In this Issue
The strategic alliance between Future Materials and the Australian Nanotechnology Alliance encapsulates our belief in collaboration through open innovation principles. Aligning Future Materials’ foundations within research organisations and the ANA’s industry focus provides a catalyst for economic development utilising new and advanced materials
A group of artists and scientists are trying to make nanotechnology more accessible to the public with an exhibition and symposium designed to explore different aspects and challenge perceptions about the science. The opening of Art in the Age of Nanotechnology is co-hosted by the John Curtin Gallery and Curtin University’s Centre for Research in Art, Science and Technology. The accompanying exhibition will feature works by scientists and artists from France, the UK, the US and Austria, as well as local works. The exhibition runs from February 5 to April 30, 2010 at Curtin University’s Bank West Lecture Theatre. Admission free.
A tale of two reports
The end of February saw the release of two anticipated documents with implications for the nanotechnology and materials science sector in Australia.
The first was the Australian Academy of Science’s Nanotechnology in Australia – Trends, Applications and Collaborative Opportunities report. Based on qualitative and quantitative research during 2009, this report demonstrates that Australia is improving its position relative to other countries. However, the most significant issue identified was the need to increase the number of collaborations between different types of organisations, particularly collaborations between universities/institutes and industry/business, and between universities/institutes and government research organisations.
Accordingly, a key recommendation addresses the need for long term funding to be allocated by the Australian Government to an integrated nanotechnology network that simultaneously represents the needs of research and industry, and which is supported according to typical innovation development timeframes.
At Future Materials and the ANA we agree wholeheartedly. Indeed, we’ve been working towards this goal (especially over the last eighteen months).
As I have mentioned before in this editorial, while many government decision makers believe associations in the nano/materials space should be self sufficient, this is simply not feasible during the early stage of an association dedicated to enabling technology (and can’t be compared to industry specific associations and networks).
The second report released in February was the much awaited National Enabling Technologies Strategy (NETS) from the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research. This strategy partly replaces the activities of the Australian Office of Nanotechnology which ceased its activities mid 2009.
In financial terms NETS offers $38.2M over four years. $18.2M is earmarked for the National Measurement Institute; $10.6M to support policy and regulatory developments, and $9.4M for public awareness and community engagement. This money goes towards meeting six themes and objectives:
The ANA and Future Materials support the idea that project money is available for engagement activities, and we shall be submitting a number of proposals looking at innovative ways to encourage companies (regardless of their size) to look at utilising materials science in their production processes. I hope in future issues of this newsletter I can report on our successes.
The launch of NETS was in line with the hugely successful International Conference on Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICONN), thus providing a fertile ground for discussion on NETS. There was a general feeling that NETS has the opportunity to deliver one of the missing pieces to the ‘nanotechnology and materials science eco-system’, and deliver a number of significant projects rather than a large number of small projects that will not consolidate existing activities.
With the tremendous research and infrastructure structures that Governments at all levels have developed, it would be a terrible shame if we do not have resourcing to build the collaborative links so necessary to get domestic and international traction for getting research to commercialisation.
As the peak associations for nanotechnology and materials science in Australia, we hope that we will play an important role in linking our world-class researchers even more closely with industry, and thereby ensure productivity improvements through research and development.
Remember, I’m just an email or phone call away (07 33653829 or email@example.com.)
A (micro-fluidic) lab on a thread
A discovery by Monash University scientists could see the humble cotton thread emerge as a core material in low-cost 'lab-on-chip' devices capable of detecting diseases such as kidney failure and diabetes. In a world first, the researchers have used ordinary cotton thread and sewing needles to literally stitch together the uniquely low-cost, micro-fluidic analytical device – and the whole thing is the size of a postage stamp.
Micro-fluidic analytical devices, which have been produced from a range of materials over the last couple of decades, allow scientists to carry out chemical analyses of minute fluid samples, such as blood and urine. Production of conventional devices is complicated and expensive, requiring the incision of channels into chips made of silicon, glass, ceramic or metal.
The cotton thread device, created by Associate Professor Wei Shen and his research team from Monash University's Engineering Faculty, works by wicking fluid along the microscopic fibres of cotton thread sown into a polymer film. The thread's absorbent property ensures a defined flow for fluids being tested, so complex channels and barriers do not need to be etched into the chip.
Associate Professor Shen said the cotton-based micro-fluidic system was a novel concept and he hoped further research could lead to the provision of low-cost disease screening and detecting devices to developing countries.
