RISING TO GLOBAL CHALLENGES Boosting sovereign defence with the world’s most precise clock
Mapping Indigenous Australians’ 50,000 year genetic history
Fast-tracking climate resilient crops with machine learning
Turning the tables on superbugs with “toxic chocolate”
RESEARCH FOR IMPACT 2018-19 The University of Adelaide stands tall among the world’s leading institutions of learning and innovation. Established in 1874 and consistently ranked in the top one per cent of universities globally, we count among our alumni: five Nobel Laureates; over 100 Rhodes Scholars; and Australia’s first female prime minister and Supreme Court judge. At our core is a deep commitment to research. In all fields of endeavour, we’re working to expand the boundaries of knowledge and achievement to benefit people and planet. Our research is broad in vision, inspired in method and—above all—impactful in application. In these pages you’ll discover some of our recent highlights.
They’re here. All over the world, machines are undertaking complex tasks, “learning” from the outcomes, and improving their performance accordingly. In all aspects of life, the possibilities are revolutionary; and many are being realised at the University of Adelaide.
“We are now developing technology that can compete with, and sometimes exceed, human capabilities in tasks like recognition, statistical analysis and classification.” Professor Anton van den Hengel, Director of the University of Adelaide’s Australian Institute for Machine Learning. The big breakthrough, he believes, has been the advent of “deep learning” technology, a form of machine learning – itself a subset of artificial intelligence (AI) – based on the human brain’s neural networks. “That’s enabled machines to distil and interpret huge amounts of prior and incoming information, and particularly visual information.” Professor Ian Reid, a senior colleague of van den Hengel’s and Deputy Director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Robotic Vision, agrees. “Artificial neural networks, together with vast computing power and data volume, have enabled step-change in the level of intelligence machine learning can achieve.”
Speeding disease diagnosis A particularly exciting extension of this pioneering work is the University of Adelaide’s collaborative creation of the world’s first AI microbiology screening technology for use in pathology laboratories. Developed in partnership with Australia-based LBT Innovations (LBT), the Automated Plate Assessment System (APAS) went into production in 2017 and is attracting huge international interest. Professor van den Hengel led the University’s six-person APAS software development team. He says the system promises to dramatically accelerate patient diagnosis and treatment, giving humanity a powerful new weapon in the fight against infectious disease.
“APAS will enable doctors to order more tests, which will give them more information, sooner. It could even allow country or developing-world hospitals to run their own tests without having to ship samples to a central lab. That would save a huge amount of time, and potentially many lives.” The system automates the traditionally time-consuming functions performed by microbiologists in screening culture plates after incubation. It takes high-quality images of the plates, then analyses and interprets any microbial growth, matches this against key patient data, presents a diagnosis, and continually updates its own knowledge base. Significantly, APAS also removes nonpathogenic plates from the workflow. “This is very important,” explains LBT co-founder Lusia Guthrie, now Chair of Clever Culture Systems, the joint-venture company bringing APAS to market. “In routine microbiology testing, up to 70 per cent of plates may be negative. Removing them automatically will give microbiologists more time to spend on complex decisions, enabling even greater accuracy and allowing more tests to be run.” LBT CEO Brent Barnes believes the system will ultimately mean faster recovery for millions. “The science we’ve put into practice through APAS with the University of Adelaide could well become part of hospital protocols all over the world,” he says. “More, and more accurate, testing will see patients getting the right treatment earlier and spending less time in hospital.”
Accelerating crop farmers’ adaptation to climate change Another valuable world-first application of the University of Adelaide’s AI image-analysis technology is in the agricultural sector. Again led by Professor van den Hengel, the technology is being tailored to accurately estimate potential new cereal varieties’ yields after only very short periods of growth, enabling rapid identification of robust varieties able to thrive in harsh conditions. Here too, the potential global impact is significant – a fact not lost on industry partner Bayer CropScience, which has signed on to help commercialise the ground-breaking technology. While food security has been on the international agenda for some time, the confluence of climate change and rising global population has elevated the issue to emergency status. “It’s estimated we’ve already lost nearly 33 per cent of the planet’s arable land over the past 40 years through erosion and pollution,” says van den Hengel. “A further increase in global average temperatures could be catastrophic.” In Australia, a major contributor to the world’s cereal stocks, climate models suggest drought could be as much as 20 per cent more common by 2030 across much of the country; and up to 80 per cent by 2070 in the crop-reliant south-west. “This novel approach promises to transform crop breeding,” van den Hengel continues. “By using image analysis to understand plants’ shape and structure at all stages of growth, we’ll be able to identify and automatically measure attributes associated with high yields very early in test plants’ lifespans.” The system uses multiple images taken from numerous angles to construct computerised 3D models of the plants for analysis. Once completed, it will be incorporated into the University’s state-of-the-art Plant Accelerator facility, which provides important complementary capability.
International robotics challenge champions University of Adelaide computer scientists played a leading role in the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Robotic Vision’s (ACERV) 2017 Amazon Robotics Challenge victory. Held by online retail giant Amazon, the annual event is an open global competition for industry and universities. Entrants are required to develop robotic technology capable of correctly identifying and retrieving a large variety of items from storage boxes, and re-stowing them – a surprisingly complex task that’s critical to future delivery-system automation.
“The Plant Accelerator’s fully robotic plant management system allows automatic and repeatable control of growing conditions for up to 2400 plants at a time, and enables automatic delivery of those plants to our imaging stations. “That’s going to allow rapid, detailed and accurate estimations of vast numbers of crop varieties’ potential yields under all kinds of climate-change-related stresses, such as high salinity or drought. We’ve no doubt it will expedite the development of hardy, high-yield varieties and help improve global food security.”
The Adelaide representatives, led by ACERV Deputy Director Professor Ian Reid, developed the deep-learning segmentation algorithms that guided their team’s robot – designed and built in collaboration with Queensland University of Technology – to its Grand Championship triumph. The ACRV team overcame strong competition from the University of Bonn (Germany), Nanyang Technological University (Singapore), and a joint US entry from Princeton University and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). “This was a great demonstration of the quality of Australian robotics and computer-vision research,” says Reid. “It showcased our world-leading expertise in deep learning for robotic vision, and is a great example of the collaboration happening between our institutions.”
Emulating nature’s perfect pursuit The University of Adelaide’s machine learning expertise is also making waves in defence and other sectors, by enhancing autonomous-pursuit capabilities.
