Future Materials and Australian Nanotechnology Alliance

In this Issue

  • Research News

    Using (nano) gold to measure mercury: A sensitive mercury sensor developed by RMIT’s Industrial Chemistry Group harnesses revolutionary nanotechnology. The sensor uses tiny flecks of gold that are nano-engineered to make them irresistible to mercury molecules.

  • Know your material

    Regrowing teeth: Dentist Nathan Cochrane has made a breakthrough – a way to make decayed tooth enamel re-grow, reversing tooth decay and avoiding the need for fillings.

  • Tin Tacks

    Big productivity gains in understanding juvenile timber: The Juvenile Wood Initiative (JWI) is a joint CSIRO/industry project aimed at better understanding juvenile wood from plantation pine trees in order reduce waste and improve productivity. The initiative cost around $A6m but is estimated it will help generate between $A400m and $A800m of additional income from Australia’s one million hectares of pine plantations.

  • Sensational Materials

    Gold nanotubes allow entry to the 5th Dimension of DVD storage: Futuristic discs with a storage capacity 2,000 times that of current DVDs could be just around the corner, thanks to new research from Swinburne University of Technology. For the first time researchers from the University’s Centre for Micro-Photonics have demonstrated how nanotechnology can enable the creation of ‘five dimensional’ discs with huge storage capacities.

  • Converting rock into metal via microfluidics: Using microscopic streams of liquid to separate valuable metals from dissolved rock could revolutionise mineral processing, according to researchers at the University of South Australia.

    Nano-composites to protect bridges: Researchers at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) believe a newly discovered nanocomposite could vastly simplify and enhance the maintenance of large-scale infrastructure such as bridges and aircraft.

Event Calendar


Future Materials
School of Chemistry & Molecular Biosciences (Bld 68)
University of Queensland
ST LUCIA QLD 4072
Australian Nanotechnology Alliance
PO Box 609
HAMILTON QLD 4007

Phone: 07 33653829 • Email: c.gerbo@uq.edu.au
www.future.org.auwww.nanotechnology.org.au


From the Director

The year that was, and the road ahead

Carla Gerbo

July marks my first anniversary with Future Materials so it’s appropriate to reflect on what’s been achieved and what lies in store. Our two most public activities have been the expansion of the Future Materials/ANA Executive Series program into more states and the resurrection of this monthly newsletter.

The Executive Series program is now running in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra with the Newcastle and Adelaide programs starting in July and August respectively (and Perth soon to follow). The series showcases materials innovation in industry and research, with speakers sharing experiences on the impressive outcomes achieved through collaboration. The events are usually held in a CBD location supplied by our sponsor Davies Collison Cave. Through this series we bring materials’ activities into the comfort zone of industry.

Through May we held three excellent Executive Series events starting in Sydney with Professor Gordon Wallace (Wollongong University) and Dr Phil Aitchison (Cap-XX) showcasing how super-capacitors are changing consumer and medical applications by providing better and faster outcomes. Keep your eye out for a future tour of Professor Wallace’s facility in Wollongong.

From Sydney we headed to Canberra where Professor Jim Williams (ANU), George Collins (CAST CRC) and Mark Hodge (Defence Materials Technology Centre, DMTC) were the inaugural speakers of our Canberra series. Professor Williams, a most deserving recipient of an AO in this years Queen’s honours list, was (as always) an exceptional communicator on the importance of materials science while showcasing collaborative successes achieved at ANU. George Collins and Mark Hodge, while only in their respective roles for less than 12 months, have achieved considerable success in collaboration with their research and industry partners to ensure Australia remains at world’s best practice.

Brisbane’s theme was CleanTech with the audience in discussion mode after hearing Professor Max Lu provide an overview of what his university, the University of Queensland, is doing in a broad range of energy and environmental innovations. Showcased at this event was Associate Professor Paul Meredith’s company XeroCoat which is looking at smart coating technology for improving solar cell performance. We also heard from an up-and-coming researcher Dr Korneel Rabaey about a bioelectrochemical system with applications for wastewater. Korneel is based at UQ’s Advanced Water Management Centre.

If you get a chance to attend one of our Executive Series events I would encourage you to come along. We create an environment that is truly conducive to networking and, I’m very proud to say, we have had a number of successes in getting new collaborations happening. In the next month we have scheduled events in Melbourne and Sydney so even if the topic isn’t directly related to you, come along and listen in.

While we were in Canberra, Future Materials spent time at the Australian Science Festival. In conjunction with CAST CRC and DMTC we undertook a number of simple experiments that showcased the properties of materials science to the thousands of school children who attended. It was a great opportunities to get Australia’s young minds thinking about science and hopefully considering materials as a career.

