Our solar team sets a hot and steamy world record

The run of sunny weather we’ve had in south-eastern Australia over the last few weeks has been breaking quite a few records – and not just on the weather charts.

A team of solar thermal engineers and scientists at our Energy Centre in Newcastle have used the ample sunlight flooding their solar fields to create what’s called ‘supercritical’ steam – an ultra-hot, ultra-pressurised steam that’s used to drive the world’s most advanced power plant turbines – at the highest levels of temperature and pressure EVER recorded with solar power.


The heliostat array, as viewed from Solar Tower 2.

They used heat from the sun, reflected off a field of heliostats (or mirrors) and concentrated onto a central receiver point to create the steam at these supercritical levels. The achievement is being described in the same terms as breaking the sound barrier, so impressive are its possible implications for solar thermal technology.

So what is it exactly that these Chuck Yaegers of the solar world have gone and done?

Put simply, the temperature of the steam they created (570° C) is about twice the maximum heat of your kitchen oven – or around the point where aluminium alloy would start melting. And the accompanying pressure (23.5 megapascals) is about 100 times as high as the pressure in your car tyres, or roughly what you’d experience if you were about 2 kilometres under the surface of the ocean.

Solar thermal tower.

The solar thermal tower in action: check out the steam being generated.

That’s all impressive in itself. But when you take into consideration that this is the first time solar power has ever been used to create these ‘supercritical’ levels on this scale – traditionally only ever reached using the burning of fossil fuels – the real worth of this achievement begins to sink in.

Solar thermal, or concentrating solar power (CSP) power plants have traditionally only ever operated at ‘subcritical’ levels, meaning they could not match the efficiency or output of the world’s most state of the art fossil fuel power plants.

How a solar thermal power plant works.

How a supercritical solar thermal power plant would work.

Enter our team and their Advanced Solar Steam Receiver Project. To prove that solar thermal technology can match it with the best fossil fuel systems, they developed a fully automated control system which predicts the heat delivered from every mirror (or heliostat), allowing them to achieve maximum heat transfer, without overheating and fatiguing the receiver. With this amount of control, they were able to accurately recreate the temperature and pressures needed for supercritical success.

So instead of relying on burning coal to produce supercritical steam, this method demonstrates that the power plants of the future could be using the zero emission energy of the sun to reach peak efficiency levels – and at a cheaper price.

While the technology may be a fair way off commercial development, this achievement is a big step in paving the way for a low cost, low emission energy future.

 The $5.68 million research program is supported by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and is part of a broader collaboration with Abengoa Solar, the largest supplier of solar thermal electricity in the world. 

For media inquiries, contact Nick Kachel on (02) 4960 6270 or nicholas.kachel@csiro.au

Improving prediction of deadly Irukandji jellyfish blooms

A decades-old problem in predicting Irukandji blooms has been solved by a team of our scientists, and the results could directly benefit northern Australia’s community and its tourism industry.

Last year we wrote about a new Irukandji forecasting system that Dr Lisa-ann Gershwin and her team were testing in northern Queensland.

The team were looking to prove a link between Irukandji blooms and weather conditions, based on a hindcast of previous Irukandji stings and correlating weather records, so that they could accurately predict future blooms.

Irukandji jellyfish.

Carukia barnesi, the so-called ‘common Irukandji’, taken in sampling nets at Palm Cove near Cairns. Credit: Dr Lisa-ann Gershwin.

In a paper published today in the Journal of the Royal Society, Lisa-ann and her team have presented their findings, which demonstrate a clear link between Irukandji blooms and trade winds – or lack thereof.

Says Lisa-ann, “We know that Irukandji blooms generally co-occur with blooms of another invertebrate, called salps. We also know that salp blooms are triggered by upwelling, which in northern Queensland is driven by subsidence of trade winds. Sure enough, when we investigated we found a clear connection between recorded Irukandji ‘sting days’ and days when there was little to no trade wind present.”

Around Palm Cove, a beach near Cairns where the tests took place, the southeast trade winds are the dominant wind most of the time. These trade winds cause a net downwelling pressure that pushes the water downward and out to sea. However, when these winds begin to ease in the summer months, an upwelling occurs. It is these upwellings that Lisa-ann and her team believe transport Irukandji to the top of the water column – and on towards shore.

