Future Materials and Australian Nanotechnology Alliance

In this Issue

  • Research News

    Building multi-layered barriers under tips: Researchers in the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE) are developing a solution to the problem of toxic fluids leaching out of old rubbish dumps and the answer lies in building a selectively permeable barrier under the tip.

  • Know your material

    New uses for silk protein: Silk from silkworms is one of Nature’s wonder materials. It’s a natural protein fibre which can be woven into textiles. Now, researchers at the University of NSW (UNSW) believe its protein might also be used to repair damaged tissue and battle cancer.

  • Tin Tacks

    Balls aren’t balls - it’s just not cricket: It might come as a shock to lovers of the venerable game of cricket but not all cricket balls are created equal! A study has shown that many brands of cricket balls are inconsistently manufactured, causing quality issues and potentially having major implications for cricket matches.

  • Sensational Materials

    Plastic optical fibres with bubbles: New research from Macquarie University may hold the key to more cost-effective, energy-efficient, durable and easy-to-use fibre optics. Researchers are developing a new optic fibre prototype from a ‘bubbly’ polymer fibre.

    Putting real bite into biosynthetic materials: Researchers at The University of Western Australia are looking to develop new biosynthetic materials with real bite by studying the teeth structure of a shell fish.

    Drugs and fantastic plastic: An international team of chemical engineers, chemists and pharmacists has made a major breakthrough that will significantly boost the accuracy and speed of drug testing by describing how complex molecules and imprinted polymers (synthetic plastic materials) bind together.

Event Calendar


From the Director

Nothing else matters as much as education

Carla Gerbo

With an expectation that by 2013 Australia will face a shortfall of 19,000 scientists and over 50,000 engineers and engineer’s trade people, there is no time left to bemoan past education policy and curriculum shortfalls. In the words of Professor Kurt Lambeck, President of the Australian Academy of Science: “If Australia gets education right, then everything else will succeed. If we get it wrong, then nothing else matters.”

While Australia looks at a shortfall in science-based graduates, China and India in comparison will graduate 1.5 million science and engineer graduates by 2010. These figures make the 45 minutes per week of science education that the average Australian primary school student receives (plus the 12% of primary teachers who admitted not teaching any science at all), totally unacceptable.

Materials science is an amalgamation of a diverse range of sciences with manufacturing and technology to create unique solutions for industry and consumers. As far as Future Materials and the Australian Nanotechnology Alliance is concerned, any skill shortage in science and engineering graduates directly impacts on industry performance and therefore the gross domestic product of a nation.

Let’s face it, the current technology revolution is largely materials driven with sectors as diverse as mining, electronics, construction, manufacturing, defence and healthcare now heavily reliant on materials science maintaining and improving product performance. Yet continued growth across these diverse industry sectors will not continue without science graduates.

As the opening paragraphs of the Review of Australian Higher Education report (released December 17 2008) states: “Australia faces a critical moment in the history of higher education. There is an international consensus that the reach, quality and performance of a nation’s higher education system will be key determinants of its economic and social progress. If we are to maintain our high standard of living, underpinned by a robust democracy and a civil and just society, we need an outstanding, internationally competitive higher education system.

As the world becomes more interconnected and global markets for skills and innovation develop even further, it will be crucial for Australia to have enough highly skilled people able to adapt to the uncertainties of a rapidly changing future. Higher education will clearly be a major contributor to the development of a skilled workforce as never before...”

An innovative culture is built on encouraging our youth, from kindergarten onwards, to be excited and engaged by science. And yet, according to Professor Julie Campbell from the Australian Academy of Science, the annual money spent on teaching science at primary school equates to buying each child one ice-cream!

In the coming year we will see many positive steps taken to encourage science education in Australia, from primary school through to tertiary levels. These measures include new primary science programs and reduction of the HECS debt over a 5 year period while the graduate student is engaged in a relevant field.

It is undeniable that as we build our skilled workforce, industry will continue to invest in research, a catalyst for the attraction of domestic and international R&D investment leading to new innovations. As I mentioned in my December editorial, it’s the E3 principle: Education + Employment = Economic Growth.