Success shows value of “embedding” university research expertise LBT Innovations (LBT) co-founder Lusia Guthrie believes a decision to embed a University of Adelaide researcher in its AI Automated Plate Assessment System (APAS) project team was key to its success. Professor Anton van den Hengel, who led the University’s APAS team, originally appointed computer scientist Rhys Hill to assist LBT in-house with proof-of-principle research. “It worked so well,” says Guthrie, “particularly in terms of communication flow, that Rhys stayed with us throughout prototype development and right up to United States Food and Drug Administration compliance.” Keen to build on the foundation laid with APAS, the University and LBT are now jointly developing three other related medical devices utilising the University’s AI image-analysis technology. “Our work with the University of Adelaide has taken LBT to a new level,” says Lusia. “We’ve transitioned from a ‘robotics company’ to an ‘AI company’, and now we have the opportunity to become a ‘digital health company’.”
In an entirely novel approach, computer scientists, engineers and neuroscientists at the University have adapted dragonflies’ neuronal processes into a unique algorithm that emulates the insect’s phenomenal visual tracking capability. Widely considered nature’s most effective predator, dragonflies are able to target, pursue and capture tiny flying prey in mid-air at speeds of up to 60 km/h – even if that target attempts to disappear within a seething swarm – with an incredible hit-rate of over 95 per cent.
“ Tested in various nature-mimicking virtual reality environments, our pursuit algorithm matches all other state-of-the-art pursuit algorithms’ accuracy, but achieves that while running up to 20 times faster.” says Professor Ben Cazzolato. “So it requires far less relative processing power.”
Mechanical engineering researchers at the University have also incorporated the algorithm in an autonomous robot that, in testing, has effectively and efficiently pursued targets in unstructured environments. The interdisciplinary project is being led by neuroscientist Dr Steven Wiederman, of the University of Adelaide Medical School’s Visual Physiology and Neurobotics Laboratory. It was Wiederman’s team that first identified how the dragonfly is able to focus on a single moving target and shut out all else – a remarkable find in itself. “We recorded the activity of dragonfly neurons, and discovered the first identified neuron in any animal that exhibits an ‘attentional spotlight’,” he explains. “It’s able to select a single target amidst distracters. We also recorded from target-detecting neurons that predictively encode trajectory, enabling the dragonfly to estimate its target’s future location and ambush it.” Keen to see how much further this translational path can take them, Wiederman and his team are now collaborating with Professor Reid to develop neurobiology-inspired machine-learning drone-tracking systems. “We’re very excited to further define the fundamental principles underlying neuronal processing. Translating them into advanced artificial vision systems could result in some incredibly effective autonomous robotics and drones, as well as neuronal prosthetics and many more applications.”
THE FIGHT Attacking superbugs from all sides To say the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a serious concern would be somewhat of an understatement. On their current trajectory, “superbugs” could claim up to 10 million lives annually by 2050. Putting that number in perspective, it’s roughly the equivalent of the entire population of London being wiped out every 12 months. The University of Adelaide is investigating many promising responses. Among them is a new approach to vaccine creation being developed by Professor James Paton, Director of the University’s Research Centre for Infectious Diseases, which involves looking back into microbiological history. “When [Louis] Pasteur first developed vaccines he would take a disease-causing bug, kill it with heat or chemical treatment, and inject it into the subject to raise antibody responses,” Paton explains. “But those killing methods actually change the bacteria’s
surface structure, so the antibodies it raises aren’t a particularly good fit for the live bacteria. We’ve found that using gamma radiation to kill bacteria, however, doesn’t change its surface structure at all.” Using the gamma irradiation method, Paton and his team have created a whole-cell vaccine that has been shown in testing to be effective against the world’s foremost bacterial pathogen – Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus), which causes pneumonia, septicaemia, meningitis and otitis media (middle ear infections). “It elicits very good antibody responses against all pneumococcus strains. It’s also completely safe to administer and very cheap to produce.” The vaccine is being commercialised with spin-out company GPN Vaccines Pty Ltd, with preparations underway to generate clinicalgrade vaccine suitable for human trials.
Other exciting responses are coming from highly novel sources, most notably a trio of non-antibiotic treatment types for chronic rhinosinusitis being developed by the University’s Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery Group: a topical combination therapy; mucosal microbiome transplants; and bacteriophages, bacteria’s natural viral predator. Led by Professor Peter-John Wormald, the group has previously conducted double randomised studies that showed topical therapies were able to remove 80 to 90 per cent of microbial biofilms (bacterial communities), while standard oral antibiotics removed just 10 per cent. Encouraged by this, they’re developing a topical therapy called Def-GaPP-Chitogel, named after its constituent compounds deferiprone and galliumprotoporphyrin, and the surgical hydrogel they’ve been incorporated into – Chitogel.
Living Florey’s legacy The fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria resonates particularly deeply at the University of Adelaide. Howard Florey, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who led the discovery and creation of penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic, began his journey in medicine inside the institution’s walls. Florey was born in Adelaide in 1898 and entered the University in 1916. After graduating in 1921 he went on to complete a first-class-honours degree in physiology at Oxford University. His great breakthrough came in 1938, when he successfully isolated Penicillium notatum’s antibacterial activity. Penicillin went into mass production in 1944 and has since saved an estimated 200 million lives. It’s rightly recognised as one of the greatest discoveries in medical history, and Florey’s incredible legacy continues to light the way for world-renowned health research at the University of Adelaide.
The drive for improved health and wellbeing is universal. It demands the best of human ingenuity and draws on one of our greatest strengths – care for each other. It has been a core research focus at the University of Adelaide for over 140 years. From fighting antibiotic resistance to boosting immunisation’s impact and demystifying neurodevelopmental disability, our scientists are working to give people all over the world a better quality of life.
In addition to antimicrobial effects, says Wormald, who also previously led Chitogel’s development, the therapy has the capacity to prevent scar tissue formation, making it particularly well suited to treating infected wounds. “We’re now conducting the first human clinical trial to test Def-GaPPChitogel’s potential to treat infections and improve healing after sinus surgery. Our Initial results indicate it’s particularly effective against the common and sometimes deadly bacterium Golden Staph.” Also in its favour, bacteria are unlikely to become resistant to the therapy. Dr Katharina Richter, a key researcher in Def-GaPPChitogel’s development, says this is the result of disrupting the bacteria’s food pathways, rather than targeting specific bacterial mechanisms like antibiotics do.
“ Deferiprone first starves the bacteria of iron – their preferred food source. This makes the superbugs super hungry. Then they can’t resist eating galliumprotoporphyrin, which mimics the bacteria’s favourite iron source, and poisons them. I call it toxic chocolate!”
