The physics of kangaroo’s knees; no more exploding smartphones; cracking fusion power; and a zero carbon future

Bulletins, Media bulletins

In this bulletin:

It’s the second day of the Physics Congress in Brisbane and we’ve got stories on an “atomic MRI machine” even smaller than the cells in your body from Melbourne University researchers; how ANU researchers are developing a diamond-based quantum computer; University of South Australia researchers working out if plasma jets can replace lasers in cancer therapy; and more.

We’re also looking at diversity in science, with speakers covering where we are at for ‘women in science,’ what it means for women’s leadership in Asia and Australia, for LGBTIQ scientists, and diversity in general.

Researchers available for interview, contact:

More at

Also in Canberra today

Australian scientists battling a return to the dark ages: how bacteria and other bugs are fighting off our antibiotics, and the new drugs being developed to beat them. Scientist available for interview. More below.

Kind regards,

Arc welders in the operating room; the physics of kangaroo’s knees; no more exploding smartphones; women in leadership; and more

No more exploding smartphones: Australia-China supercapacitor collaboration (Brisbane)

The perils of lithium-ion batteries are well known to owners of the Galaxy Note 7, but battery fires have also plagued power plants and even passenger jets in-flight. The Queensland Government is getting behind an Australia-China collaboration to build supercapacitors: purely electric storage devices using graphene, which promise many advantages over their chemical-based cousins.

QUT’s Professor Nunzio Motta is leading the Australian end of the research. The major challenge is developing scalable ways of growing graphene sheets. At the Congress, he’ll present his work on growing graphene for other kinds of electronic components but he’s happy to talk about both areas and the potential of graphene. He imagines, for example, a car or train in which the body panels act as energy stores extending the battery range, and storing energy from braking.

Arc welders in the operating room: plasma’s surprisingly soft touch (Adelaide)

Could plasma jets replace lasers in cancer therapy? The tools more often used to cut and weld metal can be surprisingly gentle, says Endre Szili from the University of South Australia’s Future Industries Institute. He’s part of an Australia-UK-Japan collaboration on plasma medicine, which involves the use of ionised gases for everything from wound healing, to disinfection and cancer surgery. Unlike plasma torches, the plasma jets used by the team are cool to touch, making them useful for treating skin.

They’ve been testing plasma jets on real tissue, hoping to fine-tune their equipment to deliver exactly the amount required. Along the way, they’ve made note of a surprising added benefit: plasma jets can deliver potentially therapeutically beneficial agents deep within living tissue. This could make plasma jets particularly useful for targeted disease treatments; for example, killing cancer cells in a tumour without damaging the healthy tissue.

Kangaroos can help us bounce back from knee injuries (Brisbane)

Kangaroo knees are impressively tough, and QUT researchers think they know why. They’ve been using a clever MRI trick called the Magic Angle Effect to image the microscopic structure of kangaroo cartilage, and have identified the structural characteristics of three different cartilages in the knee joint, each adapted for a different role—sliding, squishing, and carrying load—which allow Skippy to come down hard on both legs without needing a knee reconstruction.

Whilst the three histological zones have previously been identified in cows, horses and kangaroos, this study shows there are considerable differences between the thickness of these zones and also in the extent of collagen anisotropy.  Tonima Ali from QUT hopes their findings may benefit knee joint treatment and tissue engineering.

Gas plasma sterilising milk and improving beer (Geelong)

Plasma is sterilising milk without harming its nutritional value and improving beer brewing. Dr Xiujuan (Jane) Dai from Deakin University has shown that plasmas can do this and more: enhancing plant growth, treating wastewater, and enabling nano-fabrication at atmospheric pressure and near room temperature.

These plasmas are partially ionised gas containing electrons, ions, excited atoms and molecules, free radicals, and UV photons. Plasma has been much more difficult to generate inside liquid than in gas, because much more energy is required. Selection of a desired chemical species in liquid is even more difficult. But Jane and her team at Deakin can now do it cheaply and safely. She’s developed a rig that generates gas plasma within a liquid by blowing gas bubbles through fine metal needles. The plasma is formed inside the bubbles when a very short, high-voltage pulse is applied between the needles and a mesh immersed in the liquid. Choosing the gas used allows the selection of species. These species are generated inside the bubbles and can only react with, and go straight into, the liquid giving high production. The gas and liquid can be varied, which has opened up the surprisingly wide range of applications.

