Lauren O'Keefe

Journalist | Photographer | Cyclist

Designing better storage for mining’s offcuts

When people look at the towering piles of rock, the rubbish of the mining industry, most would be surprised to discover those waste rock piles are actually highly engineered constructions.

Dr Anita Parbhakar-Fox
Photo: University of Queensland

One person who has assisted the mining industry in cleaning up its act is Dr Anita Parbhakar-Fox. She is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Queensland’s Sustainable Minerals Institute and specialises in mine waste characterisation.

Dr Parbhakar-Fox examines mine waste and can determine what will happen to those towering rock piles over time. The most common problem is sulphide in the rocks being exposed to air which causes it to oxidise and turn into sulphuric acid.

Proper design and construction of waste rock piles can prevent this from happening and Dr Parbhakar-Fox has provided mining companies with the data they need to build piles that aren’t a danger to the environment.

“Modern mines work quite hard to minimise acid mine drainage formations and minimise the opportunity for sulphuric acid generation as much as they can,” Dr Parbhakar-Fox said.

Dr Parbhakar-Fox started to wonder if there was a way to provide primary data to mining companies which used existing data sets and would help to establish better protocols for testing.

She partnered with two fellow researchers, Chris Brough at Petrolab Ltd in the United Kingdom and Professor Sue Harrison at the University of Cape Town to devise a platform that would draw data from a variety of sources into a single location. Their platform which would be able to produce predictive results for mining companies before expensive tests were undertaken.

“One area of my research is always looking at existing data that [the mining companies] already have and how we can leverage of those data sets for waste classification,” she said.

A grant from the Global Connections fund allowed them to work together collaboratively and conduct experiments to provide data for their platform.

“The idea was that we each did a component of this work using our expertise and our test work and then we’d bring this all together,” she said.

“We’d collate this data and that would be the product that we would deliver to people to say ‘right if you’re going to do kinetic testing, you need to do this, you need to do this, you need to do this’ and generate these numbers and then the numbers need to go into a spreadsheet and the spreadsheet is going to tell you some predictive information’.”

The next step for the team is to get their platform included into global guidelines which are used by mining companies. A pitch has been made to the international association that manages the guidelines and Dr Parbhaker-Fox is hopeful they will be included in the next revision.

Profile of Dr Parbhaker-Fox written for the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering as part of a review of their Global Connections Grant.

New technology to protect harvests

With the value of Australian wine exports in the billions, a researcher in Melbourne may have found a way to help wineries to protect their valuable vines from mildew outbreaks.

Professor Andy Ball with his research colleagues in Jai Biotech in India.
Photo: RMIT University

Professor Andy Ball is an expert in environmental microbiology and is working out how to stop microbes such as fungi from attacking and destroying crops using nanotechnology.

Mildew can destroy an entire year’s harvest and can continue to affect vines in the following years, forcing wineries to take pre-emptive action by spraying chemical fungicides to control outbreaks.

“Viticulturists tend to just spray chemical pesticides at certain times of the year when they know mildew is potentially present,” Professor Ball said.

“It’s expensive and [growers are] adding difficult-to-break-down chemicals which are highly active in biological systems. And eventually you get resistance from the mildew.

“It’s not an ideal way forward.”

The new technique is designed to detect mildew in the vines and then target it with nanomaterials designed destroy it – with no harm to the grape vine or the soil.

So far, field trials have shown very encouraging results.

“It seems that the fungi take up the nanomaterials inside the cell and it destroys them. So far we’ve had a lot of success and it hasn’t had any environmental issues at all,” Professor Ball said.

Professor Ball believe that the technique has applications far beyond the vineyard and could be used to detect a huge range of organisms that could contaminate food.

“It will enable you to detect any organism you’re looking for. It doesn’t have to be a fungus, it could be a bacteria. It could be looking for E.coli, for example. Or listeria,” he said.

With a grant from the Global Connections Fund, Professor Ball formed a relationship with Jai Biotech in India.

“They were really keen and they had a scientist working with them who understood the concepts of what we’re trying to do and was very excited about this technique,” he said.

