A Nickel for your vote

Last week we brought you bees with backpacks… but this week we’re bringing nickel back.

Please, don’t be scared – we’re not talking about that band. Instead, another of our awesome research collaborations – the Direct Nickel process – has been nominated for an award in The Australian’s Innovation Challenge. The project, which has the potential to unlock 70 per cent of the world’s nickel supply and provide an enormous boost to the Australian economy, is up for a gong in the Challenge’s Energy and Minerals category.

And again, we’re asking you to #voteCSIRO

So why do we think this deserves your vote? Well, ask any metallurgist and they will tell you: nickel is a versatile and important metal, famous for giving stainless steel its strength. In fact, nickel is used in hundreds of thousands of products: from nuts and bolts, to cutlery and cooking pots, through to industrial equipment and jet engines.

Fiona McCarthy of Direct Nickel working at our pilot plant in Perth.

Fiona McCarthy of Direct Nickel working at our pilot plant in Perth. Image – Chad Taylor

A new processing method for extracting this in-demand resource, developed by Sydney-based company Direct Nickel, is being tested at our brand-new, $3.5 million pilot plant in Perth.

It uses recyclable nitric acid as a more environmentally friendly and cost-effective way of extracting nickel from untapped laterite reserves, which are estimated to hold more than 70 per cent of the world’s total nickel supplies. And it just so happens that we have an abundance of nickel laterites in Australia, while other sources of nickel around the world are running low.

If all goes to plan, this processing method could be ready to roll out to industry in two years’ time – and it’s predicted that it could realise a $30 billion per year Australian nickel industry.

We reckon that’s worth a vote.


Young guns – our up and coming

Saad SayeefSaad Sayeef – Research Scientist – Energy

When clouds block the sun, solar panels and the electricity networks they are hooked up to need time to adjust to the fluctuations. Saad is working out how to maximise solar efficiency as part of the Energy Networks Team in the CSIRO Energy Flagship. He is looking at various solutions including smart grids, solar energy management and solar “forecasting”.

Beau_Leese

Beau Leese – General Manager – Strategy, Performance and Flagships 

Beau is responsible for the development and implementation of the CSIRO’s overall enterprise strategy, new strategic initiatives, science portfolio investment, planning and performance management, Impact 2020 and cross Flagship collaboration (phew). Beau led CSIRO’s operating model review and the startup phase of the integrated reform program. He is a member of CSIRO’s Executive Management Council, SICOM and Major Transactions Committee.

 

Lisa portraitLisa Harvey-Smith: Research Astronomer – Information Sciences

Lisa is CSIRO’s Project Scientist for the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder in WA.
The daughter of a Primary School teacher and a house-dad, Lisa left school at the age of 11 and taught herself at home, where her passion for astronomy developed. Her scientific publications span a number of fields from star formation, cosmic magnetic fields and gravitational lensing to supernova remnants. When not designing telescopes and studying galaxies billions of light-years away, she enjoys ultra-long-distance running, including 12 and 24-hour races. In 2012 she was appointed chair of the steering committee of the Women in Astronomy Chapter of the Astronomical Society of Australia.

Nick RodenNick Roden – PhD Student – Environment

Rather than chipping on to the 9th green on the professional golf circuit, Nick Roden is now looking at how different biological and physical processes combine to influence the carbon cycle in the waters around East Antarctica. A few years ago Nick, who is based in Hobart, decided that studying the biology of the waters around East Antarctica as part of a PhD had a brighter future than being a professional golfer, so Nick chucked in the clubs and joined CSIRO. We’re glad he did.

 

Vanessa (Ginny) Hill – Social Media Advisor – Communications

Vanessa Hill + Luna Vanessa is one of the team leading CSIRO into the digital age as far as social media is concerned –video content produced by Vanessa has had more than 13 million views on YouTube. Other platforms such as Twitter and news@CSIRO blog take CSIRO’s and Vanessa’s work to millions more each year.
Even when Vanessa is at home or on holidays – she keeps on tweeting and communicating science.

 

 


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.

Heliostats.

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

 


More than 85 years of growth, change and impact

By Dr Megan Clark, CSIRO Chief Executive

Some of you may have seen a series of articles in the local media covering a range of topics in relation to CSIRO.  I would like to share with you the opinion piece, below, in response.

For 87 years, CSIRO science has been supporting Australia’s national growth. CSIRO has not done that by standing still, and over a decade ago a radical transformation of the way we deliver our science was undertaken.

