Engineers lead the ‘knowledge-based economy’ after winning the lion’s share of 2023 Australian Research Council (ARC) funding.
It’s that time of year when the ARC announces projects set to receive funding under its 2023 Discovery Projects scheme.
With the grants designed to support a knowledge-based economy through innovation and cutting-edge research, there was one sector that stood out among the lot – engineering, information and computing sciences, securing 131 out of 478 grants.
Here’s a few of the standout engineering projects due to launch next year.
1. A wireless brain sensor to monitor serious neurological conditions
People with progressive neurological conditions that are difficult to diagnose don’t have a lot of options when it comes to brain monitoring devices. If you have epilepsy or multiple sclerosis for example, your choices are typically limited to wearables for short-term monitoring or implants requiring extensive surgery.
But brain monitoring is crucial in the management of conditions like epilepsy, helping medical teams locate where seizures start in the brain.
To make this process easier, researchers at Sydney University (USYD), in collaboration with RMIT, are developing a ‘miniature’ subcutaneous platform to enable long-term and reliable interfacing with the brain.
“Access to long-term brain data is, at this time, extremely rare and the invasiveness of technologies enabling it is a real discouraging factor for many in need of objective brain data monitoring,” lead researcher Omid Kavehei told create.
“Long-term brain monitoring through a relatively low-risk, mobile, minimally invasive, wireless, and (more importantly) reversible subcutaneous implant presents an alternative solution relative to open-brain surgery.”
Through the development of novel electrode architecture, the team is aiming to improve the quality of recorder brain signals via the sensing system, which can be easily implanted through a small incision.
The new system should also reduce hospital visits for patients, with long-term monitoring able to take place anywhere, anytime.
2. Using sludge to repair damaged sewer pipes
Cracks in Australia’s sewer pipes cost hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs each year, with a toxic combination of corrosive acid from sulphur-oxidising bacteria in wastewater, excessive loads, internal pressure and temperature fluctuations largely to blame.
Sludge disposal in landfill is also a bigger contributor to our carbon footprint than cement production, with the disposal of one tonne of sludge releasing approximately 29.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.
But sustainable engineering expert Professor Yan Zhuge from the University of South Australia has developed a novel solution to the problem in the form of self-healing concrete containing water treatment sludge.
“Sludge waste shows promise to mitigate microbial corrosion in concrete sewer pipes because it works as a healing agent to resist acid corrosion and heal the cracks,” Prof Zhuge says.
The process entails the insertion of microcapsules with a pH-sensitive shell, a healing agent core containing alum sludge and calcium hydroxide powder into concrete during the mixing process.
As acid levels increase, the pH value will change, leading the microcapsules to release the healing agents.
“This technology will not only extend the lifetime of concrete structures, saving the Australian economy more than $1 billion each year, but it will promote a circular economy as well by reusing sludge that would normally end up in landfill,” says Prof Zhuge.
“We are confident this novel self-healing concrete based on advanced composite technology will address issues of sewer pipe corrosion and sludge disposal in one hit.”
3. A model of the human nose to enhance drug development
Respiratory conditions caused by pollutants and viruses are becoming increasingly common. To help Australian drug companies develop effective intranasal antiviral medicines, a team of researchers from the University of Technology Queensland (QUT), Deakin University and RMIT have developed a biologically responsive and anatomically authentic human nasal model.
Led by QUT Professor Yi-Chin Toh, the team is aiming to combine 3D printing, tissue engineering and microfluidic technologies to produce the model with the purpose of evaluating the physical and biological behaviour of intranasal therapies.
“The human nasal model is generated by taking computational 3D models of the human nasal cavity which are reconstructed from medical images such as CT scans, then 3D printing them into a physical nasal construct with a micro-porous wall,” Prof Toh told create.
“The 3D printed nasal cavity will be housed inside a customised bioreactor with liquid culture medium surrounding the nasal construct and air passing through the cavity, which mimic how a normal nose works.”
Pollutant and viral particles, along with aerosolised drugs, can then be flowed through the air stream passing through the nasal cavity, meaning the team can track their interactions with the cell lining.
“This [should] overcome current reliance on computational, cell and animal models to conduct preclinical testing of therapeutic or preventive medicines, along with vaccines delivered through the nose, which [are] slow and often inaccurately predict human responses,” says Prof Toh.
4. Launching Australia into the small satellite market
Australia’s use of space-based systems for communications, navigation and remote sensing is continuously increasing. However, access to space is expensive and Australia is yet to build a sovereign space capability.
To help overcome this issue, a team of researchers led by University of Queensland Professor Vincent Wheatley and Associate Professor Anand Veeraragavan, in collaboration with aerospace company Hypersonix Launch Systems, is planning to augment the performance of scramjet-powered vehicles that use atmospheric oxygen.
“There is currently no dedicated launch system for small payloads that is based on reusable launchers,” say the researchers in their proposal.
“The mass saved by utilising atmospheric oxygen can be used for the thermal protection and flight systems required to make the stage completely reusable and increase reliability, operational flexibility, responsiveness and payload mass.”
Key objectives of the project include understanding the benefits of oxygen enrichment for expanding the operating capability of scramjets in terms of altitude and speed, with the overarching aim of enhancing Hypersonix’s scramjet-based launch system.
If the system reaches commercialisation stage in Australia, the team predicts it will give the small satellite launch market a significant boost, resulting in major economic benefits.
5. A national security grid for cyber resilience
With cyber attacks targeting some of Australia’s largest organisations this year, securing our national systems has never been more important.
To reduce the risk of power cuts caused by cybersecurity threats, researchers at The Australian National University, USYD and The University of Newcastle have developed plans for a National Facility for Electricity Grid Security and Resilience.
The first of its kind in Australia, the proposed open access, national facility will allow large-scale industrial control systems to be better engineered for improved resilience against cyber attacks.
“A unique feature of the facility is the full integration of advanced cyberattack and defence models, information and communications technology, and operational technology – with either electromagnetic transient or phasor-domain power system behaviour,” say the researchers.
“It’s often simple to measure the behaviour of one or two of the above technologies simultaneously, but combining all five in a real-time simulation platform will offer new research possibilities.”