Irukandji stings on skin.

The subtle marks of an Irukandji sting belie their deadly potency. Credit: Dr Lisa-ann Gershwin.

Finding this elusive key to Irukandji bloom prediction has been a long process.

“More than 70 years worth of work has gone into trying to accurately predict Irukandji blooms, and I myself spent 18 years attempting to establish a link,” says Lisa-ann

“It wasn’t until I came to CSIRO and collaborated with my co-authors, who are ecological and oceanographic specialists, that we made the connection.”

This early warning system could potentially allow individuals, communities, councils and governments, as well as other marine industries, to know about Irukandji blooms up to a week in advance. By being able to predict Irukandji blooms, we can reduce the direct threat to ocean-goers by closing beaches, and also reduce anxieties and uncertainties associated with areas known for Irukandji stings.

Beach closure due to Irukandji.

A beach closure at Palm Cove due to an Irukandji bloom. Credit: Dr Lisa-ann Gershwin.

Lisa-ann says this study is just the first step. Further refinements and testing mean that we could provide greater certainty in prediction, and further reduce the rate of Irukandji stings. The system also has the potential to be rolled out at a national and international level.

“However, we must reiterate that this forecasting system is not a miracle cure for Irukandji,” says Lisa-ann. “We can never remove the threat completely.

Visit our website for more information on the Irukandji forecasting system.

For media enquiries or a copy of the Royal Society paper abstract contact Kirsten Lea, +61 2 4960 6245 or kirsten.lea@csiro.au


Creative ways we’re keeping fish on your plate

Grilled with garlic, oven baked, or lightly pan fried with a hint of lemon: Blue-eye Trevalla is one of Australia’s premium seafoods, and an iconic fish species for commercial fishers and seafood lovers alike.

A blue-eye dish at a restuarant.

Mmmmmm Blue-eye. Easy to cook, easy to prepare … it’s hard to get it wrong, according to the owner of the Mures seafood restaurant in Hobart.

Despite having been fished commercially for over 40 years in deep waters off southern Australia, the Blue-eye’s early life-history and movement is still shrouded in mystery.

Our research into these aspects of the Blue-eye’s biology aims to give certainty to government regulators and hopefully lead to increases in the catch quota for the fishing industry, which, in recent years, has dropped by 50 per cent due to apparent decreases in the fish’s abundance.

Ear bone’s connected to the catch quota

Using chemical signatures in the make-up of the Blue-eye’s ear bones, we aim to determine the fish’s population structure, early life-history and movement in the fishery area – which extends roughly from Brisbane to Adelaide, and includes several offshore seamounts.

Once the ear bone is daintily plucked from inside a fish’s head, we use laser-based sampling techniques to identify its chemical signature. From this we can infer each individual fish’s geographical origin.

With sufficiently large numbers of sampled fish in specific age groups, and when combined with models of ocean currents, the origins of Blue-eye populations in different fishery areas can be estimated.

These insights enable our analysis of the commercial catch to become location-specific or ‘regionalised’ and reduce many of the uncertainties in the assessment of total stock size.

Dr Alan Williams holds a blue-eye ear bone.

CSIRO’s Dr Alan Williams holds a tiny ear bone from this fresh Blue-eye (Hyperoglyphe antarctica).

A greater confidence in the stock assessment will ensure a sustainable catch for Australia’s fishing industry and the continued availability of Blue-eye for consumers’ plates.

Find out more about the project in this video:


The project is funded by the Australian Government through the CSIRO Wealth from Oceans Flagship, DPI Victoria, and the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation. Footage and images were taken in Hobart, thanks to the Captain, Russell Potter, and crew of the fishing vessel Diana, and Will Mure and head chef from the Mures Restaurant.

Media contact: Kirsten.lea@csiro.au t 02 4960 6245 m 0457 563 684

Blowing pollution out of the water

We're lending a hand in India to help improve their water quality. Image: M. DeFreese/CIMMYT.

We’re lending a hand in India to improve water quality. Image: M. DeFreese/CIMMYT.

By Jan Mahoney

Australians are a pretty fortunate lot – we have beautiful coastlines, top notch education and high-quality health care. Recent ABS data even shows that most Aussies are healthier, wealthier and happier than we were a decade ago.

