Australia’s first commercial installation of printed solar cells, made using specialised semiconducting inks and printed using a conventional reel-to-reel printer, has been installed on a factory roof in Newcastle.
The 200 square metre array was installed in just one day by a team of five people. No other energy solution is as lightweight, as quick to manufacture, or as easy to install on this scale.
Our research team manufactured the solar modules using standard printing techniques; in fact, the machine that we use typically makes wine labels. Each solar cell consists of several individual layers printed on top of each other, which are then connected in series to form a bank of cells. These cells are then connected in parallel to form a solar module.
Since 1996, we have progressed from making tiny, millimetre-sized solar cells to the first commercial installation. In the latest installation each module is ten metres long and sandwiched between two layers of recyclable plastic.
At the core of the technology are the specialised semiconducting polymer-based inks that we have developed. This group of materials has fundamentally altered our ability to build electronic devices; replacing hard, rigid, glass-like materials such as silicon with flexible inks and paints that can be printed or coated over vast areas at extremely low cost.
As a result, these modules cost less than A$10 per square metre when manufactured at scale. This means it would take only 2-3 years to become cost-competitive with other technologies, even at efficiencies of only 2-3%.
These printed solar modules could conceivably be installed onto any roof or structure using simple adhesive tape and connected to wires using simple press-studs. The new installation at Newcastle is an important milestone on the path towards commercialisation of the technology – we will spend the next six months testing its performance and durability before removing and recycling the materials.
We think this technology has enormous potential. Obviously our technology is still at the trial stage, but our vision is a world in which every building in every city in every country has printed solar cells generating low-cost sustainable energy for everyone. This latest installation has brought the goal of solar roofs, walls and windows a step closer.
Ultimately, we imagine that these solar cells could even benefit those people who don’t own or have access to roof space. People who live in apartment complexes, for example, could potentially sign up to a plan that lets them pay to access the power generated by cells installed by the building’s owner or body corporate, and need never necessarily “own” the infrastructure outright.
But in a fractured and uncertain energy policy landscape, this new technology is a clear illustration of the value of taking power into one’s own hands.
One of the key questions any industry must consider is: what is left behind when it is finished. For coal seam gas (CSG), this question is crucial, considering the thousands of CSG wells that have already been drilled, not to mention the many more that could potentially be drilled in the future.
While most CSG wells will not be decommissioned until the later stages of a project, some wells are decommissioned earlier as they are no longer used for activities such as exploration, monitoring or production. This provides an opportunity to ask the key question: what does successful decommissioning of CSG wells look like?
Australia has around 6,000 CSG wells in active production, mostly in Queensland, and a growing number of decommissioned wells. Our new research looks at perspectives on decommissioning at different stages of the life cycle, including places where the industry is winding down (Camden, New South Wales), where it is continuing (Chinchilla, Queensland), and where future CSG development has been proposed but not yet approved (Narrabri, NSW).
We held a workshop in each of these places, bringing together between 8 and 16 people from state agencies, industry and local community in each location.
Workshop participants agreed strongly on several key principles: that decommissioned wells should never leak; that they should not impinge on future land uses; and that they should be barely noticeable.
Across all workshops, the majority of government and industry representatives expressed strong confidence in the code of practice for each state. When decommissioned correctly, they argued, old CSG wells would not cause legacy problems and would not require further action.
In contrast, a majority of local community participants tended to lack confidence in these codes of practice, and said that clear information about well decommissioning was hard to access or understand. As a result, they had markedly less confidence in the decommissioning process.
Our results suggest that clear, easily accessible information about CSG well decommissioning would help reduce this divergence of views. Publication of factsheets by government, outlining the regulatory processes, who is responsible, ownership questions and what would happen if there were a long-term problem, would help to improve confidence in the decommissioning process.
Another way to improve trust would be for industry to provide plain language summaries of well completion and decommissioning reports, with local stakeholders given details on when, how and where to access them.
The ultimate authority to decide whether decommissioning and rehabilitation have been properly completed lies with the state regulator. Both Queensland and NSW have similar regulations for decommissioning of CSG wells, drawing on international experiences and lessons from past practice.
Decommissioning involves rehabilitating the surface around the well pad, and plugging and abandoning the well. Abandonment involves preventing the flow of gas or fluid with cement plugs placed throughout the well.
Consultation with landholders is required in both jurisdictions. Landholders declare whether they are satisfied with rehabilitation works, and can also negotiate to retain infrastructure such as fences or concrete slabs, if that suits their future objectives.
