THE AUSTRALIAN Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) has developed nuclear interrogation techniques to help understand and sustain groundwater resources across Australia.

Groundwater research at ANSTO has provided crucial information to answer questions about groundwater recharge, groundwater age and dynamics, the interaction between surface water and groundwater and salinisation.

ANSTO groundwater researcher, Karina Meredith said in undertaking groundwater investigations, environmental isotopes were important tools in tracing and understanding the hydrological cycle, a continuous process in which water is circulated between ocean, atmosphere and land.  

Ms Meredith uses stable and radioactive isotopic techniques in projects across Australia to determine the suitability and sustainability of groundwater resources. This water begins as rainfall or surface water that travelled from the surface to below the ground to become stored in porous soils and rock known as aquifers. 

In research that commenced in 2007, Ms Meredith and co-investigators have measured the isotopic signatures of groundwater and its source waters in projects in the Great Artesian Basin, Darling River Basin, Canning Basin, Perth Basin, Ti Tree Basin and other locations. 

“There is nothing simple or predictable about the flow and evolution of groundwater — as many factors such as, rainfall, temperature, vegetation, land use, soil type, geology, seawater intrusion, and human usage, impact on the available groundwater resource,” Ms Meredith said.

“But we can measure the groundwater chemistry of these resources in our laboratories to provide direct information about how the groundwater has interacted in the water cycle.”

Determining the source of groundwater replenishment or recharge, to the aquifer, is the subject of many of Ms Meredith’s collaborative investigations. 

“It is important to understand the origin of water, where the water has been sourced from, whether it has come from a rainfall event, from surface water, such as a lake, whether it has mixed with other groundwater in a confined or unconfined system and how it is being replenished,” Ms Meredith said..

The ratio of isotopes for oxygen (18O/16O) and deuterium (2H/1H), an isotope of hydrogen, can be used to determine the source of the recharge, especially if the isotopic composition of the source of the water has been studied.

Meredith and co-investigators have established multi-year hydrochemical databases for rainfall and riverwaters sampled from drought and flood conditions for many catchment areas in Australia. Groundwater data can be plotted against these baselines to confirm the source of recharge.  

Research on a semi-arid zone region of the Darling River catchment was published in a paper in the Journal of Hydrology in 2015.

The groundwater recharge process in semi-arid and arid areas, which characterises 70 percent of the Australian continent, is complicated by cyclic wetting and drying periods that occur throughout climatic history.

 Just looking at information over a decade, groundwater recharge may not be significant, which is why long-term studies are needed to capture 10-100 year recharge events. 

“Without this recharge information we cannot determine how quickly groundwater is being replenished which then allows us to calculate the sustainable volume of usable water within an aquifer,” Ms Meredith said..

“Determining the residence time of groundwater, how long it has been isolated form the atmosphere, is also important for estimating groundwater volume and we can do this by measuring radioactive isotopes.

“Typically groundwater studies commence with the development of a physical flow model to establish how much water there is, the flow path and flow rate and where it is likely to end up in a catchment.

Flow equations can be used to produce a model but they are only as good as the input data that goes into constructing them. 

“Groundwater flow models cannot always explain all the variation observed in a groundwater system. This is where isotopic analysis can provide validation of the physical models,” said Meredith. 

The radioactive decay of a suite of naturally occurring isotopes can be used to determine the groundwater residence time.

Specific isotopes are measured because they are indicative of defined periods in time based on their half-life. For the modern age, krypton, tritium and radon can be used. 

Tritium (3H), an isotope of hydrogen that is naturally produced in the atmosphere by cosmic rays, is valuable in understanding modern groundwater recharge within the past 50 years. 

“If we want to look at waters older than 1,000 years up to 30,000 years, we use radiocarbon,14C. Most of our deeper productive groundwater systems were recharged over that timescale,” Ms Meredith said.

How this works is that carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is recharged into the groundwater system, once the water containing the CO2 hits the watertable radioactive decay is considered to begin. 