But what about those who aren’t so lucky? It’s easy to forget about the millions of people in our neighbouring countries with no access to basic necessities like clean water and sanitation.

When it comes to clean drinking water, around 780 million people are living without it. That’s more than two and a half times the entire population of the United States.

India in particular is facing some serious water quality problems. Each day 29,000 million litres of sewage are generated, but only one quarter of this amount can be treated. The untreated sewage that gets discharged from cities and towns ends up in rivers and lakes, causing severe contamination.

India’s water is also heavily polluted by agricultural run-off containing fertilisers and pesticides. As the largest industry in Asia and the twelfth largest in the entire world, India produces a whopping 90,000 metric tons of pesticides each year. When enough of this waste enters India’s waterways, it can contaminate crops, harm children’s development and make the water supply poisonous and undrinkable.

Today, only 31 per cent of the 167 million rural households in India have access to tap water and domestic toilets. In fact, more people in India have a mobile phone than a toilet.

To help solve this problem, our researchers have travelled to India to give local scientists, academics and regulators a hand.

One of our researchers, Dr Anu Kumar (left), discussing safe water with village women.

One of our researchers, Dr Anu Kumar (left), discussing safe water with village women.

As part of our ‘Safe water for the future through Indo-Oz network’ project funded by Australian AID, the team is providing locals with the tools and techniques needed to assess the impacts of water pollution.

Through sharing case studies from Australian experiences, they are helping Indians better determine the likely impacts of climate change and the risks posed by cocktails of contaminants in water and sediments.

The project is also educating local children about environmental pollution issues. For instance, the team recently took a group of rural school kids to the local Ganga Aquarium to teach them about the importance of water safety, pollution and human health.

These children often miss out on formal education, and instead aid their parents as farmers, fishermen or garbage and landfill waste pickers.

Rural school kids from Lucknow learn about water safety at the Ganga Aquarium.

Rural school kids from Lucknow learn about water safety at the Ganga Aquarium.

By helping India’s next generation recognise the importance of clean water, these kids will have the potential to create a healthier, sustainable environment for the entire country in years to come.

Learn more about how we’re working towards a water-secure world.

Bio robots make a splash in the Indian Ocean

It sounds like a bad sci-fi plot: a fleet of ‘bio robots’ are let loose in the world’s third largest ocean to study its physical and biological makeup.

What could they be up to? Are they the first wave of an alien invasion, ala Independence Day or War of the Worlds? Or are they a human made technology turned evil, Terminator-style?

An Argo float being deployed.

When Argos attack?

Thankfully, the answer is none of the above: these bio robots will be used for the powers of good. They’re part of a new research collaboration between our scientists and their Indian counterparts at the Indian National Institute of Oceanography (CSIR-NIO) and the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS).

In fact, we should probably stop calling them bio robots, as cool as it sounds. They are actually an enhancement of an existing technology, known as ‘Argo’ floats. These clever robotic sensors are designed to help us understand how our oceans are influencing the climate.

About the size of a big barracuda, the free-floating devices are programmed to dive to depths of 1000m and 2000m over a ten-day period, and measure the ocean’s temperature as they go. They will repeat this cycle for years at a time.

There is currently a network of 3,600 Argo floats dotted across the world’s oceans, owned and operated by more than 30 different international research organisations.

Here’s a video of our marine scientist, Dr Susan Wijffels, explaining how they work:

Why Bio Argos?

The Indian Ocean is of vital strategic importance to its border nations. The east Indian Ocean alone is home to almost half of the world’s fishermen and women, and it yields around 8 per cent of global fish production. It contains the third-largest tuna fishery in the world, with an estimated value of US$2-3 billion annually. Plus, it contains mineral resources like copper, iron, zinc, silver and gold.

It also drives the climate of its surrounding regions, which make up more than 16 per cent of the world’s entire population. So, all in all, you can see why it’s important that we keep track of what’s going on below the surface.

Our new Bio Argos, as we call them, will be launched in the Indian Ocean by Australian and Indian vessels midway through this year. They will be equipped with tiny sensors that can measure biological indicators within the ocean like dissolved oxygen, nitrate, chlorophyll, dissolved organic matter and particle scattering.

A diagram explaining the Bio Argo float cycle (click through for a larger image).

A diagram explaining the Bio Argo float cycle (click through for a larger image).