Jane has always been devoted to global collaboration and sharing know-how as she believes that it is critical to the future of plasma innovation for a better world.

Also today:

  • Australia helping to crack fusion power, bringing the energy of the sun down to earth for a zero carbon future
  • Diversity in science: where are we at for ‘women in science’, what it means for women’s leadership in Asia and Australia, for LGBTI scientists, and diversity generally.
  • From Kodak and Xerox to lasers and the LED revolution—100 years of the Optical Society; incoming president Eric Mazur will talk on why optics is important 100 years on.

The APCC-AIP Congress is the Joint 13th Asia Pacific Physics Conference and 22nd Australian Institute of Physics Congress incorporating the Australian Optical Society Conference. It’s on at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre from 4 to 8 December 2016

Australia helping to crack fusion power, bringing the energy of the sun down to earth for a zero carbon future

It’s the world’s biggest experiment—a multi-billion machine, with first results in 2025.

Speakers from around the world, including senior advisor to the ITER project Professor Jean Jacquinot, will speak at the Physics Congress in Brisbane about the global race to master the process that powers our sun. Researchers from ANU will speak about Australia’s involvement.

The key to a low carbon future is a huge fusion experiment being built in the south of France. ITER will be ten times hotter than the core of the sun, and will (hopefully) produce hundreds of megawatts of power.

Jean Jacquinot, long term advisor on the project will share the hopes and dreams of fusion scientists all over the world, as ITER’s construction gains momentum, thanks to an unprecedented collaboration between nations representing over a third of the world’s population.

The challenges are huge: holding 200 million degree-hot hydrogen gas in a magnetic donut, finding a wall material that can withstand the bombardment of a burning fusion reactor—neutrons with five times the energy of a conventional nuclear reactor—and efficiently converting that energy into electricity.

But Jacquinot says the pay-offs are huge—baseload power from essentially limitless fuel that is found in sea water, in a process that can’t meltdown and doesn’t create greenhouse gases or long-lived radioactive waste.

ITER is a collaboration between historically strong fusion research countries, EU, Russia, and the US with more recent comers to the world stage in Asia.

Three of those, China, Korea and Japan have started a collaboration to propel their technology forwards, which Professor Shigeru Morita will describe. Fusion physicist Dr Yueqiang Liu will describe the EAST fusion reactor in China. Many believe that, with their available research resources, China will be the first to demonstrate a fusion power plant.

Australia is playing our part too. Last month the ITER Organization signed an agreement with ANSTO that will enable Australian scientists to participate in ITER and the Integrated Tokamak Physics Activity (ITPA), the international body that coordinates ITER research. Australian speakers at the Congress include:

  • Associate Professor Matthew Hole, who leads a group from the Australian National University (ANU) in the simulation and modelling of fusion plasmas—including modelling of plasma flow and anisotropy, through to 3D-modelling.  He is the Program Chair of the Plasma Physics session at the Congress, Vice Chair of the Division of the Plasma Physics of the Association of Asia Pacific Physical Societies, and Chairs the Australian ITER Forum, a consortium of over 180 scientists and engineers in support of an Australian engagement in ITER. A meeting of the Forum is scheduled at the Congress to discuss possibilities for closer integration in ITER science.
  • Professor John Howard, also from the ANU has pioneered technology for imaging the flows and temperature of the hundred-million degree gases inside a fusion reactor, and has been contracted to prepare conceptual designs for an installation on ITER.  The ANSTO- ITER Organization agreement could see Australia secure highly prized port space required for locating their equipment on ITER. “The agreement is a great opportunity for Australian high-tech industries to be a part of the multi-billion-euro construction project,” says John.
  • Matt Thompson, a PhD researcher from the ANU, who is studying how a tungsten fusion reactor wall will cope with a burning plasma at hundred-million degrees. Using the Australian Synchrotron as an x-ray probe, he has found tiny bubbles and tungsten nano-fuzz which form after exposure to the plasma—discoveries he thinks may be put to work in sensor or chemical technology.  Matt and his supervisor Cormac Corr, were recently invited to present the results of these studies to the ITPA.

Adi Paterson (CEO ANSTO), Mike Walsh (Head of ITER diagnostics) and John Howard at the ITER site last month (credit David Campbell, ITER)

Australia set to ride the quantum computing wave

We have the technology! The first simple quantum computers are being built all over the world as decades of research and development culminate in technology that accurately builds structures atom by atom.

