By Dr Luke Reedman
Next time you boil the kettle in your kitchen or office, have a think about this: over 90 per cent of the electricity used today is being generated by coal and gas. By 2050, when you do the same thing – make a cuppa – the electricity you use could be generated by over 20 energy sources and technologies. That’s a big change.
In some future scenarios we could be looking at an even split between renewable and conventional coal and gas power stations – with some potentially using carbon capture and storage technologies, significantly decreasing our carbon emissions.
“So what,” I hear you say? “As long as I can make that cuppa, right?”
Wrong. What if you had $240 billion dollars to spend to give the electricity sector the makeover it needs to help with the transition to a much more diverse mix of 20 plus energy technologies? This is the challenge facing Australia’s electricity sector today and it has been coined the ‘energy transformation’, a transformation not seen since the industrial revolution.
There are many factors fuelling this transformation; including the take up of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels and the steadily decreasing prices of new low emission technologies, including PV.
Households are becoming energy generators. One in ten Australian homes now has solar panels installed; totalling 17,354,018 metres squared of PV power generation- that’s the equivalent of 860 MCGs. This is called distributed generation and poses challenges to the electricity grid because predictable energy demanders (consumers) are suddenly changing their energy consumption behaviour. The electricity grid must learn to operate as a ‘transaction enabler’ for these new generators rather than simply a one way delivery system.
The increasing take-up of PV and other new technologies is driven by dramatic price reductions. PV has halved in price since 2008 and wind farms have increased tenfold in just a decade. The main implication is that renewables are much more commercially viable. The key question now is not whether renewable will ever make up a significant part of our electricity supply, but how will we best manage that transition given they are so different to the existing supply from conventional gas and coal fired power.
Decisions around investment and policy need to be made soon so that by 2050 when we are making that refreshing cup of Earl Grey, we are boiling the kettle using electricity generated from the most cost competitive, low emission energy sources possible.
The Future Grid Forum is an Australian first collaboration that brings together the entire electricity sector – over 40 electricity generators, distributors, transmission service providers, retailers, regulators, government, consumer and environment groups – to create a road map for the future of the electricity sector. The Road Map will be released at the end of 2013.
Building on the Forum, in May 2013 CSIRO launched a new $13 million research collaboration, the Future Grid Cluster. Four universities – University of Sydney, University of Newcastle, University of Queensland and University of NSW – will work with CSIRO to develop a suite of tools to understand, develop and optimise energy grids of the future.
So, we have it all in hand I guess. Now, time to make that cuppa.
Read the full news release here.
Media: Linley Davis. Phone: +61 2 4960 6116. Mobile: +61 417 772 480. Email: Linley.Davis@csiro.au
First, we need to congratulate the winner of last week’s prize pack.
Congrats go out to Kieran who’ll receive his Brian Cox signed book pack next week. Last week we asked ‘can astronauts burp in space?’
The answer is they can’t… that is of course if we are talking about the traditional gas burp. As there is no gravity to separate the liquids and solids from the gas in their stomachs the valve (muscle that works with gravity) at the top of their stomach isn’t completely closed, which means when they burp it comes up as a bomit (the burp-vomit) or as Charles Bourland, a consult for the NASA Food Technology Commercial Space Centre put it ‘the wet burp’.
A nice mental image for you there.
Now, moving onto this week’s episode of Science Club, Dara O Briain and his crack team of experts take a weird and wonderful look at the brain. Dara traces the brain’s journey from a useless organ once ditched by Egyptian embalmers to the centre of everything that makes us human.
Check out this animated sneak peek.
Science journalist Alok Jha asks whether smart drugs really make you brainier, oceanographer Helen Czerski explores cutting edge therapies allowing the brain to control limbs remotely and materials scientist Mark Miodownik takes apart a smart phone and shows us what brains are really made of.
Tune in this Sunday at 8.40pm on BBC Knowledge, Channel 612 on Foxtel.
Our friends at BBC Knowledge want us to share with you a great new TV show that is airing this Sunday. The programme takes a science subject each week and examines it from different and unexpected angles – from extinction to sex, Einstein to space exploration and brain chemistry to music.
Blog family, meet Dara O Briain’s Science Club.
Chewing over the scientific fat, this week Dara will be joined by former president of the Royal Society and Astronomer Royal Professor Martin Rees, science journalist Alok Jha and oceanographer Helen Czerski where they will be taking a peek into man’s final frontier – space.