And maintaining enthusiasm and networks for early career researchers (ECR) and research students is an important part of this. In December I was pleased to be a part of the Australian Research Network for Advanced Materials’ (ARNAM) workshop in which 170 early career researchers and research students attended a 4 day workshop at Deakin University near Geelong. Under the organisation of Professor Jim Williams (ANU) and Professor Xungai Wang (Deakin) these students were given the opportunity and skills to learn about grant writing, networking and presentation. Each of the 170 attendees had to present their research to their peers during the 4 days. The skills they picked up, included relationship building, will be with these young researchers for life and will hopefully motivate them to continue their careers in the material sciences, be it within the academic sector or more likely within industry or a public research institution.

Carla Gerbo
National Co-Ordinator - Future Materials
Director & CEO - Australian Nanotechnology Alliance

Contact Carla on c.gerbo@uq.edu.au


Research News

Building multi-layered barriers under tips

Rubbish Tip

Toxic fluids leaching out of old rubbish dumps are a major & growing global problem

Researchers in the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE) are developing a solution to one of the most urgent problems faced by modern society worldwide - the poisonous fluids which leach out of old rubbish dumps and enter the groundwater which many communities rely on for drinking or food production. And the solution lies in building a selectively permeable barrier under the tip.

Across Australia tens of thousands of garbage tips are quietly leaking a toxic brew of old and sometimes deadly chemicals into the water drunk or used about the home by up to 4 million people.

“The contamination depends on what was in the garbage placed in the tip”, explains CRC CARE project leader Professor ‘Vigi’ Vigneswaran of the University of Technology Sydney. “It usually contains old industrial and household chemicals, solvents and oils, antibiotics and endocrine disruptors, medical drugs, personal care products, biological pollutants and heavy metals.”

Building barriers

The solution to this cryptic assault on society’s good health is the ‘permeable reactive barrier’, an underground wall that filters and cleanses the toxic flow before it can enter the aquifers which are used by communities for drinking, domestic, stock or industrial water.

While modern tips are designed to prevent the flow of toxic leachate from reaching groundwater, older tips were not, and many are still quietly and insidiously feeding the pollution from decades ago back into the community of today.

According to Professor Ravi Naidu, Managing Director of CRC CARE, Vigi’s barrier can be buried twenty metres or more into the ground and be up to two metres thick.

‘It’s is a sophisticated sandwich of materials which adsorb, break down or otherwise render harmless the contaminants in the leaching tip water’, says Professor Naidu.

Traditionally permeable reactive barriers have consisted of iron particles or slag which helped remediate the contaminated leachate. Professor Vigi’s design tailors the barrier precisely to the particular pollutants in the leachate and subjects them to a series of processes which ensure they are destroyed or rendered harmless.

Designer layer cake

“For example first we use biosorption to remove and neutralise biodegradable hydrocarbon compounds. This uses a material on which biofilm forms - and these do the job of breaking down the pollutants”, explains Prof. Vigi.

The second layer deals with much tougher pollutants - organic compounds that either do not degrade or only do so very slowly. These are known as POPs (persistent organic pollutants). The second layer of the barrier subjects these to fierce oxygen free radicals which break down the poisons into harmless by-products such as water, CO2 and nitrogen.

The third layer is designed to deal with toxic heavy metals such as arsenic or the lead and mercury left by the millions of discarded batteries and other poisonous metals from old consumer electronics. These metals are scavenged out of the leachate by an adsorption layer consisting of activated carbon, wood waste or a special clay which either locks them up or oxidises them into less harmful compounds which can be removed by biosorption.

Depending on the type of contaminants in the leachate, these layers may be arranged in different sequences to obtain the best performance.

“Garbage tips can leak for decades, even centuries and contaminate water supplies kilometres downstream,” says Professor Vigi. “As our cities expand, tips which once lay beyond the edge of a city are swallowed up by it, and their contaminants begin to travel under the soil where people live and children play. This is a particular issue in communities which use groundwater for drinking water or growing vegetables.”

He says the laboratory work carried out into ways of dealing with the problem shows strong promise that these relatively low-cost barriers can be designed to keep toxic leachate out of groundwater in the longer term.

Leaky tips are a worldwide problem as human populations swell, especially in newly industrialising countries where there are few controls over tip design or contents. For the sake of society’s health, practical low cost solutions are urgently needed.

More info: http://www.crccare.com/


Know your material

New uses for silk protein

A silk cacoon

Silk from silkworms is one of Nature’s wonder materials. It’s a natural protein fibre which can be woven into textiles.