“The company was really forward thinking and allowed us to carry out the trials.”

Without the grant, Professor Ball believed his team would have struggled to conduct field trials to prove their technique works. While not huge, the grant gave the team enough money to get the ball rolling with Jai Biotech.

Professor Ball felt there was often a gap between researchers and the companies who were interested in their research and that the Global Connections Fund helps bridge it.

“You have these ideas and you’re talking to companies but there’s just never any money with which to do that small trial, meet up, discuss,” he said.

“This bridging grant system fills a really important niche in relationship between researchers and industry.”

Profile of Professor Ball written for the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering as part of a review of their Global Connections Grant.

World leaders in making infra-red lasers safer

A few years ago, Professor Heike Ebendorff-Heidepriem gave a talk at a conference about the technology she and her team were focusing on at the University of Adelaide.

Professor Heike Ebendorff-Heidepriem. Photo: University of Adelaide

The team had been working on extrusion methods to create hollow-core fibre structures for high power infra-red lasers, often used in surgery.

“Our group has shown that this extrusion technique is perfectly suited for glass types like chalcogenide glass that become soft at temperatures below 500 degrees Celsius,” she said.

“Our extrusion technique is perfectly suited to create a vast range of poly structures into the glass.”

In the audience, IRFlex CEO Francois Chenard had been impressed by what he heard.

He approached Professor Ebendorff-Heidepriem after her talk to see if she and her team were willing to work with them on extrusion methods.

Located in America, IRFlex has expertise in working with chalcogenide glass and were looking for a partner who could create the complex moulds they wanted.

For Professor Ebendorff-Heidepriem, her interest was in making infra-red lasers even safer to use and, in turn, more effective.

“People are looking for a safe method to deliver the laser to the point of interest without degrading the property of the light along the way,” she explained.

“Because the beam is essentially heat radiation and if you put it into glass fibre, there is the danger that if you crank up the power you will damage the glass.

“[Using the fibre] you preserve the laser beam properties while it’s travelling. So it’s transporting the light safely and preserving the beam properties.”

During discussions about how to establish a project, Professor Ebendorff-Heidepriem was pointed towards the Global Connections Grant.

She immediately saw it as a way to fund a trip to IRFlex’s headquarters in Virginia to see if the two groups could successfully collaborate.

“This is where this connection grant is so perfect. It gives a little bit of funding to do something together,” she said.

As the project progressed there have been many Skype calls between Professor Ebendorff-Heidepriem’s team and the IRFlex team to collaboratively resolve issues and decide on the next steps.

As the project has progressed, thoughts are now turning to how to get their hollow-core fibre structures into production, something IRFlex is eager to do. Further research is necessary and the two groups are both looking at funding options that will enable them to continue working together.

None of this would have been possible without the initial grants from the Global Connections Fund. With it, Professor Ebendorff-Heidepriem was able to foster a productive, rewarding working relationship with IRFlex.

“You need a working relationship. This needs some time to build up and having a small joint project that enables you to build this working relationship,” she said.

“Only then can you think of bigger grants, bigger projects to work together.”

Profile of Professor Ebendorff-Heidepriem written for the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering as part of a review of their Global Connections Grant.

Way of the future for farming?

With Earth’s population is expected to hit over nine million by 2050, it’s impossible not to ask how will farmers be able to produce enough food when the amount of farmable land is dwindling.

Professor Jim Whelan.
Photo: La Trobe University

One answer to develop a better understanding of how plants grow and which plant type is best suited to which environment.

Professor Jim Whelan and his team at La Trobe’s Institute for Agriculture and Food have been studying plant phenology, which is the physical expression of a plant’s genome.

“We need to have growth traits to match with the genetic traits and we can’t get that by just looking at them with our naked eye,” Professor Whelan said.

“If we build a container or box, and put a camera, or two or three, or whatever we want in it, we can watch plants growing by the hour and calculate that down to very small increments.”

While there are large testing facilities in Australia that allow scientists and researchers to phenotype a plant, the cost of using one can be prohibitive which is a block to research being conducted.