Investigations into microbiome transplants are likewise progressing. The University of Adelaide group is conducting the first global study to examine the sinus microbiome in health and sinusitis. It has recruited patients from 15 centres around the world, including the universities of Harvard and Stanford, to contribute both healthy and unhealthy rhinosinusitis samples for processing. Project leader Associate Professor Alkis Psaltis says the team has already collected and analysed over 700 samples to confirm which sinus bacteria promote health and which propagate disease. “We’re hopeful this information will allow the development of prebiotic and probiotic treatments, and even facilitate the development of a sinus mucus transplant. The hospital ENT department I lead has already performed one from a healthy donor to a sinusitis patient with promising early results.” Rounding out the treatment trio, bacteriophages show similar potential, and particularly for cystic fibrosis (CF) patients. “Phages are wonders,” says Associate Professor Sarah Vreugde, a senior researcher in the area. “Each type destroys just one form of bacteria, and leaves others unharmed.” The team has completed the first Western study treating chronic sinusitis patients with bacteriophages, with outstanding results. This was particularly so when phages were used in combination with certain medications, which stopped the bacteria developing phage resistance. The approach’s particular suitability for CF patients, adds Vreugde, comes through phages’ remarkable effectiveness against multidrug-resistant bacteria. “CF patients are treated very frequently with antibiotics to target airway infections, so the bacteria in their systems become highly resistant to virtually every antibiotic. Bacteriophagebased combination therapies offer real hope.”
Australia’s superbug watchdog A senior University of Adelaide researcher has played a leading role in the Australian Government’s national response to antimicrobial resistance. In 2014, Professor John Turnidge was appointed to lead the Antimicrobial Use Resistance in Australia (AURA) program’s National Surveillance System. The system tracks antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and antibiotic usage throughout the country and informs a range of AMR-containment strategies. In 2016, Turnidge also led the establishment of AURA’s National Alert System for Critical Antimicrobial Resistances (CARAlert), which collects surveillance data on priority organisms resistant to last-line antimicrobials. The system proved its value in mid-2017, when an outbreak of OXA-48 producing E. coli ST38 was detected in Queensland. Although 80 cases were reported, the outbreak was largely confined to a single facility and controlled within two months. CARAlert also plays a valuable role informing national health policy. Its data is regularly subjected to epidemiological analysis, and will increasingly be used to model temporal and spatial trends as data volumes rise.
Harnessing herd immunity A critical component of public health, of course, is prevention, with vaccination playing a significant role. The widespread adoption of immunisation programs in recent decades has had a profound impact worldwide, famously eliminating smallpox and drastically reducing the incidence of conditions like polio, meningitis and measles. Experts agree, however, that eliminating disease through vaccination more quickly and reliably requires another big step forward. We must harness the additional indirect benefits known as “herd immunity” by understanding what proportion of a community and what age groups need to be immunised to improve whole-community protection. This is vaccination’s ultimate goal—and the University of Adelaide is conducting the world’s largest study on it. In 2017, the University’s B Part of It program provided 35,000 adolescents across South Australia with free vaccines for meningococcal B, a highly preventable disease that can cause meningitis and sepsis, and still proves fatal in five to 10 per cent of cases. The Adelaide team has since been evaluating the level of protection this afforded both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, with full results expected to be released in late 2018.* According to principal investigator Professor Helen Marshall, the preliminary data are encouraging. “We were very pleased to see all adolescents enrolled in the study in 2017 and 2018 were protected against meningococcal disease, with a reduction in the number of cases in this age group in South Australia,” she says. “There have only been five cases of meningococcal disease in individuals aged 16 to 19 in 2017-18 to date, compared to 17 in 2015-16. This in itself is a great success.
“ We have direct evidence that meningococcal B vaccination has protected South Australian adolescents against meningococcal disease; and we’re continuing our analysis to determine whether it has an impact on carriage.” Marshall’s team is also designing and evaluating interventions to increase uptake of recommended influenza and whooping cough vaccines among women during pregnancy. The work builds on insights she gained as Australia’s sole representative on a recent 26-person World Health Organisation international taskforce that evaluated maternal influenza immunisations’ health and economic impacts, particularly in lowsocioeconomic communities. “We’ve found the best way to increase uptake is to actually make immunisation an integral part of antenatal care,” she says. “If we can create systems that normalise immunisation as part of pregnancy care – like other important pregnancyrelated procedures – achieving over 90 per cent uptake, as we see for childhood vaccinations, is a realistic possibility. That would significantly reduce health risks for newborns and mothers alike.” *Correct at time of printing. Check adelaide.edu.au for updated information.
Families and health care providers benefit greatly from molecular DNA diagnosis, he adds, as it allows them to better appreciate the extent of clinical complications typically associated with a specific gene mutation. “It’s particularly important at an early age, when parents naturally have many questions about their child’s disability and future development.”
Uncovering genes’ role in neurodevelopmental disorders Another globally significant health issue being investigated at the University of Adelaide is neurodevelopmental disability (NDD), which currently affects up to one in 10 children. A team led by geneticist Professor Jozef Gecz has in recent years distinguished itself as a world leader in unravelling the genetic contribution to many of the disorders on this spectrum, including intellectual disabilities, epilepsies, autisms and cerebral palsies. Since 1996, Gecz and his team have discovered or contributed to the discovery of more than 200 neurodevelopmental disability genes, many X-chromosome-linked. “Every neurodevelopmental disease gene discovery represents an exciting and unique contribution to understanding the human brain’s structure and function,” he says.
“ Such knowledge is immediately applicable worldwide for accurate diagnosis, prognosis and – in at least some instances – improved care for children with these disabilities. It’s estimated over half of all individuals with intellectual and developmental disability still don’t have a precise diagnosis.”
Gecz is confident his team’s findings will not only improve diagnosis, but facilitate development of new approaches to correcting mutated genes’ function, or minimising their malfunction’s “collateral damage”. Next on his own research agenda, however, is looking more deeply into other genetic and non-genetic factors’ role in NDDs’ presentation. “In some studies we see the genetic mutation being passed on from an unaffected or mildly affected parent, often the mother, to her affected offspring. It’s likely many factors are at play, such as second genetic ‘hits’, polygenic risk contributing through common alleles, or specific DNA, RNA or protein pathways modifying the disease outcome. “This not only makes diagnosis challenging, but also prognosis.”
PHOTONICS AND ADVANCED SENSING
Measurement, in all its forms, is fundamental to human progress. The more precise it becomes, the greater the potential for insight and effective action. Harnessing the unique sensing capabilities of light, the University of Adelaide is taking measurement to unprecedented levels of sensitivity â€“ and enabling stepchange advances throughout society.13
Making brain surgery safer with a unique smart needle Another precision-based University of Adelaide innovation set to revolutionise its field is a novel imaging probe so small that it can be encased within a hypodermic needle. Developed in collaboration with the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics, the resulting technology enables neurosurgeons to see at-risk blood vessels in a patient’s brain as the needle is inserted, and avoid causing potentially fatal bleeds.
