Aussie moon mining, Intimate machine friends, Curing ‘unmentionable’ cancers, Blood tests for Parkinson’s, Batteries that don’t die: UNSW Science Week

A team of big thinkers from UNSW Sydney is available over the next two weeks to discuss bold ideas for the future.

  • 90 per cent of today’s solar cells use Aussie technology. But we’ve only just started on the journey to cheap solar – look out for solar roof tiles, solar windows, and farmers making hydrogen, says Ms Justine ‘JJ’ Jarvinen. JJ will join former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for a live panel discussion, Zero Carbon World, online from 13 October.
  • We’re going back to the Moon this decade. Aussie mining tech will be there to help build permanent settlements, predicts Professor Andrew Dempster. Professor Dempster also says that the cost of putting a kilogram in orbit is now hundreds of dollars. It used to be hundreds of thousands of dollars. But is it worth it?
  • Australian farms will be feeding the world with legumes and cellular meat invented by Professor Johannes le Coutre. They’ll also be ‘growing’ hydrogen, says Ms JJ Jarvinen. Professor le Coutre is part of free event The Future of Food online from 16 August.
  • Our cells touch and feel their way in the body. Touch guides their development. So how will they cope with a long mission to Mars? Dr Kate Poole is finding out.
  • Is artificial intimacy a threat? Will the machines move in and take over our love lives, asks Professor Rob Brooks.
  • Associate Professor Neeraj Sharma is planning batteries that don’t die and phones that only need charging once a year, but he needs to fine tune the chemistry to stop the electrodes dissolving like sugar in tea. 
  • Could the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin one day be given long-term to at risk young patients to counteract the effects of early life stress and head off mental health issues, asks Dr Sarah Baracz. Sarah will present the online event Can the ‘love hormone’ alleviate the impacts of childhood trauma? on 19 August.
  • If women learn more about their bodies, we can save lives from ‘unmentionable’ cancers, says Associate Professor Caroline Ford. She’s developing blood tests for early cancer diagnosis. But she says that lack of knowledge means that easy to treat cancers can become deadly.
  • Plus, changing ocean currents; seaweed forests; fighting STIs with data; tiny machines in nature; teaching us to recognise rips; and putting carbon back in the ground.

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Tomorrow’s farms: growing cellular meat and harvesting sunlight

Australia’s farms are going to change dramatically in the next 20 years, as farmers pivot to exporting sunlight and ethical meats. 

The world will need more food and affluent communities will want more meat. That will create new farming opportunities, says UNSW researcher Professor Johannes le Coutre. He believes farmers will be: 

  • growing legumes and other protein-rich plants to drive a process that will create foods free from animal meat
  • growing ethical or no-kill meats in vats using grass and other crops in what Johannes calls cellular agriculture
  • continuing to produce highest quality conventional beef and lamb for premium value markets in Australia and Asia.  

Australia is perfectly placed to lead the world in this agricultural revolution that will also bring an end to factory farming, says Johannes.  

Farmers will also be harvesting solar energy, both for the grid, and to make hydrogen for export to Asia says Justine ‘JJ’ Jarvinen from UNSW’s Energy Institute.

Johannes and JJ are both available for interview.       

Johannes is part of free event The Future of Food online from 16 August.

Solar everywhere, hydrogen BBQs, new nuclear and farming hydrogen 

Ms Justine ‘JJ’ Jarvinen has a vision of energy in Australia. She’s CEO of UNSW’s Energy Institute, so she has a great insight into what’s coming.  

Today, over 90 per cent of the world’s solar cells are being made using technology invented at UNSW. And their efficiency has improved by orders of magnitude. But the journey’s only just beginning. Look out for solar roof tiles, solar windows and much greater efficiency.  

Anyone who wants to will become an energy trader contributing to the power supply in their neighbourhood.  

Hydrogen will replace natural gas as a transportable fuel for our BBQs and for export to Asia. It will be made by farmers harvesting sunlight for the grid and for hydrogen production.  