Through a Global Connections grant, Professor Whelan and his team collaborated with Czech Republic-based Photon System Instruments to build a tool called a Mendel Cube.

The Mendel Cube is essentially a small-scale version of the large research facilities and is targeted specially at education as a tool to help train the next generation of phenotyping researchers.

Through phenotyping, researchers can discover not only which plants will succeed in an area but which particular plant would be the best to breed from.

“Rather than just picking the best individual by eye, which as humans we’re not good at, we will have data, reproducible data that will be able to say, ‘okay, this is why we think this is the best individual for this’ and we can test that,” Professor Whelan said.

He also sees broader applications for the technology including a hand-held version that will use already collected data to tell farmers when a crop is at its optimum for harvesting.

It also has some potential to reduce the amount of pesticides and chemicals used on crops by using the same technology to observe crop as they grows.

Having already established a relationship with Photon System Instruments through other small projects, Professor Whelan and his team were able to use the entire grant to fund the building of prototype Mendel Cube.

The experience led to Photon System Instruments establishing an Australian base at La Trobe University’s Technology Park and Professor Whelan expects that they’ll be collaborating on many more projects with the company in the future.

“It’s not a direct outcome of the grant but it’s one of the reasons that they set up here was because they thought that was a good experience,” he said.

Profile of Professor Whelan written for the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering as part of a review of their Global Connections Grant.

Protecting Australia’s water ways

It’s not something that most people would ever think about – what happens when water is pulled out by irrigators all along the Murray Darling Basin? What else is getting caught when the pumps are turned on?

Dr Lee Baumgartner
Photo: Charles Sturt University

It’s something that Dr Lee Baumgartner has thought about. He believes millions of fish are sucked out of rivers by irrigation pumps every year.

“We’ve estimated as part of some work we’ve done that 87 million fish are sucked out every year across the whole Murray Darling Basin,” he said.

Dr Baumgartner is a researcher at the Institute for Land, Water and Society at Charles Sturt University in Albury and an avowed “fisho” who wants to save as much river wildlife as he can.

It’s not just fish and wildlife being sucked up by irrigation pumps.

Anything that is close to the intake when the pump is switched on will get pulled in and this includes gum nuts, sticks, bark, leaves and weeds – all of which have the potential to clog the intake and break the pump.

The solution seems obvious – screen the irrigation pump intakes.

Unfortunately Dr Baumgartner and his team met with high levels of doubt when they approached farmers.

“They said it’s going to be harder for us to clean the screens then to actually go and clean the jets on our irrigation system,” he said.

“They were bit worried they’d have to jump in the river and brush all these gum nuts and fish off the screen.”

After much scepticism and dismissal of their idea, Dr Baumgartner applied for a Global Connections Grant.

“We used the Global Connections funds to build a prototype that was going to help us demonstrate to the market that these actually have a practical application,” Dr Baumgartner said.

The prototype screen is been designed to have water constantly flowing over it, which doesn’t allow debris to settle on the screen. This ensures it’s self-cleaning – which means no jumping in the river for farmers.

“Every pump we can get a screen on, every diversion we get a screen on saves about 12 to 25 thousand fish per year which is a good outcome,” he said.

Dr Baumgartner and his team are currently in the process of proving the environmental and financial benefits of their screen and are seeing positive results.

Building the prototype and proving their screen will work has led to relationship with AWMA Solutions, one of the biggest irrigation supplies in Australia.

The relationship has flourished, with AWMA Solutions investing their own capital to build a huge outdoor lab for testing.

From small beginnings with a Global Connections grant, Dr Baumgartner and his team may have come up with way to protect river wildlife, save farmers money and potentially kick-start a new manufacturing sector in Australia.

Profile of Dr Baumgartner written for the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering as part of a review of their Global Connections Grant.

Tapping into graphene’s potential

According to many, graphene is the material of the future with unlimited potential to change the world.

Head of Research and Development at Imagine Intelligent Materials, Phil Aitchison, is quick to counter the hyperbole, noting that some of what is said and written about graphene is nonsense.