Unique optic fibre delivers near-instant corrosion checks
“ Integrating our Safeguarding Australia with the world’s most precise clock Sapphire Clock is The University of Adelaide-developed going to help JORN “Sapphire Clock” is nothing short of detect targets that are extraordinary. More properly described as a cryogenic sapphire oscillator, its time keeping smaller, further away is accurate to the femtosecond; a 1000-fold and moving more improvement on any competing technology. Put another way, it will lose or gain just one slowly,” says project second every 40 million years. lead Professor Martin The remarkable device, which uses a synthetic sapphire crystal’s natural resonance O’Connor. “That will frequency to maintain a steady oscillating give the Australian signal, was originally conceived around 30 years ago by Professor Andre Luiten, Director Defence Force more of the University’s Institute for Photonics and time to strategise Advanced Sensing. Dramatic improvements made by Luiten and his colleagues over the effective measures to past five-to-six years subsequently lifted its protect our borders performance to current levels and – critically – prepared it for real-world applications. and citizens.” The clock’s impact will be widespread, facilitating advances in areas such as quantum computing, astronomy, telecommunications and electronics. But the most immediate benefit will be felt by the Australian Defence Force (ADF). The Sapphire Clock is currently being integrated into the ADF’s Jindalee Over-The-Horizon Radar Network (JORN) and will significantly improve the already world-leading network’s detection sensitivity.
In recognition of the clock’s value, it was recently awarded the Australian Museum’s 2018 Defence Science and Technology Eureka Prize for Outstanding Science in Safeguarding Australia; and according to O’Connor, more advances are on the way. “Over the past 12 months we’ve also been developing a version of the Sapphire Clock for use in air- and shipborne platforms. It’s more compact, uses less power and can cope with high levels of vibration.” Testing on these adaptations will continue in 2019, as will the University of Adelaide team’s work on two other JORN-supporting technologies. “We’ve also developed ultra-low-noise synthesis technology that converts the Sapphire Clock’s signals into the frequencies the radar needs without affecting the signals’ purity,” continues O’Connor.
“Plus, we’ve developed signal dissemination technology that lets JORN deliver pure signals through optical fibre from all network locations. It’s an exciting time.”
The days of Australia’s defence forces deconstructing major equipment to visually inspect for corrosion could soon be over, saving huge amounts of time and money, and possibly even lives. In a world first, University of Adelaide researchers have developed a unique optic fibre that can be coated with flurometric corrosion-sensing material – itself a worldfirst technique – and embedded throughout aircraft’s and ships’ critical structures. The advance, achieved in collaboration with the Australian Government’s Defence Science and Technology Group, enables near-instant corrosion checks, and ensures missioncritical equipment’s rapid return to service. According to co-lead researcher Professor Heike Ebendorff-Heidepriem, the technology involves guiding light along tiny “nano-rail” fibres. “The light travels along the nano-rails in an exposed core,” she says. “This allows it to interact with surrounding materials and reveal their secrets.” The exposed-core fibre – the world’s first made from silica – was developed by Ebendorff-Heidepriem’s fellow lead researcher, Dr Roman Kostecki. “Roman’s work was critical,” explains EbendorffHeidepriem. “Using silica made the fibre robust enough for defence applications.” The next key step, she continues, was finding a way to coat the fibre with chemicals that respond when light comes into contact with any nearby corrosion by-products. This enables corrosion checks by simply firing laser light along the fibres. “We’ve already successfully checked for aluminium ions in aircraft-grade materials, so we’re very excited to keep expanding the technique’s applications.”
The value to producers’ and processors’ “ The probe contains bottom lines, says Hutchinson, who directs a tiny fibre-optic the national Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale camera that shines BioPhotonics, could be significant. infra-red light,” says “Historically, producers have had to make many of their critical decisions subjectively, project lead Professor based largely on visual inspection and taste testing. Robert McLaughlin. “It sends live images “ Is my wine ready to a computer, where to bottle? Does my custom-designed beef’s quality justify a software – also higher price? Should developed at the University of Adelaide – I schedule my casual workers to help me immediately recognises vulnerable blood vessels harvest in two weeks and alerts the surgeon.” or three? Our sensing technology enables these decisions to be According to McLaughlin, the University’s Chair of Biophotonics, the “smart needle” made with confidence, technology recently demonstrated its life-saving potential in a pilot clinical trial. “We based on real-time data, tested the smart needle with 12 patients without disturbing undergoing neurosurgery and were able to detect when a blood vessel was next to the the product.” needle with a success rate of more than 90 per cent.”
Patented in the USA and under examination in Europe, the transformational technology will be manufactured in South Australia by spin-out company Miniprobes Pty Ltd, with McLaughlin a co-director. Not surprisingly, the company is receiving significant international interest. “Medical device manufacturers have been particularly enthusiastic about where else we can use this technology. For example, we’re now looking at using the smart needle to improve deep brain stimulation for treating Parkinson’s disease. “We’re also collaborating with Technical University Dresden to adapt the core technology into a new tool to reduce the need for dental X-rays.”
Laser-sensing technology to transform food, agriculture Reinforcing light’s versatility as a measurement tool, biophotonics research at the University of Adelaide is now also enabling non-destructive wine, crop and produce testing. A team led by Professor Mark Hutchinson is adapting spectralchange-sensing optic-fibre-based technology to monitor food quality and condition in real time, with no product damage or loss.
The University of Adelaide team, together with local entrepreneurs, is currently collaborating with prominent Australian winery Yalumba to test their sensors in red and white wine. “We have our light sources and fibres dangling in several barrels, measuring what’s happening as the wine ferments.” The potential to expand this process throughout entire wineries, adds Hutchinson, holds great promise. “Typically, only a small number of barrels are ever actually sampled to test wine maturation. But if winemakers knew exactly what every single barrel was doing in their vintage they could make big advances in production efficiency and quality.
Enabling ultra-precise gravitational-wave measurement Proving gravitational waves’ existence has been hailed as the most important scientific discovery of our lifetimes. When the twin US LIGO (Laser Interferometer GravitationalWave Observatory) detectors simultaneously moved just a billionth of a billionth of a metre in September 2015, humanity gained a fundamentally new “sense” with which to observe the cosmos; and the University of Adelaide had played a critical role. The University developed the ultra-highprecision optical sensors needed to correct distortion in the LIGO detectors’ laser beams, which ultimately enabled the unprecedented sensitivity required to detect such minute signals. Known as “Hartmann wavefront sensors”, the world-leading technology improved existing sensors’ sensitivity by around a staggering 3000 per cent. It’s also used in Europe’s Advanced Virgo Gravitational-Wave Observatory. Now, according to lead researcher Associate Professor Peter Veitch, it’s being taken to the next level. “We’re currently developing new ‘adaptive optics’ systems with advanced optical diagnostics,” he says. “They’ll enable the LIGO and Virgo lasers’ wavefronts to be constantly monitored and adjusted during use, which will significantly increase detection rates and fidelity.” Even this, however, is only a stepping stone. The University of Adelaide team is already conceiving next-generation detectors. “We’re exploring technology for the next generation of detectors that will use silicon test-mass mirrors cooled to about minus 150oC,” explains Veitch. “We think this could allow detectors to routinely observe gravitational waves from coalescing black holes and neutron stars, and search the universe for previously undetectable new sources.”
