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Eyes on new horizons

18 February 2013

Professor George Simon, Head of the Department of Materials Engineering

Words: Dr Gio Braidotti

Some of the country’s greatest minds are meeting in a space custom-built for collaboration – and the possibilities are endless.

Humans have asked what matter is for millennia. Today’s researchers are heirs to the accumulated answers to that question and can dream of advanced new materials that will help realise extraordinary technological advances.

Among possibilities being explored by engineers in a new complex in Australia are solar cells so thin they can be printed onto plastic in a reel-to-reel printing process, putting solar energy on tap for all sorts of surfaces. There are materials that allow the human body to regenerate worn or diseased bones and organs. Physicists can create an entirely new state of matter with unusual properties, with a vast range of benefits including atomtronics that would help locate mineral deposits.

The leadership at Monash University is well aware its engineers can make massive contributions to medicine, and that physicists are learning to build machines with implications for all research and development. To further fuel such collaborative ventures, it decided to build the New Horizons Centre (NHC), where researchers from multiple departments can cohabit and mingle to exploit radical new possibilities.

The key research interests here are based on what the head of the Department of Materials Engineering, Professor George Simon, refers to as the “grand challenges” of the future.

These are issues requiring more efficient, smarter and sustainable materials and technologies in industry, manufacturing, energy and medical research.

“The NHC is unique in the way that it has taken people from a number of different faculties and departments and put them together in one building that is not divided up into departments, but into research themes,” Professor Simon says. Also involved are researchers from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia’s government-funded R&D body.
“Research in the building is structured around R&D themes selected for their national and international importance: future manufacturing, biological engineering, renewable energy, and modelling and simulation,” Professor Simon says. “Added to this is Monash University’s strong medical and biosciences faculty that allows us to pursue advances at the intersection of medicine and engineering.”

These synergies are of special interest to Professor Kerry Hourigan, who heads the Monash Division of Biological Engineering and has longstanding relationships with medical researchers, clinicians and physicists. His goal: advances in identifying and treating disease.

One way is through developing more versatile imaging technology. “For example, heart disease through atherosclerosis often begins in the teen years, but symptoms may not appear until decades later. Similarly, diseases such as cystic fibrosis and lung cancer often need early intervention for treatment to be successful.”

Research under development to address this includes 3-D X-ray imaging technology, the simulation of blood flow and tissue deformation.
But it is not only imaging. Treatments based on nanoparticles are being developed to deliver drugs directly and specifically to the diseased tissue, including cancers.

“We are particularly interested in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, which is an area that also taps into Australian excellence in stem cell research,” Professor Hourigan says.

“We want to develop the ability to repair bone, heart muscle, brain neural tissue and lungs by deploying new biomaterials to use as scaffolds. These would allow seeded cells to grow into a functional replacement tissue. Once formed, the idea is for the scaffold to degrade away.”

A move towards the horizon

The NHC building, with its striking diagonally slanted facade, is based in one of Melbourne’s premier research districts for advanced manufacturing – Monash University’s campus in south-east Melbourne. It is alongside the CSIRO campus and is part of a hub that also includes the Australian Synchrotron, the Melbourne Centre for Nanofabrication, the Monash Centre for Electron Microscopy and the Victorian Organic Solar Cell Consortium.

At a cost of more than A$150 million – and funded by the Australian Government, Monash and CSIRO – the NHC is the first research building of its magnitude and energy density in Australia to achieve a  6 Green Star – Education Design rating.
About 400 Monash staff and students will work there as well as 100 from CSIRO’s Division of Materials Science and Engineering, which is responsible for global advances in coatings, composites and RAFT – a process for making better polymers (and responsible for the world’s first polymer banknote).

Phil Casey, leader of CSIRO’s Polymer and Molecular Science Research Program, says the relocating researchers (who also include members of CSIRO’s Surfaces and Nanoscience Research Program) are substantially engaged with multiple industries.

“CSIRO’s strength is addressing big challenges that often require expertise at the intersection of biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics,” Mr Casey says. “So we know how to bring multidisciplinary teams together to work on a problem.”

As well as applied science, the NHC also maintains strong foundations in basic or ‘blue sky’ research. For the Monash School of Physics, which will conduct all its experimental work at the NHC, this means better facilities to explore an entirely new state of matter, among other work.

The sky is the limit

Associate Professor Michael Morgan, head of the Monash School of Physics, says his researchers required the NHC laboratories to meet the most stringent specifications for temperature control and vibration isolation.

This included laying segmented concrete slabs 1.55 metres thick that are decoupled from the rest of the building to prevent vibrations interfering with highly sensitive experiments on Bose-Einstein condensates. This is considered one of the most exciting fields opening up in physics. It involves a transition to a new state of matter in which atoms lose their individuality and condense into the same quantum state, which is neither solid nor liquid, gas nor plasma.

“Fundamental discoveries in physics have a tendency to translate into remarkable technologies,” Associate Professor Morgan says. “In condensed matter physics, we are looking for revolutionary new applications, including new and unexpected materials, light sources, more precise instruments and the capacity to manipulate and exploit individual atoms.”

This research area is attracting international physicists to Monash such as Professor Kris Helmerson, who recently moved from the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the US.

At Monash, Professor Helmerson built – and is now trying to miniaturise – equipment that can form, visualise and manipulate Bose-Einstein condensates.
The equipment involves a tangle of lasers and sources of magnetic fields that are used to manipulate the wave-aspect of matter, slowing down and capturing atoms in a chamber where the atoms are cooled to temperatures of about 50 billionths of a degree above absolute zero (or 50 nanokelvin).

“When you have a gas of atoms at such low temperatures, you get a macroscopic manifestation of its quantum properties, which then allows us to image those properties and exploit them,” Professor Helmerson says. “One application is in atomtronics – devices harnessing the quantum properties of atoms – that promises revolutionary technologies, analogous to how the laser revolutionised light optics in the past 50 years.”

When used in sensors similar to a laser gyroscope, Bose-Einstein condensates are proving far more sensitive than lasers to rotation and acceleration, allowing physicists to measure and map minute changes in gravity.

“These gravity maps have practical applications,” Professor Helmerson says. “For instance, they can be used to help locate mineral deposits.”

According to Professor Simon, such innovations make the NHC a touchstone for activity in the surrounding manufacturing precinct.

“Materials are a key part of the design palette in any new product or process and here we have the ability to look at and manipulate materials at all size scales – from the macro level down to the atomic scale,” he says. “We want to use these capabilities to meet increasing demand for materials that are smarter, more functional and include new properties such as the ability to self-heal and to sense their environment, and that are cheaper or lighter and stronger – preferably a number of these simultaneously.”

The New Horizons Centre at Monash University was funded by the Australian Government through the Education Investment Fund.