10 May 2013

Less than 200 metres inland from Wollongong’s idyllic beaches sits the lead node of the world-renowned ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES).

Here at the University of Wollongong’s Intelligent Polymer Research Institute, the lead node of ACES and in the laboratories of ACES’s five other nodes in Melbourne, Geelong and Hobart, has emerged a growing understanding of how the nanostructure of materials affects their ability to generate, store and transmit electrical charge. These fundamental studies have led to many application breakthroughs in a diverse range of areas including energy (conversion and storage), bionics (health and medical) and innovative materials and manufacturing.

And while ACES’s standing in the international scientific community is first rate, ACES researchers are also focussed on moving their discoveries from the lab to the real world. They strive hard to put ACES materials in the hands of surgeons, and work with  manufacturers to integrate their materials into any number of innovative products. Forming close links and strong collaborations with the ‘end-users’ is a critical aspect on this journey.

ACES Director, Professor Gordon Wallace, says the Wollongong-based facilities, completed just over 12 months ago, have provided a platform that will help maximise the commercial development of this field of research and enhance links with industry.

“For those of us in the electromaterials science, ‘industry’ consists of those that make things—which includes a range as diverse as high purity metals, capacitors for storing energy and nanobionic medical technology,” Professor Wallace said.

“We work closely with a range of companies such as Cochlear, CapXX, Bluescope, SMR Technologies and Boston Scientific. This reflects that diversity.”

Only recently the success ACES is having in the medical field was highlighted in the media. ACES researchers have developed 3D printing hardware and 'bio-inks' to manufacture structures including muscle and nerve cells. An additive fabrication facility has now been established at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne to progress a number of projects in close collaboration with clinicians. This places Australia on the verge of a medical revolution.

ACES also recently welcomed its first ‘FabFellow’ to its Wollongong labs. This initiative helps puts ACES at the forefront of industry engagement.

Senior Manufacturing Engineer, and SMR Technologies employee, Mr Bill Frank, will complete an eight week fellowship with ACES that will help drive further developments in auto parts.

The fellowship scheme invites paid employees from the industry sector, with the endorsement of their company, to apply.

Mr Frank said the fellowship would be invaluable in reviewing emerging technologies and processes that could be applied to provide cost-effective manufacturing systems.

“We’re not scientists, we’re manufacturers and if we’re going to be competitive in the global commercial market now and into the future we’ve got to look for technology to drive us there…we need to harness technology to make us competitive.”

Yet despite these successes, collaboration delivers its own challenges. One is the resistance of industry to developments they may consider disruptive. Another is sourcing financial backing for new ventures, such as the ACES Aquahydrex water-splitting project. Then there is the significant time invested by a researcher to establish collaborative relationships and build new partnerships.

“The establishment of collaborations consumes energy and resources,” Professor Wallace said.

“The ARC Centre of Excellence programme is essential in providing these resources.

“Without the Centre of Excellence funding, we would not have been able to build a team that includes researchers from a range of disciplines, entrepreneurs and communications personnel,” Professor Wallace said.

“This has in turn attracted leading researchers from around the globe to join us.”

“While the investment in building partnerships is widely recognised in the business community for being long-term the most effective way forward, researchers face the pressure of short-term  return linked to tenure and promotion.”

Time is also a crucial factor in developing collaboration and building relationships with industry.

“Our industry links have been built up over many years and the learning curve has been enormous,” Professor  Wallace said.

“When bringing a fundamental science to a diverse range of industries we utilise many different approaches to allow the integration of knowledge into different commercial environments. Being at the cutting edge, we often need to step back a little to find things that industry can adapt more readily.

“There is a common language—you just have to find it—and that can take time. It will only be found if both parties share the same level of excitement about the project.”

A presentation by Professor Wallace on research being conducted into the next generation of medical bionics is available on YouTube, along with a presentation about how nanotechnology will revolutionise health care.

For a more detailed insight into his views on collaboration check out Collaborate or Commiserate

For more information contact ACES or Professor Gordon Wallace.