Regulators in both states require companies to make a deposit that covers the full costs of decommissioning, as a way of protecting against companies defaulting on their obligations.
Monitoring was another important issue raised through the workshops. Because the confidence held by government and industry representatives in the codes of practice was so strong and informed by lessons from decades of practice overseas, monitoring has not been seen to be required so far for decommissioned wells, after all steps in the code of practice were completed.
But local community members disagreed, arguing that ongoing monitoring of decommissioned wells is crucial to detecting and addressing any potential future problems. Instigating a program to monitor decommissioned CSG wells, with publicly accessible results, would go a long way towards addressing the concerns raised by residents and increasing confidence in the industry more broadly.
Different stakeholders in the CSG industry will not necessarily see eye-to-eye on all aspects of how the industry is managed. That’s why understanding their different perspectives is an important step towards providing reassurance about the legacy left by coal seam gas wells.
These steps could include monitoring abandoned CSG wells and improved mechanisms to deal with public enquiries, questions and complaints.
Over the past few decades the international community has watched as the destruction of Earth’s largest forest has intensified. Deforestation has been eating away at the Amazon’s fringes, mainly for commercial cattle ranching and agricultural plantation. The agriculture, livestock, mining and infrastructure sectors have been promoted due to powerful financial and development pressures for high profits and economic growth.
Meanwhile, indigenous peoples, traditional communities and smallholders have had their livelihoods imperilled, while carbon emissions have increased, water quality and quantity have declined, forest fires have increased, and wildlife has been lost.
The scale of this target has catapulted restoration ecology from an academic discipline to the forefront of international debates about how conservation goals can be delivered alongside economic, human, and social interests.
Brazil has established a range of national policies, programs and commissions to pursue the target. At the 2017 UN climate summit in Bonn, the Brazilian government announced the creation of a US$60 million Amazon Fund for restoration projects. The fundraising is mostly supported by international donations from the Norway Government for the reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases from deforestation.
But the main problem is that Brazil’s current conservation capabilities are far short of what is needed to meet its ambitious goals. Long-term programs and policies to restore the Amazon have habitually fallen prey to short-term political interests.
Small-scale restoration programs that have enjoyed success on a trial basis have rarely been successfully scaled up, because they generally ignore the need to deliver improvements to local livelihoods as well as to the rainforest itself.
All too often, these programs are conceived and implemented by universities, research agencies, companies and non-governmental organisations, rather than in a community approach with smallholders, indigenous peoples and traditional communities.
Another issue is the region’s poor infrastructure, and its lack of investments, technology innovation and business development for restoration. One of the main bottlenecks, for example, is the shortage of native seed and seedling supply. Successfully restoring forest requires hundreds of tonnes of native seed each year. Yet the seed supply system is expensive, technical, and highly regulated.
But native seed cultivation could represent a valuable source of income for local communities, boosting both conservation and the local economy. One successful emerging initiative, the Xingu Seeds Network offers payments to indigenous people, settler farmers and urban seed collectors for the seeds they collect. This kind of initiative is hampered by seed policy which has neglected a vast network of informal seed collectors and producers who are largely ‘invisible’ to the regulatory authorities.
To turn its ambitious targets into reality, Brazil needs to involve the Amazon’s local people in developing forest restoration policies, and then give them an incentive to take part. That means considering local knowledge, and providing socioeconomic opportunities rather than focusing solely on the forest itself.
This issue runs much deeper than mere forest restoration. It will necessitate revising Amazonian land tenure rules, to ensure a clear demarcation of indigenous lands and protected areas. And it calls for Brazil to make the Amazon rainforest’s values part of the economy, rather than being viewed as something that stands in the way of economic development. Doing that will help ensure that the Amazon, often nicknamed the “lungs of the planet”, survives to benefit all of humanity.
When Douglas Mawson led Australasia’s first expedition to Antarctica in 1911–14, his crew took along a folding organ, a concertina, a flute, a piccolo and a mouth organ, as well as a gramophone, records and a hymn book.
His men’s diaries detail numerous musical activities that took place on board the Aurora and in the huts they built on the ice. Their band – the “Adélie Land Band” – was such a hit that, as Mawson wrote, “Men crawled out of their beds all eager to be in it”.