Alok will be asking the question ‘Is it a good idea for humans to reach out to extra-terrestrials?’ Oceanographer Helen comes face to face with extreme radiation, energy so deadly it could seriously curtail humans travelling further than the solar system.
Special guest stand-up comedian Josh Widdecombe visits NASA in Houston to find out the challenges we face to get humans to Mars and materials scientist Mark Miodownik gets down to his knickers while taking apart a space suit.
Tune in this Sunday at 8.40pm on BBC Knowledge, Channel 612 on Foxtel.
In the spirit of all things space we’re running a little competition where you could win a Professor Brian Cox book pack including Wonder of life and a SIGNED copy of Wonders of the Universe.
The question we want answered- can astronauts burp in space? Why/why not?
Send your answers to socialmedia(at)csiro.au by Tuesday 19 March. The winner will be announced in next week’s post.
Every week at this time we’ll be bringing you sneak peek episode previews of Science Club and a chance to win some great prizes.
It’s super easy, super quick and gets the nod of approval from our scientists since we’ve taken it straight out of our Total Wellbeing Diet: Fast and Fresh Recipes book.
By Eric Vanderduys, Terrestrial Field Biologist
When asked to name an Australian lizard, most Australians would probably pick the familiar blue-tongue, stumpy lizard or bearded dragon, or perhaps the iconic thorny devil, frill-neck lizard or a goanna. Poorly known to most Australians is the lizard group known as skinks – which includes the blue-tongue and stumpy lizard – but which consists of hundreds of species, in a diverse range of sizes and shapes.
Lerista is a genus of skinks commonly known as “sliders”. It contains over 90 species of mostly small, burrowing skinks with reduced limbs – limbs that are short, often with fewer than five fingers or toes, or are missing altogether. The Retro slider (Lerista allanae), has tiny back legs and no front legs. It grows to about 15 cm, nearly half of this being tail. It is grey to silver or pale brown, and each scale has a dark spot or streak on it. It is named after Retro Station, a grazing property where it was originally collected.
Sliders have restricted distributions – sometimes just a few square kilometres. Usually sliders inhabit loose leaf litter and sandy soils, and not heavy, clay soils prone to floods. Those areas are often separated by unsuitable habitat, leading to tiny distributions.
The Retro Slider is one such species, inhabiting slight rises in a landscape of fertile, deeply cracking clay soils near Clermont in central Queensland’s Brigalow Belt. They are known from four locations over a 40 km range, and the area they occupy is unknown, but possibly as small as a few square kilometres. The main stronghold is Retro Station, a lightly grazed property with, importantly, patches of trees with deep, undisturbed leaf litter. Retro sliders also occur along road verges.
Originally known from two or three locations the Retro slider was missing for 49 years until rediscovered near one of the original sites in 2009. It is listed as endangered on a state and national level, and critically endangered under the IUCN.
It’s important to consider the past to help understand the Retro slider’s predicament.
The area was heavily grazed by sheep before cattle rose to prominence. The use of agricultural chemicals, including insecticides has been widespread at times and this may have had consequences for termites and small invertebrates, which the Retro slider eats.
The effects of widespread drought and flooding are unknown but likely to be detrimental to Retro sliders. Drought because it reduces ground cover and therefore may increase exposure to predators and extreme temperatures; and floods because they may force skinks to the soil surface, again exposing them to danger.
Fire may impact on Retro sliders by burning leaf litter, habitat for their prey and also exposing the sliders to the dangers mentioned above.
Exotic grasses, especially buffel grass, can come to dominate the habitat where Retro sliders live. The effects of buffel invasion are not known, but Retro sliders have not been found under buffel clumps, despite extensive searching. Like gamba grass in northern Australia, a worrying aspect of buffel is that it favours burning, which can kill the small stands of trees and shrubs that Retro sliders use.
Feral animals, especially foxes and cats may impact Retro sliders. Both have been seen eating other slider species. Foxes and cats are likely to amplify other threats. Sliders exposed at road edges, or due to fire and flood, are easy prey for predators.
There is no current formal coordinated management strategy in place for Retro sliders. The Retro slider is not known to occur within the protected estate, so management on private land and road reserves will be imperative for its long term survival.
The landholder of the property where most sliders have been found is proud to have a critically endangered species under his stewardship and is committed to helping to minimise threats.
The Commonwealth has drafted a Recovery Plan for the Brigalow Belt Reptiles that lists the Retro slider and eight other reptile species. WWF and the Queensland Murray-Darling Committee have also drafted a management plan including seven additional species from the Brigalow Belt.