“Our sensing technology has the capacity to scale to that size without requiring the producer to invest in, or find space for, any additional facilities.” Another trial is underway at an abattoir, for the first time measuring meat’s quality as carcasses pass by at line-speed. “This makes it possible to objectively assess meat against regulatory grading schedules, such as Meat Standards Australia’s, which directly affect how meat is promoted and priced. In future that grading process could be fully automated.”
A DEEPER SHADE OF GREEN
Introducing renewable energy into high-heat industry
When it comes to climate change, heavy industry is a key player. Burning copious amounts of fossil fuels to satisfy its need for near-constant high-temperature heat, it generates an estimated 16 per cent of global carbon emissions. In the past, incorporating renewable energy into such processes has proven difficult. But innovative University of Adelaide-led research appears to be finding a way.
The research is part of an overarching four-year Australian Renewable Energy Agency solar energy project. According to Alcoa’s Australia-based Senior Engineering Specialist Ray Chatfield, the University’s CST technology – and Bayer-process incorporation method – passed its first economic “stage gate” in mid-2018, providing a strong indicator of commercial viability.
The University is working closely with global aluminium heavyweight Alcoa, together with a number of other industry and research collaborators, to investigate incorporating low-cost concentrated solar thermal (CST) energy into the ‘Bayer process’, the principal means of refining bauxite to alumina. If successful, it will be the first time a commercially viable path has been identified for integrating renewable heat in a high-temperature industrial process.
“There’s still work to do, but getting over this hurdle’s very exciting,” says Chatfield. “Reducing our carbon footprint is a long-term strategic imperative, and this technology could potentially be retrofitted into our plants all over the world. We’re looking forward to developing it further.” Lead researcher Professor Gus Nathan, who directs the University of Adelaide’s Centre for Energy Technology, is similarly delighted with his team’s progress. “This technology could play a significant role in the fight against global warming,” he enthuses.
“ In Australia, the energyintensive nature of aluminium production means that the Bayer process accounts for around 40 per cent of our national industrial emissions. Incorporating CST could halve that.”
It’s no secret: we’ve been pushing our welcome. In humanity’s give-and-take planetary contract, we’re not living up to our end of the bargain. Big changes are required throughout society. In multiple areas, the University of Adelaide is looking well below the surface.
Turning agricultural waste into high-value products Nathan believes the low-cost CST technology and methodology has similar potential for other high-temperature industrial processes in locations that, like Australia, have coincident mineral and solar resources. “In many regions, CST has real potential to displace at least half the energy currently supplied by fossil fuels for high-temperature process heat,” he explains. “If we can show our method for doing this is cost-effective, it could be used for other big emission-generating processes like iron and steel making.”
Additional University of Adelaide contributions to global sustainability are coming through innovative uses of agricultural waste; of which the world produces around 1 billion tonnes annually. The University has just been appointed to lead an 18-partner collaborative research consortium investigating the field, working closely with organisations such as Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology, US-based ingredients manufacturer Ingredion, and Danish brewer Carlsberg. The research team is using a sequential extraction process to obtain as many valuable “biomolecules” for application in high-value products as possible. “We can derive numerous compounds from agricultural and horticultural waste biomass that have highly desirable health and structural benefits,” says lead investigator Professor Vincent Bulone.
“For example, discarded or cosmetically inferior apples and cherries contain anthocyanins, which have antioxidant properties; and mushrooms contain chitosan, which has antimicrobial properties and can be used as a bonding agent. In addition, marine organisms contain mycosporines and mycosporine-like amino acids (MAAs) that are outstanding UVA and UVB radiation absorbers. “We’ve already been able to combine all three of these into a trial skincare product that could provide excellent protection for damaged or sensitive skin.”
Waste from broccoli can supply sulforaphane, he adds, which has shown potential benefits for diabetic patients; while cellulose extracted from crop waste can be used as nanofibres to strengthen composite materials and create compostable bioplastics. “Recently we even successfully combined cellulose materials with a catalyst to create an eco-friendly antimicrobial foam. It’s perfect for use in air purification systems, such as in piggeries and food storage rooms.” The impacts, he continues, will be many and significant: increased profitability and sustainability for the agricultural and horticultural industries; health and economic benefits for societies generally; and the ability to replace environmentally damaging petroleumderived products with green alternatives.
“ Agriculture is already Supporting native pollinators a key contributor to the Another critical aspect of agricultural sustainability is pollination. We rely on insects global economy. But like bees, flies and butterflies to pollinate many of our crops, including canola, lucerne, its huge potential to almonds, berries, melons, apples and pears; generate additional and worldwide, those insects are struggling to survive in farming areas. high-value products Widespread native vegetation clearance has and create new postleft them with nutritional deficiencies and a farm-gate industries lack of nesting opportunities, while pesticides are increasing their vulnerability to disease. hasn’t yet been realised. There’s also the small matter of the Varroa We’re incredibly excited mite, which has decimated US and European wild honey bee populations. Pollination to help make that deficits are now commonplace, and farmers happen, and particularly are becoming dangerously reliant on human-controlled honey bee hives, in which with fully recyclable or Varroa’s impact is more easily managed. biodegradable products. This presents humanity with a big problem. This is a valuable step Economically, the total value of pollination to Australia alone, including spin-offs, is estimated towards stemming the flow of rubbish that’s choking our environment.”
Distilling value from pulp and peel University of Adelaide researchers are helping Australian food and beverage producers convert their waste into premium liquor. One project involves creating a high-quality spirit from a cider maker’s leftover apple pulp. “We were able to distil a spirit exhibiting pleasing apple, pear and stone-fruit characters,” says lead researcher Associate Professor Kerry Wilkinson. “The challenge is to optimise fermentation conditions to achieve a base wine with suitable alcohol content for commercial-scale distillation.” A second project is turning potato product manufacturers’ discarded peelings and pulp into a premium vodka. “We’ve already optimised the sugar conversion, extraction, fermentation and distillation,” says lead researcher Dr Richard Muhlack. “We recently completed small-batch trials with a local distillery and the vodka benchmarked well against other offerings in the market. We’re very excited to provide industry with a means to transform waste into valueadded products that bring financial and sustainability benefits.”
at AUD$6 billion per annum. There are also serious implications for employment in the sector, and of course global food supply. Here too, the University of Adelaide is making an important contribution. A University research team is leading a major Australian collaborative project identifying strategies for best-practice native revegetation in areas surrounding crops, with the intention of providing a wide variety of native pollinators much-needed shelter and ideal – and ideally timed – diets. While their work is initially focusing on the Australian context, lead researcher Dr Katja Hogendoorn says the process will provide a valuable model for similar efforts internationally. “Although plantings for crop pollinators next to pollination-dependent crops have been done in Europe and the US, they’ve tended to only support generalist species – typically bumble bees.
