You know the drill: new tech saves time and money

CSIRO’s Dr Yulia Uvarova in the middle of proof-of-concept study for Lab-at-Rig®

Dr Yulia Uvarova in the middle of our proof-of-concept study for Lab-at-Rig®

Like going to the dentist, mineral exploration and discovery can involve a lot of drilling and a fair amount of (financial) pain. And much like your friendly neighbourhood dentist, the longer it takes to understand what’s happening, the more it costs.

When it comes to getting information about the minerals and chemistry of a single drill hole, the process can take up to three months. This is because a typical setup involves: setting up the drill site, drilling, extracting rock cores, sampling and logging those cores and sending the samples to a laboratory (which is often a considerable distance from the exploration site) for analysis. Then there is the process of entering and analysing the data, popping the findings into a database and getting it back to the company, so they can make a decision – it’s more complex than a root canal and much more expensive.

To speed up the process of understanding the mineralogy and geochemistry of drill hole cuttings we developed a portable lab, one that can be fitted to the exploration drill rig and analyse in real-time.

Instead of taking three months this process now takes about one hour – that’s more than 2000 times quicker than the current arrangement.

We’ve called this technology Lab-at-Rig®. Developed in partnership with Imdex and Olympus Scientific Solutions Americas, this onsite lab can be fitted to a diamond drill rig and a solid recovery unit to drastically speed-up the process of analysing an exploration site.

Lab-at-Rig® technology arose out of an idea to analyse on-site the solid matter in fluids (shown here) that come to the surface during drilling.

Lab-at-Rig® technology arose out of an idea to analyse the solid matter in fluids (shown here) that come to the surface during drilling.

The lab includes a sample preparation unit that collects solids from drill cuttings and dries them; X-ray fluorescence and X-ray diffraction sensors to provide chemistry and mineralogy of the sample respectively; and the capability to upload that data to the cloud for analysis, in less time than it takes to watch a movie.

The project came about back in 2011, when a group of researchers were watching a diamond drilling operation near Adelaide and asked a simple question: ‘what if we could analyse the cuttings separated from that fluid in real time?’ We now know the answer: we can save a lot of time and money.

And now, after two years of research and development we’ve just announced that we will be commercialising Lab-at-Rig® and bringing this technology to the world, with the help of our commercialisation partner REFLEX.

With the prototype becoming a reality, perhaps we should turn our attention to making dentist visits quicker.

The Lab-at-Rig prototype was developed under the Deep Exploration Technologies Cooperative Research Centre (DET CRC).

CSIRO, Imdex, Olympus, University of Adelaide and Curtin University are now working on the $11m collaborative DET CRC Lab-at-Rig Futures Project, which will build the next generation system to cover: new sensor technologies, improved data analysis and processing for decision making, and development of the system for new applications and drilling platforms.

Find out more about our minerals exploration work.

Blame it on mum and dad: how genes influence what we eat

Tasters’ often dislike bitter green vegetables, such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

Tasters’ often dislike bitter green vegetables, such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts. Kevin O’Mara/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Nicholas Archer, CSIRO

Hate the taste of Brussels sprouts? Do you find coriander disgusting or perceive honey as too sweet? Your genes may be to blame.

Everybody’s food preferences vary and are shaped by their unique combination of three interacting factors: the environment (your health, diet and cultural influences); prior experience; and genes, which alter your sensory perception of foods.

The food we eat is sensed by specialised receptors located in the tongue and nose. The receptors work like a lock and are highly specific in the nutrients or aromas (the keys) they detect. Sweet receptors, for instance, detect only sweet molecules and will not detect bitterness.

When you eat, your brain combines the signals from these specialised taste (in the mouth) and olfactory (aroma in the nose) receptors to form a flavour. Flavour is further influenced by other perceived qualities, such as the burn of chilli, the cooling of mint, or the thickness of yogurt.

Our unique sensory worlds

Humans have about 35 receptors to detect sweet, salty, bitter, sour, umami and fat tastes. They have around 400 receptors to detect aroma. The receptor proteins are produced from instructions encoded in our DNA and there is significant variation in the DNA code between individuals.