“Put simply, if you compare the groundwater data with atmospheric data, then you can create groundwater age maps of underground systems,” Ms Meredith said.

Meredith and collaborators used this approach successfully on a project in the West Canning Basin within the Pilbara region of Australia, where they found groundwater estimated at 6,000 years but they also discovered groundwater that was much older than what the physical models could predict.

The groundwater was closer to 30,000 years old.

Ms Meredith pointed out that although radiocarbon dating works well in the West Canning Basin, its use can be complicated at other sites especially by the presence of ‘dead’ carbon that contains no 14C within the soil profile. 

“You can end up with an increase in dissolved inorganic carbon, which means you need to make a correction to the radiocarbon value,” she said.

There is an increasing level of complexity and parameters in correction models that can be applied especially in arid zone environments. 

In order to test their age calculation within an arid zone system to see if all hypothetical dissolution pathways existed, they chose the Darling River Basin.

“We wanted to see how dissolved inorganic carbon evolved in the resultant groundwater, so we measured groundwater before and after a large flood event to see how the groundwater changed after recharge” Ms Meredith said.

To their surprise they found geochemical processes not previously accounted for had released inorganic carbon into the groundwater. The results are being published in Geochemica and Cosmochimica Acta.

“Water sediment interaction was leading to an increase in salinity, which then increased the dissolution of carbonate, which goes against what we normally see,” Ms Meredith said.

For groundwaters that are much older, such as those in Australia’s Great Artesian Basin up to millions of years old, isotopes of chlorine and krypton provide an indication of groundwater age.

In addition to extensive groundwater sampling, researchers also sample the surface water, rainfall, soil chemistry, soil gas and vegetation throughout a catchment.

“We do this because it gives us an understanding of the entire water cycle within a groundwater catchment providing clues on groundwater recharge, evaporation rates, and groundwater discharge points,” she said.

“Trace element isotopes, such as lithium, strontium and boron, help illuminate more complex hydrochemical processes, such as water sediment reactions, the source of water recharge, mixing of paleowaters and weathering processes.”

But even with expertise in the application of isotopes, it requires a considerable knowledge of geological, hydrological processes which lead to the distribution of these isotopes, biospheric interaction, and atmospheric processes that fractionate these isotopes before you can apply them to a system with confidence.

Groundwater researchers at ANSTO have acquired this expertise over many years in the field and in the lab.

“There are many challenges. Groundwater is a finite resource, but we are making good progress in understanding aquifer replenishment and providing water managers with useful information to guide their decision-making for the future.”



A DEFENCE Science and Technology Group team has developed a suite of blast protection devices to help counter the global threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

The group’s Redwing systems have won an inaugural Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA) Public Sector Innovation Award for developing a suite of force protection products to assist in countering the global threat posed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs). 

The Redwing project was successful in the Innovative Solutions category that recognises new, improved and effective approaches to public administration.

“The Redwing program saves lives. It offers a suite of practical counter IED devices that operate in austere environments,’’ IPAA acting secretary, Brendan Sargeant said.

“The rapid development of Redwing shows how Defence is innovative and working with industry to respond quickly to user driven need.”

Chief Defence scientist Alex Zelinksy said, “The Redwing program is a fine example of innovation with Defence and industry working together to deliver an operational capability for the national good.

“The rapid development of unique devices under the Redwing program has been both timely and life-saving for coalition troops,” Dr Zelinsky said.

Under the program two robust, light-weight systems were developed – a handheld version called Greengum for use by dismounted troops and a more powerful system called Greygum for fitting to light vehicles.

Greengum and Greygum systems were developed by the Defence Science and Technology Group, sponsored by Defence’s Counter-IED Task Force and manufactured by Australian industry under project coordination by the Australian Military Sales Office. 

Dr Alex Zelinsky said the Redwing program is an exemplary success story for innovation, commercialisation and collaboration with industry. The Redwing industry partners include Micreo, Ultra Electronics, Associated Electronics Services, AXIOM Precision Manufacturing and Lintek.

