Changing lives: Australia–Japan science links

To read about Japan-Australia innovation collaborations—including searching for new malaria drugs, giant robot trucks carrying ore, and chewing gum that reverses tooth decay—click here.

Japanese science changing Australia

The impact of Japanese technological prowess on Australian society is obvious for all to see. How we listened to music was transformed by audio recording technologies: from the Walkman to the CD. Home entertainment was changed by video tapes, DVDs, and game consoles. We rely on Japanese innovation in transport—reliable car engineering, the lean manufacturing techniques that made them affordable and, more recently, hybrid cars.

Nobel Laureate Shinya Yamanaka changed stem cell science. Credit: Gladstone Institutes/Chris Goodfellow
Nobel Laureate Shinya Yamanaka changed stem cell science. Credit: Gladstone Institutes/Chris Goodfellow

Fundamental science discoveries are bringing a new era of transformation. Japanese researchers were honoured last year with the Nobel Prize for their invention of the blue LED. They succeeded where for 30 years everyone else had failed. Incandescent light bulbs lit the 20th century; the 21st century will be lit by LED lamps—lasting a lifetime and using a fraction of the energy.

In 2006 Shinya Yamanaka discovered how intact mature cells in mice could be reprogrammed to become immature stem cells. By introducing only a few genes, he could reprogram mature cells to become pluripotent stem cells, that is, immature cells that are able to develop into all types of cells in the body. His work is transforming stem cell medicine and many Australian researchers are now using induced pluripotent stem cells to develop stem cell medicines.

Continue reading Changing lives: Australia–Japan science links

Changing lives: Australia–Japan science links

Japanese science changing Australia

The impact of Japanese technological prowess on Australian society is obvious for all to see. How we listened to music was transformed by audio recording technologies: from the Walkman to the CD.

Nobel Laureate Shinya Yamanaka changed stem cell science. Credit: Gladstone Institutes/Chris Goodfellow
Nobel Laureate Shinya Yamanaka changed stem cell science. Credit: Gladstone Institutes/Chris Goodfellow

Home entertainment was changed by video tapes, DVDs, and game consoles. We rely on Japanese innovation in transport—reliable car engineering, the lean manufacturing techniques that made them affordable and, more recently, hybrid cars.

Fundamental science discoveries are now bringing a new era of transformation. Japanese researchers were honoured last year with the Nobel Prize for their invention of the blue LED. They succeeded where for 30 years everyone else had failed. Incandescent light bulbs lit the 20th century; the 21st century will be lit by LED lamps— lasting a lifetime and using a fraction of the energy.

In 2006 Shinya Yamanaka discovered how intact mature cells in mice could be reprogrammed to become immature stem cells. By introducing only a few genes, he could reprogram mature cells to become pluripotent stem cells, that is, immature cells that are able to develop into all types of cells in the body. His work is transforming stem cell medicine and many Australian researchers are now using his induced pluripotent stem cells to develop stem cell medicine.

Australian science changing Japan

It’s not a one way trade. Japanese lives are being improved by Australian inventions such as the bionic ear, gum that repairs tooth decay, sleep disorder treatments, lithium to treat bipolar disorder, aircraft black boxes, and anti-flu drugs, which are all in daily use in Japan.

And when you connect to a fast and reliable wi-fi network you can thank Australian astronomers who were searching for black holes and created tools for cleaning up radio waves.

Collaborating for the future

Today there are hundreds of thriving Australia–Japan research collaborations, many of which will have a profound impact on our lives in the years ahead.

Over the past five years, Japan has consistently placed within the 10 countries that have the highest number of collaborations with Australian researchers on Australian Research Council–funded projects. The ARC reports that the most popular disciplines for collaboration with Japan are: material engineering; biochemistry and cell biology; atomic, molecular, nuclear, particle and plasma physics; astronomical and space sciences and plant biology.

Other collaborations

Seeing every cell in a whole adult brain
Scientists from RIKEN, the University of Tokyo, JAST, and the Queensland University of Technology have developed CUBIC—a technique for rapidly imaging the brain. They believe it will be scalable to whole bodies.

Biomedical applications for ‘magic crystals’
CSIRO and Osaka Prefecture University are developing biomedical applications for the massively absorbent metal–organic framework crystals developed by CSIRO.

How our phones track us
Billions of us now have phones that tell us and others where we are and what’s around us. A team from RMIT, Intel, Fudan University and Keio University is exploring the cross-cultural and intergenerational study of this phenomenon, and the implications for privacy, in three key sites: Tokyo, Shanghai and Melbourne.

For more information: Science in Public, www.scienceinpublic.com.au/stories/japan

Could a neutron beam help stop train derailments?

Scientists are using neutron radiation to look inside solid steel and analyse the stresses within rail tracks. This research will ultimately improve the safety and operational and repair efficiency of heavy-haul railways.

