QUT partnership fuels renewables expansion

The winners of all seven categories in the AFR Higher Education Awards 2023, which recognise and celebrate the outstanding efforts of Australian universities during the past year, have now been announced. The categories include community engagement; emerging leadership; employability; industry engagement; equity and access; research commercialisation; and teaching and learning excellence.

These are the finalists in the Industry Engagement category of the AFR Higher Education Awards:

Queensland University of Technology

Lava Blue partnership producing high-purity alumina at scale

As global demand for renewable energy soars, the Queensland University of Technology in partnership with Queensland company Lava Blue is revolutionising the production of minerals critical to the lithium-ion battery supply chain, particularly high-purity alumina (HPA).

Led by QUT professor Sara Couperthwaite, in June the team of nearly 20 researchers successfully produced HPA with a purity of 99.99 per cent or better at a kilogram scale. Alumina impurities must be eradicated because they can affect LED light quality and cause batteries to self-combust.

Lava Blue funds the research and owns the attendant intellectual property. QUT has shares in the partnership and provides in-kind contributions, including analytical facilities and the time and knowledge of Couperthwaite and other scientists. The research team is now working with mineral producers that have licenced the IP from Lava Blue and hope to use their waste products to make HPA.

“We’ve built a demonstration plant now investigating all the technical challenges around scaling up the process of refining high-purity alumina from the clay resource,” Couperthwaite says. “The core function of the $4.5 million PRiSM plant in Brisbane is to demonstrate to third parties – IP licensees – that we can take their aluminium feedstock, process it with our technology and produce higher-quality alumina at scale.”

The Couperthwaite team is also working with primary cobalt and nickel producer Queensland Pacific Metals to determine whether the company’s aluminium waste-stream can be transformed into HPA.

New technologies mean discarded mine waste now filling dams across Australia could provide the base material for producing HPA and other high-purity materials needed in renewable technology. A collaboration is underway with the Geological Survey Queensland and the University of Queensland to determine which mine tailings contain potentially valuable materials.

“Fifty years ago, they didn’t have the technologies we have today to extract the value from the residue,” Couperthwaite says. “If we can take it from the tailings, we don’t have to dig new holes. It’s already on the surface.”

QUT is the winner of the Industry Engagement Award.

Macquarie University

The Australian Hearing Hub’s hearing impairment research

A unique proposition in hearing healthcare, the Australian Hearing Hub brings researchers, educators and industry partners together to work on the problems of hearing loss.

Macquarie University researchers and industry partners including Australia’s celebrated Cochlear Ltd join forces with the federal government’s Hearing Australia program and its National Acoustic Laboratories research arm as well as non-for-profit hearing care specialist organisations in the specialist precinct. Google’s Australian future hearing initiative is now collaborating with Hub partners to explore AI solutions for hearing healthcare.

Macquarie Hearing director David McAlpine says the hub is a hearing care ecosystem unrivalled in the world. “We have a shared vision and goal for transforming hearing health,” he says, adding academic research has a strong connection with the commercial world in the hub. “It’s a unique proposition to look at the hearing healthcare issue and bring discovery science and the power of the university into play.”

University of South Australia

Fabrication Facility SA Node proof-of-concept manufacture

Companies and organisations have lined up to use the high-value micro-scale technology at the South Australian node of the Australian National Fabrication Facility, which includes the world’s fastest nano-scale 3D printer and a mill with drill bits one-tenth the size of a cross-section of human hair. This equipment can be used to produce nano- and micro-fabrications with features that are too small to be seen with the human eye.

Australia’s Defence Science and Technology group has placed some of their own equipment in the facility, which is also available to Australian industry and researchers.

Based at the University of South Australia and Flinders University, the facility assists industry with prototyping, product improvement, technical training, manufacturing challenges, testing and validation. The specialised equipment and expertise of ANFF-SA is often too expensive for companies, particularly start-ups and smaller enterprises.

“We don’t produce at scale, we’re not a commercial manufacturer, but we can prove it can be done,” says facility director UniSA professor Craig Priest. He adds facility staff can help with most ideas, no matter how far-fetched: “Come along with the ideas you think we can’t do”.

University of Queensland

Boeing partnership anti-viral surface coating

Long before the Covid-19 pandemic shook the world, plane manufacturer Boeing contacted University of Queensland researcher Michael Monteiro looking for a surface coating to protect aircraft passengers from viruses. When Covid hit, Monteiro had already developed a protective polymer that worked well against flu, and after a year he had developed a polymer that specifically targeted the Covid-19 virus, achieving “100 per cent knock-down”.

This polymer coating is environmentally-friendly, inexpensive and contains no toxic organic chemicals. Between 50-60 per cent of virus transmission is via surfaces, so this long-lasting polymer coating will be a valuable tool to combat Covid-19 and the viral epidemics of the future. The coating could be useful for many types of surfaces, from aircraft panels to doorknobs to masks.

Currently undergoing rigorous regulatory approval processes, the polymer coating has been licensed to a European company for manufacture at scale. It has already been tested on the International Space Station, and the Boeing-UQ partnership is now looking to Mars.

Federation University

Asia Pacific Renewable Energy Training Centre renewables skills

With an eye to the huge potential of renewable energy industries, Federation University has partnered with renewable energy organisations in the private sector to build the Asia Pacific Renewable Energy Training Centre in Victoria. A first for Australia, the Centre has been designed to provide a pipeline of skilled graduates to work in Victoria’s burgeoning wind energy industry – the renewable energy sector with the largest ongoing labour needs.

The Centre will use a purpose-built 23-metre training tower, the first of its kind in Australia, to train workers to operate to a global standard at heights; a refitted building to deliver an apprenticeship program for blade technicians, and a purpose-built turbine technician training centre.

“We have the first mover advantage in this area,” says Federation’s partnerships associate director Bill Mundy. “We’re supporting local industries and positioning ourselves well for meeting both domestic and international demand.”

Australian Financial Review