Together, these sensors can tell us about the growth of plankton cells that drive the biology of the Indian Ocean, how much carbon they take up, how much gets used up the food chain and how much gets buried. Knowing about this growth is important for predicting how much food the Indian Ocean can produce, and how much carbon dioxide it can capture – which has a direct impact on climate.

Collecting this data will give us a better idea of what keeps the Indian Ocean healthy and productive, allowing us to manage its resources more effectively. It will also help us understand how the ocean influences both the regional and global climate and extreme weather events, like the one that devastated the coastal waters and fisheries of north Western Australian in 2010-11.

To find out more about the Bio Argo floats and this research partnership, check out our media release.

Sight saving science for the Torres Strait

By Ali Green and Sarah Klistorner

An estimated one million Australians have diabetes and this number is expected to double by 2025. About 60 per cent of these people will develop eye issues, like the diabetes-related disease retinopathy.

Diabetic retinopathy is one of the leading causes of irreversible blindness in Australian adults. The disease often has no early-stage symptoms and is four times more likely to affect indigenous Australians.

Just imagine if this disease was preventable.

A landscape image of Thursday Island coastline

On Thursday Island, Torres Strait, an ophthalmic nurse is screening eyes at the local hospital as part of the Tele-eye Care trial.

During the past few months, our researchers have been working with Queensland Health and the Indigenous and Remote Eye Health Service (IRIS) on the Torres Strait Islands to set up a remote eye screening service – giving hundreds of people access to specialist eye care.

For people living in remote areas, travelling a 5 hour round trip for specialist medical care can be disruptive to their family and community. Transporting patients can also be expensive.

A satellite broadband dish on a roof

Patient’s retinal images and health data can be sent from a remote community health clinic to the desk of a city based ophthalmologist.

Our Remote-I system is saving patients from the long and sometimes unnecessary journey by utilising local clinicians to conduct routine 15 minute retinal screenings, often as part of scheduled health clinic visits. Our technology sends hi-res retinal images taken in the screenings to ophthalmologists in Brisbane via satellite broadband.

Previously, ophthalmologists would only be able to fit in a limited number of eye screenings and surgeries when they visited remote communities. Once fully implemented, a city-based ophthalmologist will be able to screen up to 60 retinal images per week with the help of Remote-I.

Preliminary results from a review of data collected at one location showed that only three out of 82 patients screened to that date had a sight-threatening condition and required an immediate referral. Previously, those other 79 patients not requiring referrals may have held up the queue while the specialist was visiting the remote community. With Remote-I, those who need immediate treatment or attention can already be first in line.

With only 900 practicing ophthalmologists in Australia, and a high demand for eye health services in remote locations, finding new ways to deliver health services to remote communities is vital to providing the best care when and where it’s needed.

A Torres Strait man undergo an IRIS eye scan.

IRIS Coordinator patient screening in the Torres Strait.

By June 2014 the Tele-Eye Care trial will have screened 900 patients in remote WA and QLD. In addition to streamlining health care processes, the trial is collecting a lot of data.

And this is where the science gets interesting.

With patients’ consent, collected images will be used by the Tele-Eye Care project to study blood vessel patterns in retinas. Algorithms will then be designed to automatically detect particular eye diseases, which will aid diagnosis in routine screenings.

Even though tele-ophthalmology has been around for many years, this is the first time anyone has looked at image processing techniques to automatically detect eye defects in routine screening environments via satellite broadband.

A retinal image

Retinal images, each around 1.5MB in size, and electronic patient files are sent to an Ophthamologist in Brisbane.

We’re working hard to deliver better health outcomes for indigenous Australians. Being able to provide diagnoses on the spot will make a huge impact on delivering faster, more cost effective eye care services to the outback and prevent blindness.

This initiative is funded by the Australian Government.

Media contact: Ali Green +61 3 9545 8098

Answering the burning questions

People in fire gear supervise flames burning across grassland

We’re keeping a close eye on grassfires this summer.

This week’s heatwave across southern Australia has reminded us of the serious dangers posed by grassfires. They might not sound that threatening, but these fires can travel at speeds of up to 25 kilometres per hour, and damage hundreds of hectares of land within a matter of hours.

So while many of us were enjoying our summer holidays, our team of fire scientists were hard at work with researchers and volunteers from Victoria’s Country Fire Authority (CFA) to help learn more about grassfire behaviour in Australia.