Her other predictions include: 

  • microgrids will power remote communities 
  • we will be able to make fully recyclable batteries using old coffee grounds   
  • traditional nuclear power stations will be superseded by ‘new nuclear’ technologies that will be modular and complement solar and wind energy.  

JJ will join former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for a live panel discussion, Zero Carbon World, online from 13 October.

Batteries that last forever

We are going to need smaller, safer, longer-lasting batteries if we’re to make the most of renewable energy, drive electric vehicles across Australia or go further into space. 

Associate Professor Neeraj Sharma from UNSW is working to get the chemistry mix just right. “The electrodes in these new batteries eventually dissolve, like sugar in tea,” he says. “So, we’re playing with the chemistry to stop the parts dissolving.” 

Associate Professor Sharma says the ultimate battery design will need to be tailored to different applications like: 

  • electric vehicle batteries that outlive the rest of the vehicle 
  • phones that need to be charged once a year 
  • batteries so thin and small they can be implanted under the skin for animal tracking 
  • cheap, small batteries that power vast arrays of environmental sensors to tell us where bushfires are travelling in remote areas.

Machines will be pushing our buttons

Is artificial intimacy a threat? Artificially intelligent machines are already creeping into our human emotional lives. Professor Rob Brooks expects that in the near future they’ll move in, and if we aren’t careful, take over.

Artificial intimacy is already here: with virtual friends like Siri and Alexa; digital lovers such as smart sex toys and sex robots; and algorithmic matchmakers including Tinder, Grindr, YouTube and Facebook that pair us up with new friends and content we like.

These technologies are already imitating our relationships. But what will happen as machine learning gets better, blurring the lines between these three kinds of artificially intimate technology? How will humans fare as machines start pushing our buttons more than we push theirs?

Professor Brooks is an evolutionary biologist and author at UNSW and can talk about the opportunities and serious threats artificial intimacy poses to our ancient, evolved minds.

How will we handle ‘virtual friends’ that can learn about us and tailor their interactions to suit us; drawing us near by sharing gossip, quantifying how much others like what we have to say and mimicking the ancient primate impulse to ‘groom’?

Could ‘love hormone’ therapy prevent mental illness?

Young kids who experience early life stress and trauma are more likely to experience longer-term mental illnesses throughout their life, such as anxiety and depression.

Dr Sarah Baracz sees a future where at-risk patients could be offered a prevention to stop them from developing mental health issues.

She is exploring whether ‘love hormone’ oxytocin could one day be given long-term to young patients to counteract the deleterious effects of their early life stress.

Dr Baracz is a Senior Research Associate in the School of Psychology. She can talk about her trials of oxytocin therapy in animal models, and what they tell us about the potential for human use.

She will present the online event Can the ‘love hormone’ alleviate the impacts of childhood trauma? on 19 August.

We can stop the other women’s cancers too

Associate Professor Caroline Ford is calling for action to tackle endometrial cancer and other gynaecological cancers. 

She says that the first step is for women to get more comfortable with their bodies and to talk about the unmentionable. 

“We’re delaying having children and that’s contributing to a dramatic increase in endometrial cancer rates. It’s relatively easy to treat, with survival rates over 90 per cent if it’s detected early. But women aren’t often comfortable with discussing what’s considered normal and the signs of cancer may be missed,” Associate ProfessorFord says.  

She leads the Gynaecological Cancer Research Group (GCRG) at UNSW.  

Her vision is for a future where:  

  • women know their bodies better and are more open to talking about what’s going on inside, with stigma gone 
  • survival rates for all gynaecological cancers are better than 90 per cent 
  • research for women’s cancers is better funded with more clinical trials leading to more effective tests and treatments 
  • brutal surgery (e.g. hysterectomy) for these cancers is avoided.  