Now, researchers at the University of NSW (UNSW) believe its protein might also be used to repair damaged tissue and battle cancer.

Silk is obtained from cocoons spun by silkworms (Bombyx mori) and it has many special properties. Silk’s shimmering appearance, for which it is prized, comes from the fibres' triangular prism-like structure which allows silk cloth to refract incoming light at different angles. The cloth has a smooth, soft texture that is not slippery, unlike many synthetic fibres. It’s one of one of the world’s strongest natural fibres but loses up to 20% of its strength when wet. Silk is a poor conductor of electricity and thus susceptible to static cling.

It’s been a popular clothing material for many thousands of years, but now researchers at UNSW are looking at a whole new range of possible applications for the proteins that make it up. Dr Penny Martens, of UNSW’s Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering, has been investigating the use of natural silk proteins in replacing and repairing damaged tissue. Using silk from domesticated silkworms and a wild Indian silkworm, Dr Martens and Professor Laura Poole-Warren, along with researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology, are testing the ability of silk proteins to support the regrowth of cells such as nerve cells, inside the body.

"The good thing about silk is that not only is it one of the strongest natural polymers, it also has the wonderful ability to interact with cells,” says Dr Martens. ”In addition, this research capitalises and expands on a huge resource from India.”

Their research was in the spotlight at the Third Indo-Australian Conference on Biomaterials, Implants, Tissue Engineering & Regenerative Medicine that was run at the UNSW in January. Biomedical engineers from leading research institutes across India and Australia presented more than 100 papers outlining new materials and methods that will potentially revolutionise the treatment of diseases such as diabetes and cancer, traumatic injuries such as severe burns and wounds and age-related conditions such as failing joints and eyesight.


Tin Tacks

Balls aren’t balls - it’s just not cricket

They may all look the same but different cricket balls perform quite differently (Image by Juliet James)

It might come as a shock to lovers of the venerable game of cricket but not all cricket balls are created equal! That’s the startling conclusion reached by sports engineers at the University of Adelaide who recently analysed a range of balls. The study shows that not all cricket balls are consistently manufactured, causing quality issues and potentially having major implications for cricket matches.

The research, conducted by Associate Professor Franz Konstantin Fuss, studied five models of cricket balls manufactured in Australia, India and Pakistan. The study looked at the methods of construction, stiffness, viscous and elastic properties, and included changes to the balls' performance under compression and stress relaxation tests.

Dr Fuss found that the model manufactured in Australia - the Kookaburra Special Test - was the only cricket ball manufactured consistently. The other four models were found to have inconsistent "stiffness", which can play an important part in how a ball reacts when struck by the bat.

"In contrast to other sport balls, most cricket balls are still hand-made, which may affect the consistency of manufacturing and thus the properties of a ball," explains Dr Fuss.

A cross section of 2 cricket balls of the same brand & model, yet each has a different core. The one on the left is made of rubber (creating a soft ball), while the one on the right is made of cork (creating a hard ball). (Image by Franz Konstantin Fuss)

"Of the five we looked at, the Kookaburra was the only one manufactured consistently. The other four models revealed two different, yet externally indistinguishable constructions, which resulted in two clusters of different stiffness: soft and hard. In some cases, balls tested from the same model behaved like completely different balls.

"The consistency of cricket balls may have severe implications during a match, as softer balls are more 'forgiving' because they have a smaller impact force, a longer contact with the bat, larger deflections as well as larger contact areas during impact, which, in sum, allows a batsman to place the ball more precisely.

"If the batsman doesn't hit the ball perfectly, a softer ball can still go in the direction aimed at by maintaining its velocity; a hard ball might slide off the bat," he says.

Issues that may impact on the inconsistent performance of cricket balls include: different core sizes, different core materials (cork, rubber, or a mixture of the two), the tension of woollen twine inside the ball, and lacquer surface finish.

Dr Fuss says he believes a standard manufacturing process should be enforced to reduce the "lottery effect" of unseen inconsistencies. "A more stringent quality control and testing standard is required for cricket balls in order to avoid unequal chances for both teams," he says.

The results of this study were published in the international journal Sports Technology.