The wheels of heavily laden trains place considerable rolling-contact loading on rail tracks. The heavy loads can change the material properties near the running surface and within the railhead—causing “fatigue”. A number of serious incidents, including derailments, have been attributed to rail failures resulting from rolling-contact fatigue and accumulated residual stress.

Bragg Institute instrument scientist Dr Vladimir Luzin is looking at fatigue in insulated rail joints (IRJs) within a research project initiated by the Cooperative Research Centre for Rail Innovation. IRJs are an integral part of rail track systems, but they are also weak points, and their replacement is the single largest track maintenance cost in New South Wales, apart from ballast work.

“When a rail comes out of a factory it has already some residual stress,” explains Vladimir. “Now we are looking at the atomic level to see how these stresses develop through the life of the rail joints.”

Vladimir uses neutron diffraction to see how residual stresses evolve through different production steps and during service. The beauty of neutrons is that they can penetrate steel—unlike X-rays—and they can be used to map the stresses inside the rail components non-destructively.

Manufacturers and operators want to control and minimise these stresses. This research, backed by modellers and metallurgists, will help industry partners cut costs, modify production methods and develop rails of a quality and strength that can handle increasing loads.

Bragg Institute, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, Vladimir Luzin, Tel: +61 2 9717 7262, vladimir.luzin@ansto.gov.au,  www.ansto.gov.au

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, p.timms@qut.edu.au; www.ihbi.qut.edu.au/

Traveling at Mach 5: Defense and materials science in action

US Aircraft Carrier USS Nimitz which will be protected by Nulka Credit: U.S. Navy/James Mitchell
US Aircraft Carrier USS Nimitz which will be protected by Nulka Credit: U.S. Navy/James Mitchell

Blink and you’ll certainly miss it. Australian and US defense scientists have conducted two of 10 test flights of rockets that use revolutionary scramjet propulsion at the Woomera Test Range in South Australia. The rockets travel at hypersonic speeds of more than Mach 5—that’s well over 3,000 miles per hour. More conventionally, an Australian-designed missile that masquerades as a ship has been selected to protect US aircraft carriers. But it’s not just rocket science where Australian and US collaborations have raced ahead. Artificial intelligence research could see manned and unmanned aircraft fly in the same airspace. Australian materials have been incorporated into the latest American aircraft. And quantum computers could soon be solving the knottiest of problems, now that Australian scientists have pointed the way to building them.

Continue reading Traveling at Mach 5: Defense and materials science in action

Slivers of sun: clean energy and smarter mining

Klaus Weber (left) and Andrew Blakers (right) inventors of sliver solar cells. Credit: ANU
Klaus Weber (left) and Andrew Blakers (right) inventors of sliver solar cells. Credit: ANU

Australia’s investments in energy and resource research are helping the world go green, and creating jobs in America’s heartlands.

The world’s largest manufacturer of photovoltaic cells depends on Australian technology, and US companies are working on turning Australian ideas into practical electric cars and sustainable plant-based fuels.

Over the last 20 years Australia has been able to meet the rapidly growing demand for minerals and energy in China, India and other Asian countries through a culture of innovation that has over the past 150 years changed the very shape of mining.

Two recent innovations—one sourced from US military technology—are assisting in the search for new mineral and energy reserves in America and across the world.

Slivers of the Sun

Australia and the US have a long history as world leaders in solar research. In fact, researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado and Emcore Corporation in New Mexico have created the world’s most efficient solar cell combination. And the world’s largest photovoltaic cell manufacturer, Suntech Power of China, as well as companies in Europe, use Australian technology to develop their businesses.

Now, the new technologies are creating jobs in America. In June 2010, Transform Solar—a joint venture between US company Micron Technology and Australia’s Origin Energy—announced it will reopen a plant in Boise, Idaho to make efficient, new, sliver solar cells. As a consequence, the city looks like regaining many of the 3,000 jobs it lost when the factory closed.

Sliver cells were invented at the Australian National University (ANU) by Dr Klaus Weber and Professor Andrew Blakers. A single flat wafer of silicon is cut vertically into thousands of slivers. These are rotated 90 degrees and laid side by side to create a solar cell. The much larger and thinner active surface generates current on both sides, and the result is more power for about the same cost.

UltraBattery drives cars further

Ultrabattery at work. Credit: CSIRO
Ultrabattery at work. Credit: CSIRO

The UltraBattery, invented by CSIRO and launched in 2008, has brought the conventional car battery into the era of low-emission transport and renewable energy storage. By combining lead-acid technology with a supercapacitor, the UltraBattery not only charges and discharges rapidly, but lasts four to five times longer than an ordinary battery.