“ Our research produces advice to growers for native vegetation plantings that support crop-pollinating insects. This advice is tailored to the region, the crop and the specific pollinators.”
Working closely with government environmental bodies, the University of Adelaide group is also: providing planting cost-benefit analyses; producing detailed planting guides; and developing a landscape design tool that will enable farmers to tailor the strategies for their local environment. “This is a really important step for crop-farming sustainability,” enthuses Hogendoorn. “We’re making a vital contribution to the establishment of international protocols for native revegetation.”
FIRST NATIONS FIRST PRINCIPLES
Building on a foundation of respectful partnership, the University of Adelaide is working closely with Indigenous Australian communities to help improve and enrich life in many waysâ€”creating opportunity, enhancing wellbeing and deepening understanding of a remarkable cultural history. 20
Investigating Indigenous Australians’ 50,000-year connection to Country Indigenous Australians’ history has long been recognised as among the world’s oldest. Archaeological records indicate the first Australians arrived on the continent around 50,000 years ago, very soon after the first wave of humans moved out of Africa. Yet for centuries almost nothing has been known of how they evolved and survived. Internationally celebrated research led by the University of Adelaide is filling that gap; and setting what’s widely considered a new benchmark for working with indigenous peoples all over the world. The landmark “Aboriginal Heritage Project” is using DNA analysis to reconstruct Australia’s entire preEuropean-settlement genetic history – using a scientifically priceless South Australian Museum collection of hair samples collected between the 1920s and 1960s, together with cultural, linguistic and genealogical data. According to lead researcher Professor Alan Cooper, who directs the University’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, the project’s findings are of enormous historical and cultural significance. “We’ve shown modern Indigenous Australians are the direct descendants of a single wave of human migrants that spread rapidly south in parallel routes following the east and west coasts,” he says.
“ But strikingly, following that initial wave there has been very little population movement between regions over the subsequent 50,000 years, despite tumultuous climate and environmental change.” “The permanence of populations in specific regions is unlike anything seen around the world. It helps explain why connection to Country is so central to Indigenous Australian culture and suggests modern Indigenous communities’ diversity is a result of their adaptation to local environments for many millennia.” The project’s first phase involved analysing maternal genetic lineages using mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from 111 hair samples, originally collected from Indigenous Australian communities in south-eastern Queensland and around South Australia’s central and western coasts. The team is now using Y chromosome and genomic markers to explore the relationship between male lineages and specific regions, and other aspects of Indigenous history. “By looking across the nuclear genome, we can not only examine genetic relationships across Australia in more detail, but also start to paint a picture of how Indigenous populations adapted to their environments so successfully.”
Deep human impact for displaced generations A defining feature of the University of Adelaide-led Aboriginal Heritage Project is that it’s a partnership with Indigenous Australians. Community consultation and family consent is required before any genetic samples are analysed, and these groups are always the first to hear, and help interpret, the results. Lead researcher Professor Alan Cooper says this respectful approach is having incredible impact. “Uncovering these family histories has been profoundly meaningful for the communities involved, and for people impacted by Australia’s infamous ‘Stolen Generations’. Recently, for example, we were able to help a family trace where their elders were forcibly taken from – or ‘relocated’, as it was described. “As a direct result, they’ve been able to reconnect with their own Country for the first time. It’s powerful stuff.” Cooper and his team ultimately intend to provide a complete “genetic reference map” for current and future Indigenous generations. “It will also help to facilitate repatriation of cultural artefacts and ancestral remains.”
Tackling a chronic Indigenous health threat Of the numerous health challenges faced by Indigenous Australians, chronic kidney disease (CKD) is arguably the highest mountain to climb. Its prevalence among Indigenous adults is equivalent to the poorest nations – approximately 18 per cent in total, and 34 per cent in remote communities. This makes Indigenous Australians around 10 times more likely than non-Indigenous to require renal replacement therapy, with dialysis their leading cause of hospitalisation. Many factors contribute to the situation, of course; and one offering exciting potential for widespread improvement is currently being explored at the University of Adelaide. The University is leading a major collaborative investigation into an apparent link between CKD and periodontal (gum) disease, which is present among Indigenous communities at similarly alarming levels. With international studies indicating those with periodontal disease are at higher risk of developing CKD, and vice versa, the project team is testing whether improving oral health can also improve kidney function. “We’re providing a series of intensive periodontal treatments to around 600 central-Australian Indigenous patients with impaired kidney function and periodontal disease,” says lead researcher Professor Lisa Jamieson.
“We’ll monitor their progress for two years. If in that time we can show periodontal treatment has led to an improvement in their kidney function, that could significantly change the way oral health is viewed publicly and may lead to changes in standard treatment regimens for dental care providers.” The team will also closely analyse participants’ periodontal microbiota (bacterial community), she adds. “We want to ascertain whether any bacteria are connected to both periodontal and kidney disease, and whether any changes in the microbiota can be correlated with improvements in these conditions.
“ If we find microbes linking periodontal and chronic kidney disease it may be possible to develop specific treatments to target the causative agents.”
Building a native food industry Another major Indigenous-focused University of Adelaide research program is documenting and building on Indigenous Australians’ native food knowledge, and helping to establish a viable “bush foods” industry to support their communities. Working closely with local charity The Orana Foundation, an interdisciplinary University research team is investigating four key areas. “Our starting point is developing Australia’s first complete native food database,” says Professor Andy Lowe, Director, Food Innovation. “We’re drawing on anthropological and botanical sources, and recording their place in Indigenous cultural practices.
“ Step two will be studying their full nutritional and flavour profiles. Then for those ingredients that rate highly in both, we’ll work with professional chefs to determine their ideal preparation and cooking requirements. Lastly, we’ll research their optimal cultivation conditions, including growth trials simulating arid or semi-arid environments.”
For Orana Foundation founder and restaurant owner Jock Zonfrillo, the project holds special significance. “It’s been a long-term dream of mine to bring recognition to Australian native wild ingredients, and the first Australians’ traditional food practices,” he says. “I’ve been privileged to work with remote Indigenous communities during the past 15 years and learn something of their incredible culture. I’m very excited to think that, as a result of this research and analysis, they’ll gain significant benefits from sharing their knowledge, through direct involvement in future cultivation, harvesting and supply of native ingredients.” Zonfrillo was awarded the prestigious 2018 Basque Culinary World Prize for his work in this area.