In a series of carefully designed, planned and monitored experiments, the research team lit controlled fires in grass fields near Ballarat, an hour west of Melbourne.

The aim was to safely gather new and thorough data about grassfire behaviour in different conditions. Experimental plots containing grasses at different stages of their life cycle were burned, while experts observed and various instruments measured things like the time it took for the fire to burn across the 40 x 40 metre plot.

Aerial view of flames and smoke stretching across grasslands.

The view of our grassfire experiment captured by an unmanned aerial vehicle.

Australian researchers have been looking into forest fires and bush fires for decades, but this is the first time in nearly 30 years since we’ve conducted research into grassfires.

Back in 1986 we ran similar experiments in the Northern Territory, which led to the development of our Grassland Fire Spread Meter. This tool is used by rural fire authorities across the country to predict the rate that a grassfire is likely to spread once it starts.

What remains unknown is at what stage of the grass’s life cycle it becomes a fire hazard, especially for the grass types found across southern Australia.

Today, we have technology like unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to help gain a new, bird’s eye perspective of the fire’s progress, allowing us to analyse the burns with a whole new level of detail.

A scientist in fire gear holds up a UAV with smoke in the background

Send in the drones: our quadcopter UAV examines the experimental grassland burns near Ballarat.

Controlled by our scientists, the robot quadcopters flew above the experimental burns, filming the fire as it spread through the grass. The vision, along with other data captured by thermal sensors, will be used to develop computer models that can replicate and predict grassfire behaviour.

The results will help fire authorities like the CFA better respond to grassfires, as well as improving how they determine Fire Danger Ratings and when to declare Fire Danger Periods in particular regions.

The timing of the experimental burns was critical. The crew waited until the weeks of late December and early January for safe temperature and wind conditions to ensure any fires they lit would be easy to control and contain. They also needed the grass curing levels to be at the right amount. Thankfully, this was all wrapped up before we, and the grasslands, were hot and bothered by the heatwave.

Check out this video for the how and why of the experimental burns:

Irukandji forecasting: taking the sting out of stinger season

So, what are your plans for the Christmas and New Years break? Eating? Camping? Lounging? Lazing?

Good for you. Merry Christmas. But, while you’re chowing down on some delicious sustainable prawns and watching the Aussies continue thrashing the Poms, spare a thought for our scientist Dr. Lisa Gershwin, who will be spending her down time this year on a beach near Cairns, beta testing a forecasting system for the deadly Irukandji jellyfish.

You’ve probably already heard about this tiny but toxic family of stingers. Almost invisible to the naked eye, Irukandji contain a venom which, when injected into humans, results in the following not-so-pleasant list of symptoms: excruciating muscle cramps in the arms and legs, severe pain in the back and kidneys, a burning sensation of the skin and face, headaches, nausea, restlessness, sweating, vomiting, an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and psychological phenomena such as the feeling of impending doom. If that’s not enough for you, take a look at this YouTube video showing the effects of Irukandji syndrome in real time (scroll through to about the two minute mark if you’re particularly time-poor).

A Carukia Barnesi Irukandji specimen

A Carukia Barnesi Irukandji specimen. Check out the stingers on its bell (head) – as if its tentacles weren’t enough trouble. Charming!

Irukandji generally lurk in tropical waters, and at certain times of year (right now, for instance) they can make ocean activities for us humans pretty dangerous unless you’re wearing protection, by way of a full-body stinger suit. Even though they generally only appear near coastal areas for a few days at a time, predicting where and when has been a mystery. And not only do Irukandji have a direct impact on human safety, they also cause negative flow-on effects to tourism and local economies in affected areas.

Beach closure due to Irukandji.

Bad for business.

With studies showing their potential slow but steady drift southward due to warming ocean temperatures, things could get much worse. Can you imagine these guys popping up at Noosa Heads or Surfers Paradise for days at a time every summer?

Stinger suit fashion

Stinger suit fashion – coming to a beach near you?

This is where Dr Gershwin and her team come in. Their Irukandji forecasting system aims to provide an early warning system for communities and local councils or governments, to let them know when and where the jellyfish are going to arrive.