Sensational Materials

Plastic optical fibres with bubbles

Professor Graham Town

Optical fibres form the backbone of our information age. Now new research from Macquarie University may hold the key to more cost-effective, energy-efficient, durable and easy-to-use fibre optics. A team of fibre optics specialists from the University's Department of Electronic Engineering has been developing a new optic fibre prototype from a ‘bubbly’ polymer fibre.

Traditionally, optical fibres have been made using glass. But the equipment needed to process the glass at high temperatures makes it an expensive process.

While several groups around the world are investigating polymer as a potential future replacement, the Macquarie team is the only group to develop and test a system which uses bubbles within the polymer to guide and scatter light.

Professor Graham Town, Head of Electronic Engineering, said most researchers investigating microstructured polymer fibres were using stacked tubes or small holes drilled in a polymer preform, subsequently drawn down to micron-sized dimensions to guide light.

"Our technique involves heating the polymer to form bubbles - it's easier and cheaper than assembling tubes or drilling," says Professor Town.

"This could be a cheap, clean and relatively fast way of developing an optical network - and the production process uses significantly less energy than if we were working with glass."

Deliberately leaky fibres are ideal for transmitting data over short distances. Another advantage of the bubbly polymer is that it allows light out and in, which makes it potentially very useful for sensing applications.

"This type of polymer optical fibre may prove useful for distributed sensing of materials such as toxic or explosive gases," says Professor Town.

Putting real bite into biosynthetic materials

Jeremy Shaw

Researchers at The University of Western Australia are looking to develop new biosynthetic materials with real bite by studying the teeth structure of a shell fish.

Dr Jeremy Shaw is a member of the Biomineralisation Research Group at UWA's Centre for Microscopy, Characterisation and Analysis. He’s studying the tough teeth of a group of marine molluscs called chitons (pronounced kite-ons) to generate insights on how new biosynthetic materials might be created.

Chitons' teeth are toughened with iron biominerals - they are harder than steel - which allows them to graze on algae located within rock. Dr Shaw said chitons have one of the highest concentrations of iron in their bodies of any animal.

The species in which Dr Shaw is interested, Acanthopleura hirtosa, is a local West Australian species. It’s teeth are like iron-clad shovels, with even juvenile chitons of only 200 micrometres forming these iron impregnated teeth so they can feed early in life.

"We want to work out how they form the teeth and control the deposition of minerals because this will open a way for us to design tailor-made structures that could have applications as drug delivery agents, be used in high-tech bone grafting, or be developed as surface coatings in industry and medicine," says Dr Shaw.

"These structures will be stronger, more flexible and more resistant to fracture. Studying the chiton also has applications in understanding iron metabolism in human health and, further afield, in coastal ecology."

Dr Shaw is also investigating the potential of chitons to act as indicators of environmental contamination in the Swan River by studying the uptake of heavy metals within the teeth.

Unlike mammalian teeth, which are made primarily of calcium, 160 of a chiton's 1400 teeth are mineralised with iron. The teeth are located on a conveyor belt-like organ, the radula, with the oldest teeth at the ‘mouth' end, and with new teeth being constantly produced to replace those worn away whilst feeding. Over its lifetime, from five to 10 years, the chiton uses tens of thousands of teeth.

More info: jeremy.shaw@uwa.edu.au

Drugs and fantastic plastic

An international team of chemical engineers, chemists and pharmacists has made a major breakthrough that will significantly boost the accuracy and speed of drug testing.

Dr Michael Stockenhuber from the University of Newcastle collaborated with colleagues at the University of Cardiff in Wales to find for the first time how complex molecules and imprinted polymers (synthetic plastic materials) bind together.

The research will optimise the design of polymers so that they can detect and separate enzymes, proteins and drugs in complex mixtures such as blood.

"With this discovery, scientists testing for performance enhancing drugs will be able to coat an electric probe with a polymer and dip that probe into blood," explains Dr Stockenhuber.

"An electrical signal would quickly and accurately indicate the presence of the drug. Polymers used in current testing methods do not stick to the blood as efficiently and the results are not as precise or fast as they could be."

The second major benefit of this research is its ability to control the delivery of drugs to specific parts of the body.

"Controlling the direction of drugs in the human body would be particularly helpful with very potent drugs that fight cancer," says Dr Stockenhuber. "Mixing the polymer with a drug means that it can be directed straight to the unhealthy cells unlike current drugs, which kill all cells."