Queensland Transport is cooperating with the Queensland Department of Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts to protect or enhance Retro slider habitat where it occurs on road verges. Fire and buffel grass management are important components of this. Areas where the Retro slider have been found on road verges have been carefully mapped so that the impact of road management or upgrade activities are minimised.
Given the skink’s small size, enhancing existing habitat should not prove difficult. Establishing one or two additional habitats away from the current sites would be beneficial in guarding against localised events such as flooding or fire. A bonus would be to find one or more populations on the protected estate.
For many years the Retro slider had the dubious distinction of being Australia’s only reptile thought to be extinct. Its rediscovery and the fact that it has been found in a growing number of sites in the last three years give hope for a secure future.
The Conversation is running a series on Australian endangered species. See it here
By Adam Harper
You might have heard the song ‘cows with guns’ in the noughties, but that’s old news. These days its cows with lasers! That’s right, lasers.
It might sound like science fiction, but don’t be fooled, it is scientific fact; although the researchers are the ones wielding the weapons this time. Okay so the lasers aren’t really weapons, but they are cutting edge in terms of their ability to measure methane emissions belched out by livestock in the open field.
You see, livestock are responsible for up to 12% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in Australia, and contrary to popular belief, that largely comes out of the front end, not the rear. Per day, per cow, that’s about 200-litres of methane. Nobody light a match!
A collaboration of six universities, CSIRO and researchers from Canada is now looking at how to help put a cork in it. The collaboration is called the Livestock Methane Research Cluster (LMRC) and it brings together some of the world’s leading scientific experts to develop accurate and practical methods to measure and reduce livestock methane emissions in northern Australia.
Why just measure the emissions? Well, in order to reduce, minimise and mitigate, you first have to measure. And that’s exactly what’s happening right now at a CSIRO owned test site near Armidale.
Members from all six universities, CSIRO and Canada are testing different types of lasers as well as GPS collars on an unsuspecting herd of 32 beasts. The lasers and measurement equipment is detecting methane emitted from each animal as well as from the entire herd. This information is then used by the Federal Government to help develop a methodology for the Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI) where farmers can earn carbon credits if they show (using an approved methodology) reduced emissions from their herds – cash cows.
In order to earn credits though, farmers can’t just reduce the number of livestock on their farm, so reducing the amount of methane each animal produces is critical. The process of producing methane in livestock also consumes energy. By reducing that methane production, more energy can be directed to producing meat, milk and wool.
It’s a win-win.
By Beth Fulton- Head of Ecosystem Modelling, Marine and Atmospheric Research
Australians want a future of sustainable self-sufficiency and a healthy environment supporting a robust democracy – free of poverty and inequity. That was one of our projections, as part of the Australia 2050 project for the Australian Academy of Science.
Equally, Australians fear a future in which the stability of day-to-day life has been eroded by a degraded environment, depleted resources, lawlessness or warfare, limited access to health-care and education, extreme (or even increased) economic or political inequity and the fragmentation of social cohesion.
The question “What will Australia in 2050 look like?” will not be answered for sure for another four decades. But that future depends on decisions made today, and that means it is important to get some early insights into what the alternatives really are.
Of course, the future is uncertain and the projections discussed here may change as the different components are finally linked together. But some of them run contrary to current expectation and desires. They require careful thought in any personal, community, regional or national planning exercises.
Population, society and the economy
The human aspects of Australia’s future have received a good deal of attention over the last few years. Australia’s population will increase by 50-100% by 2050. The proportion of the population living in the north and west is projected to increase at the expense of smaller southern states.
Median age will increase from the 36.8 years of 2007 to between 41.9 and 45.2 years. The proportion of the population over 65 is projected to increase by 60%, or more in the southern states.
Economic growth is forecast to continue over 2011-2050 at around 2.5% per year (a little slower than over past decades), and to shift towards services and away from primary and secondary industries (like agriculture and manufacturing).
This is despite an expected 13% increase in trade as Australia’s trade partnerships restructure – with the proportion of Australia’s total exports going to China, India and Indonesia projected to rise from 14% to 40% by 2100.
Even this rate of productivity is dependent on increasing labour force participation, facilitated by education and health programs and increased participation by people aged over 65. Despite this rising participation it is projected that the tax base will nearly halve, meaning the fiscal burden of the ageing population would lead to an accumulating and growing fiscal gap (where spending exceeds revenue) of up to 2.75% of GDP annually, with deficits reaching 20% of GDP by 2050.