To remain relevant to the nation and to answer the complex questions for society, we needed the courage to transform. For example it is no longer enough for farmers merely to have the best crop varieties.  For the next level of productivity they need the best farming systems, the best sensors, the best water efficiency and soil knowledge.  They need all of these answers delivered in a connected way.

Dr Megan Clark

Dr Megan Clark

CSIRO provides these answers through its flagship program, multidisciplinary challenge-focussed groups that bring together the best minds and research.  Was this the right decision? Yes it was, and others around the world agree with us: the Grand Challenges program in Canada and the INRA metaprogrammes in France are just two examples of similar responses. But to maintain the solutions focus requires a balance with science excellence.

We hold ourselves accountable to those who are passionately committed to quality science, our former employees, our clients and the Australian public and I agree with those who demand science excellence.  How do we do this? We subject our experiments, our papers, our fields of research, our output and our operations to rigorous scrutiny.

Each flagship and research division brings in a team of international experts every three to four years. The experts examine many dimensions of our work, make recommendations and when we receive criticism we act.

We respond by increasing investment in some areas of science, building on areas and exiting from others, making decisions that balance our budget constraints with our science goals. If a review shows we are not performing in a science area, we build, we exit or we transform that area.  There is no standing still in CSIRO.

For example, in 2009 the Earth Sciences and Resource Engineering review decried the publication rate. In only three years this rate has doubled. CSIRO’s geoscience standing has for the first time entered into the ranks of the top 0.1 per cent of global institutions. And this has been achieved at a time when technology from this division is helping the mining industry in 19 of the 31 Australian long wall mines, for both productivity and safety gains.

As some have feared, the CSIRO transformation has not curtailed our science.  Here are some of the facts: Our ranking is in the top ten of all institutions in the world for three scientific fields: environment/ecology, agricultural science, and plant and animal science.  This is equal with the standing of research heavyweights such as Oxford and Yale Universities, an extraordinary achievement for an Australian institution.

In 2012 we had record engagement with industry, record licenses of our IP and a record publication rate. Our mandate as an applied science organisation goes beyond research. CSIRO is Australia’s largest patent holder with 3582 live patents, 728 inventions, 275 trademarks and 83 plant breeder rights. We have particular strengths in measurement, biotechnology, materials (metallurgy) and computer technology, winning the prestigious European Inventor Award from the European Patent Office last year for the CSIRO team that invented fast wireless LAN.

CSIRO partners with 38 of the 40 universities in Australia and has connections with 72 countries. These relationships help train future researchers and build international scientific connections. We recruit, train and mentor hundreds of young scientists each year in schools, as university students and as doctoral candidates.

Building science capability for Australia is an important part of CSIRO’s culture.  We know our people like the work and find it meaningful.  Exit interviews invariably tell the same story “I loved my work here because I knew it was making a difference”. Our externally conducted staff survey tells us our people are more engaged than ever before.  Our absentee rate is less than half that of the Australian Public Service and our turnover is low.

This contemporary view of CSIRO as evidenced in our staff measures, has also been validated by our external clients. In a recent pilot client survey, the average willingness-to-recommend score was 8.6 out of 10. Our long term research alliances with Boeing, GE, Orica and many others are a further validation of our contribution to industry.

We do have areas to improve.  We have had claims of unacceptable behaviour made by former employees and I have addressed those directly. A number of internal actions are in place as well as an independent external review which is underway.  CSIRO has been criticised by some for being silent on this issue but we must respect the privacy of all involved and it is not appropriate to discuss or defend details of alleged cases in public.

The men and women who work at CSIRO are among the most passionate, committed and hard working in Australia. It is a privilege to lead CSIRO and I am proud of the evidence I get every day of the difference we make to the lives of Australians.


Octopus, spaceship, or virus?

By Jayden Malseed

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, but we’re hoping these brightly coloured images can tell an even bigger story.

At first glance you may think the image below is part of an octopus tentacle, or maybe the underside of an alien spaceship from the 1996 movie Independence Day, or perhaps even something else entirely.

Microscopic blue and green image of a ferret's kidney infected with Hendra virus

Is it an octopus? Is it a spaceship?…nah…it’s only 200 microns wide!

It’s actually a section from a ferret’s kidney that is infected with Hendra virus,  and has been taken with a confocal microscope.

Now this isn’t just your ordinary microscope. Costing roughly $750 000, the microscope is designed to focus on fluorescent colours that have been ‘tagged’ to specific components, which then show up on a big computer screen, giving us these incredible pictures.

The green highlights are the cells that have been infected by Hendra, while the blue highlights are the cell nuclei. To create this picture an antibody is dyed fluorescent green, which then attaches to the viral proteins, effectively colouring it green.