“To date Australia has supplied 100,000 units of the Redwing equipment to the Afghanistan National Security Forces, with a further 50,000 systems on order, to meet their security needs,” Dr Zelinsky said.

Funding for these systems has been sourced from Australia’s annual contributions to the Afghan National Army Trust Fund, coordinated through Defence’s International Policy Division.

Dr Zelinksy thanked team leader Mr Darryn Smart, including Ben Barona, the principal electronics engineer, Katherine Thatcher and Rex Russell from the Australian Military Sales Office, and Tim Heenan from the Counter-IED Task Force.

“The Redwing counter-IED capability would not have been possible without the expertise of the small and medium enterprises that were involved in the program and they share in the recognition of this award,” Dr Zelinsky said.


War on influenza?

AN ALGORITM developed by Australian Defence scientists to detect bio-terrorism is now being used by the Victorian Health Department as a forecasting tool for the ‘flu.

The tool can accurately predict influenza outbreaks up to eight weeks in advance, giving the public health system a better chance to minimise the impact of the outbreak.

The system is now also being experimentally deployed across NSW and Queensland and Defence scientist Tony Lau said the aim was to get it operational across most of Australia in time for next year’s flu forecasting season. 

“Until now we’ve been focused on developing in-house skills in the detection and forecasting of naturally occurring diseases as well as agents that might be used in bioterrorism,” Mr Lau said.

“We have successfully established significant expertise, using state-of-the-art particle filter techniques and Bayesian networks, to deal with real-world uncertainties in disease forecasting.”

The algorithm known as EpiDefend is a combination of fusion of data from lab-confirmed influenza cases, anonymised GP reports and other environmental data such as humidity were tested. This strengthens the reliability, accuracy and timeliness of detecting an outbreak from naturally occurring ILI and maliciously released biological agents.

”Exposure to many conventional bio attack agents will initially present in victims as showing similar symptoms to an influenza-like illness (ILI) infection, it is imperative we develop capabilities that can clearly differentiate between an outbreak of naturally occurring ILI infections and a biological attack,” Mr Lau said.

The challenge confronting the scientists has always been that the Defence Science and Technology Group (DST) is not a custodian of the health and disease data upon which accurate and reliable forecasting relies.

A recent collaboration with the University of Melbourne School of Population and Global Health has helped overcome these restrictions and DST now has a foothold in public health disease prediction.

As most existing natural disease outbreak detection systems only scrape the surface of the available health data, researchers from Mr Lau’s team have taken a different approach. As a result the EpiDefend can potentially issue an earlier warning of outbreaks than has previously been possible.

“Our team was the first in the world to apply particle filters to disease forecasting, and the combination of techniques used in EpiDefend makes it a world-leading innovation,” Mr Lau said.

“Given the exponential increase in electronic data collection and our algorithm’s ability to dig into these very rich streams of information, the approach has the potential to provide a breakthrough in disease forecasting.”

DST’s disease forecasting research was recently recognised with $A1 million funding support over two years from the US Department of Defense Coalition Warfare Program to develop a key component of a global bio-surveillance system.

”Our team’s goal is dual-purpose, we want to fulfil our defence charter, protecting our forces against intentionally released biological agents, but disease forecasting will also support the national security and public health areas,” Mr Lau said.

“With the Coalition Warfare Program funding we’ll be setting up two additional post-doctoral positions to develop decision support tools for response to disease outbreaks.

“It’s exciting and busy times, and we are ready to contribute to the development of a national and global bio-surveillance system.”


THE LARGEST genomic organisation in the world, China-based BGI, is deepening its collaboration with leading Queensland researchers as part of its growing presence in the Asia Pacific region.

BGI has signed agreements with CSIRO, Griffith University and James Cook University to collaborate with local researchers on genomic projects relating to human medicine and health, sports health, marine science, biodiversity, agriculture and aquaculture. 

The collaborations announcement coincided with BGI officially opening its new Australian and Asia Pacific headquarters at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute at Herston, a Brisbane suburb, which will initially employ 10 people.