Resources and industries
Australia’s resource sector has been one of the defining shapers of economic growth through the late 20th and early 21st century. Major fossil fuels (black coal, natural gas) and minerals (iron ore, bauxite, copper) are forecast to be exhausted in 60-80 years at current rates of extraction, much sooner for other resources (gold, lead, zinc, crude oil). The physical trade balance (including mining, manufacturing and agricultural sectors) is forecast to show continued growth in exports to the mid 21st century, but then to collapse rapidly to around neutral.
While Australia will be food secure, agricultural trade is projected to drop by 10-80% due to a drop in output. In the absence of any climate change adaptation in agricultural practices or mitigation, by 2050 Australian wheat, sugar, beef and sheep production is projected to drop by roughly 14-20%; with production in Queensland and the Northern Territory hardest hit.
Energy consumption will increase. Electricity generation and transport sectors remain the dominant uses. Fossil fuels are likely to continue supplying the bulk of this, despite 3.4-3.5% growth per year in renewables.
The trajectory of emissions is heavily dependent on the specific adaptation behaviour, mitigation policies and technology scenarios.
Climate, the environment and ecosystems
Air temperature will probably rise by less than 4°C by 2050, with the greatest warming in the northwest and away from the coasts. This has adverse consequences for heat stress on agriculture and urban systems, water availability in Southern Australia, the incidence of drought and fire.
Water yield from the Murray-Darling potentially drops by 55%, but the greatest increase in drought months (of 80%) is in the southwest. Substantial increases in the number of extremely hot days (>35°C) Australia wide are associated with increases in extreme fire days and area burnt. Northern settlements are particularly strongly impacted.
The impact of these changes on native terrestrial ecosystems becomes progressively worse as temperature rises. If temperatures increases are small (<1°C by 2050) only mountain and tropical ecosystems should be impacted; habitat for vertebrates in the northern tropics is projected to decrease by 50%.
If temperatures rise by 3°C or more the projected loss of core habitats is much more extensive: 30-70% or more of many habitat types, with the majority of rainforest birds becoming threatened and many species of flora and fauna projected to go extinct. Iconic freshwater wetlands, like Kakadu, are also projected to shrink by 80%. These changes are also associated with extensive compositional change and increased penetration of invading species.
The ocean is projected to change as much as the land, though with much more consistency across emissions scenarios. Most ocean warming is in the tropics and down the east coast. Sea-level will rise, potentially doubling the areal extent of flooding due to storm tides; ocean stratification is likely to strengthen, affecting mixing, nutrient supplies and productivity; hypoxic “dead zones” are likely to spread; and the rising levels of CO2 dissolved in the ocean will continue to cause acidity to increase.
While a range of species will adapt, future ecosystems may have very different composition to today. Differential capacity to adapt will lead to species mixes never before recorded.
Economically and ecologically sustainable marine industries are still possible despite the projected environmental changes. However, this is only possible if regulations, markets and social attitudes allow the industry to shift with the new ecosystem structures.
Beth Fulton was lead author for a group exploring modelling perspectives as part of the Australian Academy of Science project “Australia 2050: Towards an environmentally and economically sustainable and socially equitable ways of living”.
The Australia 2050 project for the Australian Academy of Science has just published Phase 1 Negotiating our future: Living scenarios for Australia to 2050 which emerged from 35 scientists working together to explore social perspectives, resilience, scenarios and modelling as pathways towards environmentally and economically sustainable and socially equitable ways of living. Phase 2 of this project on creating living scenarios for Australia is underway.
Beth Fulton receives funding from the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation.
Are you riding the GI roller coaster?
By Ian Colditz- Research Scientist, Livestock Health & Welfare
Approximately 140 vaccines are registered for use in livestock and companion animals in Australia. Many more animals are vaccinated each year than humans.
Vaccines are used in farm animals:
- to protect livestock against endemic diseases
- to modify reproductive performance (for instance by preventing sexual maturity in young males)
- to improve food quality (for instance to reduce boar taint in pork)
- to reduce the risk of transmission of diseases such as Hendra virus from animals to humans
- to produce diagnostic reagents for use in pathology services
- to produce therapeutic products for use in human and veterinary medicine.
Most decisions to vaccinate farm animals are made by livestock owners on a commercial basis. They balance the cost of vaccination against the risks of disease, reduced growth rates and compromised animal welfare.
An important benefit of vaccination – both for the farmer and more broadly for the community – is reduced reliance on antibiotics for treating infections in farm animals.