"There are currently promising technologies in the area of paper-based micro-fluidic diagnostic devices, however the disadvantage is that it requires expensive equipment to fabricate the sensors," says Associate Professor Shen.
"The benefit of cotton thread-based devices is that they can be made using simpler equipment, such as sewing machines, so they could be produced in developing regions where high-cost diagnostics are not available and not feasible. We are in the very early days of this research, but we are very excited about where it could lead."
Associate Professor Shen, whose discovery is detailed in the latest issue of ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces, said the low-cost simplicity of the cotton-thread concept belied its power and potential to make a huge difference to healthcare in many parts of the world.
"Communities in the developing world are very vulnerable to diseases, so early detection and screening systems can save many lives,” says Shen. “However, many of the current commercial devices are not cheap enough for large-scale health-care projects involving disease detection, so an affordable alternative could make a huge difference.
"My research team is thrilled about this discovery. Our results demonstrate that thread is suitable for fabricating micro-fluidic diagnostic devices for monitoring human health, the environment, and food safety testing – especially for less-industrialised or remote communities. Further research could also lead to use in personal products such as baby nappies."
Know your materials
Dating the Bronze Age
ANSTO research has shown that an area of desert in north-western China was once a thriving Bronze Age manufacturing and agricultural site. The new findings may help shed light on the origins and development of the earliest applications of Bronze Age technology.
Bronze is a metal alloy consisting primarily of copper, usually with tin as the main additive, but sometimes with other elements such as phosphorus, manganese, aluminium or silicon. It is hard and brittle, and it was particularly significant in antiquity, giving its name to the Bronze Age.
The ANSTO research used lead and strontium isotopic analysis to identify and age ornaments, knives, rings, hemispherical objects and spearheads. The team discovered substantial areas of woody vegetation around the sites which is now dominated by sand dunes. The Bronze Age people of the Gansu area were farmers who planted cereals such as wheat and practiced animal husbandry. Horse and sheep bones are common. It is believed they may have abandoned the region when wood was exhausted and desertification took over.
Dating, using ANSTO's precision techniques, was used to identify the age of seeds, slag, copper ore and charcoal at two sites. The findings show the material is up to 3700 years old, but that smelting was still being carried out as recently as 1300 years ago. The research indicates bronze production may have begun as early as 2135 BC and that the modern mine location - Baishantang at Dingxin - was possibly the historical source of copper ore for manufacturing.
ANSTO's Professor John Dodson conducted the research in conjunction with scientists from the State Key Laboratory of Loess and Quaternary Geology in China.
"This research takes us a step closer to discovering the origins and development of bronze manufacturing in China," says Professor Dodson. "Further research will look at whether bronze technology was invented in several places around the world independently, or whether the technology was transferred from a single centre of origin.
"The aim of the study was to determine possible sources of ore and evidence of bronze production through analysis of artefacts (with copper and arsenic content) including analysing samples of slag and copper ore from two archaeological sites known as Ganggangwa and Huoshiliang in northwestern Gansu Province.”
The development of bronze has played a pivotal role in human history. It enabled people to create better metal objects than they previously could. Tools, weapons, armour, and various building materials, like decorative tiles, made of bronze were harder and more durable than their stone and copper predecessors. Initially bronze was made out of copper and arsenic. It was only later that tin was used. Tin bronze was superior over arsenic bronze in that the alloying process itself could more easily be controlled (as tin was available as a metal) and the alloy was stronger and easier to cast. Also, unlike arsenic, tin is not toxic.
Monitoring planes with optic fibres
The 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 Professor Tanya Monro at the University of Adelaide could make costly visual inspection in preventive aircraft maintenance a thing of the past.
Professor Monro is Director of University of Adelaide’s Centre of Expertise in Photonics. With colleagues, she is developing a sensor that uses unique optical fibres to pick up signs of corrosion in areas that are hard to access, such as joints.
“Once the aircraft is assembled, we can inspect these areas by sending a light signal through the fibre and detecting the changes in characteristics of the light,” she explains.
The research, which is being done in collaboration with the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, has led to the creation of a new class of optical fibre using soft glass. These optical fibres have minute holes and the fibres have thousands of potential applications in industry, health, agriculture and defence.
Examples include polymer optical fibres with lines of tiny holes to guide terahertz radiation—low frequency waves on the electromagnetic spectrum—which may find application in high-speed computing, security scanners and medical imaging.
Another novel function is real-time pathology tests for diseases such as HIV or bird flu—the fibres will be coated with antibodies to specific diseases and will fluoresce if the virus is present.