Associate Professor Ford’s own research is focused on a blood test for ovarian cancer where early detection is currently difficult and survival rates are less than 50 per cent. Her team is also developing new and less toxic drugs for endometrial cancer.

Could a blood test diagnose Parkinson’s disease 20 years before we see the damage?

Parkinson’s disease starts to develop up to 20 years before we see its impact. Dr Emma Sierecki believes a simple blood test can be developed for early diagnosis of neurological diseases, including Parkinson’s disease. She’s a molecular biologist at UNSW.

She says a blood test that leads to early diagnosis could start a revolution with:

  • improved drug treatment
  • slowing down the disease
  • possible reversal of the disease
  • improved quality of life
  • better understanding of neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Dr Sierecki believes that a blood test could be available to the public within 10 years, with people in their 30s or 40s, or even their 20s, then being advised to take the test if they’re considered at risk.

Big data can bring help to the communities who need it most, to fight STIs and blood diseases

Health records, such as Medicare data or information on prescriptions, should be used to tailor public health programs, according to epidemiologist Dr Skye McGregor.

“That would allow us to help people where rates of sexually transmissible infections, and other blood borne viruses are highest,” she says.

The anonymised records won’t reveal individuals, but it will tell health leaders what’s happening in certain age groups, municipalities, post codes, ethnic and cultural groups and so on.

Targeted health messaging and appropriate resourcing then keeps relevant groups informed, expands consultation and promotes clearer communication and less confusion.

Australian mining technology heading to the Moon

We’re going back to the Moon. NASA in April awarded SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk, a $2.9 billion contract to build a spacecraft to bring astronauts to the lunar surface as early as 2024. A few years later they’ll create a permanent settlement. 

But what are they going to use to build a settlement, to construct buildings and roads and extract water? 

Professor Andrew Dempster, UNSW’s School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications, says Australia has the expertise NASA needs.  

“We’re good at remote mining, with all kinds of autonomous machines at work in the iron ore mines of WA,” he says.  

Professor Dempster and his colleagues are developing mining tools for NASA for the next generation of lunar rovers.  

He can also discuss: 

  • Space is getting cheaper: it used to cost $200,000 to put one kilogram in orbit. That might soon be down to hundreds of dollars.
  • But is it worth the effort? Professor Dempster says we first need to figure out:  
    • What’s the business case? 
    • Do we need ‘moon environmental impact assessments’ when we turn over soil that hasn’t seen the sun in over five billion years? 
    • And who really owns the Moon?  

Getting to Mars? Andrew says we need a staging post on the Moon first.  

Will our cells get lost in space?

Our cells touch and feel their way in the body. Touch guides their development.

“So, what will happen when we’re living with the low gravity of the moon? Or when we’re weightless for months on a mission to Mars or beyond?” asks Associate Professor Kate Poole of UNSW’s School of Medical Sciences.

We know that there are risks of bone damage and even spontaneous fractures. But many other cells might be affected. So, can we manipulate our cells’ sense of touch?

Associate Professor Poole is investigating with the support of a grant from the United States Air Force Office of Scientific Research. She is available to discuss living in space, our cells’ inner senses and the new world of mechano-biology.

Life’s oldest machinery reveals engineering secrets

This year Dr Matt Baker helped reveal that the common ancestor for some of life’s earliest molecular motors is older than first thought, including the flagellar motor ‘tail’ on some bacteria, and the rotating parts of ‘ATP synthetase’ – a protein involved in energy storage in cells.

These structures build themselves and can rotate five times faster than a Formula 1 engine and change direction in thousandths of a second with nanotechnology far surpassing what we can create ourselves.

Dr Baker can talk about how life got moving and how we can learn from these tiny machines for other uses in our bodies or elsewhere.

Slowing climate change with the ‘forests’ of the 8000-kilometre-long Great Southern Reef

We need to celebrate and protect the Great Southern Reef and its vast seaweed forests.  

Seventy per cent of Australians live next to it but most of have never heard about it.  