Says Lisa, “We want to be able to predict the conditions that are favourable for near-shore Irukandji blooms so that we can reduce not only the direct risks for swimmers coming into contact with them, but also the related anxieties and flow-on effects that their mere presence evokes.”

First up, this research involved some detective sleuthing, analysing when and where stings were occurring and linking the patterns to weather correlations like wind, tide, and current.

“Our research to date has shown that we can effectively forecast the presence of Irukandji blooms in coastal waters by studying wind patterns in particular,” says Lisa.

“For example, in north Queensland the south-east trade winds are the dominant wind most days of the summer, but every now and then they drop off for a week or so a time.

“When this occurs, that down-welling pressure is lessened and we see intrusions from the oceanic water coming up on to the shelf. We believe that this is part of the mechanism that is helping to drive the Irukandji toward the shore.”

Having successfully created a ‘hindcast’ model that has accurately predicted Irukandji patterns, Lisa and her team will now be putting the model to the test at Palm Cove, near Cairns.

For Lisa, this is going to involve getting in the water every two daylight hours for 14 days straight. In full body stinger suit and with net dragging behind, Lisa will traverse the beach attempting to detect and catch the tiny, translucent jellyfish.

If the Irukandji show up when and where the forecasting system predicts, it will be a success. If not, Lisa will use the anomalies to fine tune the system.

And of course, if you’re going to be putting yourself in a potentially deadly situation, you may as well make the most of it.

“As well as testing our forecasts, we’ll be looking for other biological indicators that occur when Irukandji are present – checking out what other sorts of species they like to hang out with,” says Lisa.

“We are also going to have a team from the Australian Venom Research Unit collecting any Irukandji that we capture to study their venom, as there is currently no antidote for an Irukandji sting.”

Sifting for Irukandji.

Sifting for Irukandji.

And finally, Lisa and her team want to look at the relationship between humans and Irukandji.

“At the moment, we have data that might say, for instance, that Irukandji stings are most likely to occur early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Is this because that is when there are more of them present? Or is it just because that is when humans are more likely to be swimming? We want to find out.”

According to Lisa, the primary goal of this project is to roll out the forecasting system up and down the Queensland coast, from Port Douglas in the north to Fraser Island in the south, and out to the reefs and islands of the Great Barrier Reef. In the long run, it could be used in other affected areas, like north Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

“The system has so many potential applications: a centralised website, an SMS advisory service, inclusion in weather reports, or even a personalised phone-app. If we could provide these types of alert services to government, industry and the general public and reduce the risk of stingers from our waters, the benefits would be enormous.”

In the mean time, the rigorous research process to improve and refine the Irukandji forecasting system continues. Stay tuned for more.

What do you want to know about bowel cancer screening?

Bowel cancer is one of the most curable types of cancer if found early. If the cancer is detected before it has spread beyond the bowel, the chance of surviving for at least five years after diagnosis and treatment is 90%. But bowel cancer can develop without early warning signs, so screening for it is important.

A transparent torso with a the intestines shown in red

Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world.

Screening for bowel cancer offers the best hope of reducing the number of Australians who die each year from the disease. In Australia about one in 19 men and one in 28 women will develop bowel cancer before the age of 75. This is one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world.

Bowel cancer screens can detect bowel cancer in people who don’t have any obvious symptoms, which increases the chance of finding cancer early when it’s more treatable. We want to find out what Australians want to know about bowel cancer and screening tests.

So tell us, what would you like to know about bowel cancer screening?

We’d like you to answer that question (and a few related ones) for us by completing a survey. Our aim is to find out what information about bowel cancer and screening programs is most useful to 45-74 year old Australians.

By doing the survey you’ll contribute to our knowledge of people’s attitudes towards bowel cancer and bowel cancer screening.

And you can go in the draw to win an iPad Mini 16GB!

The survey and competition are now closed. Congratulations to Ivan Lazarus for winning the iPad Mini in the prize draw!

A torso showing someone holding their hands in a heart shape over the navel

Diet is a risk factor for bowel cancer, so read our advice on how to Love Your Guts!

The survey results will contribute to research in our Preventative Health Flagship. We do a number of projects relating to bowel cancer every year, and we’re interested in people’s attitude towards the disease.

Remember, bowel cancer screening saves lives.

Hi-tech turtles

This satellite-tagged turtle will signal its position each time the aerial breaks the sea surface.