I mentioned at the start of this editorial that I’m proud of two achievements in my first year. The second is this newsletter and the brilliant work that our journalist/editor David Salt does. I’m impressed that after we email out the newsletter I receive a number of emails congratulating Future Materials or seeking more information on stories covered. It’s a great feeling that not only is the newsletter being read, but devoured. Thanks David; Future Materials and the ANA look forward to many more future editions.

Looking to the future there is much that needs to continue. While we have been vocal in getting the message out to industry that research facilities have the equipment for analysis and characterisation, we are always looking at new ways to engage. It’s a sure bet that much future engagement will be web based, and I encourage you to sign up your details on the Future Materials site. It doesn’t matter what the size of your company is; there could be opportunities where researchers can help you achieve better outcomes for your business.

Remember, I’m just an email or phone call away (07 33653829 or c.gerbo@uq.edu.au.)

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


Research News

Using (nano) gold to measure mercury

Prof Suresh Bhargava (centre) with researchers from the Industrial Chemistry Group. Dr Samuel Ippolito (left) and Ylias Sabri (right)

A sensitive mercury sensor developed by RMIT’s Industrial Chemistry Group harnesses revolutionary nanotechnology. The sensor uses tiny flecks of gold that are nano-engineered to make them irresistible to mercury molecules.

Mercury is one of the world’s most poisonous substances and it is found in emissions from coal-burning power generators and alumina refineries. In the effort to reduce mercury contamination in the environment, accurately measuring mercury has become a priority for these industries.

Professor Suresh Bhargava, Dean of the School of Applied Sciences at RMIT, said traditional mercury sensors used by industry could be unreliable.

“Industrial chimneys release a complex concoction of volatile organic compounds, ammonia and water vapour that can interfere with the monitoring systems of mercury sensors,” Professor Bhargava said.

“We wanted a sensor that would be robust enough to cope with that kind of industrial environment but also sensitive enough to give precise readings of the amount of mercury vapour in these emissions.”

Gold Surface before modification (magnified 200,000 times)

The mercury sensor was developed with the use of patented electrochemical processes that enabled the RMIT researchers to alter the surface of the gold, forming hundreds of tiny nano-spikes, each one about 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

These nano-engineered surfaces are then used with existing technologies such as Quartz Crystal Microbalances – a finely tuned set of scales that measure weight down to molecular levels – to determine the levels of mercury in the atmosphere.

“We’ve known since ancient times that gold attracts mercury, and vice versa, but a regular gold surface doesn’t absorb much vapour and any measurements it makes are inconsistent,” Professor Bhargava said.

“Our nano-engineered gold surfaces are 180 per cent more sensitive than non-modified surfaces.

After modification by RMIT researchers, the surface of the gold is covered in nano-spikes.

“They’re finely targeted, so they’re unaffected by the usual gases found in effluent gas streams.

“And the sensors we’ve created using those nano-engineered surfaces have worked successfully at a range of extreme temperatures over many months, just as they’ll need to in an industrial location.”

Funded through an Australian Research Council Linkage grant, the project was supported by leading industry partners, who have now engaged RMIT to develop a mercury sensing device for a pilot plant trial at one of their Australian refineries.

The Industrial Chemistry Group’s multi-disciplinary team is one of Australia’s leading research units working on solutions for the monitoring and clean-up of gas and liquid mercury.

The group will extend its work on mercury removal technology through an international collaboration with the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology at Hyderabad, focusing on putting the nano-engineered gold surfaces to use in a system that can absorb and remove mercury vapour from the air.


Know your materials

Regrowing teeth

(From the left) Prof Eric Reynolds, Senator Kim Carr and Dr Nathan Cochrane with his Early Career Scientists Award

Third generation dentist Nathan Cochrane has made a breakthrough that would have amazed his great grandfather’ – a way to make decayed tooth enamel re-grow, reversing tooth decay and avoiding the need for fillings.

The treatment works while you sleep by delivering to the affected tooth a powerful solution of calcium, fluoride and phosphate, the building blocks of tooth enamel. The tooth absorbs the solution from a small tray fitted into the mouth overnight.

“The localised application of the mineral treatment re-grows the crystals of the tooth, repairing damaged tooth enamel,” said Dr Cochrane, of the Cooperative Research Centre for Oral Health Science. He outlined the system at the Pathfinders: the Innovators Conference in Canberra last month.

“Working as a dentist I see how teeth with fillings in them often weaken” he said. “I wanted to find out whether a chemical process could be used to replace the minerals lost from teeth through decay.”

Working with world renowned tooth remineralisation expert, Professor Eric Reynolds, and colleagues at the CRC, Dr Cochrane discovered that a substance isolated from cow’s milk could be used to stabilise the calcium, phosphate and fluoride ions, allowing them to diffuse into tooth enamel and embed themselves in the crystal lattice.