They even staged the first “opera” on the continent: an original production titled The Washerwoman’s Secret, billed as a “Grand Opera in Five Acts” and performed at Cape Denison, Commonwealth Bay, on 12 October 1912. As biological collector Charles Laseron recalled, it had a “complicated and highly dramatic plot”. The expedition doctor, Archibald McLean, reportedly stole the show by dressing like a woman, singing in a contralto register and acting out several awkward “love” scenes. The “arias” sung were original creations, accompanied by geologist Frank Stillwell on the organ.
Mawson’s men also wrote new lyrics for existing tunes to sing for both leisure and while at work (such as “sledging songs”). These both entertained and boosted morale.
In the past 30 years, a spate of professional Australian composers and musicians have also engaged with Antarctica creatively. Interest has no doubt been spurred by the celebration of centenaries relating to the Heroic Age, support for arts residencies as part of Australia’s Antarctic science program, and increased media focus on the continent due to climate change.
The most widely known Australian composition about Antarctica is perhaps Nigel Westlake’s Antarctica suite for guitar and orchestra (1992). Derived from his film score for John Weiley’s 1991 IMAX documentary Antarctica: An Adventure of a Different Nature, the four-movement suite explores some of the film’s primary themes.
The opening movement (“The Last Place on Earth”) employs sparse, static textures and dramatic gestures to represent the desolation and grandeur of the ice sheet.
The second (“Wooden Ships”) is a nostalgic tribute to the pioneering Antarctic explorers. The penultimate movement (“Penguin Ballet”) vividly evokes the fluid, playful movements of penguins underwater.
The final one opens with a slow, static section titled “The Ice Core” and ends with an uplifting “Finale”, inspired by the optimism surrounding the signing of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (“Madrid Protocol”) in 1991. Through performances, recordings and broadcasts, Westlake’s suite has encouraged audiences to reflect on Antarctica’s unique environment, the history of human presence there, Antarctic science and the importance of protecting the continent.
Love, death and serious science
More recently, Hobart-based composers Scott McIntyre and Joe Bugden produced a chamber opera each to commemorate the centenary of the Terra Nova and Aurora expeditions, respectively.
McIntyre’s Fire on the Snow is based on Douglas Stewart’s 1941 radio play of the same name about Robert Falcon Scott’s final, ill-fated expedition. The chamber opera features, in the composer’s words, “Music devoid of warmth, music that [is] brittle, like ice, the howl of the wind, the slow onset of death”.
Similarly, Bugden’s The Call of Aurora is serious in tone. Based on his own libretto, it explores themes of love, death, madness and isolation by focusing on Mawson’s longing for his fiancee, Paquita, his experience of the deaths of Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz, and his management of the mad wireless operator, Sidney Jeffryes.
McIntyre has also produced a series of shorter compositions, including a song cycle, Songs of the South (2014), based on those originally written during the Terra Nova and Aurora expeditions. Two of McIntyre’s songs were inspired by “sledging songs”, while others were derived from songs written by Mawson’s men about Christmas Day and one of the team’s dogs, Basilisk.
The Australian Antarctic Arts Fellowship scheme has supported classical harpist Alice Giles and sound artist Philip Samartzis on residencies in Antarctica. Giles performed harp music there in 2011 to commemorate the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (her grandfather, Cecil Thomas Madigan, was the expedition’s meteorologist).
The sound of ice cracking
Samartzis’s two fellowships (2009 and 2015) enabled him to document in sound the impact of extreme climate and weather events on Australian research stations in Antarctica and on Macquarie Island, as well as on the icebreaker Aurora Australis.
His suite of compositions “Antarctica: An Absent Presence” (2016) captures a rich variety of sounds including those made by seals, wind, blizzards, ice when it cracks and calves, helicopters, trucks and generators.
Scientific research has proven fertile ground for composers.
Stuart Greenbaum’s choral work Antarctica (2002) uses a text by Melbourne poet Ross Baglin about sea level rise due to the melting Antarctic ice sheet. The music, written for treble choir, two violins and organ, is a poignant elegy to a place (and world) under threat.
Matthew Dewey’s symphony ex Oceano (2013) was written in response to research on the Southern Ocean undertaken by scientists at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies and the CSIRO. The music takes the listener on a journey, exploring not only the strength of the ocean’s currents and enormity of its scale and influence, but also the microscopic life that lives within it.
The second movement, for instance, is dedicated to phytoplankton – microscopic organisms that produce over half the world’s oxygen. Invisible to the naked eye, they are visible in vast blooms from space.