BGI president and co-founding professor Jian Wang said the strength of Queensland’s existing life science institutions, industries and networks made it an obvious choice for BGI’s research and development, and commercialisation centre for the Asia Pacific region.



PATIENTS with heart failure, peripheral artery disease or stroke could benefit from a new stem-cell based treatment developed by The University of Queensland and commercialised in alliances with US-based start-up company AngioStem Inc.

The agreement will give AngioStem intellectual property rights relating to UQ research which has found a method for extracting large quantities of specialised stem cells from the placenta. Under the licence agreement, UQ’s main commercialisation company, UniQuest, will receive patent royalties and milestone payments linked to clinical development. 

The UQ Centre for Clinical Research’s associate professor Kiarash Khosrotehrani said it was not possible to isolate placental stem cells in sufficient quantities for use in treatments prior to this research.

“The placenta contains stem cells known as endothelial progenitors and they have the unique ability to create new blood vessels,” associate Prof. Khosrotehrani said.

“These cells are abundant in the placenta and also form part of the interior surface of blood vessels.”

The technique for harvesting stem cells from the placenta was co-invented by associate Prof. Khosrotehrani and Jatin Patel, a postdoctoral researcher in his team.

Associate Prof. Khosrotehrani said the agreement would allow AngioStem to use the unique ability of stem cells to recreate new blood vessels in areas of the body that were lacking blood flow.

“AngioStem has demonstrated experience in developing similar treatments as it specialises in angiogenesis techniques, where new blood vessels are formed from pre-existing vessels,” he said.

“We are eager to collaborate with AngioStem in bringing these promising cells to patients suffering from conditions such as peripheral artery disease, for which no curative measures currently exist.”

AngioStem president and CEO, Dr Thomas Ichim said he had been a follower of associate Prof. Khosrotehrani’s work for more than a decade.

“I look forward to working with Kiarash and his team to accelerate the clinical development of this exciting application of placental stem cells,” Dr Ichim said.

“In contrast to other stem cell approaches, the work of associate Prof. Khosrotehrani and his research group has ensured that placental cells can be easily obtained and expanded to therapeutic numbers in an economical manner. 

“We believe this, combined with superior efficacy, will differentiate AngioStem from other companies in the field.”

UniQuest CEO, Dean Moss said UQ had a strong portfolio of stem-cell and regenerative medicine technologies, and was delighted to partner with AngioStem, given Dr Ichim’s impressive personal track record of commercialising stem-cell based technologies in North America.

“This is a fantastic example of a partnership with a company with the right industry skill set to accelerate translation from an early-stage project to a novel cell therapy in an area with high unmet clinical need,” Dr Moss said.

“We are delighted that AngioStem is exploring opportunities to establish a Queensland-based subsidiary that will ensure that our State continue to provide improved health care on a global scale.”


A BUSINESS support hub for new and innovative businesses, Dimension5, was launched in Melbourne by founders Dimension Data Australia and Creative Universe recently.

Dimension5, billed as Victoria’s newest and most inclusive co-working community, was officially launched by Victorian Minister for Small Business, Innovation and Trade, Philip Dalidakis.

Designed as a space to foster innovation and entrepreneurship, Dimension5 is a partnership between global ICT solutions and services provider Dimension Data Australia and innovation catalyst organisation Creative Universe. 

Creative Universe founder, Tania de Jong said innovators, social entrepreneurs, government, education and business leaders were joining together to support the collaborative space, which is focused on “developing more social innovation and fostering diversity and enterprise”.

The launch party was attended by more than 150 guests and included Federal Member for Melbourne Adam Bandt, LaunchVic chief executive Pradeep Phillip, Australia Israel Chamber of Commerce (AICC) chair Leon Kempler, Dimension Data CEO Rodd Cunico, Greenhill chair Peter Hunt, Pitcher Partners’ Rohini Kappadath and Cisco head of corporate and government affairs Tim Fawcett.