To prevent saliva from diluting the mineral solution, he developed a small tray that fits over the tooth and focuses the solution on it. The device has been patented.

“Dentists who have patients showing signs of early decay will be able to prescribe the nightly use of the remineralisation treatment for a given period, potentially avoiding treatments such as fillings and extractions,” said Dr Cochrane.

Dr Cochrane’s great-grandfather, an engineer who later trained as a dentist, would have been astounded by the treatment pioneered by the dentist-turned-scientist.

And Dr Cochrane’s research has now won him the national Early Career Scientists Award - an award open to scientists working in Cooperative Research Centres who are completing or have completed their PhDs within the last 12 months.

Dr Cochrane was one of eight early career scientists invited to present their research results at the Pathfinders Conference, organised by the Cooperative Research Centres Association. The CRCA represents Australia’s 50 CRCs operating under a federal government program to drive public/private sector research.

More info: Dr Nathan Cochrane, CRC for Oral Health Science Ph 0401 678 143


Tin Tacks

Big productivity gains in understanding juvenile timber

CSIRO researchers sample timber cores from radiata pine. (Photo by CSIRO)

The Juvenile Wood Initiative (JWI) is a joint CSIRO/industry project aimed at better understanding juvenile wood from plantation pine trees in order reduce waste and improve productivity. The Initiative is generating important insights on the interplay between genetics and environment in controlling juvenile wood quality and the transition from weak juvenile wood to the stronger mature wood.

“Dissecting the genetic causes of juvenile wood formation is essential to the forestry industry’s ability to design new ways to reduce or improve juvenile wood in radiata, slash and Caribbean pines,” says project leader, CSIRO Plant Industry’s Dr Harry Wu.

“Pines had been bred for two generations focusing mainly on growth and tree form. The improved growth-rate has reduced rotation age (the time required for trees reaching harvest size) for Australia’s radiata pine plantations from about 40-45 years to 27-30 years with an increase of productivity between 30 and 40 per cent.

“However, the problem with shorter rotations is that a higher proportion of juvenile wood is produced. Compared with mature wood, juvenile wood is not strong enough for structural products such as home building.”

The JWI project, which began in 2003, has tackled this critical problem by integrating wood science, quantitative genetics, molecular biology, and bioinformatics.

"The increase in juvenile wood in pines bred for faster growth has caused concern in many countries," Dr Wu says. "A result of this is the decision by ArborGen – a joint venture of three international companies– to become a partner in the initiative."

Australian partners in the project were: the Southern Tree Breeding Association (STBA) and its members, which manage the national breeding program for radiate pine; Forest Plantation Queensland, which manages breeding programs for slash and Caribbean pines; and Forest and Wood Products Australia (FWPA).

The project has generated several significant new challenges for further research. For example, during juvenile wood formation there are complex relationships between growth and wood-quality depending on site conditions and management decisions that can generate undesirable results. New strategies are under development to address these technical challenges in progressing pine breeding.

“Tree breeders may need to balance their desire for rapid production and greater quantities of wood with their need to produce strong wood to meet modern demands,” Dr Wu says.

The JWI cost around $A6m but is estimated it will help generate between $A400m and $A800m of additional income from Australia’s one million hectares of pine plantations. Timber from these plantations is used in building and construction industries.

More info: Dr Harry Wu (Harry.Wu@csiro.au).


Sensational Materials

Gold nanotubes allow entry to the 5th Dimension of DVD storage

Futuristic discs with a storage capacity 2,000 times that of current DVDs could be just around the corner, thanks to new research from Swinburne University of Technology. For the first time researchers from the University’s Centre for Micro-Photonics have demonstrated how nanotechnology can enable the creation of ‘five dimensional’ discs with huge storage capacities.

The research, carried out by Mr Peter Zijlstra, Dr James Chon and Professor Min Gu was published last month in the scientific journal Nature.

The Nature article describes how the researchers were able to use nanoscopic particles to exponentially increase the amount of information contained on a single disc.

“We were able to show how nanostructured material can be incorporated onto a disc in order to increase data capacity, without increasing the physical size of the disc,” Gu said.

Discs currently have three spatial dimensions, but using nanoparticles the Swinburne researchers were able to introduce a spectral – or colour – dimension as well as a polarisation dimension.

“These extra dimensions are the key to creating ultra-high capacity discs,” Gu said.

To create the ‘colour dimension’ the researchers inserted gold nanorods onto a disc’s surface. Because nanoparticles react to light according to their shape, this allowed the researchers to record information in a range of different colour wavelengths on the same physical disc location. This is a major improvement on current DVDs that are recorded in a single colour wavelength using a laser.

The researchers were also able to introduce an extra dimension onto the disc using polarisation. When they projected light waves onto the disc, the direction of the electric field contained within them aligned with the gold nanorods. This allowed the researchers to record different layers of information at different angles.

