Fresh Science 2010

Each year we identify early-career scientists with a discovery and bring them to Melbourne for a communication boot camp. Here are some of their stories.

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Print your own lasers, lights and TV screens

Print your own lasers, lights and TV screens
Jacek Jasieniak sprinkling quantum dots. Credit: Jacek Jasieniak

Imagine printing your own room lighting, lasers, or solar cells from inks you buy at the local newsagent. Jacek Jasieniak and colleagues at CSIRO, the University of Melbourne and the University of Padua in Italy, have developed liquid inks based on quantum dots that can be used to print such devices and in the first demonstration of their technology have produced tiny lasers. Quantum dots are made of semiconductor material grown as nanometre-sized crystals, around a millionth of a millimetre in diameter. The laser colour they produce can be selectively tuned by varying their size.

Cling wrap captures CO2
Colin Scholes operates a test rig for his carbon capture membrane. Credit: CO2 CRC

Cling wrap captures CO2

High tech cling wraps that ‘sieve out’ carbon dioxide from waste gases can help save the world, says Melbourne University chemical engineer, Colin Scholes who developed the technology. The membranes can be fitted to existing chimneys where they capture CO2 for removal and storage. Not only are the new membranes efficient, they are also relatively cheap to produce. They are already being tested on brown coal power stations in Victoria’s La Trobe Valley, Colin says. “We are hoping these membranes will cut emissions from power stations by up to 90 per cent.”

Insulin that doesn’t need a fridge or a needle?

Insulin that doesn’t need a fridge or a needle?
Insulin. Credit: Bianca van Lierop

Monash University chemist Bianca van Lierop and her colleagues have successfully strengthened insulin’s chemical structure without affecting its activity. Their new insulin won’t require refrigeration. The researchers have filed a series of patents with the support of their long term commercial partner ASX-listed Circadian Technologies to start the long process of moving the invention out of the laboratory and into the hands of people with diabetes. At the same time they’re using their newly acquired knowledge to develop a form of insulin that can be delivered by pill.

Electric plastics: Better bionic eyes and ears

Electric plastics: Better bionic eyes and ears
Neural cells growing on the conducting bioplastic electrodes. Credit: Rylie Green

A UNSW biomedical engineer has developed conductive bioplastics which will transform the performance of bionic devices such as the cochlear ear and the proposed bionic eye. “These plastics will lead to smaller devices that use safer smaller currents and that encourage nerve interaction,” says Rylie Green. “And we can attach natural proteins to them which will aid the survival of damaged and diseased nerves.” The plastics are already being tested in prototype bionic eyes and she hopes they will find application in bionic ears, robotic limbs – wherever researchers are attempting to integrate electronics with the human body.

How do black holes eat?

How do black holes eat?
Artist’s impression of material falling onto a black hole. The material is compressed, heating it and causing it to shine. Credit: April Hopart, NASA/Chandra X-ray Center (CXC)

Australian Astronomical Observatory researcher David Floyd has been able to use galaxies as cosmic telescopes to observed matter falling into a super-massive black hole. It’s the first time scientists have been able to probe so close to a supermassive black hole, a region inaccessible to telescopes until now. The research makes use of a technique known as gravitational microlensing, where the bright light from a quasar passes near or through another galaxy on its way to Earth. The intervening galaxy acts like a lens, enlarging and splitting the image of the quasar into several components, each of which can be analysed.

Bacteria munch up alumina impurities

Bacteria munch up alumina impurities
Naomi McSweeney investigating bacteria found at an alumina refinery. Credit: Damien Smith

Previously unknown species of naturally-occurring bacteria have the potential to save the alumina and aluminium industries millions of dollars while helping to reduce their impact on the environment, microbiologist Naomi McSweeney has found in a collaborative project between Alcoa of Australia, CSIRO and the University of Western Australia. The bacteria can successfully break down and remove sodium oxalate, an organic impurity produced during the refining of low-grade bauxite into alumina.  At a typical refinery, sodium oxalate forms by the tonne during the production of alumina. It can affect the colour and the quality of the final product.

Ultrasound puts water back in the Murray Darling

By applying the right amount of ultrasound during processing, Jianhua (Jason) Du and researchers from the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE) have been able to squeeze a considerable amount of fresh water from mining waste. The technique also reduces waste bulk, which could save mining companies millions of dollars.

As good as an atomic clock

Even tiny delays across the internet introduces data errors. So University of Melbourne engineer Julien Ridoux and colleagues have invented a free, new, software clock that is accurate to within a millionth of a second.

Nano-sand to improve lotions and cosmetics

Nasrin Ghouchi-Eskandar from the University of South Australia’s Ian Wark Research Institute and fellow researchers have invented and patented a new technology for delivering cosmetics and drugs through the skin. They use nanoparticles of silica (essentially sand) to create longer lasting cosmetics and creams that control the delivery of drugs.

Aussie lizard reveals cancer secrets

A compound that encourages the growth of blood vessels in pregnant three-toed skinks may provide important information on the origins and treatment of cancer in humans, according to zoologist Bridget Murphy from the University of Sydney, who discovered the protein, which is pivotal to the development of the lizard placenta.

Joint reversal eases arthritis

A shoulder-joint implant, with the ball and socket on the opposite bones from nature, can significantly improve the quality of life of patients with severe arthritis and tendon tears, says medical engineer David Ackland from the University of Melbourne. Testing shows that the new implant stabilises the joint and increases the range of movement of arthritic shoulders.

Add fertiliser to fight weeds

Feeding weeds fertiliser sounds like exactly the wrong thing, but Jennifer Firn of CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems has been doing just that to control African lovegrass, an invasive species of rangelands in every Australian state. Her method works by making the weed tastier to grazing animals.

Waste is a waste

A biotechnologist from the South Australian Research and Development Institute has taken using “everything but the pig’s squeal” to new lengths. Through clever recycling of pig waste, Andrew Ward has been able to produce feed for aquaculture, water for irrigation, and methane for energy.

Silk microchip for rapid medical testing

Silk could provide a sophisticated new way of monitoring health, Peter Domachuk, a physicist from the University of Sydney, has found. He and his colleagues have created microchips for diagnostic blood tests using silk fibres. And in the lab they’ve demonstrated that these microchips can measure oxygen using haemoglobin embedded in the silk.

Wind – the key factor for dangerous bushfire weather

Wind speed plays a bigger role than temperature in creating dangerous conditions for bushfires, says Andrew Dowdy a physicist from the Bureau of Meteorology. His work with the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre has led to new possibilities for predicting bushfire conditions based on the weather.

Measuring the climate on ice

Young Tasmanian electrical engineer Natalia Galin has turned US technology into a robust helicopter-borne radar system that can accurately measure the thickness of snow on polar sea ice. Her work will improve NASA’s satellite measurements of what’s happening to the Antarctic sea ice, and will contribute to more accurate climate models.