This satellite-tagged turtle will signal its position each time the aerial breaks the sea surface.

By Keirissa Lawson

We all know that the sewers of New York City, with their proximity to pizza shops and evil villains, provide a thriving habitat for teenage mutant ninja turtles.

But how much do we know about the habitat and movement of real turtles?

Scientists from CSIRO and the WA Department of Environment and Conservation, led by CSIRO’s Dr Mat Vanderklift, are capturing and tagging green sea turtles in the Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area off Western Australia, to gain a better understanding of sea turtle ecology.

“This is the first time turtle tagging studies of this kind have been conducted in the Ningaloo area,” said Dr Vanderklift. “Understanding where the turtles forage for food and how far they roam will provide invaluable information for ongoing management of these iconic animals in this World Heritage Area.”

Since February this year, Dr Vanderklift and his team have fitted 17 green sea turtles with acoustic tags which track the movement of the turtles as they pass by specialised listening stations in Mangrove Bay. Another two turtles from the same area have been fitted with satellite tags. Each time the aerial on the tag breaks the sea surface a signal is sent to a satellite and used to pinpoint the turtle’s position.

Each captured turtle has its vital statistics measured and logged before being tagged and released.

Each captured turtle has its vital statistics measured and logged before being tagged and released.

The tags, attached to the turtle’s carapace (shell), will give scientists an insight into the range and foraging patterns of these threatened marine reptiles. In addition, scientists are using remote underwater video to observe turtle behaviour up close.

“So far we have looked at more than 140 hours of video and have found that turtles tend to spend quite a lot of time in seaweed patches in the lagoon during the day,” said Dr Vanderklift.

Local students from Exmouth Primary School are getting behind the turtle tagging study and will name the two satellite-tagged turtles.

You too can follow the turtles’ tracks in near-real time.

Dr Mat Vanderklift releasing a tagged green sea turtle.

Dr Mat Vanderklift releasing a tagged green sea turtle.

This project is a partnership between CSIRO, the Western Australian Departments of Environment and Conservation (DEC) and Fisheries (DoF) and the Cape Conservation Group. The research is supported by funding from the Commonwealth Government through the Caring for our Country initiative.

A day at the museum: when robots come to life


The ‘bots, B1 and B2, ready to roll for their launch at the National Museum of Australia.

Today our latest robots come to life. The stars of our Museum Robot project, B1 and B2, will use telepresence technology to roam the galleries of the National Museum of Australia. Using high speed broadband, the robots will allow remote visitors to control their own view of museum exhibits while interacting with a museum educator.

“The Museum Robot is a fantastic initiative and a perfect example of some of the applications made possible by the NBN. This kind of rich and interactive experience, nationally accessible, depends on the type of synchronous communication made possible by high speed broadband,” Senator Conroy said.

The robot has a motorised base with wheels, a touch-screen display, and a ‘head’ that is a 360 degree panoramic camera. It also houses several on-board computers and Wi-Fi antennas. The robot accompanies an educator around the Museum, applying its navigational and sensing capabilities to plan its route and avoid obstacles and pedestrians.


When robots come to life.

The trial is being conducted at the National Museum’s Landmarks Gallery, which features national treasures such as Phar Lap’s heart and the Holden Prototype No 1, the original Holden motor car. During the trial, the robot will be accessible via schools and libraries with an NBN connection.

Moo-thane emissions

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.

Cow with device around its neck

Methane from the cattle is measured while eating on an individual basis, as well as at the whole herd level.

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.

Open-path lasers are used to measure the amount of methane being emitted from herds of cows.

Open-path lasers are used to measure the amount of methane being emitted from herds of cows.

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.

As exciting as watching grass grow

Grass. You just want to run through it. Or lie in it. Image: Flickr / hummyhummy

Grass. You just want to run through it. Or lie in it. Image: Flickr / hummyhummy

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.”

Richard Poire and Rasha Kardo battled over Brachypodium in the 2012 Battle of the Plants.

Richard Poire and Rasha Kardo battled over Brachypodium in the 2012 Battle of the Plants.

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.

Beer: how sweet it is

Image: Flickr / HeadCRasher

Image: Flickr / HeadCRasher

By Luisa Volpato

Many of you may enjoy a cold one on Australia Day, but as you sip that schooner spare a thought for the science behind the taste of your favourite beer.

