Revolutionary new ways to remove microplastics from water, use zinc-air batteries to power electric cars and significantly improve hydrogen storage are among the research projects underway at Edith Cowan University (ECU) in Perth, Western Australia.
Students and academics at its world-class School of Engineering are working with industry on a range of ground-breaking studies that are attracting interest from commercial partners.
In many research projects, students have the opportunity for onsite work placements with partners to gain unbeatable experience while tailoring solutions to the specific needs of each company.
Three major pieces of research in particular have already produced highly promising results.
Banishing harmful plastic
Humans produce 400 million tonnes of plastic a year, and that number is set to double by 2050. In addition to concerns around the resulting increase in carbon emissions, microplastics endanger human health and the environment.
The tiny fragments come from a range of everyday products, including plastic bags, bottles, toothbrushes and pipes, and are up to 100 times smaller than a human hair. Over time they can cause neurotoxicity and immune system defects.
A report last year estimated that there are already 24.4 trillion pieces of microplastic in the upper regions of the world’s oceans.
A team led by ECU Senior Lecturer Dr Masoumeh Zargar has devised high-tech membrane filters that are extremely effective in removing the tiny particles from aquatic and waste water treatment systems that aren’t designed to filter them out.
“We’ve changed the membrane structure, composition and surface properties to create more resilient, environmentally friendly materials that won’t be clogged or damaged by microplastics so they can be easily removed,” Zargar explained.
“We’ve also integrated engineered modifying agents to enhance the separation efficiency, which vary depending on the treatment process. They’ve passed stringent quality control protocols that test for efficacy and durability.”
Transforming energy storage
A breakthrough on zinc-air batteries by researchers working for Dr Muhammad Rizwan Azhar could see this technology replace lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles.
As zinc-air is a safer and cheaper means of power storage, the implications could be considerable, particularly in terms of sustainability.
“The new design is so efficient that it suppresses the internal resistance of batteries,” Azhar said, “and their voltage is close to the theoretical voltage, which results in a high peak power density and ultra-long stability.
“In addition to revolutionising the energy storage industry, this breakthrough contributes significantly to building a sustainable society, reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, and mitigating environmental impacts.”
By using an Australian natural resource such as zinc, the technology further enhances the cost-effectiveness and viability of the batteries as demand continues to soar.
“Rechargeable zinc-air batteries are becoming the go-to choice due to their low cost, environmental friendliness, high theoretical energy density, and inherent safety,” Azhar said.
Next-gen energy solutions
Climate scientists consider finding ways to improve carbon capture and underground hydrogen storage to be key to achieving the Australian government’s target of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Professor Stefan Iglauer runs ECU’s state-of-the-art Sustainable Energy and Resources Laboratory, the most advanced facility of its kind in the country.
The laboratory is enabling next-generation research into more efficient ways to safely capture carbon and store hydrogen to deliver real-world solutions to the increasingly complex challenges facing the upstream oil and gas industries.
The lab is already creating promising possibilities for the future of energy.
“With some of the most cutting-edge equipment and specialist expertise in Australia, we can discover new industry applications to drive sustainable energy production, geo-storage, and decarbonisation that will contribute to climate change mitigation,” Iglauer said.
ECU engineering students are leading world class, industry-led research across a wide range of industries to drive better outcomes and build successful careers. The university is looking to link up with more commercial partners to help push technological boundaries and drive efficiencies.