Soaking up gases with molecular sponges

Absorbing carbon emissions from power stations and creating a new generation of hydrogen fuel tanks in future vehicles are just some of the potential applications of Dr Deanna D’Alessandro’s discoveries in basic chemistry.

She has created new, incredibly absorbent chemicals that can capture, store and release large volumes of gas.

It’s all to do with surface area, says Deanna, a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Chemistry at The University of Sydney.

She has constructed crystals that are full of minute holes.

One teaspoon of the most effective of these compounds has the surface area of a rugby field.

What’s more, the size and shape of the pores can be customised and changed using light. So she believes she can generate molecular sponges that will mop up carbon dioxide, hydrogen, or in theory almost any gas—and then release it on cue.

In 2010, her achievements won her a $20,000 L’Oréal Australia For Women in Science Fellowship which provided equipment, travel support and a student to assist her.

Deanna’s compounds have similar molecular structures to those in seashells and the microscopic marine plants called diatoms.

These naturally-occurring materials are commonly used in toothpaste, laundry detergents, kitty litter and other industrial applications.

But her high tech equivalents are crystals known as metal-organic frameworks—clusters of charged metal atoms linked by carbon-based groups.

While she didn’t invent these frameworks, Deanna has developed new kinds of them which are more robust and possess the molecular pores that can be shaped by light.

Photo: Deanna D’Alessandro, The University of Sydney. Credit: L’Oréal Australia/SDP media

School of Chemistry, The University of Sydney, Deanna D’Alessandro, Tel: +61 2 9351 7392,,

Take control of your hearing

Australian researchers have invented a small, smart, self-managed hearing aid that outperforms most conventional hearing aids for less than half the price.


It uses technology first developed for Australia’s bionic ear, and is so simple to set up that most users can buy one over the internet and fit it themselves.

That brings the cost down to between $1,000 and $1,500, or less than $3,000 for a pair.

The user can then easily fine-tune it and even switch the settings to suit the home, work, or the pub.
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Fighting back against malaria

Some of the biochemical tricks the malaria parasite uses to become resistant have been unravelled thanks to a series of discoveries by Dr Rowena Martin and her colleagues at the Australian National University.

She is using those insights to give a new lease of life to chloroquine, the wonder drug against malaria first discovered in the 1950s.

For more than half a century chloroquine saved hundreds of millions of lives, but now chloroquine-resistant malaria strains have become common in developing countries.

Rowena is working to understand what happened. The single-celled malaria parasite enters our bodies when we are bitten by an infected mosquito.

It eventually invades and plunders our red blood cells, consuming the haemoglobin contained within.

The digestion of haemoglobin, which takes place in the parasite’s stomach compartment, releases the iron-containing, nonprotein component, haem.

Free haem is toxic to the parasite, which responds by converting it to a harmless crystal. Chloroquine works by blocking the formation of these crystals.

Ten years ago researchers discovered that just a few small changes in a protein PfCRT were enough to give the parasite resistance to chloroquine. But they did not know what the changes did.

Rowena developed a system to study PfCRT in frog eggs—allowing her to examine it in isolation and in detail.

“We found that it moves chloroquine out of the parasite’s stomach compartment so that the drug can’t accumulate at its site of action.” For her achievements to date, in 2010 Rowena won a $20,000 L’Oréal Australia For Women in Science Fellowship.

Photo: Rowena Martin, the Australian National University, Canberra/The University of Melbourne. Credit: L’oréal Australia/SDP media.

Research School of Biology, The Australian National University, Rowena Martin, Tel: +61 2 6125 8589,,

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.”

Continue reading Fresh Science 2010

Could we grow drugs using sunflowers?

Queensland researchers believe future cancer drugs could be grown in sunflowers and ultimately delivered as a seed ‘pill’.

They’re a long way from that outcome. But, as they reported to the XVIII International Botanical Congress in Melbourne earlier this year, they have already shown that sunflowers make a precursor to cancer drugs as part of their defence against insect attack.

The precursor, a small ring-like protein fragment known as SFTI, has already shown potential as a cancer treatment. Until now, however, it has been considered too expensive to produce by conventional means.
Continue reading Could we grow drugs using sunflowers?

Preventing breast cancer relapse

Mystery still surrounds why women who recover from breast cancer often relapse years later —Dr Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat is hoping to use her knowledge of breast tissue stem cells to unravel it.

In 2006, she was part of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute team that discovered breast stem cells.

She then built on this finding with a series of studies exploring how these cells develop and are influenced by oestrogen and other steroids.

Her achievements won her a $20,000 L’Oréal Australia For Women in Science Fellowship in 2010. Breast stem cells are critical to normal breast development, but if the breast becomes cancerous they are also likely to be at heart of the problem.

