Seven teams secure $3.7m in ARC Discovery Project grants

University of Newcastle

The Australian Research Council (ARC) has awarded $3.7m in Discovery Project grants to seven University of Newcastle research teams.

The successful research projects range from wave energy converters to rockfall hazard assessment and understanding the risk of microplastics.

Discovery Projects are focused on expanding knowledge base and research capacity in Australia, and creating economic, commercial, environmental, social and/or cultural benefits for the nation.

The successful University of Newcastle projects are:

Transforming decision making for rockfall hazard assessment

Our highways, railways, walking tracks and coastal communities are increasingly affected by rockfall hazards, and managing risks posed by rockfalls is expensive and complex. Predicted environmental changes are only expected to impact the vulnerability of rock slopes and increase the likelihood of rockfall incidents. This project aims to transform conventional approaches of predicting rockfall events by delivering a rapid and reliable augmented reality assessment tool to help governments, civil engineers and other end users better predict and mitigate risks. Better assessment tools will also enhance safety and lead to substantial economic savings.

Amount awarded: $423,133

Research team: Professor Anna Giacomini; Associate Professor Klaus Thoeni; Professor Jinsong Huang; Associate Professor Karen Blackmore

Life outside institutions: histories of mental health aftercare 1900 – 1960

This historical research project will expand our understanding of mental health care between 1900 and 1960 using hospital discharge data and post-institutional aftercare records. Aftercare is a form of assistance for people when they leave mental health hospitals, which has become increasingly important given that most people living with mental illness today use alternatives to hospitalisation. The research will benefit students, researchers, medical professionals and the public by making historical materials and stories of mental illness accessible through a professional podcast series, virtual exhibition and written accounts of mental health care.

Amount awarded: $234,359

Research team: Professor Catharine Coleborne; Dr Effie Karageorgos

Chemical staples and probes to dissect dynamins cellular roles

Correct protein function in our bodies is essential for healthy living. Protein shapes drive protein function, and proteins that don’t ‘fold’ into the correct shape are unable to function properly, which can have devastating consequences. How and why proteins fold is largely unknown because we’ve lacked the tools to unravel the intricacies of the process.

Professor Adam McCluskey Professor Phillip Robinson from the University of Sydney have identified a protein called Dynamin that adopts multiple shapes, each with different biological functions and chemical compounds. This project will use chemical synthesis to transform the compounds into a molecular toolkit capable of unravelling the mechanisms of protein folding, shapes and biological function. This work has the potential to form the basis of future drugs that control protein shape and restore function.

Amount awarded: $1,031,345

Research team: Professor Adam McCluskey

Mathematical and numerical models of piezoelectric wave energy converters

There is enormous energy in ocean waves, but developing cost-effective wave power devices to harness that energy remains an ongoing challenge. An emerging idea is to use flexible structures to capture this energy via piezoelectric materials that couple elastic strain with electric charge. If these types of devices can provide economically viable energy production, Australia (and the world) could have a new source of electrical power. This project will work with leading international partners to focus on the mathematical foundations underpinning wave energy extraction through the piezoelectric effect. The research team hopes outcomes of this work will motivate further research and development of potential prototypes.

Amount awarded: $452,379

Research team: Professor Michael Meylan; Professor Ngamta Thamwattana

An in-built depolymerisation solution for polyethylene waste

Roughly 350 million tons of petroleum-derived plastics are produced globally each year, and up to 60 per cent of it ends up in landfill or as microplastics in our waterways and soils. This project will embed specifically designed enzymes into polyethylene, which will decompose the plastic to small molecules via elevated temperatures of a compost heap.

The resulting ‘green’ polyethylene should produce no microplastic pollution and reduces tremendous pressures on recycling infrastructure.

Amount awarded: $364,318

Research team: Dr Robert Chapman; Professor Erica Wanless

Understanding the risk of microplastics in Australian agricultural soils

Biosolids produced from wastewater treatment are a significant source of microplastics, which are contaminants of concern for agriculture, food security and ecosystems.

This study will provide the first major investigation into the fate of microplastics in biosolids and biosolid-amended soils in Australia. The knowledge gained will inform future protocols for Australian soil and water quality monitoring programs – which support agriculture sustainability, human health and the quality of our food supply chains in Australia.

Amount awarded: $637,430

Research team: Professor Megharaj Mallavarapu; Associate Professor Geoff MacFarlane

Design of nanoporous BCN with tunable pores for CO2 capture and conversion

The emission of CO2 from the combustion of fossil fuels and other sources is a major contributor of global warming and the acidification of our oceans. This project will offer new knowledge on the design of low-cost advanced materials with specific functionalities for the simultaneous capture and conversion of CO2. The outcomes of this study will not only help mitigate global warming but support Australian industries through further job opportunities and economic benefits.

Amount awarded: $611,500

Research team: Professor Ajayan Vinu

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