In 2004, American researchers identified that olfactory receptors were located in mutational hotspots. These regions have higher than normal genetic variation. Any of these genetic variants may change the shape of the receptor (the lock) and result in a difference in perception of taste or aroma between people.

Chocoholic? Foodie Baker/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Another American study shows that any two individuals will have genetic differences that translate to differences in 30% to 40% of their aroma receptors. This suggests we all vary in our flavour perception for foods and that we all live in our own unique sensory world.

How much sugar do you add to your tea?

Our ability to perceive sweetness varies a lot and is partly controlled by our genes. A recent twin study found genetics accounts for about a third of the variation in sweet taste perception of sugar and low-calorie sweeteners. Researchers have identified specific gene variants in the receptors that detect sweetness: TAS1R2 and TAS1R3.

There is also high variation in the detection of bitterness. However, the story is more complicated than sweet taste, as we have 25 receptors that detect different bitter molecules. Bitter receptors evolved to detect and stop us from eating harmful toxins. That’s why bitterness is not widely liked.

One of these bitter taste receptors (TAS2R38) controls the ability to detect a bitter compound called PROP (propylthiouracil). Based on the ability to detect PROP, people can be split into two groups: “tasters” or “non-tasters”. Tasters often dislike bitter green vegetables, such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

PROP status has also been used as a marker of food preferences, with non-tasters shown to eat more fat and better tolerate chilli.

Genetics has also been linked to whole foods, such as coriander preference, coffee liking and many others. But genes have only a small influence on preference for these foods due to their sensory complexity and also the contribution of your environment and prior experiences.

Towards personalisation

Understanding the influence of genes on taste perception offers a way to personalise products tailored specifically to your needs. This could mean tailoring a diet to a person’s genetics to help them lose weight. Indeed, genetic testing companies already offer dietary advice based on your individual genes.

Foods could one day be formulated for genetically determined preferences.

Foods could one day be formulated for genetically determined preferences. Indiana Stan/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Foods could one day be formulated for genetically determined preferences.
Indiana Stan/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Personalised food products to suit your own genetic dietary preferences are another example. Food products based on personal tastes are already in supermarkets. Salsa can be bought in mild, medium and hot. What if you could purchase food products specifically formulated for your own genetically determined sensory preferences?

Personalisation can also apply at the population level. Food manufacturers could tailor their food products to different populations based on an understanding of how common a genetic variant is in each population.

We are just beginning to understand how genes alter our sense of taste and smell, and how this may affect food preferences. Further research is needed to understand how multiple genes may combine to influence sensory perception and dietary intake. This is no easy feat, as it will require studies with extremely large numbers of people.

Another important research area will be to understand if our taste genes can be modified. Imagine if you could alter your food preferences to consume healthier foods.

The Conversation

Nicholas Archer, Research Scientist, Sensory, Flavour and Consumer Sciences, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Water on Mars: five things you need to know

The dark, narrow streaks flowing downhill on Mars at sites such as this portion of Horowitz Crater are inferred to be formed by seasonal flow of water on modern-day Mars. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

The dark, narrow streaks flowing downhill on Mars at sites such as this portion of Horowitz Crater are inferred to be formed by seasonal flow of water on modern-day Mars. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

In the small hours of this morning NASA scientists announced that its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has found evidence of flowing water on the red planet. In an official statement, the US Space Agency said:

New findings from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) provide the strongest evidence yet that liquid water flows intermittently on present-day Mars… Our quest on Mars has been to ‘follow the water,’ in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we’ve long suspected.

So what does it all mean? We caught up with our very own Dr Paulo de Souza, a collaborating scientist on NASA’s earlier Exploration Rover mission, which landed two large robots on the surface of Mars.

Here are five things you should know about today’s discovery.

There is water on Mars

Erm, didn’t you already tell us that? Well yes, but as Dr de Souza explains, there’s an important distinction to be made.

