High tech research symposium
The Inaugural Thai-Australian Research Symposium, held in Bangkok last week, was a triumph of academic accomplishments and grassroots collaboration
Story and pictures by DR B JAMES JOHNSON
The theme for the event is ``Research - A Basis for Social Development'', and it poignantly portrays the roles research plays in the development of societies. The symposium addresses critical issues that are important to Thai researchers, such as renewable energy and biofuels, photovoltaics, water resource management, stem cell research, nanotechnology, research standards, and very importantly, commercialization of, and industry involvement in, new research discoveries. One of the main objectives is to increase collaboration between Thai and Australian education, science, research and technology players.
These are just some of the purposes of the forum, and judging from all the positive comments by presenters and participants, the symposium is a resounding success and sets the mark for another one next year.
Pressure on water poops water pressure
Currently in many countries there is a pervasive fear of drinking wastewater of any kind, and an absolute revulsion to drinking recycled toilet water no matter how purified it might be.
Many countries with water shortages are trying to override such aversions with public service campaigns. Singapore is one of them. Singapore currently recycles wastewater as drinking water.
Industries, too, can benefit from recycled wastewater, by using it for example in giant air-conditioning systems. It is reported that 70 percent of Israel's irrigated agriculture uses highly purified wastewater, while another use of recycled wastewater is the recharging of aquifers. Wastewater is used in Florida to rehabilitate natural ecosystems such as the famous Florida Everglades.
Prof Paul Greenfield, senior deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Queensland, presented on ``The Role of Biotechnology and Nanotechnology Research in Water and Wastewater Management''. He discussed many ways in which microbes and nanotechnology could help to thoroughly clean waste-water and to produce clean, safe drinking water. One way to do that is through the use of metabolic engineering systems that use microbes to purify the water.
One aspect of governments' ability to produce safe drinking water in huge quantities, whether recycled or not, is the continual reduction in the costs of purification. A better understanding of microbial ecology and the use of billions of ``free'' microbes could be the big answer to increasing the limited supply of quality drinking water.
But scientists must go further, says Prof Greenfield, and extract valuable nutrients from the purification by-products of wastewater treatment, such as granular sludge.
Am I clean yet?
Nanotechnology and biological engineering may one day perfect the microbial fuel cell (MFC) or biological fuel cell, devices in which micro-organisms oxidize readily abundant energy compounds such as glucose, wastewater or acetate. The process produces electrons that are sent to an anode (a type of electrode), then on to a cathode and perhaps to an electron acceptor such as oxygen, thereby generating an electrical current and power, all from bacteria.
Carefully managed microbial fuel cells can produce their own energy and become independent of external energy systems. A commercial application of this line of research could be pacemakers that don't need any outside power supply, only glucose, which is present in the bloodstream.
Another way to have more clean drinking water is to produce less wastewater, says Prof Greenfield. For example, we like to clean ourselves with very soapy products. Then we rinse ourselves again and again until all the soapsuds are gone. That's how we `know' we are clean! Scientists are trying to find a biological or nanotechnological mechanism that ``turns off'' the bubbles in the first moments of rinsing, saving millions of liters of clean water, Prof Greenfield explains.
Thus, ``The key enablers in `stretching' our water supplies and developing new products that will reduce the pressure on our use of water and eliminate inefficient treatment of water,'' says Prof Greenfield, ``are biotechnology and nanotechnology.''
Two million per second
Prof Stephen Livesey, CEO, Australian Stem Cell Center, reported that stem cell research in Australia is governed by a 2002 statute that permits ``new human embryonic stem cell lines of embryo previously frozen, which would otherwise be discarded, with appropriate consent'' and a 2006 statute, which adopts the 54 ``recommendations of the [Honorable John S] Lockhart [R]eview [Committee, an independent stem cell medical ethics and legislation review body], that allows therapeutic cloning of somatic cell nuclear transfer'' (SCNT).
The Australian Stem Cell Center (ASCC) unites leading academic researchers with the biotechnology industry to develop cutting edge products to treat debilitating diseases and life threatening injuries.
In his presentation, entitled ``Harnessing the Potential of Stem Cells _ The Australian Perspective'', Prof Livesey surprised many of the several hundred attendees when he announced that ``each of you is producing two million blood cells per second'' from your red bone marrow, and that stem cells from blood-producing bone marrow are the most studied adult stem cell group. Adult stem cells are rare, but in addition to bone marrow, they are present in many organs, including the liver, skin, eye and heart.
What's so great about stem cell research and technology is their potential to challenge some of the most dreaded humane medical conditions, such as spinal cord injuries, neurodegenerative diseases, cystic fibrosis, and cardiac diseases. In a 2003 interview, Prof Livesey says that he believes that if ``the right stem cell'' is combined ``with the right matrix we can regenerate any tissue in the body.'' He concluded, according to interviewer Hugh Martin that, ``The beauty of stem cells as a basis for therapeutic treatment is that they provide a regenerative process based on the body's own cellular structure.''