Antarctica: The Musical, which premiered in Hobart in 2016, features music and lyrics by songwriter Dugald McLaren and a book by ecologist Dana Bergstrom (both of whom have spent time there). Focusing on the experiences of a group of scientists living on the continent for a year and the challenges they face, it conveys a strong message of concern for the region’s changing environment.
Most people will never visit Antarctica. It is an inhospitable place at the margins of our world. But music enables audiences to come to know the continent as a place of both the imaginary and of urgent, practical scientific work.
Carolyn Philpott, Senior Lecturer in Musicology, Conservatorium of Music; Associate Head – Research, School of Creative Arts; Adjunct Researcher, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania
The West Australian government has committed to pursuing a World Heritage listing for the rock art of Murujuga. Murujuga is the Aboriginal name for the Dampier Archipelago and the Burrup Peninsula in north west WA and is home to at least a million individual works of art.
Australia has some of the world’s richest and most diverse rock art. While rock art is found all around the globe, Australia is relatively unique because here there are still cultural connections between rock art and the people who created it.
At present, Australia has only three cultural World Heritage sites (of which only one – Kakadu – is listed for rock art). In contrast, France has over 30 World Heritage-listed rock art sites.
I and my colleague Peter Veth have argued that Murujuga rock art meets three criteria for outstanding universal value: because of the creative genius and skill of the artwork; the extraordinarily old and continuous engraving tradition; and the combined cultural landscapes of the area, including quarries, living sites, and shell middens.
These illustrate significant transitions in human history in the face of major changes in sea level and surrounding environment.
Animals no longer found
When people first started using this landscape 50,000 years ago, it was located around 100 km from the coast. It was wetter and warmer than it is now – and the archaeological record of the coastal plain at this time demonstrates an entire group of animals no longer found in this part of Australia. Murujuga’s artists painted some of these animals, such as crocodiles.
Then, during the last ice age (between 30,000 and 18,000 years ago), the coastline was even further away (160 km). People were were living in the Murujuga Ranges at this time. There are a number of paintings of animals that are now extinct, such as thylacines and a fat-tailed species of kangaroo, which testify to the changing environment.
Then, as the ice caps melted and the sea level rose, people became more concentrated on the new coastal landscape. Recent studies across the archipelago have demonstrated the scientific significance of the outer and inner islands of this cultural land and seascape.
Dugong, turtles and fish
Around 8,000 years ago, people began to construct houses. Art production at this time was in full swing. The most recent rock art includes dugong, turtles, fish as well as the small rock wallabies and quolls that now live on the islands.
As well as houses there are myriad stone arrangements, standing stones and terraces. This is a monumental hunter-gatherer-fisherperson landscape, which rivals the period in Europe when people were constructing stone monuments such as Stonehenge (except in Europe this occurred thousands of years later).
The artworks in Murujuga were made on the rocks using stone tools. Together they show how people have been living in the region for thousands of years, first as hunter-gatherers, and later with a focus on fishing.
This rock art is still associated with contemporary traditions, ideas, and belief systems of traditional custodians. It is the widely-held belief that many Murujuga engravings represent and embody ancestral beings (Marga), while some of the standing stones are thalu sites, critical for the regeneration of key species such as a range of fish, birds and kangaroo, and even sandflies.
Five local Aboriginal groups hold native title in lands next to the archipelago – the Ngarluma, Yindjibarndi, Yaburara, Mardudhunera and Wong-gg-tt-too. Together, they are represented by Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, which jointly manages Murujuga National Park with the WA state government. The peninsula and the islands are also listed as having National Heritage values. This listing excludes parts of the peninsula that have been previously damaged by industry.
National Heritage listing paves the way for Murujuga to become a World Heritage site. Recently, traditional custodians and others came together for a summit in Karratha and concluded resoundingly that World Heritage listing would be appropriate for Murujuga, and that it would help protect this extraordinary place.
Yesterday’s announcement is a significant moment for WA – which doesn’t have any Aboriginal cultural sites listed as World Heritage. And for the traditional custodians, it is the next step in their quest for recognition and greater protection of this place’s special significance.
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Placing Murujuga on the Tentative List is the beginning of the formal process to achieve World Heritage status. This will still take several years, but as the CEO of the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, Peter Jeffries, said yesterday, the traditional owners are now driving the process.
Spectacular images of recent volcanic eruptions in Hawaii are a little disheartening – especially given news reports suggesting there is a sleeping volcano under Melbourne that could awaken and erupt at any moment.