Adaptive immunity – learning from the environment
All animals are subjected to attack by microbes and parasites. In return, animals have well developed molecular and cellular defence mechanisms to fight off and kill infectious agents.
Within the time span of each animal’s life, it undergoes non-genetic (phenotypic) adaption to its local environment. Living in the environment leads to changes in physiology, behaviour and immune functions that enable the animal to fine tune its ability to cope and thrive.
Environmental conditions are learnt and remembered by the physiological, behavioural and immune systems of the animal. For the immune system, the lessons learnt from infection by a disease agent are remembered primarily by lymphocytes and are recalled when the animal is again exposed to the same disease-causing agent.
The recalled immune response is faster and more effective at clearing the infection. The lessons learnt from some infections such as orf virus (“scabby mouth”) in sheep are usually remembered for life, with a single infection inducing lifelong immunity to re-infection by the same disease agent. In contrast, some infections induce no effective immunity. In other instances immunity can wane over a matter of months.
Vaccines aim to induce protective immunity by controlled exposure to fragments of disease-causing organisms without exposure to the disease itself.
Passive immunity – animal vaccines helping humans
Offspring receive a cultural inheritance of acquired knowledge about local disease threats from their mothers in the form of antibodies. Depending on the species, these are acquired via the placenta, egg yolk, colostrum or milk. Maternal antibodies provide passive immunity to offspring for the first few weeks of post-natal life. Some vaccines can be used during pregnancy in animals to enhance antibody transfer to offspring.
Antibodies from animals can also protect humans. Indeed, the first Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Emil von Behring in 1901 for his development of serum therapy. Von Behring used blood serum from sheep and horses immunised with Corynebacterium diphtheriae to treat patients suffering from diphtheria.
Following his example, the use of antisera raised in animals to treat humans for systemic diseases such as tetanus has been commonplace for many decades. In Australia, horses continue to be vaccinated to generate anti-toxins to tetanus, snake venoms and other toxins. Sheep are vaccinated to produce antivenin against rattle snake venom for use in America.
In the 1970s, it was found that oral ingestion of antibodies isolated from colostrum of cows immunised with human gut pathogens can protect humans from a range of gut infections. Products containing antibodies isolated from colostrum of immunised cows protect humans from rotavirus infections, traveler’s diarrhoea and dental caries. Similar products are also used in animals.
As the efficacy of antibiotics for control of bacterial infections has diminished, there has been a resurgence of interest in “passive immunisation”. This uses antisera produced in animals for prophylaxis and treatment of disease in humans and farm animals.
For instance, the prevalence and severity of diarrhoeal disease in humans can be reduced by daily ingestion of colostrum-based products from ruminants immunised with the disease-causing agent (and possibly also by consumption of fresh unpasteurized milk from the same animals. There is a very large potential to implement this technology in developing countries to help control diarrhoeal diseases.
Can vaccination and alternative farming mix?
Vaccination is usually used as part of an integrated disease control strategy in animals. Eradication and quarantine are the most effective strategies; however eradication is rarely achievable. Vaccination played an important role in eradication of equine influenza from Australia in 2008. Indeed Australia is the only country to have successfully eradicated this disease. Selecting breeding stock for resistance to disease is also a very important disease control strategy in farm animals.
As with all foods, medicines and therapies used in humans or animals, there are divergent views on the merits of using vaccines in animals. Some agricultural production philosophies, such as organic farming, discourage use of vaccines.
However, when mandated by regulatory authorities or in the face of an adverse disease history or when recommended by a veterinarian, the use of vaccines can be authorised by the organic certification entities Australian Organic and Organic Growers to aid in disease control on organic farms.
This approach provides neither an argument against organic farming nor against vaccination. A diversity of farming practices and production philosophies is likely to strengthen food security in the face of changing environmental threats and consumer preferences.
This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.
By Don McFarlane- Research Programme Leader, Land and Water
While the rest of Australia has had a reprieve from the Millennium Drought, and floods have recently affected many areas along the north eastern Australian coast, the extended dry period that has affected south-western Australia since about 1975 continues unabated.
The loss of traditional water sources has required the building of seawater desalination plants capable of providing half the drinking water needs of people living in the Perth region.
Traditional water supplies are projected to dry even more by 2030 according to research just published by CSIRO scientists.