And that’s been the focus of Marie- Liesse’s work. In a series of high impact papers working with mice, she has explored how these breast stem cells develop into the wide range of cells found in a normal breast and how some of them become aggressive cancer cells.

In 2010 she was lead author of a Nature paper revealing that oestrogen and other steroids can control the function of breast stem cells. “It’s via an indirect mechanism important in understanding how stem cells proliferate, and it could lead to new treatments and new drugs,” she says. “But there are basic questions we still need to answer about breast cancer—such as, ‘What is the cell of origin?’ and ‘What causes a cell to go wrong and turn to cancer?’”

Photo: Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat, WEHI, Melbourne.  Credit: L’Oreal Australia/SDP Media.

Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat, Tel: +61 3 9345 2495,,

Cementing a greener future

Making cement is the third largest source of carbon emissions in the world after the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation—but the Australian roads of the future could be paved with cement that is made in a process that generates less than half the carbon emissions of traditional methods.

Green cement is now becoming part of Victoria’s roads. Credit: Australian Synchrotron.
Green cement is now becoming part of Victoria’s roads. Credit: Australian Synchrotron.

Each year, the world produces about 12 billion tonnes of concrete and about 1.6 billion tonnes of its key ingredient, Portland cement, which is generated by breaking calcium carbonate into carbon dioxide and calcium oxide.

This produces some 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide—so the Geopolymer and Mineral Processing Group (GMPG) at the University of Melbourne, now led by Dr John Provis, went looking for a lower carbon way of making cement.

They have now developed binders and concretes based on a low-CO2 aluminosilicate compounds called geopolymers.

Continue reading Cementing a greener future

Plastic not fantastic for seabirds

Seabirds on one of Australia’s remotest islands have plastic in their stomachs.

Plastic not fantastic for seabirds
A flesh-footed shearwater surveys the contents of its stomach Credit: Ian Hutton

A recent survey found more than 95 per cent of the migratory flesh-footed shearwaters nesting on Lord Howe Island, between Australia and the northern tip of New Zealand, had swallowed plastic garbage.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, plastic has been shown to bind poisonous pollutants. As a result, some shearwaters were found with concentrations of mercury more than 7,000 times the level considered toxic.

Only six of more than 200 nests visited contained chicks. The overall population is plummeting.
Continue reading Plastic not fantastic for seabirds

Building a better banana

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are supporting the efforts of Queensland University of Technology scientists to design a better banana.

James Dale and a better banana palm for Africa. Credit: QUT
James Dale and a better banana palm for Africa. Credit: QUT

The researchers have already added provitamin A—a compound the body converts to Vitamin A—to the East African Highland banana. Now they are working to boost the iron content of the cooking banana that is a staple food of Uganda.

Led by Prof James Dale, director of University’s Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities, the researchers are working with the Ugandan National Agricultural Research Organisation to modify the bananas genetically to raise their micronutrient levels, and then develop disease-resistant strains to distribute to East African farmers. The research is being funded by a $10-million grant from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges in Global Health Program.

James and his team developed efficient technology for raising nutrient levels in Cavendish bananas through to field trials in Queensland and then transferred it to Uganda. Ugandan scientists are now using these methods to modify East African Highland bananas genetically to increase their biosynthesis of provitamin A and their accumulation of iron.

Part of the project includes ensuring Ugandans will accept the new fruit, which has deep yellow flesh, thanks to the addition of the Vitamin A precursor, beta-carotene.

Saving koalas by vaccination

The first Australian trials have started of a vaccine to prevent koalas from contracting and spreading the deadly sexually transmitted disease, chlamydia.

Saving koalas by vaccination
Professor Peter Timms is trialling a Chlamydia vaccine for koalas. Credit: QUT

The trials—supervised by Prof Peter Timms and Prof Ken Beagley from Queensland University of Technology (QUT)’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation—have been undertaken safely both in healthy koalas and koalas that already have chlamydial disease. All vaccinated koalas developed a good immune response to the anti-chlamydia vaccine, which shows great promise of making a significant impact on the disease in the near future.

Chlamydia is a major threat to the continued survival of koalas. Almost all populations in Australia are affected by the disease. It is a significant cause of infertility, urinary tract infections, and inflammation in the lining of the eye which often leads to blindness.

Koala numbers are declining across virtually its whole range. In the Koala Coast region of southeast Queensland in 2008 it was estimated that 2332 koalas had been lost in a three-year monitoring period. That represented a 51 per cent decrease.

By studying chlamydial disease in koalas, QUT researchers hope to understand the condition better in general. They believe their work may also hold the key to developing a successful vaccine for use against the human sexually transmitted disease Chlamydia trachomatis, a major cause of infertility in women.

Photo: Professor Peter Timms is trialling a Chlamydia vaccine for koalas.
Credit: QUT

Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, QUT, Peter Timms, Tel: +61 7 3138 6199,;