Technology innovators take out PM's Prizes for Science

Friday, 19 October, 2018

Technology innovators take out PM's Prizes for Science

The 2018 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science were awarded this week, recognising the contributions Australia’s scientists, innovators and science teachers make to the nation’s scientific and commercialisation capabilities. And this year, there was a particular focus on technological innovations.

Precise navigation

The top award on the night, the $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, went to Emeritus Professor Kurt Lambeck AO from the Australian National University (ANU) for revealing how our planet changes shape — every second, every day and over millennia — and how these changes influence sea levels, the movement of continents and the orbits of satellites.

Back in the 1960s, Prof Lambeck discovered that the gravity field of the Earth was much more complex than anyone had thought. That turned out to be important for spaceflight, because the gravity field determines trajectories of satellites, and we needed better gravity field models to be able to navigate to the moon and beyond. His work saw him use the deformation of continents during the ice ages to study changes deep in the mantle of the planet, which led to a better understanding of the impact of sea level changes on human civilisation in the past, present and future.

Prof Lambeck’s ideas have also seeded technological innovations that we use every day, with the practice of space geodesy having help evolved the GPS navigation technology built into every smartphone. In Australia he guided the development of a comprehensive geodetic monitoring system called the AuScope network, which consists of about 100 GPS stations, radio telescopes and laser tracking systems and enables us to track our location with sub-centimetre accuracy across the country.

Precise navigation is also essential for autonomous vehicles on the road, on the farm and on mine sites. Prof Lambeck noted, “You need to keep them on the road, and if the road is shifting in your reference frame then you’re going to be in trouble, so you need to correct for that.”

Faster internet

The other major award, the $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation, went to the team from Finisar Australia — Dr Simon Poole, Andrew Bartos, Dr Glenn Baxter and Dr Steven Frisken — for creating and commercialising technologies that have made the internet faster and more efficient.

Back in 2001, optical fibres carried data from point to point — for example, from Sydney to Los Angeles — and plugged into slower electric signal networks for local connections. The speed of internet traffic was limited by the need to convert data from light to electrical signals for switching and processing, and there were problems with both capacity and reliability.

Seeking a solution, the team from Finisar, which was originally called Engana, developed a small optical device that uses a high-tech prism to split light into more than 100 coloured beams and switch them from one optical fibre to another, allowing the devices to handle 10 terabits per second — or 1 million simultaneous high-definition streaming videos. Their optical wavelength switch has three major components: the prism itself, a liquid crystal on silicon chip that can steer the light into different optical fibres, and the algorithms that manage the device.

Today Finisar’s Flexgrid Wavelength Selectable Switches are used by the world’s major telecommunication companies wherever people need high-speed internet and mobile phone access. The switches have made fibre optics cheap to use over short connections, and allowed internet traffic to grow in volume and drop in price. By carrying many signals at the same time and switching rapidly between fibres, they have transformed point-to-point optical fibres into adaptable mesh networks — and because they are controlled by software, they let network managers rapidly reroute traffic when there’s a network fault.

Flexible crystals

The $50,000 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year was meanwhile presented to Associate Professor Jack Clegg, based at The University of Queensland, for creating flexible crystals that could make smartphones and other electronics more robust.

Smartphones, like all modern electronic devices, are packed with crystal semiconductors. Inflexible, brittle and often made from rare-earth elements, these crystals are liable to break when a device such as a smartphone is dropped.

Now, Assoc Prof Clegg has taken commonplace elements like copper, iron, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen and combined them to create crystals that are so flexible that he can tie them in a knot. “If we can engineer these crystals to be flexible,” he said, “this opens up applications in a much wider range of technologies such as electronics that we might be able to wear, twist or bend.”

Assoc Prof Clegg has also used these elements to create ‘cage molecules’: large molecules that have holes inside them so they can function as precise molecular sieves, customisable for a vast range of manufacturing processes — from the oil industry to water filtration and pharmaceuticals. He hopes the first applications will be in drug production, where much of the cost of making new drugs is in the purification process.

The awards night saw a total of 10 winners share in seven prizes, including $750,000 in prize money. Other awards included:

  • The $50,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools, presented to Dr Scott Sleap — creator of the Cessnock Academy of STEM Excellence in regional NSW — for opening young eyes to careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
  • The $50,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools, presented to Brett Crawford — lead science teacher at Warrigal Road State School in Brisbane — for creating an environment in which every teacher is engaged in science.
  • The $50,000 Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year, presented to Adjunct Professor Lee Berger — based at James Cook University and The University of Melbourne — for saving frogs and revealing new extinction threats, including a particular type of fungus.
  • The $50,000 Prize for New Innovators to Dr Geoff Rogers — based in Melbourne — for creating a steerable guidewire that could transform cardiac and other non-invasive cardiac surgery.

Image caption: The Finisar team — Steven Frisken, Simon Poole, Andrew Bartos and Glenn Baxter. Image credit: Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science/WildBear.

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