“The story of water on Mars started when the composition of a meteorite found in 1984 in Antarctica revealed two things: large traces of carbonates, which need water to form, and a composition very similar to rock samples taken from Mars back in the seventies. There was no doubt that it came from Mars,” he said. Later a number of structures that resembled fossilised bacteria were found in this meteorite, but this claim is still controversial.

Fast forward to March this year, NASA found evidence that about one fifth of the planet’s surface was once covered by an ocean. Curiosity rover also found evidence of water vapour in the atmosphere. But this discovery does not close the water cycle.

“So the notion of Mars having once had water is nothing new, but this is different- this time scientists have actually found deposits of water.”

We’re not alone in the Universe…probably not anyway

Take a moment to let that sink in. Life may exist in another part of our solar system, right now.

“There are three key elements for life: nutrients, energy and water. Mars is rich in nutrients, gets its energy from the sun and now it has water. If you have water, you have life,” said Dr de Souza.

But we’re probably not talking about little green men.

“Large, complex forms of life as we know it need large water deposits sustained for long periods of time to grow and evolve. Life on Mars, if exists, is more likely to be in the form of minute microbes.”

You could be living there one day

You’ve probably heard that old chestnut before. Just last month Buzz Aldrin announced he was combining with scientists to develop a ‘masterplan’ to colonise Mars by 2039, the 70th anniversary of the moon landing.

But the discovery of water on Mars is a potential game changer.

“Having water available makes the prospect of Mars sustaining human life all the more real,” said Dr de Souza.

But there are still major challenges to overcome.

“Mars is a very hostile environment. Its atmosphere is very thin and has only a tiny concentration of oxygen making it impossible to walk in the open air. It’s exposed to high levels of solar radiation, extreme temperatures and severe sandstorms with winds up to 400km/h,” Dr de Souza said.

And the water NASA has found is very salty.

“Imagine if you had a little bit of salt on a plate and threw some water on it, the water would then be salty. The surface of Mars is like a salty plate.”

You’re probably not as special as you thought you were this time yesterday

What is it with humans and our insatiable desire to diminish our own importance?

“500 years ago we thought we were at the centre of the Universe, with everything revolving around us,” said Dr de Souza. “Then scientists demonstrated that the earth revolved around the sun, and all of a sudden there was something more important than our planet.”

About 300 years later scientists discovered that our sun was just another star. And how many stars are there in the Universe?

“Go down to Bondi Beach, take a handful of sand and try to count how many grains there are. Then imagine trying to count the grains in a truck full of sand. Can you now try to imagine how many grains of sand there are on Bondi Beach? There are more stars in the Universe than grains of sand on planet earth.”

But still we desperately clung to our sense of importance, safe in the knowledge that we lived in the only solar system in the Universe…..until the discovery of planet HD 114762 b was discovered in 1989, followed by numerous other sun orbiting planets.

Now we’re facing the very real possibility of finding life outside of our planet. Tough time to be a human.

This is just the beginning

The discovery of water on Mars will help to shape future missions to the red planet.

“Perhaps the greatest thing about this discovery is that it provides a cornerstone for future missions, as we now know what to look for,” Dr de Souza said.

“We are still in the very early stages of space exploration; just learning to go out of our cave and start to explore. It’s a very exciting time to be a scientist.”

It's time to science the sh!t out of Mars.

Our Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex has supported NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, relaying commands and receiving images and data from the orbiting spacecraft high above the red planet over the past decade. Want to know more about our space and astronomy work? Take a look at some of our cosmic highlights from earlier this year.

Rich and poor: which areas of Australia are most unequal?

David A. Fleming, CSIRO and Tom Measham, CSIRO

Income inequality is undoubtedly one of the most controversial economic issues of modern societies, with many countries facing incredible differences between those who make more and those who make less. But what is happening across Australian regions?

Although researchers such as Peter Whiteford and Nicholas Biddle have investigated the issue in Australia, there are no official records on income inequality measured consistently across regions of the country – even at national level income inequality measures are rarely available in international comparisons (see for instance, World Bank and OECD data.