“The polarisation can be rotated 360 degrees,” Chon said. “So, for example, we were able to record at zero degree polarisation. Then on top of that, we were able to record another layer of information at 90 degrees polarisation, without them interfering with each other.”

Some issues, such as the speed at which the discs can be written on, are yet to be resolved. However the researchers are confident the discs will be commercially available within 5 – 10 years.

The discs are likely to have immediate applications in a range of fields. They would be valuable for storing extremely large medical files such as MRIs and could also provide a boon in the financial, military and security arenas.

The researchers’ ground breaking achievements would not have been possible without the long time support of the Australian Research Council.

Converting rock into metal via microfluidics

Craig Priest

Using microscopic streams of liquid to separate valuable metals from dissolved rock could revolutionise mineral processing, according to researchers at the University of South Australia.

The researchers already have shown the technique can be used to extract copper quickly and efficiently. They believe the process can be scaled up to industrial levels and used for recovering many other minerals such as nickel, uranium, gold and platinum.

The technique, known as microfluidics is already used commercially to separate and purify biological samples of proteins, DNA and blood. Applying it to mineral processing is a classic case of Australian ingenuity, says Craig Priest, a postdoctoral researcher in microfluidics, presenting his work in public at Fresh Science at Melbourne Museum earlier this month.

“Microfluidics is the flow of liquids along microscopic channels – some finer than a human hair – to rapidly mix, react, analyse and separate material at high efficiencies and with excellent control,” he says. “Converting rocks into metal requires many steps and precise control of physical and chemical conditions. Microfluidic streams give us this control and allow multiple industrial steps to be carried out in a single, compact device.”

Priest believes that in the next few decades the impact of microfluidics on mineral processing plants could be similar to that of microelectronics on information processing. The technology could help mineral processing plants to become more compact, highly efficient, and consume less resources such as water and power.

“Building microfluidic technologies into mineral processing plants is not without its scientific and engineering challenges, but these should not be insurmountable in an age where mineral resources are increasingly scarce and global responsibilities are recognized,” says Priest.

The microfluidics research is being undertaken at the University of South Australia’s Ian Wark Research Institute (the WARK), as part of a national effort under the direction of John Ralston to address emerging challenges facing the resource sector, which is one of Australia’s most significant industries, exporting $100 billion a year and employing 142,000 people.

This work is being carried out in collaboration with The University of Tokyo, Japan, and is supported by the Australian Research Council (ARC) Special Research Centre Scheme, ARC Linkage and Linkage International Schemes, AMIRA International, and the State Governments of South Australia and Victoria.

Craig Priest is one of 15 early-career scientists presenting their research to the public for the first time thanks to Fresh Science, a national program sponsored by the Federal Government.

More info: Craig.Priest@unisa.edu.au

Nano-composites to protect bridges

Dr Yan admiring the nanocomposite material that could help researchers monitor the safety of large-scale infrastructure

Researchers at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) believe a newly discovered nanocomposite could vastly simplify and enhance the maintenance of large-scale infrastructure such as bridges and aircraft.

Dr Cheng Yan, senior lecturer at the QUT School of Engineering Systems, said a small piece of the polymer nanocomposite with carbon nanotube fillers could be placed on various surfaces to assist as an early warning system.

"It looks like a piece of thin black sheeting but it can act as a sensor to monitor the strength of infrastructure such as bridges, aircraft, and ships," Dr Yan said.

"Large infrastructure like these must be monitored constantly for cracks, metal fatigue and warping over time so that repairs can be carried out before the damage becomes critical."

Dr Yan said the new nanocomposite sensor was light, strong, easy and cheap to install and more adoptable than many current systems.

"This new material works by monitoring small changes in strain when it is applied to crucial points on a structure such as a bridge or aircraft," he said.

"Maintenance officers can monitor changes in conductivity and can work out the strain applied to the sensor and by catching any deterioration early, save money on maintenance costs.

"It can be also fabricated as a large sensor network attached to the surface of a structure, similar to the neural system in the human body, applying to the detection of car crash and structural health monitoring for various structures."

Dr Yan is one of a team of QUT new material engineers exploring the use of nanotechnology in the creation of new materials for all industries. His recent research also includes making stronger and tougher polymers using various nano-sized fillers.

"We know that substances in their nano form change their properties. As yet we don’t fully understand why this is and we are also trying to discover uses for the new properties of various materials," he said.

QUT has joined with the four other universities in the Australian Technology Network (ATN), to establish the ATN-ISTA NanoNetwork with the International Strategic Technology Alliance (ISTA) of universities in China, which has members in more than 20 universities. The agreement allows QUT nano researchers and those from other ATN universities to partner with Chinese universities in the field of nanotechnology.


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