Understanding the geological differences between Melbourne and Hawaii is really helpful in working out how we can keep an eye on future risks in Australia.
Victoria and South Australia do host an active volcanic field, called the Newer Volcanics Province (NVP). This is not a single volcano with a large single chamber of molten rock (magma) — the common image of a volcano — but a widespread field of multiple small volcanoes, each with a small volume of magma.
Melbourne lies at the eastern end of the NVP, and the most recent eruptions in this area occurred over a million years ago.
Mt Gambier in southeastern South Australia represents the western margin of the volcanic field and the most recent eruption — only 5,000 years ago.
Between Melbourne and Mt Gambier there are more than 400 small volcanoes that erupted over a period of 6 million years.
The NVP was most active between 4.5 million to 5,000 years ago and volcanologists consider the field to still be “active” with the potential for future eruptions.
We do not know when the next eruption will take place.
The NVP is located within a tectonic plate – and not along a plate edge like the Ring of Fire volcanoes (for example, Mt Agung on Bali).
Tectonic plates are large slabs of rock made up of the Earth’s crust and uppermost part of the mantle (the lithosphere) which form the outer shell of the Earth, and move around slowly relative to each other.
While Kilauea volcano in Hawaii is also located within a tectonic plate, it has several key differences with the NVP in Southeastern Australia.
Magma source and volume
While Hawaii sources large volumes of magma from deep within the Earth, the NVP only receives small amounts of magma from just below the Earth’s crust.
It’s worth noting here that the makeup of the magma is similar in both locations, with both erupting runny basalt – a type of rock low in silica, and high in iron and magnesium.
We suspect that in Australia’s NVP, magma can move very fast from its source to the surface (on a time scale of days). This can bring rock fragments of the mantle (xenoliths) to the surface as the magma moves too fast for them to melt.
Hawaiian volcanoes can erupt numerous times, but NVP volcanoes are largely monogenetic — that is, each only erupt once or over a restricted period of time.
Hawaii is located on the oceanic crust of the Pacific Tectonic Plate, which is a thin (around 7 km) layer of material that is dense and rich in iron. The magma can rise through this crust quite easily.
In contrast, the NVP is located on continental crust which is much thicker (about 30km), richer in silica and much less dense. Magma finds it much harder to travel through this kind of material.
The explosivity of a volcanic eruption can depend on availability of water.
“Dry” eruptions – where magma has little-to-no interaction with ground water or water on the Earth’s surface – typically produces mildly explosive eruptions such as lava fire fountains, showers of lava fragments and lava flows.
The most explosive, hazardous eruptions form where rising magma interacts with ground water, surface water or sea water. These “wet”, (phreatomagmatic) eruptions can produce deadly, fast moving, ground-hugging currents of gas and volcanic material – called pyroclastic surges, and send abundant fine volcanic ash into the atmosphere.
The Australian Mt Gambier eruption 5,000 years ago was a “wet” eruption, and had a volcanic explosivity index of 4 on a scale of 0-8 (where 0 represents a lava eruption, 1 a spectacular lava “fire” fountain as recently witnessed in Hawaii, and 8 represents a catastrophic explosive super-eruption).
The accompanying ash column is estimated to have reached 5km to 10km into the atmosphere.
On Hawaii explosive eruptions are rarer because the magma has a low gas content and groundwater aquifers are not as large as in the NVP. However, when lava flows into the sea there are often phreatic or steam explosions which can be hazardous to nearby spectators.
Another important factor relates to how we keep an eye on volcano risk at the two sites. Kilauea on Hawaii is extremely well monitored, and tracking magma moving underground has helped predict eruptions.
In contrast, the NVP is less well monitored, likely because there is no present volcanic activity, and it’s a huge region.
However, warning signs of an eruption are likely to be similar in the NVP to those on Hawaii – small earthquakes, minor uplift and/or subsidence of the ground, changes in ground temperature and gas or steam rising out of the ground.
damage to machinery and electricity infrastructure by infiltrating ash
respiratory problems for people prone to asthma, and
disruption to air traffic across southeastern Australia due to drifting ash clouds driven by prevailing south-westerly winds.
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Further scientific research is required on active volcanic fields such as the NVP to know how fast magma travels from its source to the surface, how much warning we might have before an eruption, and how long an eruption and its impacts might last.