PARTING THE CLOUDS
Knowledge has always been lifeâ€™s greatest ally. Helping people see and understand the staggering breadth and value of Earthâ€™s biodiversity is the first and most effective step towards securing its preservation. In this regard the University of Adelaide excels, leading inspired research to expand global awareness and better inform environmental decision-making. 24
Boosting conservation through mammalian discovery If announcing a new species is every mammalogist’s dream, Professor Kris Helgen has lived his many times over. The prolific Deputy Director of the University of Adelaide’s Centre for Applied Conservation Science has discovered over 100 new mammal species, in all corners of the globe, with around 40 officially named and described. For Helgen, these world-leading numbers are a valuable means to a critical end. His research in the field regularly adds to protected and endangered species lists, and provides evidence for establishing nationally protected environments. The discoveries also consistently trigger ongoing conservation action from third parties. A prime example, Helgen says, involves his 2013 discovery of the olinguito. A member of the raccoon family, it was found in rarefied habitats called “cloud forests”, scattered high in the Ecuadorian and Colombian Andes. “When we first announced the olinguito’s existence, we knew very little about it. But in the years since, people in Colombia and Ecuador have sent us all kinds of information, including a more complete picture of the species’ distribution and how it ‘makes a living’. “It’s also been used as a conservation and ecotourism ‘emblem’ to justify protecting more and more areas of cloud forest. That’s a very rewarding feeling.”
A similar story comes from the South Pacific. “Years ago, I named a new species from the Solomon Islands called the greater monkey-faced bat. It’s one of the largest and most endangered bats in the world. In part through my work, together with important contributions from others, several initiatives aimed at conserving the greater monkey-faced bat have sprung up involving important partnerships between local communities and international conservation and research organisations.” But while new-species discovery may be what Helgen’s renowned for, he also understands the value of investigating the past. “Broadly speaking, I’m focused on documenting the richness of mammal life globally – today and in the past – with a particular focus on Australia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea,” he explains. “In several projects here at the University of Adelaide we’re analysing ancient DNA and skull anatomy – in fossils and specimens collected by early European settlers – to understand how numerous Australian mammal species’ ranges and numbers have changed over recent decades and centuries. We’re especially studying animals like marsupials, native rodents and flying foxes; creatures that define the Australian bush.” Having conducted similar research on an equally large scale in many other parts of the world, including the US, Africa and the South Pacific, Helgen knows well the conservation value it can bring.
“ This kind of work has many benefits: documenting extinctions and illuminating how to avoid them in future; tracing the origins and impacts of invasive species; and tracking changes in endangered species’ populations and their environments to inform future action.” It also, he continues, reveals patterns of evolution that show mammals’ deep connections to particular regions. “When you understand how strong each mammal species’ connection is to its environment, you really appreciate the tragedy of every single extinction. Some patterns of attachment stretch back hundreds of thousands, even millions of years. “It shows us we need to work at all costs to push back against human impacts threatening the species and environments that make our world so rich.”
Exploring implications of cephalopods’ global success High-impact University of Adelaide conservation-related research is also happening in the marine environment. After capturing global attention in 2016 with the first worldwide study tracking trends in cephalopod abundance over time – the last 60 years, no less – that study’s lead author, marine biologist Dr Zoe Doubleday, is now exploring how human activity is influencing those numbers; and what that might mean for fisheries’ sustainability. The 2016 study broke significant new ground. It revealed that, unlike many marine organisms, cephalopods – squid, cuttlefish and octopus – are absolutely thriving amidst environmental change. Drawing on six decades of reliable data drawn from numerous international sources, including national fisheries records and scientific surveys, the findings showed populations had increased universally year-on-year. “This result suggests cephalopods are benefitting from large-scale processes common to a range of coastal and oceanic environments,” says Doubleday. It also raises the possibility, she adds, that humans are inadvertently giving cephalopods a competitive edge by changing the environment so rapidly.
“ That’s something I’m keen to understand, because cephalopods are voracious and adaptable predators, and inhabit all marine environments. They’re also, in turn, an important food source for marine mammals, some fish and seabirds. What ripple effect will their increasing prevalence have on those species, and the broader food web?” One theory for the cephalopods’ rise is that they’ve been growing in number as a result of having more “real estate” available to them; a consequence of overfishing many fish species. Doubleday’s currently collaborating with colleagues at the University of Washington to test the idea’s veracity.
But regardless of that study’s findings, she believes, the likelihood of cephalopods benefitting from rapid, human-induced environmental change is high. “Cephalopods grow very quickly, have short lifespans of only one to two years, and can be very flexible in the timing of their major lifecycle events, such as when they reach sexual maturity. They can also change their body shapes rapidly. That allows them to adapt to changing environmental conditions much faster than many other marine species.” It also means, Doubleday continues, that if environmental change maintains its current pace or thereabouts, we’ll need to consider adapting our fishing practices to suit. Illustrating the point, she’s currently consulting with government and industry bodies on development of South Australia’s first octopus fishery. “Can we go some way to balancing out the human pressure by fishing more of the species that can adapt quickly and less of those that can’t? That’s the sort of key question I’m looking at now.”
Building a world-leading spatio-temporal species distribution model Continuing the theme of informing conservation- and environment-related decision-making with comprehensive data, another University of Adelaide research team is taking spatio-temporal species distribution modelling to an expansive new level. Led by Associate Professor Bertram Ostendorf, the group is developing the world’s most detailed continent-wide species distribution model to integrate nearly half a century of presence records with new satellite and corresponding spatial data. Initially being used to track abundance in Australia’s southern hairy-nosed wombat, the model will enable evidence-based continental and site-specific wildlife management, with spatial detail below the hectare scale. According to Ostendorf, the model fills an important gap for environmental and conservation authorities. “Effective wildlife management relies primarily on two things: understanding species’ abundance and distribution over time; and knowing what’s influencing that abundance – what the ‘controls’ are.
Southern hairy-nosed wombats inhabit open grasslands and construct highly visible warren systems, making them ideal candidates for population monitoring using satellite imagery and other remote sensing tools. “We used freely available, very-highresolution satellite imagery, combined with data from ground surveys and remote sensing, to map the wombats’ distribution and estimate its overall numbers and population trends,” explains Ostendorf. “By combining this information with spatial data such as soil and climate maps, we’ve also been able to determine the factors affecting their distribution and abundance at different spatial scales and epochs. Such a comprehensive picture is truly unique.” The University of Adelaide data shows southern hairy-nosed wombat populations have increased over the past 30 years, he continues, and now number around 1 million. “Wombats occur in extreme climatic conditions and an environment that’s battered by invasive species and environmental change. They’re ‘ecosystem engineers’ responsible for creating habitat for other species that use their homes, hence play a broader role in arid and semi-arid biodiversity conservation.” The satellite imagery is also sufficiently accurate to identify population-control methods being used in a number of locations.
