New genus of bugs discovered at WA alumina refinery

Previously unknown species of naturally-occurring bacteria have the potential to save the alumina and aluminium industries millions of dollars while helping to reduce their impact on the environment, microbiologist Naomi McSweeney has found in a collaborative project between Alcoa of Australia, CSIRO and the University of Western Australia. [click to continue…]

…by putting the squeeze on mining waste

You may not be able to squeeze blood out of a stone but, by applying the right amount of ultrasound during processing, Jianhua (Jason) Du and colleagues from the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE) have been able to squeeze a considerable amount of fresh water from mining waste. [click to continue…]

Using microscopic streams of liquid to separate valuable metals from dissolved rock could revolutionise mineral processing, according to researchers at the University of South Australia.

The researchers already have shown the technique can be used to extract copper quickly and efficiently. They believe the process can be scaled up to industrial levels and used for recovering many other minerals such as nickel, uranium, gold and platinum. [click to continue…]

The first practical atom laser is a step closer today thanks to Australian researchers. [click to continue…]

 Bluefin tuna use three times as much oxygen as other fish their size, making them more difficult to culture. That’s just part of the valuable information uncovered by University of Adelaide PhD student, Quinn Fitzgibbon and his colleagues in a study where they monitored live tuna swimming inside a 350-tonne “waterbed”.

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The cleaning power of sound waves on the back of a truck

A young researcher in Sydney is cleaning up contaminated soil by blasting it with ultrasound.

Andrea Sosa Pintos from CSIRO Industrial Physics has shown that toxic and carcinogenic pollutants, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), can be decomposed quickly, easily and cheaply using a portable treatment unit.

 “Chemical analysis of the soil and water after we’ve treated it confirms that more than 90 per cent of pollutants have been destroyed,” she says.

Present soil remediation techniques such as landfill disposal, incineration and bioremediation, have many limitations. “None of these provides a complete or cost-effective solution. And some of them can be time-consuming.” says Sosa Pintos.
“Our process is very simple. We generate high-power ultrasound waves in a slurry of the contaminated soil in water,” Sosa Pintos explains.

The soil and water are mixed and the slurry is pumped through a treatment unit where it is exposed to the ultrasonic waves. The whole process only takes a matter of minutes, as opposed to hours and days, or even months using other techniques.

 “Ultrasonic waves travelling through the mixture create micro-bubbles. When these bubbles burst on the surface of the soil particles, they release intense shock waves which can generate temperatures of up to 5000 degrees Celsius. Any chemical contaminants on the surface of the soil particles bear the brunt of these bursts of energy and are blown apart,” she says.

Importantly, the surrounding liquid stays cool, eliminating the possibility that the remnants of the toxic compounds can recombine to form dangerous by-products, as sometimes happens using other technologies. Dioxins are formed during incineration, for instance.

The pilot plant Sosa Pintos and her colleagues have developed can already process about a tonne of soil a day. For a commercial scale system a more efficient feeder unit including a higher capacity pump would be required.

Sosa Pintos says. “If the right engineering company were interested, within a couple of years we could develop a commercial treatment unit able to be hauled to contaminated sites on the back of a truck.”

The combination of high destruction rates, very low energy costs, and the convenience of on-site treatment, makes high-power ultrasound a promising option for soil remediation. 

Andrea Sosa Pintos is one of 16 Fresh Scientists who are presenting their research to school students and the general public for the first time thanks to Fresh Science, a national program hosted by the Melbourne Museum and sponsored by the Federal and Victorian governments, New Scientist, The Australian and Quantum Communications Victoria.  One of the Fresh Scientists will win a trip to the UK courtesy of the British Council to present his or her work to the Royal Institution.

Could Australia rise to the top of the diamond pipe again? Macquarie University researcher
Craig O’Neill believes his research could open new diamond fields across Australia.

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Salads, shampoos and mining to benefit from theoretical
research into droplets

How much effort does it take to understand the behaviour of oil droplets?
A multi-disciplinary team of six researchers from the University of Melbourne
has spent the best part of two years, and used $300,000 of equipment to crack
the problem.

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A new process for drying wood could revolutionise the timber industry and lead to cheaper timber for customers.

The process combines a new microwave technology with more traditional drying techniques, such as solar drying.

At present it can take a year or more to convert some Australian timber into top quality furniture or flooring. Much of this time is needed to dry the wood after it has been sawn.

The microwave technology, developed by a team in the Australian Cooperative Research Centre for Wood Innovations, could reduce the time needed to dry wood to just months or less.

“A brief burst of high powered microwave energy before drying drastically shortens solar timber-drying time without changing the visual appearance of the wood”, said Mr. Graham Brodie, one of the CRC team.

Quicker drying means increased processing rate and reduced costs for the timber industry. These potential savings could be passed onto customers, making wood cheaper and more consistent in quality.