This lack of evidence is a clear reflection that income inequality is less conflicted in Australia compared to other countries, as Australia is characterised as having very low rates of poverty and economic segregation, compared to other societies, and a culture of “a fair go”.

However, regardless of the apparent “economic equality” in our society, income inequality is still an important issue to track and analyse. In order to fill the gap on income inequality measures across the country, we have developed a method to approximate Gini coefficients for different Australian regions, including states and local councils.

What we found

At state level, based on our estimates in 2011, the most unequal jurisdiction was NSW (0.42), followed by the Northern Territory (0.40), while the least unequal was Tasmania (0.38), meaning that the gap between the rich and the poor was bigger in NSW than in Tasmania.

However, income distribution varies over time, with the ACT showing the biggest change in income inequality, where the Gini coefficient increased from 0.35 in 2001 to 0.39 in 2011.

At sub-state level, within metropolitan areas, we found that the local councils of Burwood, Strathfield, Kogarah and Sydney (all from the Sydney Metropolitan area) had the highest income inequality in the country in 2011, while the local councils of Melton (in Melbourne), Light (in Brisbane), Mallala (in Perth) and Palmerstone (in Darwin) had the lowest income inequality.


Click the image for an interactive map highlighting the Gini coefficient across the country.

In terms of trends in cities, interestingly Perth captured both extremes: while the suburbs of Cottesloe and Subiaco is where income inequality has increased the most, the local council of Perth had the lowest increase in inequality across Australian cities.

Using the Gini co-efficient

The Gini is one of the most used indicators for income inequality across the world for its simplicity: a Gini of 0 means that the total income of the region is distributed evenly across all persons of the region, while a Gini of 1 means all income captured by just one person. According to the OECD, in 2012 Australia had a Gini of 0.326, while the US had a Gini of 0.390.

Thus, in order to provide more insights about the effects of the mining boom of the recent decade across Australian regions, we have constructed Gini coefficients for family income reported in the national censuses of 2001 and 2011, across all regions of the country (see our published paper here.

Although our measures are not perfect and are subject to some assumptions, including the assumption that 30% of families in the richest income bracket capture 70% of the income in that segment (see the assumptions used and estimation steps here), they do provide a good sign of how income inequality varies across the country and how it has been changing over time.

All Gini coefficients across regions are available here.

Policy implications

These income inequality data raise several questions. Are the reasons for income inequality different around the country? Does income inequality affect other factors such as health, as evidenced in the US?

What levels of income inequality are acceptable across Australian regions? And what actions are required to address this? These are the questions policy makers should now tackle.

The ConversationDavid A. Fleming, Researcher, CSIRO and Tom Measham, Senior Research Scientist, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Art from every angle: the GLAM 3D transformation

By Minky Faber

Have you ever been to a gallery or museum exhibition where only the front of a sculpture or ornament is visible in the display cabinet? Perhaps there is a dawdling family of six, gawking at the intricacies of the 2nd Century Roman bust. Maybe it’s a gaggle of slow moving art students analysing every crevice of a Greek vase.

Regardless, it can be a frustrating experience for the curious inquisitor. Firstly, getting a close-up vantage point amongst the crowd for an uninterrupted view, then that awkward moment when you peer in on such an angle that your head hits the glass.

What if you could explore the item with your fingertips from every angle in life-size scale? Wouldn’t it be something to view the inside of a crown of jewels or an extinct specimen from every point of view?

Hands on experience with the Myth and Magic exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia

Hands on experience with the Myth and Magic exhibition. Credit: National Gallery of Australia

We’ve joined forces with the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) to create a new way for visitors to interact with the artefacts currently on show in the Myth + Magic: Art of the Sepik River, Papua New Guinea exhibition; showcasing the intricate sculptural art of the Sepik River region.

The art of the region uses many different materials including: timber, pig tusks, feathers, shells, bone, hair, teeth, fur, and clay. It is often because of the age, fragility, and pricelessness of these materials that we are required to stand behind red rope and glass to appreciate and explore the relics.