More info: firstname.lastname@example.org
Gold nanoparticles give faster diagnosis of meningococcal disease
A change in colour of a gold nanoparticle solution promises a faster diagnosis for the presence of the deadly disease meningococcal meningitis.
Meningococcal meningitis is a disease that progresses rapidly and can cause death if left untreated. Even if treated, it can still lead to severe complications. By diagnosing the disease early, it’s possible to prevent death or severe complications by giving patients the most appropriate treatment.
Research by RMIT University PhD graduate Sapna Thoduka, has developed the new diagnosis method and it uses a change in the colour of gold nanoparticle solution to indicate the presence of meningococcal DNA. The change in colour of the gold nanoparticle solution can be detected by the naked eye and the technique is being developed further for use in a point of care clinical setting, for the diagnosis of meningococcal meningitis.
“In the future, this will hopefully lead to more rapid detection of meningococcal disease and earlier treatment, which will ultimately result in fewer deaths and less severe complications,” says Dr Thoduka.
“I was interested in pursuing this research because of the severe nature of this disease and its rapid onset, as well as the multidisciplinary aspect of the research,” she explains. “My research involved applying knowledge about the unusual physical properties of gold nanoparticles and chemical interactions between DNA and the gold nanoparticles, to develop a method for detecting specific DNA sequences.”
The research was in collaboration with Nanotechnology Victoria.
“I was fortunate that Nanotechnology Victoria was interested in my research,” she says. “I also hope that the detection method I’ve developed can be expanded to be used in the diagnosis of other diseases in the future.”
More info: Dr Sapna Thoduka (0424 609 119)
ROXAN, you don’t have to put out the red light
Alocoa’s Technology Delivery Group (TDG) has created one of the most complex chemical processing robots in the world and it’s helping to optimise the performance of Alcoa’s alumina refineries worldwide - including the company’s WA operations in Kwinana, Pinjarra and Wagerup.
The new robotic system, known as ‘ROXAN’ which stands for Robotic Oxalate Analysis, has been custom built by Alcoa’s in-house scientists in collaboration with local industry. The system eliminates a number of potential occupational risks, including exposure to fumes and repetitive strain injuries.
The robot carries out the complex chemical preparation required for the analysis of oxalate. Oxalate is an extremely important impurity in the alumina refining process, and TDG carries out thousands of oxalate analyses every year. The oxalate analysis is used to optimise refinery performance.
“We simply could not afford to do the number of analyses we currently do if we didn’t have the new robot - it saves many millions of dollars,” says TDG Program Manager Dr Michael Nunes.
“The robot can work overnight and therefore has the ability to prepare 500 samples in any 24 hour period which significantly helps us to meet project needs. This is important because it frees up our scientists to be working on other new discoveries,” Ms Burke said.
“It took us about two years to design and build the robotic system and it provides very fast, precise and safe oxalate analysis at very low operating cost,” says Dr Nunes.
TDG based at the Kwinana Refinery has been developing innovative new equipment and processes for cleaner, more efficient production at Alcoa refineries since 1968.
More info: Sarah Tempest 0404 800 417
Brain surgery without stitches
A breakthrough technology to seal surgical wounds without stitches will be developed for use in delicate brain surgery thanks to research at the University of NSW (UNSW) and a major federal government grant.
A team led by Associate Professor John Foster of the UNSW Bio/Polymer Research Group (BRG) and Professor Marcus Stoodley, a neurosurgeon from Macquarie University, has been awarded a $213,000 development grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council.
Professor Foster's team is investigating potential applications of the world's first thin-film surgical adhesive that uses a unique combination of laser technology and biomaterials. Known as SurgiLux®, it is a natural, strong, flexible film that is compatible with living tissue and is based on the US Food and Drug Administration-approved chitosan, a biomaterial derived from crustacean shells. The film is simply placed over a wound or surgical incision and activated with a conventional infra-red clinical laser to effect closure.
Currently, wound closure in the cranium relies on sutures or ‘stitches’, which can lead to infections and other medical complications. The application of SurgiLux® technology will both close and seal these wounds quickly and easily, with significant health and economic benefits.
The BRG team is now working in collaboration with colleagues elsewhere to explore the potential for new biomedical materials and devices that may be more suitable not only for closing wounds but to effect other surgical joins and seals.
SurgiLux® also has been successfully applied in vivo to repair sciatic nerves in rats and has achieved results suggesting that it actually promotes healthy cell division and possibly even differentiation in some adult stem cells.
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