The Food Futures Flagship’s work in the area of quality biosensors draws on research into the smell and taste receptors of microscopic worms and bacteria and how they so accurately detect different chemicals.


Scanning electron micrograph of a nematode worm’s head. Researchers are using the smell and taste receptors of nematode worms and bacteria to develop better performing sensor technology. Image: Dr. Julie-Anne Fritz.

Inspired by nature and a result of years of pioneering research, a bio-electronic nose, or CYBERNOSE instrument, has been developed to help detect and measure odours and chemicals in a whole range of substances, including food and drinks.

To give you an idea of how sensitive it is, it can detect one drop of a particular chemical in a body of water equal to 20,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

In the case of beer, a maltose biosensor has been created that measures the concentration of maltose, or malt sugar, in beer during the fermentation process, which is what contributes to the taste, quality and body of the beer. It’s more sensitive, quicker and cheaper than testing methods currently available.

Besides beer, maltose is found in other beverages, cereal, pasta, and in many processed products which have been sweetened.

While better tasting beer is not the aim of our research, the good news about this biosensor in maltose is that it’s a good example that can be adapted to a range of other uses across the food supply chain.

That’s because the maltose binding protein used in the biosensor is similar to other binding proteins, which can be used to detect levels of such things as carbohydrates and amino acids in foods.

So for example, a similar tool might help measure lactose in a food or beverage so manufacturers can adapt their products to make them suitable for people who are lactose intolerant.

Similarly, it could be used to check food safety and quality by detecting toxins or contaminants.

In the same way, this technology can be adapted to detect a wide range of soluble or volatile chemicals, potentially leading to these super sensitive smelling devices being used for medical diagnostics, environmental monitoring, pest control and protecting Australia’s security and biosecurity.

Who knows, the sniffer dogs at the airport might one day be out of a job.

Frickin’ lasers!

VegNet - Night shot

By Adam Harper

Deep in the woods of regional Victoria, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d walked onto the set of Star Wars as the night sky is filled with lasers being fired into the treetops. Pew pew!

But don’t worry, these lasers aren’t harmful and sadly it’s not a rave. In fact under normal conditions the lasers can’t even be seen.


The scanner (top) records the information to the data logger (below) before sending the information wirelessly.

What these lasers are doing is setting the global standard in forest vegetation monitoring. They’re called VegNET, world first scanners that have been developed by our Sustainable Agriculture Flagship to measure the change in forest canopies over time.

“By comparing weather and soil information to changes in the forest canopy we can better understand how things like climate change will affect our forests,” said our research scientist, Dr Glenn Newnham.

Forests are the lungs of the earth, they provide us with our oxygen rich atmosphere, filter our waterways and provide shelter for our wildlife; land managers need to understand how best to protect them.

We have been working with the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) in Victoria on the Victorian Forest Monitoring Program. This will see about 500 plots set up in forests across the state. If current trials are successful, VegNET technology may form an important part of forest monitoring programs in the future.

“The technology is an adaptation of a piece of equipment you can buy in the hardware store, the laser rangefinder. It measures the distance between two points and with a few modifications can be set to take measurements automatically,” Dr Newnham said.

VegNET inventor Dr Darius Culvenor completes the wiring on a new scanner in a forest in Victoria.

VegNET inventor Dr Darius Culvenor completes the wiring on a new scanner in a forest in Victoria.

Late at night, when most of the state is sleeping, these scanners are waking up for work, which involves taking a 360 degree scan over about 40-minutes to record 1,000 measurements of the forest above. This information is sent wirelessly to a data logger and made available online for scientists to access and analyse. Over several years this will become an extremely valuable record of the state of Victoria’s forest environment.

The next step of the program is to calibrate the technology with satellite observations. This will allow the DSE to monitor forest health and condition on a large scale with great ease.

“Traditional methods of forest measurement are still used but some of these sites take hours to get to. This technology is helping to provide more information in less time and is setting world standards,” Dr Newnham said.

The other advantage of such rapid monitoring of forests is that it can alert land managers to issues such as pest and disease outbreaks which may have gone unnoticed for months otherwise.

To find out more about the VegNET technology, it’s creator Dr Darius Culvenor and the partnership with DSE Victoria, we have this video for you :


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,056 other followers