Global climate models (GCMs) give variable projections but they usually provide some hope for a wetter future in most regions. However, all 15 GCMs that provide daily information project an even drier 2030 for south-western Australia. On a percentage basis, the runoff into the reservoirs that supply water to Perth and into irrigation dams is projected to reduce by about three times more than the reduction in rainfall.
Even more disturbing, because catchments have dried so much since 1975, a given rainfall amount now generates less runoff. Catchment water yields will only recover if there are decades of rainfall large enough to raise groundwater levels within the deeply weathered profiles. According to the GCMs, this is very unlikely to happen.
The story for groundwater levels on the coastal Perth Basin, the water source of choice for most people living in the region, is more complex.
The Basin contains aquifers that store large amounts of water to more than a kilometre in depth. Surface sandy aquifers support wetlands and are directly recharged by rainfall.
The research tested how these aquifers would respond under the climate projections for 2030. It also looked at what would happen if the dry climate since 1975 (even drier since 1997) were to continue.
Groundwater levels under areas of native vegetation and plantations would decline under any of these scenarios. As rainfall declines, the proportion used by vegetation increases and groundwater recharge correspondingly falls.
Large parts of the Gnangara Mound, a major water resource for Perth, are overlain by banksia woodlands and plantations and would experience a lowering of groundwater levels and further loss of dependent wetlands.
More than half of the Perth Basin has been cleared for use by non-irrigated agriculture. In these areas groundwater levels are expected to remain stable, or in some cases to continue to rise as rainfall declines because the annual crops and pastures use less water than perennials.
Ironically, it is where native vegetation has been cleared with a consequent loss of biodiversity values that there may be enough water in future for permanent streamflows and wetlands.
Analysing the response of rivers and catchments to the climate since 1975 has identified interesting and sometimes unclear relationships. Two basins constituting only 15% of the area contributed 43% of the streamflow and these basins seemed to respond less to rainfall reductions. The reason for this behaviour is unclear.
Interactions between rivers and their surrounding aquifers are projected to change. Fresh groundwater currently enters these rivers as they cross the Perth Basin, often reducing their salinity. However in future, with groundwater levels much lower, it is expected that the rivers will discharge their more saline water into the fresh coastal aquifers.
The study estimated the growth in water demand and compared these with projected water yields to identify areas of shortage and surplus by 2030. The Perth region is relatively water-rich and has been able to supply both itself, and inland agricultural areas and the eastern goldfields, until recently.
The water shortage in the Perth region is anticipated to become worse by 2030.
This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.
by Lee Belbin- Research Scientist, Ecosystem Sciences
I like good wine and after many years enjoying Australia’s wonderful Shiraz, I’ve transitioned through Cabernets to Pinot Noir. But finding a good Pinot Noir is a lot harder than finding a good Shiraz.
The Atlas of Living Australia might not be the most obvious place to look, but if you want to discover wineries that are likely to produce a good wine or want to grow your own grapes, the Atlas is a great place to begin your search. That’s because the Atlas can be used to find locations of environmental conditions suitable for specific species, helping in this case to identify areas likely to produce good wine.
Over the centuries, Australians have observed and collected plants and animals and recorded information about what occurs where. The Atlas of Living Australia brings this information together online in one place. It has two basic types of information about Australia’s living things: species and environments, including over 35 million occurrence records about the location of species and nearly 400 environmental layers. Each environmental layer is a map that links location and environment.
If we know the location of a species, we can identify its environment. The opposite is also possible: if we know the environment, we can find the locations where this environment occurs. This the key to finding, for example, good wine: if we know where good Pinot Noir is produced, we can find out what environment it prefers and the locations of this environment.
In the case of wine, we would expect to discover that temperature, rainfall, soil conditions, slope and aspect are important environmental conditions for growing grapes. It’s then an easy step to use the Spatial Portal of the Atlas of Living Australia to identify all areas in Australia where the environmental conditions suitable for growing Pinot Noir occur.
Like to try it? Follow the tutorial and you may get some surprises.
By Kari Gobius and Robyn Warner
Kari is a Theme Leader – Food Safety and Stability at CSIRO. Robyn is Senior Principal Research Scientist, Team Leader Food Chemistry and Biochemistry, Animal, Food and Health Sciences at CSIRO.
Woolworths has announced it will conduct DNA tests on its home-brand meals in response to horse meat contamination in Europe. The uproar follows revelations by Irish food inspectors in mid-January that horse meat had been detected in burgers sold in UK supermarket chains.