To overcome this issue our Data61 research team, in collaboration with the National Biological Research Collections and the Atlas of Living Australia, developed a new 3D content deployment platform using open web standards to transform the physical exhibits into fully interactive digital sculptures.

Visitors can interact with the touch screen and view the artwork close-up, from the bottom or the back, and learn more about the intricate details and the culturally significant features: like symbols and materials.

Of course the digital version won’t replace seeing the real thing, but the additional information will complement and enhance the experience.

This technology isn’t entirely new. We have used 3D scanning capabilities to great affect with InsectScan, a way for researchers to easily capture digital 3D models of tiny insect specimens in full colour and high-definition. Building on this existing technology for the NGA’s Myth + Magic: Art of the Sepik River, Papua New Guinea exhibit is one way we are improving and tailoring our work for other organisations and institutions.

3D modelling allows visitors to check out all the nooks and cranny's of these Papua New Guinean artefacts.

3D modelling allows visitors to check out all the nooks and crannies of these Papua New Guinean artefacts. Credit: National Gallery of Australia

The NGA is just the most recent example of our work with the Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (GLAM) sector, and we have been working with a number of organisations to embrace digital innovation.

Science is often the inspiration for art, from van Gogh’s Starry Night to the physiological sketches of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, so we’re excited to continue that tradition and build on this symbiosis of disciplines and extend the understanding of art in microscopic detail through advances in digitisation technology.

So, if you’re in Canberra before 1 November, make sure you head down to the NGA to check out the Myth + Magic: Art of the Sepik River, Papua New Guinea exhibition and let us know what you think of the real and digital artworks in the comments below.

Where are the missing gravitational waves?

A simulation of black holes merging. © Michael Koppitz

A simulation of black holes merging. © Michael Koppitz

Paul Lasky, Monash University and Ryan Shannon, CSIRO

Neutron stars – the dead stellar remnants of old, burned-out stars – are some of the most extreme objects in the universe. They weigh as much as the entire Sun, but are small enough to fit into Sydney’s CBD, and they rotate up to 700 times every second. Imagine that: a whole star rotating faster than the fastest kitchen blender.

Astronomers know of a few thousand neutron stars, but one in particular is a stand-out. As part of the Parkes Pulsar Timing Array, we have been observing pulsar J1909-3744 with the CSIRO’s Parkes Radio Telescope for 11 years.

During this time, we have accounted for every single one of the neutron star’s 116 billion rotations (115,836,854,515, to be precise). We know the rotational period of this star to 15 decimal places, making it truly one of the most accurate clocks in the universe.

But, as we show in a paper published today in the journal Science, it was not supposed to be this way. Gravitational waves from all of the black holes in the universe were supposed to ruin the timing precision of this pulsar. But they have not.

We used the Parkes Telescope to closely monitor a pulsar for signs of passing gravitational waves. CSIRO, Author provided

Colossal collisions

Gravitational waves stretch and squeeze space, causing the distance between us and the neutron star to change. The gravitational waves we were looking for should have altered that distance by about ten metres, a tiny fraction given that this neutron star is about 3.6 x 1019 metres from Earth (that’s 3.6 with 19 zeros following)! But this should have been enough to show up in our measurements.

Yet the fact that our measurements are so accurate tells us that something is wrong with the theory. This doesn’t mean that gravitational waves don’t exist. There are other facets of our understanding of the universe that might be off track.

Whatever the resolution to this quandary, it is sure to change the way we understand the most massive black holes in the universe.

The centre of our galaxy harbours a black hole that weighs more than four million times the mass of our sun. But this is a lightweight; other galaxies contain black holes weighing more than 17 billion times the mass of our Sun.

And we have good reason to believe that most, if not all, galaxies contain supermassive black holes in their cores. We also know that galaxies throughout the universe grow by merging with one another.

Following the merger of any two galaxies, the two black holes from the parent galaxies sink to the centre of the daughter galaxy, forming a supermassive black hole binary pair. At some point, the subsequent evolution of the binary pair becomes dominated by the emission of gravitational waves.