The work has been in progress for several years and members of the CRC team are currently running pilot microwave conditioning and drying trials on commercial timbers. “We hope that this technology will become a commercial reality soon,” says Graham.

Wood contains millions of tiny cells, stacked together in long rows. These cells resemble little water filled straws. When green wood dries this water slowly leaks out of these straws. Because the walls of these wood cells are quite solid, the drying process can be very slow. It can take several months or even a year to dry some timbers properly.

“Intense microwaves raise the temperature of the wet wood so fast that the water inside the wood cells boils. The steam pressure blasts tiny holes through some of the wood cells to create better connections between the straws. These pathways make it much easier for moisture to escape. Most of these tiny pathways can only be seen under a microscope”, says Graham.

Earlier experiments used a modified domestic microwave oven and a home made solar drier to treat small pieces of wood. The CRC microwave team has graduated to commercial scale microwave generators which are many times more powerful to treat much larger pieces of wood. A new microwave generator is under construction and has 300 times the power of a domestic microwave oven.

The microwave treatment also makes the wood more permeable, making wood processing such as preservative treatment more rapid.

“Microwave processing allows timber to be impregnated with resins or preservative to improve its strength, stability and durability,” says Professor Peter Vinden, CEO of CRC Wood Innovations. “Microwave technology enables acceleration of preservative treatment to a few minutes, and generates a more environmentally friendly product.”

Graham is presenting his work to the public and the media for the first time thanks to Fresh Science, a national program presented at the State Library of Victoria.

Research staff Alex Shaginov and Vladimir Dubinin setting up the microwave used to treat sawn timber  Solar kiln – used to dry timber  
Microwaved wood showing holes blown through     

The tree microwave – used for treating whole logs

 Schematic showing wood in a microwave chamber.


A PhD student in QLD improves mine safety with her predictive computer program

Some of the risk involved in working underground is being reduced by a revolutionary approach to predicting the collapse of mine retaining walls .

“In mining, huge voids are created underground when valuable ore is removed. Voids often the size of a 50 story-high building,” said Kirralee Rankine, a PhD student at James Cook University.

“The holes are filled up with waste rock. First the rock is crushed to a powder and mixed with water to make a slurry that is about the consistency of soup. It is then pumped back into the underground holes.”

“Retaining walls are constructed to contain the slurry as it is being pumped into the hole. If the walls breaks, thousands of tonnes of slurry is released into the underground tunnels.” 

“If we can accurately predict soil and rock behaviour, we can properly manage the risk of in-rush,” she said.

Kirralee has done just that. As part of her PhD, she has developed laboratory techniques and written a computer program to simulate components of the filling and drainage processes in underground mines. This have given the mining industry a better understanding of drainage behaviour.

The three-dimensional computer program is the first of its kind that will be available for mines throughout Australia and worldwide to use as an effective prediction tool in mine drainage.

The techniques developed by Kirralee are already being implemented in mines across Australia, and she hopes that through continued research and with the aid of her drainage prediction tools, the potential for mine in-rush will be reduced.

Kirralee is one of 15 early-career scientists presenting their work to the public and media as part of Fresh Science, a national competition that highlights the work of young scientists. The person who best meets the requirements of the program will win a study tour to the UK courtesy of British Council Australia. 

Underground retaining wall construction    
A very well prepared mud pie  Preparation of mine slurry  Brick pressure testing chamber

Drills, knives and blades that can last 100 times longer than conventional steel could save manufacturing industries and companies millions of dollars lost each year from broken or blunt tools. [click to continue…]

An artificial mineral made with sugar could sponge up oil spills and replace cyanide in gold mining

A new class of materials developed by chemists at the University of Melbourne could spawn an industry for custom catalysts, molecular sieves and materials for nanotechnology. [click to continue…]

Melbourne scientists plan to harness the strange appetite of newly discovered Australian bacteria to help purify arsenic-contaminated water. [click to continue…]

Cows produce more milk if they are given a choice of food, according to a study released today in Melbourne.

“Presentation and choice of food affects how much we eat. It’s the same for cows,” says University of Melbourne researcher, Danni Marotti. [click to continue…]


Melbourne researcher, Matthew Jeffrey, is developing a new technique that replaces cyanide with a non-toxic chemical to recover gold from ore bodies.

The non-toxic chemical, known as thiosulfate, is commonly used as a fixative in photography. [click to continue…]

Robots that look and behave like humans are proving too complicated and expensive to use in industry, and are being replaced by devices called ‘modular manipulators’.

The manipulator is made up of modules, with each module performing one simple task, like putting a bolt in place or twisting it, or bringing two components together.  The modules are then linked together so they can perform a series of tasks, like assembling a mobile phone. [click to continue…]