The story intensified when some Findus and Aldi products labelled as beef were found to be 100 per cent horse meat and may now involve as many as 16 European countries. In response to the growing evidence for widespread mislabelling, the EU Health Commissioner Tonio Borg has now urged all EU member states to implement random DNA testing of processed beef products, for a three-month period beginning March 1.
By saying it will test what it sells here, Woolworths is indicating to both the government and the public that it recognises the issue has become an identifiable risk. And it wants to assure customers that its products are legitimate.
Still, there’s no sign of a problem in Australia that’s similar to what’s happening in Europe, which seems to be in the grip of what is ostensibly economic fraud – the substitution of horse meat in products sold as beef. There don’t seem to be any specific food safety issues involved, although some commentators have raised the possibility of contamination with veterinary pharmaceuticals, which could have a negative impact on human health.
The issue is economic rather than nutritional. People eat meat because they enjoy it – they enjoy the texture and the flavour. Often people become accustomed to the flavour of the meat they eat, so horse meat may taste different, possibly “gamey”, but it’s easy to become accustomed to this.
Horse meat is generally very lean but otherwise nutritionally similar to beef or sheep. It’s a good source of protein, vitamins, minerals (especially iron) and healthy fatty acids (omega-3).
So, at the heart of the issue is a breach of trust for economic gain rather than being fed something unthinkable. Products have been labelled as containing beef, when they may in fact contain up to 100% horse meat. But let’s go back to the problem of veterinary pharmaceuticals. Some of these compounds are painkillers and since the human body responds differently to such drugs compared to horses, we get into dangerous territory for human health.
The substance causing the most concern is phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory drug given to horses for the treatment of lameness, pain and fever. It’s no longer used to treat humans and is not supposed to enter the food chain because it may cause a range of side effects. Some of these are quite serious, such as aplastic anaemia (bone marrow failure) in some people. But authorities in the United Kingdom have declared the illegal horse meat in the food safe to eat.
The difficulty for any regulator, such as the UK Food Standards Agency, is the same as the public faces. There has to be some degree of trust, let’s say, truth in labelling. If a supplier indicates that a food contains particular ingredients, then one can expect it will. Once again, what we’re talking about here is a breach of trust and that’s what’s unacceptable.
For food standards authorities around the world, the question is, does any agency have the ability to test everything? We think that’s what lies at the heart of the matter here. No agency has the resources to test everything and compliance with accepted food standard codes and labelling is vital.
But Europe will recover. Generally speaking, recovery from a scandal of this kind begins with a phase of greater accountability, and a requirement for food manufacturers to provide more independent evidence substantiating the authenticity of ingredients. Rogue operators shown to be breaching trust and behaving fraudulently are punished and banned. This is what we can expect to happen in the coming weeks. The EU Health Commissioner’s announcement suggests that the cleanout has begun.
It’s time for heart-shaped chocolates, red roses and declarations of a lifetime of love. It’s all very… nice. But spare a thought for your guts. Yes, people, YOUR GUTS. Isn’t it time you showed them a little bit of love?
By Alberto Elfes, Science leader for robotics
Amid the gloom about the prospects for manufacturing in Australia — and the difficulties facing an economy dominated by small businesses (nearly 90% of Australian manufacturing capacity) — there is some cause for optimism. A new generation of lightweight, assistive robots looks to provide small to medium enterprises (SMEs) with new options to improve their competitiveness and meet the challenges of high costs and a shortage of skilled workers.
The news is good for workers, too. Robotic “smart tools” offer a means of removing danger and monotony from the work environment and, in striking contrast to conventional beliefs, provide a way to retain the existing workforce for longer.
Studies have shown that robots can boost productivity, but this productivity dividend is dependent on a human workforce able to set them up, maintain them, and make creative decisions about how best to complete work tasks. In a US case study of Marlin Steel, introduction of robots not only boosted quality of company product, but increased employee remuneration.
The manufacture of robots is a growing source of employment. A 2011 report commissioned by the International Federation of Robotics found that 150,000 people worldwide are already employed in the engineering and assembly of robots.
This report also identifies use of robotics in SMEs as essential to win back manufacturing from countries with low labour costs. In this case, the introduction of robots is capable of maintaining the viability of manufacturing in developed countries – and preserving manufacturing jobs.
Assistive robotics offer a high-productivity solution that could also help Australian manufacturing integrate into regional value chains, as recommended in the recent Asian Century white paper.
Lightweight robots can be integrated into the Australian workplace as assistants to workers in three ways.