Pandanus forsteri, a species of screw pine endemic to Lord Howe Island, grows tall like no other tree on Earth. To reach the canopy, these trees have evolved a rainwater harvesting system that enables them to water themselves.
Originally from Micronesia, the palm-like P. forsteri belongs to a group of trees that have populated almost every coastal habitat of the Pacific. In fact, pandans are used by Oceanic cultures for everything from fishing and cooking to medicine and religious ceremonies.
Our research shows that pandans differ in several fundamental ways from more familiar trees, including how they capture water and grow.
Most trees lay down concentric rings of vascular tissue as they mature, thickening over time. This enables them to grow tall, yet maintain enough structural integrity to avoid toppling over. It is also arguably the most important evolutionary innovation that has enabled trees to colonise most of terrestrial Earth.
Together with palms, bamboo and yucca, pandans belong to a group known as monocots, because their seedlings produce a single embryonic leaf.
Their vascular tissue is not compartmentalised in the same way. It forms bundles that are positioned somewhat haphazardly within the stem. Consequently, monocots are unable to produce true secondary growth and thicken like other trees do – and reaching the canopy becomes a much more ambitious endeavour.
The canopy offers a good life. The sun is shining, seed-dispersing birds are abundant, and the herbivores of the forest floor are a distant concern. In monocots, natural selection has favoured some inventive ways of stretching to the top.
Palms overcome the limitations imposed by their physiology by spending their younger years laying down enough vascular girth to support their future stature. Think of it like putting aside money for your retirement. You may not need it now, but you will likely later depend on it.
Once thick enough, palms shift their efforts to vertical growth. The palm’s tactic of delayed vertical growth may be slow, but it functions well enough to thrust Columbian wax palms (Ceroxylon quindiuense) – the world’s tallest monocot – 45 meters into the clouds.
Pandans, on the other hand, are less patient. Unlike palms, they prefer a sort of “pay-as-you-go” method. They produce stilt roots that extend from the trunk to the ground for support as the crown matures. The end result gives the appearance of an ice cream cone perched on a tepee of stilts. It’s an odd strategy, but it works.
However, on Lord Howe Island, something quite remarkable has transpired. Isolated some 600 kilometres off the east coast of Australia, one species of screw pine has evolved into an island giant.
Most screw pines are lucky to reach four or five meters. Pandanus forsteri trees, however, regularly exceed 15 meters. These kinds of size changes are not uncommon on isolated islands. They are part of a repeated evolutionary phenomenon known as the island syndrome.
Species on isolated islands are free from the stressors of continental life, and they subsequently converge on a more optimal, ancestral form. Large continental species evolve into island dwarfs, while smaller species become comparatively gigantic. Support for the island syndrome primarily comes from animals. However, a growing body of evidence suggests island plants follow a similar evolutionary path.
While gigantism may be favourable, it doesn’t come without risks – and for P. forsteri, they are serious. Thanks to their new-found stature, P. forsteri trees must produce enormous stilt roots to support themselves. This process that can take years. Exposed to the air, roots can form air bubbles, and an air bubble in a plant is bad in the same way it is bad in your artery. It is potentially lethal.
Nature appears to have solved this problem through the evolution of a rainwater harvesting system that enables P. forsteri to water its own stilt roots before they reach the ground.
Gutter-like leaves collect rainwater and transport it to the trunk, where it descends. The flow of water is then couriered by a network of aqueducts formed by the root surface. Finally, water is stored in a specialised organ of absorptive tissue encasing the growing root tip.
Back to the drawing board
This is dramatically different from how we traditionally think about plants. It is far from our concept of sessile beings that passively absorb everything they need from the soil, thanks to the capillary action of their vascular tissues. Never before has a plant species been shown to possess a system of traits that operate jointly to capture, transport and store water external to itself.
This species has opened our eyes to an entirely new field of scientific inquiry. It forces scientists to rethink the function of organs like leaves and roots outside of the contexts of photosynthesis and the conduction of soil water.
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Do other plants harvest rainwater in this way? Why have we only just discovered this? Has our overly simplistic view of plants hindered our ability to comprehend their true complexity? Only time, and more research, will tell.
Hydrogen could become a significant part of Australia’s energy landscape within the coming decade, competing with both natural gas and batteries, according to a new CSIRO roadmap for the industry.
Hydrogen gas is a versatile energy carrier with a wide range of potential uses. However, hydrogen is not freely available in the atmosphere as a gas. It therefore requires an energy input and a series of technologies to produce, store and then use it.