The vital research, led by microscopist Dr Paul Monaghan, uses these images to study the cell biology of Hendra virus. The confocal microscope, which is located within the high containment facility at our Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong Victoria, helps Paul and his team better understand the virus, and to be able to answer questions such as why it attacks certain cells, and what it does when it gets to a cell.

“We’re developing a deeper understanding of the virus by using the microscope and the images, and if we can pinpoint a specific stage in the virus lifecycle and say to ourselves ‘this is the point we need to stop it’ then that would be enormous”, Paul explained.

This is a confocal image of tissue culture taken 18 hours after inoculation with Hendra virus, and is about 100nm wide

This is a confocal image of tissue culture taken 18 hours after inoculation with Hendra virus, and is about 100nm wide

The two images to the right are slightly different from the first. Where the first was a section from a kidney, these are taken from cells growing in tissue culture. We have also labeled two virus proteins: one red and one green.

They demonstrate how the Hendra virus has infected the cells, and after 14 hours has fused those cells together to form what is called a syncytium. The green/blue round circles are the nuclei – normally one in each cell – but the rest of the cell is relatively unaffected.

This is a confocal image of tissue culture taken 124hours after inoculation with Hendra virus, and is about 100nm wide

…and after 24 hours.

After 24 hours, the infection has progressed and newly made virus proteins are gathering at the edge of the cell (next to the black areas) to form new viruses. The red and green proteins are now together and can be seen as an irregular orange line at the edge of the cell.

These images allow Paul and his team to study the virus at different stages of its lifecycle, and and will be incredibly helpful for future research with Hendra virus and other related viruses that threaten the biosecurity of our animals, people and environment.

This research is part of our wider program of work on bats and the viruses they carry.


Smooth operator: CSIRO’s UltraBattery

Dr Lan Lam (far left) and some of the team members that work on the UltraBattery in the laboratories in Clayton, Melbourne.

Dr Lan Lam (far left) and some of the team members that work on the UltraBattery in the laboratories in Clayton, Melbourne.

Today we celebrate the career of Dr Lan Lam – the primary inventor of CSIRO’s UltraBattery – an invention putting two technologies together into one awesome storage unit! Bringing down the cost of hybrid electric vehicles and making it easier to integrate more renewable energy into the grid are just some of the achievements of the UltraBattery.

Dr Lam and his team took the world’s 150 year-old battery technology and revolutionised it in the CSIRO labs. Today Dr Lam retires and leaves a legacy of impact.

“It was always my dream to create a better battery. I knew the success of hybrid electric and electric vehicles were dependent on it,” said Dr Lam.

This year the first UltraBattery will be released in the automotive market, powering hybrid electric vehicles (HEV) in Japan, United States, South America, Europe and Asia. The use of HEVs decreases our reliance on fossil fuels and thereby reduces our carbon emissions.

Hybrid Electric vehicle using UltraBattery technology

The UltraBattery has been tested in Australia and overseas. The car in this photo clocked over 100,000 miles at the Millbrook Proving Ground in the United Kingdom.

The UltraBattery combines the traditional lead acid battery and a supercapacitor into one – normally they are separate components.

“It sounds simple, but we have now created a new technology that is 70 per cent cheaper than current batteries used in hybrid electric cars, and they can also be made in existing manufacturing facilities,” Dr Lam said.

Two of the world’s battery giants, Japan’s Furukawa Battery Company and United States’ East Penn Manufacturing, are commercialising the UltraBattery for both automotive and renewable energy storage applications.

UltraBattery technology has been successfully installed in large-scale solar power plants in New Mexico, USA and King Island off the coast of Tasmania – the largest renewable energy storage system in Australia. UltraBattery storage allows intermittent renewable energy to be smoothly supplied to the electricity grid.

In 2009, the US Government recognised the importance of the UltraBattery and awarded East Penn Manufacturing $US32.5 million towards the development and commercialisation of the technology

There is a wealth of opportunities for the UltraBattery, including distributed smart grids, short driving range electric vehicles and bikes. CSIRO’s large energy storage team continues to research and develop UltraBattery technology, making it lighter, more efficient and help Australia and the world move towards a low carbon future.

Two researchers in a battery bank underneath a wind turbine.

Smoothing renewable energy helps to combat the intermittent nature of the power. So as the wind stops blowing, the UltraBattery kicks in to ensure a steady flow of power into the grid. This is a photo of a project in Hampton NSW, with two of our researchers in the battery bank.


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