However, he believes that it does have enormous potential.

“The real miracle of graphene is that you can do these things that can be done otherwise but graphene can do better,” Mr Aitchison said.

“You can do things that were extremely difficult before and very expensive to do.”

Imagine Intelligent Materials have already successfully introduced graphene to Australia’s mining industry where it used as a sensor to track the movement of trucks on the mine’s roads. Another use is in irrigation where it has been used to reduce water wastage by detecting leaks in channels.

But Mr Aitchison’s big vision is to make every surface a sensing surface, able to provide feedback on what’s happening to the object the graphene has been applied to.

One example to immediately leap to mind is roads. Graphene could be added as a layer during the road’s construction and, once complete, it would be able to provide data on how much it’s being used and how it’s faring.

“In our factory in Geelong we built a bitumen road. We put [the graphene] into the road base and we could tell the difference between a child and a truck,” he said.

Another area of interest is structural health monitoring. The technology is in its infancy but Mr Aitchison believes that their technology could predict events like what happened at Opal Tower and Mascot Towers in Sydney.

“What we’ve done in the lab is we’ve taken a piece of concrete, coated it one side. The concrete moves, expands, bends and we can measure that,” he said.

With this technology only just beginning, Mr Aitchison used a Global Connections Grant to approach world-leading polymer and geotechnical experts at the University of Oklahoma to discover the full potential of graphene.

“These grants are great because it’s fast and easy. They’re not big, but they start a relationship which may or may not continue,” he said.

“But the alternative is everybody spends a huge amount of time and effort building up this big process to get something and it doesn’t happen. And then it all just falls by the wayside.”

For Imagine Intelligent Materials, it hasn’t fallen by the wayside.

The grant provided them with the opportunity to establish a relationship with some of the best polymer and geotechnical experts in the world which can only help the company succeed in its quest to be a world leader in graphene technology.

Profile of Mr Aitchison written for the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering as part of a review of their Global Connections Grant.

Discovering the future of medicine

With more and more bacterial infections becoming drug resistant, questions are being asked about how medicine will treat these illnesses in the future.

Dr Mark Blaskovich
Photo: The University of Queensland

Dr Mark Blaskovich and his team of researchers at Institute for Molecular Bioscience, The University of Queensland believes they could have a potential answer.

Their research focuses on using antibodies to selectively diagnose and treat bacterial infections.

Dr Blaskovich explained the new approach is like using a targeted missile to treat an infection instead of the traditional method of broad-spectrum antibiotics which is more akin to carpet bombing.

The technique allows for a high concentration of antibiotics to be delivered to a specific cell type – in this case the bacteria causing the infection – which kills it, curing the patient.

“What we were looking to do was to attach a payload to antibodies that would contain something known to be toxic to the bacteria so an antibiotic is the most obvious choice,” he said.

The method would have the benefits of reducing a patient’s exposure to the antibiotic and lowering the possibility of side effects or complications, including damage to helpful bacteria living in a patient.

Dr Blaskovich believes the technique could also be used to diagnose bacterial infections much more quickly than current testing which can take 24 hours or longer to confirm a diagnosis.

“With the advances in diagnostics, within probably five years, hopefully there will be a pathway where you can rapidly sample the infection and tell that it is, for example, a pseudomonas as opposed to e-coli and then use the bacterial specific treatment if that’s been developed in parallel,” he said.

He envisages that the tests could be rolled out to medical clinics and used by GPs to rule out bacterial infections and help them break the bad news that the patient has a cold or the flu, for which antibiotics are useless but often prescribed.

With the help of a Global Connections Fund bridging grant, Dr Blaskovich partnered with Visterra, a biotechnology company based in Massachusetts who specialise in using antibody therapy to treat a variety of diseases, including cancer.

The project had reached test tube proof of concept stage and was showing positive results when Visterra was bought by Otsuka Pharmaceutical, a Japanese global healthcare company in September 2018.

Unfortunately for Dr Blaskovich, the new owners of Visterra decided to discontinue research into several projects including theirs.