The first is as “intelligent tools”, which work together with human workers. Mobile assistants, manipulators, “smart” picking, lifting and handling systems, and robotic welders, gluers and assemblers enable automation of short-run production processes, and provide a flexible solution to increase efficiency of production.
Secondly, robots can also be used as tools to augment the abilities of human workers in manufacturing processes. Powered exoskeletons enable workers, regardless of age or gender, to lift and manipulate heavy loads safely. Wearable machine vision systems can alert workers to workplace hazards in real-time, including hazards which can’t be detected visually, such as radiation and high temperatures. Mobile assistive robotic trainers and tele-immersive training systems enable experienced staff to remotely mentor workers who are new to a work environment.
The third way is as “smart” field tools, which enable human workers to manufacture items under hazardous or challenging conditions. Tele-operated mobile tools and vehicles are already in use in the mining industry, enabling work to be supervised remotely in an environment that is safe and comfortable for workers. Rigs which facilitate micro-manipulation and micro-assembly enable workers to conduct micro-assembly of complex items without strain to eyesight. Virtual and augmented reality systems allow workers to manipulate tools while remote from the factory floor, therefore reducing risks of work-related injury such as repetitive strain and injuries from use of tools.
So why is robotics changing? Conventional industrial robots — such as those used in automotive manufacturing — are heavy, programmed for one task, fixed in place on the factory floor, and expensive to buy, install, program and maintain. They are also potentially hazardous to humans, so workers are usually excluded from the robot workspace. But the next generation of lightweight robots is different.
A number of technological advances have made this new generation of lightweight robots possible.
First, the next generation of robots can “see” the workplace using advanced vision systems (including stereo and infrared cameras and multi-modal imaging), high precision sensors and perception algorithms.
Secondly, the new generation of robots is mobile. They know where they are and can navigate within the workplace thanks to navigation, localisation and mapping technologies – such as Wi-Fi localisation, beacon-based navigation, simultaneous localisation and mapping (SLAM), and accurate 2D or 3D modelling.
Importantly, human workers are now able to easily communicate with robots via voice and visual gesture recognition. Sophisticated human-robot interactive interfaces allow shared autonomy and human supervisory control. Additionally, augmented and virtual reality robotic systems allow workers to work remotely in hazardous or physically demanding working environments and to tele-operate and tele-supervise remote equipment. Emerging global high-speed wireless communication systems such as the NBN provide the required infrastructure for these technologies.
Manipulation technologies, including force-amplifying exoskeletons (frameworks worn by workers to provide mobility and lifting assistance), dexterous manipulation (grasping and moving complex objects using robotic “fingers” or claws), and multi-robot cooperation make for a working environment that is safer for the workforce and enable any worker – regardless of sex or age – to effectively perform physically onerous or dangerous tasks in complete safety. Robotic tools similar to existing micro-surgery rigs enable workers to perform miniature component manufacturing and assembly tasks with precision and dexterity – without risk to their health.
Finally, the new generation of robots would not be possible without smart fabrication. Miniaturisation and smart and lightweight materials make for small, light, smart robots. These robots can move rapidly around a workplace, respond to commands to fetch tools, rapidly shift stores of materials and finished product, and complement human activities.
Alberto Elfes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
This article was originally published at The Conversation.
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By Mikayla Keen
Contrary to popular belief watching grass grow is awesome.
For Rasha Kardo it won her the opportunity to visit CSIRO’s High Resolution Plant Phenomics Centre. The HRPPC is a high-tech research hotel which studies plant function and performance under controlled conditions (in the lab) and in the field.
Rasha, a South Australian secondary student, was the student winner of the 2012 Battle of the Plants – a national battle to grow the biggest, greenest, meanest Brachypodium plant (the equivalent of a lab rat for plant scientists). Rasha wasn’t able to outgrow CSIRO’s Richard Poiré whose job entails growing many thousands of ‘Brachy’ a year.
“It was a close call, Rasha really gave me a run for my money, but luckily my Brachy was the biggest,” Richard said. “Having Rasha in the lab for a week was a great experience.”
Rasha was able to experience every aspect of the Centre, from meeting the Director to helping Richard collect seeds for the 2013 Battle of the Plants.
“I was quite surprised they weren’t all biologists. It’s an amazing team of all sorts of scientists, students and engineers working together on global issues like world hunger,” Rasha said.
“Working with instruments like PlantScan, which the team built and helping out with different projects was a real eye opener, biology has so many applications.”
Rasha has come full circle. Her Battle of the Plants adventure began and ended with a seed and a pot of dirt.