy such as biomass, industrial and municipal waste streams, solar or wind,” says Harris. He says Australia’s high solar coverage gives a real advantage when combined with clever technology to produce hydrogen from solar energy, which could be exported to remove emissions from motor vehicles and energy systems worldwide. — Brendan Fitzpatrick Interim CEO, Centre for Low Emissions Technology

Research Director, Low Emissions Technologies, CSIRO SEPTEMBER 2019



SUPERCHARGING THE NEXT GENERATION 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”. 6


“EXCEPTIONAL SCIENCE IS AT THE CORE OF EVERYTHING THE CENTRE DOES” “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

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.

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.”


Image: Steven Morton

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR JENNY PRINGLE >> Chemistry Bsc (Hons); PhD on ionic liquids, University of Edinburgh >> Research Fellow, Centre for Green Chemistry, Monash University >> Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Frontier Materials, Deakin University

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.” 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

DR DANAH AL-MASRI >> Bachelor and Masters degree in physics, The Hashemite University, Jordan >> PhD in material science and engineering, Deakin University

DR MEGA KAR >> Bachelor of Science, University of Melbourne >> PhD at Monash University (funded by ACES) >> Laureate Research Fellow at Monash University

PROFESSOR DOUGLAS MACFARLANE >> PhD (chemistry), Purdue University, Indiana >> NZ and France >> ARC Laureate Fellow at Monash University >> Program Leader, Energy, ACES SEPTEMBER 2019




Ocean mapping finds prime-tide for energy University of Tasmania Associate Professor Irene Penesis is using hydrodynamics and mathematics to assess Bass Strait’s tidal energy resources to stimulate investment in this sector.

New catalyst helps turn CO2 into renewable fuel CSIRO materials chemist Dr Danielle Kennedy, with University of Adelaide scientists, created porous crystals that help convert carbon dioxide from air into synthetic natural gas using solar energy. 8


New material splits water into hydrogen cheaply Professor Chuan Zhao and UNSW chemists invented a new nano-framework of non-precious metals, making it cheaper to create hydrogen fuel by splitting water atoms.

Gelion revolutionary battery technology A University of Sydney chemistry team, led by Professor Thomas Maschmeyer, created low-cost, safe, scalable zinc bromide battery technology for remote and renewable energy storage.

Green chemistry breakthrough makes hydrogen generation cheaper Electromaterials scientists at Monash University, led by Dr Alexandr Simonov, have found a solution to metal corrosion caused by water splitting to create hydrogen.

Molecular breakthrough helps solar cells tolerate humidity Nanomaterials scientists at Griffith University, under Professor Huijun Zhao, invented a way to make cheap solar-cell technology more tolerant of moisture and humidity.

A spoonful of sugar generates enough hydrogen energy to power a mobile phone Genetically engineered bacteria that turn sugar into hydrogen have been developed by a team of molecular chemists at Macquarie University who are looking to scale the technology. Solar crystals are non-toxic Under Dr Guohua Jia, molecular scientists at Curtin University have invented tiny crystals that don’t contain toxic metals but can be used as catalysts to convert solar energy into hydrogen.

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