He is hopeful the company will send the project data and the actual antibodies to his team’s research facilities at The University of Queensland.

Once returned, Dr Blaskovich believes his team would be able to advance the work enough to apply for other research grants or attract the interest of another research collaborator who could take the work in a different direction.

“One of the things we were trying to do with this collaboration was come up with a new and better way of selectively targeting the bacteria,” he said.

“There’s so much room and scope for developing different variations of how it’s done. Because this is all very early stage research, there’s no guarantee as to which approach is going to be successful.

Profile of Dr Blaskovich written for the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering as part of a review of their Global Connections Grant.

Butt out, don’t flick out

The CFA and Environment Protection Authority are calling on smokers to not flick their cigarettes, especially from car windows.

With the fire danger period for North Eastern Victoria expected to continue into May, the CFA and EPA are asking that people think about how they’re disposing of their cigarette butts.

Many fires in Victoria are caused by discarded lit cigarette butts and EPA North East Region manager Emma Knights is hoping people will continue to report others who flick their butts out of car window.

‘‘EPA counts on members of the public to report people who flick their butts out of car windows,’’ Ms Knights said.

‘Flicking lit cigarettes out your car window is a serious fire hazard, as recent fire tragedies across our state have shown.

‘‘And cigarette butt litter pollutes our roadsides and chokes our waterways.’’

Some of Victoria’s worst bushfires were sparked by discarded cigarettes and the CFA regularly attends fire caused by people who have flicked their butt away when they’ve finished their cigarette.

Mr Warrington said more than half of Victorian bushfires are deliberately lit or caused by reckless behaviour.

‘‘One of the most common causes is inappropriately disposing of cigarette butts,’’ he said.

‘‘Recklessly caused fires are often viewed by the community as accidental, but in reality, the potential for injury, loss of life, property damage and drain on resources is the same as that caused by arson.’’

The EPA handed out more than $5million in fines to Victorians for throwing away litter from their cars with the majority being cigarette butts.

Ms Knights said that EPA’s litter reporting program works to curb cigarette butt littering, with fines and enforcement actions undertaken through the courts ‘‘sending a clear message that this kind of mindless behaviour will have real consequences’’.

EPA litter fines range from $322 for a small piece of rubbish or unlit cigarette up to $645 for a lit cigarette.

Individuals issued with a litter fine have the right to request that EPA review the matter or to have it determined in court.

People can report littering via EPA’s website, through its smartphone litter app, or by phoning 1300 372 842.

This article was first published in the Seymour Telegraph on March 20 2019.

Avenel fire brought under control

The fire at Tarcombe Rd near Avenel which was started by lightning strikes on March 1 is now under control.

Difficult terrain restricted the firefighting efforts against the blaze near Booroola Homestead.

Although under control and well within containment lines, the fire is still an ongoing concern for the CFA who remain onsite.

It’s estimated that the fire has destroyed 220ha of dense scrub which includes stringybark eucalyptus trees and tea trees.

When clumps of tea trees catch fire, they can send flames three or four metres up into the air.

Firefighters set up containment lines around the fire but were restricted in their firefighting efforts because of the steep, rocky terrain.

CFA crews are on the ground night and day, constantly monitoring the fire.

Incident controller Peter Bell said aircraft were used to water-bomb the fire.

‘‘[The terrain] is all mountain range, rocks, boulders and the like that can’t be driven across so we’re fighting it with aircraft and tankers up close where we can,’’ he said.

‘‘We have aircraft fly across it each day to find out all the hot spots so we can try and water-bomb those.’’

The fire has been burning in deep valleys that run in a north/south direction with limited drivable tracks which made it hard to access the fire.

‘‘Because we can’t get into the actual fire because of the hilly and steep terrain, we’ve got to let it burn out to the control lines which is sometimes putting up a lot of smoke which you’ll be seeing across the district,’’ Mr Bell said.

Unlike the Bunyip State Park fire which has destroyed over 30 houses and nearly 70 outbuildings, no structures have been lost as the area is sparsely populated.

The fire did come extremely close to the vineyard at Booroola Homestead where picking is under way but firefighters successfully defended the vines and none were damaged.

