Nanotechnology Study Wins $1 Million in Funding

A UNIVERSITY of Queensland-led global consortium that aims to produce environmentally friendly aviation fuel from algae is one of four UQ research projects awarded a total $6.48 million in State Government funding this week.

The grant means UQ's St Lucia campus will become the base for world-first avgas research, which has Boeing,National and International Research Alliances Program. Funding is going to two of UQ's algae-sourced biofuel projects, and two medical projects – one on dengue fever, and one on repairing spinal cord damage.

The UQ projects receiving funding are:

  • $2 million for Professor Lars Nielsen's Queensland Sustainable Aviation Fuel Initiative, which aims to create avgas from algae, in work being done at UQ's Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology.
  • $1.48 million for Associate Professor Ben Hankamer's research into high-efficiency microalgal biofuel systems that aims to produce a range of biofuels through “photo-bioreactors”.
  • $1.95 million for Professor Scott O'Neill's advanced work on curbing the spread of deadly dengue fever by shortening mosquitoes' life cycle (work that also has won backing from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation).
  • $1.05 million for Professor Andrew Whittaker's nanotechnology study that aims to mobilise the body's own healing abilities to regenerate and repair damaged spinal cord cells, work being done in conjunction with the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute.

Ms Bligh said the avgas project offered huge environmental benefits and funding meant the consortium would locate its globally significant research in Brisbane.

“Queensland is set to become the home for cleaner, greener, renewable jet fuel,” she said.

Aviation accounted for two per cent of global greenhouse emissions and this could grow to three per cent without further action.

“We're leading the way on aviation biofuels research,” Ms Bligh said. “With a growing focus on making our skies greener, this is big business and good for jobs and the environment.”

Professor Nielsen said biofuel that was safe to use and could be produced sustainably in quantities that could feed jets' enormous appetites was the holy grail of the global aviation industry.

It also needed to be cheap — if not cheaper to produce — than fossil fuels.

Professor Nielsen said 18,000 aircraft were in operation globally, and another 25,000 were due to enter service within 20 years.

Local partners in the avgas project include Mackay Sugar, Brisbane-based IOR Energy, James Cook University and Queensland's Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries.

Dr Hankamer said the $1.48 million NIRAP funding to the Institute for Molecular Bioscience would help develop biodiesel, methane and hydrogen from low-cost, high productivity microalgal photo-bioreactors.

“A photo-bioreactor is basically a sealed aquaculture system that brings in sunlight to provide the energy that algae need to grow,” he said.

Earlier research by the same team successfully increased green algae's solar energy conversion efficiency and made production more efficient by refining growth conditions and photo-bioreactor design. It also studied how each strain of algae works best.

Dr Hankamer said the new funding would attract a further $2 million in industry and UQ support, enabling the researchers to launch a $3.5 million project to test the economic feasibility of scaled-up new-generation algal energy systems.

The consortium backing the project includes global engineering and construction company Kellogg Brown & Root Pty Ltd, Neste Oil Corp, Cement Australia Pty Ltd, North Queensland and Pacific Biodiesel Pty Ltd, the University of Karlsruhe, the University of Bielefeld and UQ.

Dr Hankamer said algae captured CO2 as it grew, which offered the potential for offsetting CO2 emissions.

“Algal bioreactors have the potential to assist Queensland in meeting its renewable energy and CO2 emissions reduction targets,” he said.

The deployment of algae-based systems also eliminated competition with agricultural crops.

“One of the big concerns about traditional biofuel crops is that arable land and fresh water are limited and are needed for food crops,” he said.

“In contrast, algal bioreactors can be located on non-arable land, essentially eliminating competition with food production. The fact that many strains of energy-producing algae can be grown in saline or waste water is an added benefit.”

The high capital costs and less-than-optimal yields of current bioreactors was a problem.

“This project will improve bioreactor design and improve the breeding of high-performance algae to minimise system costs and increase yields,” Dr Hankamer said.

“These improvements will assist the rapidly expanding ‘green jobs' sector and contribute to the production of clean fuels, on a likely five to 10-year timescale.

“With its abundance of sunshine and land, Queensland is an ideal location to develop a biofuel and bio-commodity industry based on algae.”

UQ's dengue fever research would further position Queensland as a leader in tropical health and expertise, Premier Bligh said.

“Dengue fever affects more than 50 million people annually and the work of Professor O'Neill and his team is being closely watched throughout the Asia-Pacific region,” she said.

“His work involves infecting dengue-carrying mosquitoes with the bacterium wolbachia to both significantly reduce their life span and to make older mosquitoes incapable of biting.”

Professor Andrew Whittaker said the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology's spinal cord research was at the cutting edge of bioengineering and regenerative medicine.

The project aimed to restore limb function in paraplegics and quadraplegics by developing and manufacturing a biodegradable scaffolding product that could be implanted at the injury site to help rebuild spinal cord.

The scaffold needed to enable the growth of stem cells, encourage their transition into neural cells and biodegrade in a timely manner.

About 12,000 Australians are quadriplegics or paraplegics due to spinal cord injuries, and there are 400 new cases a year. The injuries cost the nation an estimated $1.2 billion a year, and a 25-year-old who becomes a paraplegic is estimated to cost $2.9 million for care for throughout their lives, as well as enormous costs – financial and otherwise – for families.

Premier Bligh said the groundbreaking work of Queensland's leading researchers “deserves to be supported”.

“These are leading lights in Queensland's biotech research community whose ideas potentially could make a big difference to people's lives,” she said.

“Biotech is an industry of the future and we expect it to be worth $20 billion by 2025. This is about supporting Queensland ideas and innovation into the future.”

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