It also costs about 70 per cent less to produce than the nickel-metal hydride batteries normally used in electric vehicles. These properties, while especially useful for electric vehicles with regenerative braking, also are excellent for capturing and storing electricity produced from intermittent renewable sources, such as solar and wind power. In 2009, as part of a package to accelerate the production of advanced battery technology for electric and hybrid vehicles, the East Penn Manufacturing Company was awarded US$32.5 million under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to produce the UltraBattery.

Growing aircraft fuels

Aircraft manufacturer Boeing and California biotech company Amyris have joined the Queensland Government, the University of Queensland, the airline Virgin Blue, and several other companies in exploring the possibilities of producing aviation fuel sustainably using green algae. The project is based on the work of Associate Professor Ben Hankamer from the University of Queensland’s Institute of Molecular Bioscience and his team, who have had great success in improving the efficiency of the process.

At the Queensland University of Technology, Syngenta Biotechnology Inc of North Carolina and Australian company Farmacule are using molecular technologies to develop efficient ways of producing the transport fuel and chemical feedstock bioethanol from the sugarcane residue known as ‘bagasse’. The process is complicated and involves employing a string of enzymes to break down cellulose. But if the researchers get it right, the applications will extend to plant resources far beyond the waste generated by the sugar industry.

Finding tomorrow’s mines from the air

Tucson copper mine. Credit: istockphoto
Tucson copper mine. Credit: istockphoto

In the 1990s, Australian resources company BHP recognized that a sensor that measured minute changes in gravity, and hence density of the Earth below, might be useful as a means of discovering potential ore bodies in remote areas.

In 1999, BHP obtained a license to adapt to mineral exploration technology that originally had been developed by Lockheed Martin for the US Navy to help submarines avoid seamounts. The airborne sensor, which BHP named Falcon, has been responsible for discovering new diamond pipes in northwest Canada, and has assisted in detecting iron, copper, gold and coal deposits elsewhere.

Magnetic squid

Another Australian technology already out in the marketplace makes use of superconducting quantum interference device or SQUID technology that can detect extremely small magnetic fields. Known as LANDTEM and developed by CSIRO, the sensor, a high-temperature superconductor that must be stored in liquid nitrogen, is sensitive enough to detect the difference between an ore body and overburden. In less than 10 years the technology, which cost just AU$4 million to develop, has been directly responsible for helping to unearth about AU$6 billion worth of previously undiscovered ore bodies.

Mining with bubbles

In the 19th century, miners at Broken Hill in far western New South Wales pioneered the use of bubbles to separate minerals from their ores. This ubiquitous technology was modernized in the 1980s with the creation of the Jameson Cell by Dr Graeme Jameson at the University of Newcastle and Mount Isa Mines. The Vigo and A.T. Massey coal companies in Indiana and West Virginia respectively are among hundreds of mines worldwide now using this system marketed by Xstrata Technologies.

Making virtual minerals

Researchers at the University of Sydney led by Professor Dietmar Müller are collaborating with colleagues at Caltech, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the University of Hawaii to develop a Virtual Geological Observatory. The facility will store data on rocks, processes and movements over geological time and use this information to simulate mineral formation. In future, this technology will help in the detection of mineral deposits underground.

New extraction technologies

Once a new mineral deposit has been found, the next challenge is to determine which minerals you can extract and at what cost. The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) has for the past 30 years been helping mining companies assess and develop processes for uranium ores, extract rare earth metals, and remove radioactivity from ores. This work has contributed to mining projects around the world, including the US.

Mopping up gases

Dr Deanna D’alessandro. Credit: L’oreal/SDP media
Dr Deanna D’alessandro. Credit: L’oreal/SDP media

A bright young researcher in the area of carbon capture is Australian chemist Dr Deanna D’Alessandro. Dr D’Alessandro, who has returned to the University of Sydney as a postdoctoral research fellow after a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley, has constructed crystals full of minute pores. One teaspoon of the most effective of her chemicals has the surface area of a football field. What’s more, the size and shape of the pores can be customized using light. So, she believes she can create molecular sponges that will mop up carbon dioxide, hydrogen, or almost any gas, and then release it on cue.

This is an part of a series of eight factsheets exploring US-Australian collaboration and outlining some of the ways that Australian science is contributing to America’s society and economy. You can download all of the factsheets as one PDF here.

  1. Overview: Innovation today means jobs and prosperity tomorrow. (Download PDF)
  2. Delivering sustainable agriculture and biosecurity. (Download PDF)
  3. Slivers of sun: clean energy and smarter mining. (Download PDF)
  4. Science collaboration improves health. (Download PDF)
  5. Understanding and responding to changing climate. (Download PDF)
  6. Traveling at Mach 5: Defense and materials science in action. (Download PDF)
  7. Searching the southern sky, and unchaining the internet. (Download PDF)
  8. The Australian science and technology system. (Download PDF)