Mr Bell said that there was no danger to the public or any structures.

Due to the terrain, Mr Bell said what they really need is rain to give the site a good soaking but at the moment there’s little forecast.

One of the bigger concerns now is air quality with VicEmergency issuing a statewide warning for the Labour Day long weekend.

This was due to smoke from the various fires combining and drifting across the state.

People can connect to multiple sources for emergency information, including the VicEmergency app emergency.vic.gov.au, the VicEmergency hotline on 1800 226 226, or follow VicEmergency on Facebook and Twitter.

For information about the effects of smoke on health go to epa.vic.gov.au/your-environment/air/smoke or for more information on air quality visit EPA’s website at epa.vic.gov.au/airwatch

This article was first published in the Seymour Telegraph on March 13, 2019.

Practising law, her way

Jacqui Brauman wants to change the law profession.

Jacqui Brauman, owner of TBA Law and its principal solicitor.
Photo: TBA Law.

Ms Brauman first qualified as a solicitor while working at Tehan George & Co in Seymour but then moved to Wagga and then to Sydney for several years with her husband who is in the military.

In 2012, fate brought her back to the Seymour region and she bought Rod Theobald’s practice, determined to find a different way to practice law after a particularly disturbing experience in Sydney.

‘‘I had a horrendous experience with my last employer in Sydney,’’ Ms Brauman said.

‘‘Discrimination, sexual harassment. I even got physically hit once by my boss. That compelled me to work for myself because I wanted to be in control of my environment and I want it to be safe. And I wanted women who I brought into the workforce to also be safe.’’

The experience of being slapped across the face by the general manager in the middle of heated discussion is a central motivating factor behind why Ms Brauman has set up her law firm, TBA Law, the way she has.

Starting with herself and one support staff member, she has grown the firm to 10 employees and all of the solicitors who work at TBA Law are women.

Ms Brauman said that was intentional.

‘‘I only have female solicitors working for me. I’ve got a couple of male support staff and that’s been conscious,’’ she said.

‘‘I really tried to flip the model a little bit because traditionally it’s been male partners, maybe some female associates and then female support staff. But no, my firm’s going to be females solicitors.

‘‘My first and foremost goal was to have a safe environment for myself. So when I’m bringing other junior staff members and mentoring them, I want them to have a safe experience in legal industry and I want to protect them to some degree from what it can be like.

‘‘Obviously they’re still exposed to other solicitors in other firms on other sides of matters and I can’t protect them completely.’’

She said she had hired one or two male solicitors but they elected to move on voluntarily when they realised they didn’t fit with the culture of the firm.

Ms Brauman wants to change the way it has become acceptable for opposing lawyers to attack each other in an attempt to win their cases.

‘‘Some people think that just because it’s adversarial, it’s alright to attack people personally. It’s not okay and you don’t tear someone down professionally just to achieve a result for a client.’’

After her experiences, Ms Brauman wants to make TBA Law a safe place for young lawyers who are entering the profession and to show them the law doesn’t have to be an aggressive, win-at-all-costs environment.

She doesn’t regret starting her law firm even though it’s a six-day-a-week job at the moment and encourages any woman who’s thinking about starting their own business to do it and to seek out other like-minded women as she has done.

‘‘I would say find a good network of other business women. I think that’s made the biggest difference for me because it’s a safe place to share things and get ideas,’’ she said.

She belongs to a variety of female-only professional groups including Her Business (formerly called the Australian Business Women’s Network) and WOW Women in Shepparton which allows her to float ideas and spend time with other like-minded women.

As for the female business leaders of the future, Ms Brauman believes that someone’s first career choice doesn’t have to be their last.

‘‘The first degree you do doesn’t have to be the last or the only profession that you follow. I really hate that the school system says you have to do so well in VCE and then know what you want to do for the rest of your life from there,’’ she said.

‘‘I think they should know that you can go back to uni, you can go back any time. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you to make a decision about what you want to do.’’

This article was originally published in the Seymour Telegraph, March 6 2019.

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