A fascinating feature of the launch event wasthe provision of virtual reality (VR) headsets for guests to ‘experience the future’ provided by global digital agency Isobar.

 “Dimension5 will create a shared space in which entrepreneurs and businesses can collaborate, co-create and support each other across diverse industries and pursuits,” Ms de Jong said.

“The elements of mentoring, shared resources and networking that exist in co-working spaces rapidly accelerate the opportunities available to early stage entrepreneurs and also assist established businesses to be more innovative,” she said.

The South Melbourne hub is open to entrepreneurs, innovators, creatives, social enterprises, small businesses, not-for-profits, disruptive teams from large organisations and others who want to connect with a passionate community of game-changers.

Dimension Data staff will offer mentoring and support to start-ups and others working in the space.

“Australia is rapidly shifting away from its reliance on resources and manufacturing, and, as the Federal Government has identified in its $1.1 billion Innovation and Science Agenda, it will be smart ideas that create business growth, local jobs and global success,” Dimension Data Australia CEO Rodd Cunico said.

“The most difficult aspect of a start-up is gaining initial traction – at Dimension Data, we’re passionate about accelerating ambition, and I look forward to helping fast track the next generation of Australian world beaters,” he said.

Ms De Jong said five-dimensional space refers to a hypothetical extra dimension beyond the usual three spatial dimensions and the fourth dimension of time in relativity physics.

“Dimension⁵aims to promote ‘positive human collisions’, spark innovation and entrepreneurship across technology, start-ups, business and social enterprises,” Ms de Jong said.


AUSTRALIA’s CSIRO has developed a new type of membrane – inspired by the cactus – that has the potential to dramatically boost the performance of fuel cells for electric vehicles.

Working in alliance with scientists from Hanyang University in Korea, CSIRO’s cactus-inspired membrane’s water-repellant skin is said to improve the efficiency of fuel cells, in hot operating conditions, by about 400 percent.

A report on the membrane’s development recently appeared in Nature journal, where CSIRO researcher and co-author, Aaron Thornton, described the prototype skin as working in a similar way to a cactus plant, which thrives by retaining water in harsh and arid environments. 

“Fuel cells, like the ones used in electric vehicles, generate energy by mixing together simple gases, like hydrogen and oxygen,” Dr Thornton said. “However, in order to maintain performance, proton exchange membrane fuel cells – or PEMFCs – need to stay constantly hydrated.

“At the moment this is achieved by placing the cells alongside a radiator, water reservoir and a humidifier. The downside is that when used in a vehicle, these occupy a large amount of space and consume significant power,” he said.

According to CSIRO researcher and co-author Cara Doherty, the team’s new cactus-inspired solution offers an alternative.

“A cactus plant has tiny cracks, called stomatal pores, which open at night when it is cool and humid, and close during the day when the conditions are hot and arid. This helps it retain water,” Dr Doherty said. 

“This membrane works in a similar way. Water is generated by an electrochemical reaction, which is then regulated through nano-cracks within the skin. The cracks widen when exposed to humidifying conditions, and close up when it is drier.

“This means that fuel cells can remain hydrated without the need for bulky external humidifier equipment. We also found that the skin made the fuel cells up to four times as efficient in hot and dry conditions,” Dr Doherty said.

Professor Young Moo Lee from Hanyang University, who led the research, said the membrane could have major implications for many industries, including the development of electric vehicles. 

 “At the moment, one of the main barriers to the uptake of fuel cell electric vehicles is water management and heat management in fuel cell systems,” Prof. Lee said, “This research addresses this hurdle, bringing us a step closer to fuel cell electric vehicles being more widely available.

“This technique could also be applied to other existing technologies that require hydrated membranes, including devices for water treatment and gas separation,” he said.

The cross-continent team has been working together for over 10 years. For this study, Hanyang University conceived and designed the experiments. Using characterisation and modelling expertise, CSIRO researchers were then able to determine how the membranes behaved under changing humidities.


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