It’s an ecosystem 8000 kilometres long, extending across the entire southern half of the continent, hugging the coast from New South Wales all the way to southern Western Australia.  

It’s one of the most pristine and unique reefs in the world and it’s connected and supported by vast seaweed forests, which Associate Professor Adriana Vergés says could play an important part in slowing or reversing climate change. 

Associate Professor Vergés is a researcher focused on the impacts of climate change in the ocean and on the restoration of underwater seaweed forests and meadows. She can talk about the Reef and solutions-focused projects that engage local communities.

She was the scientist curator of the 2021 Manly Seaweed Forests Festival, which examined all things seaweed, raising awareness of the Great Southern Reef. Now in National Science Week, she is launching the Seaweed Forests Festival Podcast, discussing seaweed applications for human health, biotechnology, food, and the fight against climate change.

Could you spot a rip? Everyone should learn how to spot rip currents for safer swimming at the beach

“Rip currents kill more people than bushfires, floods, cyclones and sharks combined, yet they don’t get the attention they deserve,” says UNSW’s Professor Rob Brander. “We need to teach every kid how to recognise and avoid rips.”

We know to swim between the red and yellow flags to keep safe at the beach, but most Aussie beaches are unpatrolled by lifeguards and that is where most drownings occur. Professor Brander, leading UNSW’s Beach Safety Research Group, says we need to need to re-think and expand upon the flags’ message and become more informed.

“Our future populations will need to be educated about rip currents, as we can’t rely on flags and lifeguards at every beach,” he says. “Over four million Australians have been caught in a rip current and 60 per cent of beachgoers are not confident in how to spot a rip, and that needs to change.”

Professor Brander can talk about what to look for at the beach, how different types of rips work, what his drifting sensors have revealed about rips and what needs to happen to increase education.

Oceans make our planet habitable, but giant ocean currents are changing

Without oceans, the poles would be 60 degrees colder, and the equator would be 30 degrees hotter. Life as we know it might survive in a narrow band in between, according to UNSW’s Professor Matthew England.  

“The oceans have buffered 93 per cent of the extra heat, and 25 per cent of emissions. But they can’t do all the heavy lifting. We need to stop global warming,” he says.

“And now we’re seeing the impact of ocean change.” The effects include rising sea levels, intense storms, more water in atmosphere, big heavy rain systems and melting ice caps.  

This year we’ve seen devastating rainfall events in Japan, Germany, the UK and in the February floods in Sydney.  

In the North Atlantic, the Gulf Stream is slowing. It’s a massive ocean current that makes northern Europe habitable and sustains life in the northern Atlantic. Climate disaster film The Day after Tomorrow predicted the end of the Gulf Stream. “Now it seems to be happening. Not overnight, but slowly and surely,” says Professor England.

He can talk about climate change and ocean change and how the two are inextricably linked, with possible disastrous consequences for the planet.

New industry could put carbon back in the ground for good 

Australia could create a new industry, putting carbon back in the ground using oil fields.

UNSW researcher, Dr Furqan Le-Hussain says Australian oil fields could be taking carbon dioxide produced from cement, steel and chemical industries out of the atmosphere, and storing it permanently in spent oil fields.

And by charging for the service, Australia will emerge as a leader in capturing and storing carbon dioxide.

Dr Le-Hussain says his technology could capture and store up to twice the amount of carbon as existing carbon sequestration technology, by injecting CO2 into rock formations previously considered unsuitable – such as used oil fields. The technique can be used before the oil field is exhausted and can actually help extract the remaining oil.

“To lower the carbon in our atmosphere, we need to be capturing and storing carbon as well as growing our use of renewable energies,” says Dr Le-Hussain. “While renewables are the key to decarbonise electricity and transportation, carbon capture and storage is the only scalable solution for industry.

“And Australia has some promising locations where this is an option. We just need the government policies to allow this to happen.”