A new job for glass fibres

While researching the performance of the optical fibres that are the backbone of telecommunications and the internet, Tanya Monro realised that they could do much more.

Tanya Monro. Credit: Jennie Groom

She’s invented a new class of hollow or holey fibres using soft glass, which have thousands of applications as sensors: detecting metal fatigue in aircraft wings and other structures; monitoring contamination in water supplies; and a smart bung that monitors wine development while it’s still in the barrel.

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Glucosamine study raises fertility concerns

Research on the effects of the popular joint supplement glucosamine has raised fears for women’s fertility, and a knee-jerk reaction from the vitamin industry, as Adelaide scientists reveal its threat to conception.

Photo: Green staining in a glucosamine-treated egg (bottom) shows increased activity in the glucose-sensing pathway compared with a control (top). Credit: Robinson Research Institute

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Obese dads leave kids with fat chance

An obese father increases the risk of his children and grandchildren becoming obese, even if they follow a healthy diet. That’s the implication of a series of mouse studies conducted at the University of Adelaide.

Photo: A mouse with diet induced obesity and its control counterpart. Credit: Robinson Research Institute

The researchers found that a father’s high-fat diet could change the molecular make-up of his sperm, leading to obesity and diabetes-like symptoms in two generations of offspring.

“With obese fathers, changes in the sperm’s microRNA molecules are linked with programming the embryo for obesity or metabolic disease later in life,” says Tod Fullston, the study’s lead author and an NHMRC Peter Doherty Fellow with the University of Adelaide’s Robinson Research Institute.

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Preterm birth linked to teen school angst

Large numbers of premature-born children may be slipping under the radar, say researchers who have found brain development problems in teenagers deemed clinically normal after a late preterm birth.

Children born even one to five weeks premature can show reduced skills later in life.

Julia Pitcher and Michael Ridding, of the Robinson Research Institute, University of Adelaide, found that children born even one to five weeks premature showed reduced ‘neuroplasticity’ as teenagers. Their study provides the first physiological evidence of the link between late preterm birth and reduced motor, learning and social skills in later life.

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Light work makes for a better drop

New Australian technology will enable real-time monitoring of wine throughout its fermentation and maturation process, reducing spoilage and improving quality.

Smart Bungs use sensors based on optical fibres to continuously monitor the health of wine during the fermentation and maturation process. Credit: IPAS/Jennie Groom Photography

The “Smart Bung” technology has been pioneered at the University of Adelaide by the Institute for Photonics & Advanced Sensing (IPAS) and the School of Agriculture, Food and Wine (SAFW). The work is led by Prof Tanya Monro, Director of IPAS.

An optical fibre sensor incorporated into the bung of a wine cask can detect substances that might cause the wine to spoil. The optical fibres have tiny holes that take up minute samples of the wine. The sensor shines light through the fibres to determine the concentration of certain important chemicals, such as hydrogen peroxide and sulphur dioxide—all without having to open the cask. The system will enable continuous, real-time cask-by-cask monitoring and an immediate response if problems are detected.

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Higgs boson: the Australian connection

In 2012, scientists celebrated at the announcement of the discovery of a Higgs boson-like particle, a subatomic particle that completes our model of how the Universe works.

Director of the High Energy Physics Conference, Geoff Taylor (right) celebrates the Higgs-like particle announcement at the Melbourne Convention Centre. Credit: Laura Vanags/ARC Centre of Excellence for Particle Physics at the Terascale
Director of the High Energy Physics Conference, Geoff Taylor (right) celebrates the Higgs-like particle announcement at the Melbourne Convention Centre with Pauline Gagnon of CERN. Credit: Laura Vanags/ARC Centre of Excellence for Particle Physics at the Terascale

The announcement was made simultaneously at CERN in Geneva, and to hundreds of physicists gathered in Melbourne for the International Conference on High Energy Physics.

“As scientific discoveries go, this is up there with finding a way to split the atom,” says Prof Geoff Taylor, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Particle Physics at the Terascale (CoEPP).

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Tracing cosmic rays from radio pulses


The energy of ultra-high energy (UHE) cosmic rays that strike the Earth’s atmosphere make the energy produced from particle collisions by the Large Hadron Collider look puny. A team based in South Australia is now developing the techniques and technology to find out where such energetic particles could possibly originate. They ultimately hope to use the proposed SKA telescope to conduct their search.