Merging galaxies caught in the act by the Hubble Space Telescope. Wikimedia

Ripples in spacetime

Gravitational waves are tiny ripples in the fabric of spacetime, and are a direct consequence of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. We celebrate its 100th birthday in November this year.

When any two black holes are spiralling around one another, they ought to emit gravitational waves. These carry energy away from the system, causing the two black holes to move closer together.

The sum of all the binary supermassive black holes in the universe should produce a background of gravitational waves (similar to the cosmic microwave background). It is this background that was expected to ruin our precision timing of PSR J1909-3744.

Astrophysicists have made a number of predictions about the strength of the background. These predictions incorporate state-of-the-art measurements of galaxy formation and evolution, and the most sophisticated theoretical models of how the universe evolves following the Big Bang.

Why no gravitational waves?

But we want to be very clear that our lack of a detection does not imply that Einstein’s theory of relativity is wrong, nor does it imply that gravitational waves don’t exist. While we don’t know the real solution, we have a number of ideas.

Perhaps not every galaxy in the universe contains a supermassive black hole. Reducing the fraction of galaxies that host supermassive black holes in the models reduces the predicted amplitude of the gravitational wave background, potentially making it undetectable by our observations.

Perhaps we do not understand the relationship between the mass of the host galaxy and the mass of the black hole. We use empirical relationships between galaxy and black hole masses to determine the latter. While we believe these are robust in the local universe, the black hole mergers we are most sensitive to occur billions of light years from us, where our understanding of these empirical relations is far from complete.

Perhaps one of our assumptions about the process that drives the mergers is too simplistic. For example, if the centres of galaxies contain significant amounts of gas, it can act like an extra friction force, causing black holes to merge with one another quicker than expected. This would also cause a smaller-than-expected amplitude of the gravitational wave background.

At the moment, each of these scenarios is equally plausible. Continued observations of pulsars, as well as observations of the distant universe with large optical telescopes, may soon allow us to distinguish between these ideas. And, one day, we may finally find the direct evidence for the existence of gravitational waves that we’re looking for.

Paul Lasky, Postdoctoral Fellow in Gravitational Wave Astrophysics, Monash University and Ryan Shannon, Research Fellow, International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, Curtin University, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Pedal to the metal: how we’re producing aerospace parts five times faster

Australian F-35A flying out of Luke Air Force Base, USA (credit Lockheed Martin)

Australian F-35A flying out of Luke Air Force Base, USA (credit Lockheed Martin)

By Emily Lehmann 

In a mission to bolster the nation’s air force fleet, the Australian Government has committed to bring home 72 stealthy, next-gen F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF). It’s Australia’s largest military acquisition and will be part of a more than 3000-strong global fleet of JSFs – and every one of these strike fighters will have Australian made components inside.

Increasing production rates to deliver these aerospace parts is critical. That’s why the Australian Government’s New Air Combat Capability program tasked us with developing a technology to drive greater efficiency for the local manufacturers who make and supply them.

The result? A metal machining (cutting) technology that is five times faster and which dramatically reduces machining costs by as much as 80 per cent.

Crucial titanium alloy parts make up about 15 per cent of an aircraft, and are ideal for their lightweight, yet super strong qualities. But from a machining point of view, titanium alloys are notoriously difficult and complicated to work with. The conventional methods out there are slow and tools tend to break prematurely.

Our technology, called thermally assisted machining (TAM) works by pointing a laser beam on the workpiece ahead of the cutting tool, heating up the metal so that it’s more pliable. This speeds up the process while preventing damage and wear to machining tools.

The new set up, showing the laser beam head on the right.

The new set up, showing the laser beam head on the right.

With metal aerospace components estimated to be worth a sizey $50 billion worldwide (and growing) this technology could see Australian manufacturers further tap into the global market for military and commercial aircraft.

TAM’s applications go beyond the titanium machining too, and could benefit other nickel and iron base super alloys which are difficult to machine.

We’re now partnering with local manufacturer H&H Tools to develop a prototype for a gantry type milling machine to demonstrate how the technology works. We expect this to be ready in 2016.

Find out more about our technologies for high performance metals.


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