Molecular Horizons building milestone celebrated

Air quality research to benefit from world-first design at UOW.

The new molecular life sciences research facility being built at the University of Wollongong (UOW) will not only broaden horizons for research into the world’s biggest health challenges – it will also provide a clear view to the horizon for atmospheric chemistry researchers to monitor the Earth’s atmosphere and air quality more accurately.

A Topping Out Celebration was held at UOW today (Wednesday 17 April 2019) to mark a milestone in the construction of the Molecular Horizons building and to showcase its many benefits to the Illawarra, including the employment of a significant number of local contractors in the building process.

The event marked the completion of the uppermost concrete slab of the building, referred to in building construction terms as “topping out”. Molecular Horizons will be a world-leading molecular life sciences research facility, with a suite of advanced technology to help researchers in their work to solve the world’s biggest challenges such as developing new forms of antibiotics and curing cancer. It will also be the new home of UOW’s Centre for Atmospheric Chemistry, with the purpose-built design allowing for the Centre’s atmosphere and air quality measuring instruments to be positioned on the rooftop with a clear view to the horizon.

The five-storey building is the first of its kind in the world to use Glass Fibre Reinforced Polymer (GFRP) in a suspended ferrous-free slab. This allows Molecular Horizons to house sensitive equipment requiring specific environmental and technical conditions for correct operation, including the world’s most powerful transmission electron microscope. The unique ferrous-free structure of Molecular Horizons is the result of an international collaboration of engineering expertise and will pave the way for future projects both in Australia and throughout the world.

UOW Chief Administrative Officer Melva Crouch CSM said Molecular Horizons is significantly contributing to the local economy. More than 83 per cent of the project’s building workforce are local tradespeople who have been engaged on the site since work began in June 2018.

“It’s great that local contractors have been part of a world-first project with such global significance, it’s testament to the talent we have here in the Illawarra,” Ms Crouch said.

Molecular Horizons Director Distinguished Professor Antoine van Oijen said the facility will play an important role in accelerating research into both molecular life sciences and atmospheric chemistry and the results will create an impact locally, regionally and globally.

“The work done in the Molecular Horizons facility is all about understanding the behaviours of molecules,” Professor van Oijen said.

“With the University’s Health and Wellbeing Strategy, there is a strong focus on the molecules of life; studying disease at a molecular level. However, this facility will also house another hub for collaborative research that revolves around molecules – the Centre for Atmospheric Chemistry.”

The Centre for Atmospheric Chemistry is working with a wide range of partners including NASA and ANSTO. Research ranges from monitoring the air quality in Wollongong and surrounds to measuring carbon dioxide and its effect on the Earth’s climate. The Western Air-Shed and Particulate Study for Sydney is a major study led by the Centre in conjunction with UOW’s SMART Infrastructure Facility to help understand and manage air pollution in the region by measuring greenhouse gases and pollutants.

The Centre recently added to its South Western Sydney links by working with ANSTO to establish an air quality monitoring site at Liverpool Girls High School for students to design and run their own air quality citizen science projects in their community. Another project CAC is involved in sees data collected by the Centre from Wollongong sites provided to NASA to precisely determine the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed in the atmosphere at different locations across the world.

Centre for Atmospheric Chemistry Research Fellow Dr Voltaire Velazco said moving six key measuring instruments to the top of the Molecular Horizons building will particularly strengthen researchers’ ability to more precisely measure the average air quality within a 5km radius of the University’s Wollongong Campus, its Innovation Campus, and Wollongong Public Hospital.

“We were limited in access to the sky and now we will have a clearer view to the ocean all-year round,” Dr Velazco said.

“The big difference is we can now measure as soon as the sun comes up, giving us better, more sensitive measurements.”

Since launching in 1996, the Centre has been operating from the rooftop of UOW’s Chemistry (Halpern) Building, with the structure’s low elevation limiting the instrumentations’ line of sight through the atmosphere. Dr Velazco explained that researchers rely on sunlight and unobstructed observation geometry to determine atmospheric composition.

“This extended observation geometry will enable added information on the ocean’s boundary layer, as well as information on how trace gases react to light as the sun rises,” Dr Velazco said.

“There are so many new topics and possibilities to explore and this puts UOW in a stronger position as a coastal atmospheric monitoring site.”

Measurements collected by the Centre help inform policy regionally and internationally, with researchers working to develop measures to improve air quality in the Sydney area –which covers a large area from South Western Sydney to the Illawarra.

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