“We think some cosmic rays are produced in the remnants of supernovae—exploding stars—but where the most energetic ones come from, that’s a mystery,” says Justin Bray, a PhD student hunting for their source as part of the LUNASKA (Lunar Ultra-high-energy Neutrino Astrophysics using SKA) project led by Ray Protheroe at the University of Adelaide and Ron Ekers at CSIRO. Continue reading Tracing cosmic rays from radio pulses

Putting Einstein to the ultimate test

CSIRO’s Parkes telescope records pulsar signals to try to detect gravitational waves. Credit: David McClenaghan / CSIRO

Einstein’s general theory of relativity predicts them, and they could be scattered throughout the Universe. But so far, gravitational waves— ‘ripples’ in the fabric of space and time—have never been detected. Several Australian teams of astronomers are trying to catch the first signs of one.

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Australian astronomers take on the Universe


The nature of dark energy and dark matter, the processes of star formation, the creation and evolution of galaxies, the origin of cosmic magnetism, the formation of planetary systems, the prospects for extra-terrestrial life—these are just some of the areas of astronomy in which expatriate Australians are playing a significant role.

Travel to just about any country with an active astronomy program, and there you will find Australian astronomers plying their trade. Over the past several decades, the 24 Australian universities with astronomy programs—in collaboration with the nation’s sophisticated telescope facilities—have consistently graduated about 20 astronomers with PhDs each year. With their specialist skills and hands-on training, half of them are quickly snapped up overseas—not a large contingent, but a vital shot-in-the-arm for international collaboration.

Astrobiologist and planetary astronomer Victoria (Vikki) Meadows, for instance, is an associate professor in the University of Washington’s Astronomy Department in the US, and also a Principal Investigator at the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory. Vikki trained at the University of Sydney.

She leads an international team of scientists using the world’s most advanced supercomputers to determine the likely characteristics of habitable planets orbiting other stars. Their work has helped NASA to plan space-based observatories that will search for life on other worlds and planets similar to Earth.

Medium-sized black holes

Expatriate X-ray astronomer Sean Farrell, a PhD graduate of the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, specialises in black holes. He led the international team which used the European Space Agency’s XMM Newton X-Ray space telescope to discover in 2008 the first medium-sized black hole ever found. More than 500 times the mass of the sun, it bridged the gap between small black holes and those of the super-massive variety.

Lisa Kewley, until recently a Hubble Fellow at the Institute of Astronomy of the University of Hawai’i, studies the evolution of galaxies from a billion years after the Big Bang. Still in her 30s, she has already won two top American Astronomical Society Awards—the 2005 Annie Jump Canon Award and the 2008 Newton Lacy Pierce Prize—for discovering the links between oxygen and the evolution of galaxies. As a by-product, she calculated that most of the oxygen atoms we breathe today were created five to 12 billion years ago.

Closer to home, Melanie Johnston-Hollitt, an Australian radio astronomer at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, chairs the New Zealand Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Research and Development Consortium, linking New Zealand astronomers, engineers, physicists and other research scientists, industry and government in a conjoint effort with Australia to win and participate in the project.

EMU survey

In her day job, Melanie leads a research group studying the physics of galaxy clusters, the largest gravitationally bound structures in the Universe. Her group is using some of the world’s most powerful radio, optical and X-ray telescopes to establish how these clusters have evolved.

And she also heads one of ten working groups of scientists involved in the Evolutionary Map of the Universe (EMU) projects. This is an all-sky radio survey of the southern sky to commence in 2013 using Australia’s powerful new Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope, now under construction at the site of the proposed SKA in Western Australia (see Australia’s SKA demonstrator already booked out).

Harvey Butcher, Director of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics and the Mount Stromlo and Siding Spring Observatories at the Australian National University, Canberra, says the limited number of funded positions in Australia contributes to the expatriate exodus, but also that the facilities of modern astronomy are so expensive astronomers around the world necessarily work in teams, and successful astronomers need to follow the work.

Foundation Director of CSIRO’s Australia Telescope National Facility, CSIRO Research Fellow and past president of the International Astronomical Union Ron Ekers urges Australian astronomers to recognise the competitive advantage of their distinctiveness.

“Australians are so successful overseas not because we’re so clever but because we’re different. The value of internationalism is that we’ve grown up in a different system with a different education and a style of research, where we’ve learned to do things as well as teach them.”



Also in this section:

Nurturing super astronomers at home

Detecting aircraft fatigue

TanyaMonro_300x180The only way to find out whether the internal structures of an aircraft are corroded is to pull the plane apart and look. But new nanotechnology-based techniques being developed by Prof. Tanya Monro, Director of University of Adelaide’s Centre of Expertise in Photonics, in collaboration with the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, could make costly visual inspection in preventive aircraft maintenance a thing of the past.

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