Thus far, scientists have been able to produce blood, cardiac and muscle cells from stem cells. Such efforts are applauded by Prof Dr Ahnond Bunyaratvej, secretary-general of the National Research Council of Thailand, who in his presentation entitled, ``The Fifth Dimension of Research For Humanity'' pleas fervently for scientists to conduct research that directly benefits humanity.
Add sunlight to subtract
The University of New South Wales (UNSW) was lauded on its accomplishments in silicon solar cell research and its participation in the development of the ``first, second and third generation'' wafer, thin-film silicon, and ``super-efficiency concepts and photoluminescence characterization tools'' by Dr Richard Corkish, head of the School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering, UNSW. His presentation was on research at UNSW, which is at the cutting edge producing energy from a radiant energy source, such as sunlight. A byproduct is the solar-powered pocket calculator. Visit www.pv.unsw.edu.au .
Nuclear power is last option
Over the past five years in Thailand electricity demands have increased at six percent each year, explains Prof Dr Prida Wibulswas, president, Shinawatra University and member of the executive committee of NRCT. The primary source of energy to make electricity in Thailand is fossil fuels - natural gas, coal, lignite, and fuel oils. There are many competing variables that dictate the choice of energy sources.
For example, fossil fuels have long-term availability limitations, air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions. Whereas, natural gas - the cleanest resource - has to be shared between the power-generating and transport sectors. Hydro-power potential in Thailand is very good, and renewable energy resources such as biomass, wind, photovoltaic and nuclear power are all good possibilities, Dr Prida explains in his paper titled, ``Thailand's Energy Sources Generation''.
He also believes that large-scale wind turbine programs along the coastal areas of Thailand should be accelerated'' and that ``large hydro-power potential should be better utilized,'' except that dependency on hydro-power within ``neighboring countries must be avoided,'' he concludes. ``Nuclear power should be kept as the last option,'' says Dr Prida.
Water prices will rise
Australia is experiencing the most destructive drought since the arrival of Europeans. Most major cities are on water restrictions and it is likely that irrigators in the Murray Darling Basin, the breadbasket of Australia, will get no water allocations in 2007, according to Robert Thomas, chief of the Sustainable Systems Division, South Australian Research and Development Institute (Sardi). This ``mother of all droughts'' is causing Australians to reappraise water resources management, including demand, supply and allocation strategies, he says in his presentation: ``Water Resources Planning During Major Drought _ Has Australia Got It Right?''
``The recent prolonged drought has changed every model'' and ``climate change hasn't helped,'' says Thomas. Turning away from the water to renewable energy supplies, Thomas says the solution is simple. Alternative energy resources must be found, such as mineral diesel and biodiesel fuels. The focus in the future must be on climate applications, water resources, pastures and all types of biofuels, and where appropriate recycling. At least $20 billion dollars (548 billion baht) are needed for infrastructure alone, Thomas says.
One nanometer is a unit of spatial measurement that is one billionth of a meter, and is about the size of a small molecule. Quantum mechanics are what affect structures so small; they are not governed by classical physics. Because they are so unique, it is hoped that research of their properties will allow the discovery of new functionalities and commercial products. ``Understanding, observing and controlling the properties of matter with lengths of between one and 100 nanometers is a new challenge for the research community and industry,'' notes Dr Cathy Foley, theme leader and senior principal research scientist, CSIRO Industrial Physics.
Nanotechnology is revolutionizing manufacturing, and as nanotechnology merges with traditional, new and non-nanotechnology applications, it ``will have a significant impact on almost all industries and areas of society'' adds Dr Foley in her talk simply called ``Nanotechnology and the Applied Benefits of Research''.
Nanotechnology ``could offer better built, longer lasting, cleaner, safer, and smarter products [for] the home, communications, medicine, transportation, energy, agriculture and food, and industry,'' she says.
Nanotechnology can catapult society into the next generation of helpful products, resources and healthcare; but humankind may also have to be protected from malevolent uses by persons with contemptible intent.
Though the academic presentations were top rate, Stuart Russell, project officer at Australian Education International (AEI) and the brains and bronze behind the conference states, ``The key to this inaugural symposium is not the excellent and well-received academic presentations, but the grassroots networking; the one-on-one conversations; the meeting of new colleagues; the exposure to new ideas and new possibilities; the access to existing infrastructures, untapped resources and available funding.''
For more information on the Inaugural Thai-Australian Research Symposium, contact Stuart at Stuart-Russell@aei.gov.au .
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Last modified: June 4, 2007