“ Understanding all these factors will allow us to make better-informed management decisions in areas of human-wildlife conflict; predicting areas needed for conservation and ensuring wombats’ survival.”
“Obtaining empirical evidence of those factors has traditionally been very difficult. But our research shows modern technologies can overcome that challenge – particularly for animals like the southern hairy-nosed wombat, whose presence can be detected remotely.”
FORETHOUGHT AND FOREWARNING Cyber threats are constantly evolving; relentlessly seeking out and exploiting systems’ weakest links. To protect our data and communication we must be doubly focused: one eye on emerging vulnerabilities, another on new, more secure forms and channels. On both fronts, the University of Adelaide’s vision is clear. 28
Sounding the alarm on Spectre, Meltdown and Foreshadow Co-drafting the world’s first legal framework for security in space The law has historically responded slowly to issues surrounding digital information. Many believe we’re still yet to strike an acceptable balance between protecting individual privacy and supporting state security. But when it comes to information security in space, the University of Adelaide is working to put the world ahead of the curve. Two senior University researchers are among five founding leaders in an international team drafting what will be the definitive document on military and security law as it applies to space: the “Woomera Manual on the International Law of Military Space Operations”. Professor Dale Stephens, formerly of the Royal Australian Navy, directs the University’s Research Unit on Military Law and Ethics. Professor Melissa de Zwart is that unit’s deputy and Dean of the Adelaide Law School. Having recently collaborated to create an online course dealing with the law surrounding cyberwar and surveillance, the pair is relishing the opportunity to apply their deep interest and knowledge in the area to this globally significant project. “We’re already dependent on space-based communications and information systems for many day-to-day activities,” says de Zwart, “such as GPS (Global Positioning System) navigation and Internet access. They also play critical defence roles. So it’s imperative we have an agreed legal framework for these assets’ use and protection.” The Woomera Manual team is consulting with governments worldwide, and organisations such as the UN, NATO and International Committee for the Red Cross. The document is expected to be completed in 2020.
Crisis averted. These two sobering words succinctly describe computer-chip manufacturers’ year in 2018. Three critical vulnerabilities were discovered in recent Intel processors’ architecture – two of which were echoed in other vendors’ technology – enabling them to be “patched” before any attacks could take place. “Spectre” and “Meltdown” were announced in January, followed by “Foreshadow” in August. All had the potential to allow catastrophic data theft from millions of modern PCs, mobile phones and cloud servers; and all were uncovered by small groups of independent computer science researchers from just a handful of leading institutions and organisations around the world. On each occasion, the University of Adelaide was among them. Dr Yuval Yarom, who leads security research in the University’s Centre for Distributed and Intelligent Technologies, co-authored all three papers announcing the flaws. The dangers, he says, were significant.
“Any one of them could’ve enabled unauthorised access to passwords, personal photos, emails, instant messages and other sensitive documents. But in the case of Foreshadow – and a variant called Foreshadow-NG, uncovered by Intel’s subsequent investigation into Foreshadow’s causes – there were even broader implications.” Foreshadow attacks specifically undermine Intel processors’ SGX (Software Guard Extensions) feature, explains Yarom. Designed to be the chips’ most secure element, SGX allows programs to establish ‘secure enclaves’ – regions sectioned off to run code that the computer’s operating system can’t access or change. This is intended to create a data “safe haven” that stays secure even if the rest of the computer’s compromised. Consequently, it’s used to house some extremely sensitive information.
“SGX can be used by developers to protect fingerprints used in biometric authentication, for example. It also contains the secret cryptographic ‘attestation keys’ that enable SGX’s internal integrity checks and prevent digital identity theft.” Magnifying the Foreshadow threat, he adds, some other critical processor systems were also at risk. “Foreshadow could also potentially break down the separation between virtual machines – distinct computing environments that share the same hardware, such as widely offered by cloudcomputing companies.” The best advice for consumers remains installing legitimate software updates in a timely manner. But Yarom’s hopeful his research, and that of his peers, will lead to fundamental industry advance. “Ultimately, I think our discoveries will lead to improved processor design and help prevent cybersecurity concerns like these resurfacing.”
Enabling “unhackable” long-distance quantum communication Beyond the world of computer-chip microarchitecture, another important information security advance is being pursued at the University of Adelaide: absolutely secure long-distance information exchange. Surprisingly, achieving the absolute-security part of the equation isn’t the challenge. Scientists have known for decades that when information is carried on photons, single particles of light, the laws of quantum mechanics ensure those photons cannot be observed without altering their states. So any “eavesdropping” presence can be immediately detected, and transmission aborted. They’ve also known how to send encrypted quantum messages, a process known as quantum key distribution, since the mid-1980s. The hard part has been sending those messages any further than around 300km. Beyond that point, photons are highly susceptible to losing their information. Some success was achieved in China recently using satellite links, extending the range to around 1200km, but this method is vulnerable to atmospheric effects interfering with the signal. To establish a rugged, ground-based quantum network, a “quantum internet”, a specialised repeater is needed to boost signals – and a research team in the University’s Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing is getting very close to creating one that could be integrated into existing fibre-based telecommunications networks.
“We’re combining novel atom-filled hollowcore fibres with state-of-the-art quantum information storage protocols to create a compact, robust and modular ‘quantum node’,” says lead researcher Dr Ben Sparkes. “It’s the core element required for an efficient quantum repeater.” The use of atoms, taken from the metal rubidium, is critical. The atoms are able to absorb and localise incoming photons without losing their information. If managed correctly, they can then hold that quantum information intact for some time – longer if laser-cooled – before it continues its journey. “Our team is one of only a handful in the world to have successfully loaded lasercooled atoms into hollow-core fibre,” enthuses Sparkes. “Of those, we’ve loaded the most atoms in one fibre by around a factor of 10.” Not surprisingly, there’s great interest in the field within the global defence sector. But as Sparkes points out, the benefits could be far more widespread than many realise. “It’s commonly accepted that high-powered quantum computers are on the horizon. And when they arrive they’re going to be able to effortlessly decipher the encryption systems we currently use to send our personal data around the world.
“ An encryption code
that might take current computers thousands of years to crack could easily be unravelled by an advanced quantum computer in less than half a day. It’s in all our interests to be prepared.”
Research for Impact Publication showcasing The University of Adelaide's research advancements
Published on Oct 17, 2018
Research for Impact Publication showcasing The University of Adelaide's research advancements