Why would we bother? Because hydrogen has several advantages over other energy carriers, such as batteries. It is a single product that can service multiple markets and, if produced using low- or zero-emissions energy sources, it can help us significantly cut greenhouse emissions.
Compared with batteries, hydrogen can release more energy per unit of mass. This means that in contrast to electric battery-powered cars, it can allow passenger vehicles to cover longer distances without refuelling. Refuelling is quicker too, and is likely to stay that way.
The benefits are potentially even greater for heavy vehicles such as buses and trucks which already carry heavy payloads, and where lengthy battery recharge times can affect business models.
Hydrogen can also play an important role in energy storage, which will be increasingly necessary both in remote operations such as mine sites, and as part of the electricity grid to help smooth out the contribution of renewables such as wind and solar. This could work by using the excess renewable energy (when generation is high and/or demand is low) to drive hydrogen production via electrolysis of water. The hydrogen can then be stored as compressed gas and put into a fuel cell to generate electricity when needed.
Australia is heavily reliant on imported liquid fuels and does not currently have enough liquid fuel held in reserve. Moving towards hydrogen fuel could potentially alleviate this problem. Hydrogen can also be used to produce industrial chemicals such as ammonia and methanol, and is an important ingredient in petroleum refining.
Further, as hydrogen burns without greenhouse emissions, it is one of the few viable green alternatives to natural gas for generating heat.
Our roadmap predicts that the global market for hydrogen will grow in the coming decades. Among the prospective buyers of Australian hydrogen would be Japan, which is comparatively constrained in its ability to generate energy locally. Australia’s extensive natural resources, namely solar, wind, fossil fuels and available land lend favourably to the establishment of hydrogen export supply chains.
Why embrace hydrogen now?
Given its widespread use and benefit, interest in the “hydrogen economy” has peaked and troughed for the past few decades. Why might it be different this time around? While the main motivation is hydrogen’s ability to deliver low-carbon energy, there are a couple of other factors that distinguish today’s situation from previous years.
Our analysis shows that the hydrogen value chain is now underpinned by a series of mature technologies that are technically ready but not yet commercially viable. This means that the narrative around hydrogen has now shifted from one of technology development to “market activation”.
The solar panel industry provides a recent precedent for this kind of burgeoning energy industry. Large-scale solar farms are now generating attractive returns on investment, without any assistance from government. One of the main factors that enabled solar power to reach this tipping point was the increase in production economies of scale, particularly in China. Notably, China has recently emerged as a proponent for hydrogen, earmarking its use in both transport and distributed electricity generation.
But whereas solar power could feed into a market with ready-made infrastructure (the electricity grid), the case is less straightforward for hydrogen. The technologies to help produce and distribute hydrogen will need to develop in concert with the applications themselves.
A roadmap for hydrogen
In light of this, the primary objective of CSIRO’s National Hydrogen Roadmap is to provide a blueprint for the development of a hydrogen industry in Australia. With several activities already underway, it is designed to help industry, government and researchers decide where exactly to focus their attention and investment.
Our first step was to calculate the price points at which hydrogen can compete commercially with other technologies. We then worked backwards along the value chain to understand the key areas of investment needed for hydrogen to achieve competitiveness in each of the identified potential markets. Following this, we modelled the cumulative impact of the investment priorities that would be feasible in or around 2025.
What became evident from the report was that the opportunity for clean hydrogen to compete favourably on a cost basis with existing industrial feedstocks and energy carriers in local applications such as transport and remote area power systems is within reach. On the upstream side, some of the most material drivers of reductions in cost include the availability of cheap low emissions electricity, utilisation and size of the asset.
The development of an export industry, meanwhile, is a potential game-changer for hydrogen and the broader energy sector. While this industry is not expected to scale up until closer to 2030, this will enable the localisation of supply chains, industrialisation and even automation of technology manufacture that will contribute to significant reductions in asset capital costs. It will also enable the development of fossil-fuel-derived hydrogen with carbon capture and storage, and place downward pressure on renewable energy costs dedicated to large scale hydrogen production via electrolysis.
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In light of global trends in industry, energy and transport, development of a hydrogen industry in Australia represents a real opportunity to create new growth areas in our economy. Blessed with unparalleled resources, a skilled workforce and established manufacturing base, Australia is extremely well placed to capitalise on this opportunity. But it won’t eventuate on its own.