Researchers already have practical plans for building usable quantum computers based on silicon, the director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology Professor Michelle Simmons, at the University of New South Wales, will tell the Australian Physics Congress in Brisbane on Wednesday.

A key strategy is based on the team’s extraordinary control of individual atoms, which allows them to construct and precisely place atomic-scale devices in silicon. Michelle will also outline their approaches to scaling up their technology.

Quantum computers offer the capacity to solve problems that conventional computers cannot, especially in areas of complex modelling, cryptography, fast database searches and simulation of quantum materials. The ability to build them out of silicon, already the basis of an industry worth more than $300 billion a year, would greatly speed their commercialisation and adoption.

But fabrication is only part of the way to functioning quantum computers. These revolutionary computers will also need software, completely different kinds of algorithms to instruct their operation because they will implement multiple instructions at the same time. Professor Jingbo Wang and her colleagues in the Quantum Dynamics and Computation Group of the University of Western Australia are one of the teams already working on how to write those quantum computer programs.

Jingbo will tell the Congress about a collaboration with the University of Bristol’s Centre for Quantum Photonics to build an experimental physical model to test the quantum code written by her PhD student Thomas Loke.

Down in Melbourne, the technology is getting a very different application.

An “atomic MRI machine” even smaller than the cells in your body is being designed by researchers at the University of Melbourne. It could provide direct insight into the “final frontier of life,” according toViktor Perunicic.

The tiny MRI devices will be embedded in computer chips and use Australian-invented quantum computing tech to image individual bio-molecules atom by atom inside their native cellular environment, directly determining their structure: insights which have thus far been almost impossible to obtain for several key proteins in the body. The devices function completely differently from their modern equivalents, using spin qubits—the quantum equivalent of ordinary computer bits—to sensitively probe the target molecule’s nuclear spin density from close range. The team’s discoveries have recently been published in Nature Communications and could be ready for use in a matter of years.

And while much of Australia’s research into quantum computers is based around using silicon as the material of construction, postdoctoral fellow Dr Marcus Doherty at the Research School of Physics and Engineering at the Australian National University favours diamond as the platform of choice. He and his international colleagues have been looking at how to transport information between the components of a potential diamond-based quantum computer.

He will tell the Congress that the team believes that this can be done by controlling the movement of individual electrons between defects in diamonds, and will report on the team’s successful first steps towards putting this idea into practice.

Australian scientists battling a return to the dark ages

Media release from the Australian Academy of Science

  • Academy of Science public lecture: “Waging Chemical Warfare on Microorganisms”
  • 5.30pm, Tuesday 6 December, Shine Dome in Canberra
  • Presented by Professor Kiaran Kirk, ANU

Common bacteria are evolving into superbugs that resist antibiotics. Parasites prevalent throughout the developing world are becoming resistant to all the drugs that we have at our disposal. Some of our most basic treatments for some of the world’s most common diseases could soon become useless.

This is the sobering message that an audience in Canberra will hear on Tuesday evening from malaria researcher Professor Kiaran Kirk at the Academy of Science’s iconic Shine Dome.

Professor Kirk, Dean of the Australian National University’s College of Medicine, Biology and Environment, will talk about the chemical war being waged against microorganisms by medical researchers, and will explain just how close we are to a world in which bacterial and other infectious diseases are fully resistant to medicines.

“Microbes are becoming resistant to currently available medicines and the treatments we have come to rely on for disease control are being compromised,” said Professor Kirk, a leading medical researcher whose research focuses on the development of antimalarial drugs.

“This is becoming an existential challenge to health systems around the world.”

Professor Kirk said that the evolution antibiotic resistance in some bacteria has been driven by the much greater use and common misuse of antimicrobials in humans and animals.

“Every time we don’t finish a course of antimicrobial drugs, the surviving microbes have a chance of surviving and passing on resistant traits to future generations.

“The real challenge lies in the developing world where regulations and awareness are lacking, and where people can often only afford one pill at a time.”

Professor Kirk’s talk is the final in the Academy’s 2016 speaker series Bots, bacteria and booze: science of the everyday.

The event is being held at the Shine Dome in Canberra from 5:30-7.00pm on Tuesday 6 December. Tickets ($10 including refreshments) are still available at

Professor Kirk is available for interview.

Contact: Chris Hatherly,, (02) 6201 9458, 0417 209 425.

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