Material Girls

Twenty-first century science is increasingly about collaboration and the sharing of ideas and techniques across disciplines, regions and countries. When it comes to cutting edge discoveries, how the research team works together can be as vital to the outcome as the science.

Deakin’s Institute for Frontier Materials (IFM) is home to nearly 120 academic and research staff and more than 150 higher degree by research students. Drawn from engineering, chemistry, materials science, physics, biology, mathematics and other disciplines, the researchers here are at the forefront of innovation in materials design and engineering.

Among them are teams led by some of Australia’s brightest minds in electromaterials, molecular modelling and short ultrafine fibres.

Professor Maria Forsyth, Professor Tiffany Walsh and Dr Alessandra Sutti are leading their multidisciplinary, multicultural and mixed gender teams in scientific fields traditionally dominated by men, but fortunately have picked the right place to do it.

Prof Forsyth – Australian Laureate Fellow, Australian Academy of Science Fellow, Alfred Deakin Professor, Director of BatTRI-Hub, Associate Director in the ARC Centre of Excellence in Electromaterials Science and IFM’s Deputy Director – is internationally recognised as a leader in the fields of advanced materials for new energy and infrastructure technologies.

She is also acknowledged as a leader in other areas, managing a large, multidisciplinary team of 40 -50 people across Deakin’s Burwood and Waurn Ponds campuses.

“I think it’s interesting how women and men work together in historically male dominated fields,” Prof Forsyth said. “I'm proud to be a role model - not just for young women, but for all those looking at entering the scientific arena. I want to show them that you can be female as well as smart and a good leader. It’s not either/or. You don’t have to be one of the blokes. Just be yourself, because we all have skills to offer.”

Prof Forsyth is one of Australia’s leading experts in battery technology and played a pivotal role in the establishment of the Deakin/CSIRO BatTRI-Hub – a research and innovation facility for developing next-generation battery and energy storage technologies.

Using BatTRI-Hub’s unique, state-of-the-art facilities, Prof Forsyth and her team are developing and testing new electromaterials and nanoporous membranes to ensure that renewable energies can be stored cheaply and efficiently enough to compete with the current energy storage options.

“The team brings quite a diverse set of experience to the work, from bioscience to engineering, materials science and chemistry, but everyone has important roles to play,” Prof Forsyth said.

Associate Professor Jenny Pringle, who works closely with Professor Forsyth, is pursuing research through an ARC Discovery grant, investigating ways to improve the safety and performance of batteries. She is seeking to develop new solid state electrolytes, with improved conductivity, for use in emerging lithium battery technologies. She is also course co-ordinator of a world-first Masters of Philosophy (Electromaterials) that Deakin developed with the University of Wollongong.

“Advances over the past decade, particularly through nanotechnology and 3D structuring, carbon materials, conducting polymers and electrolytes, mean that electromaterials can be used in many different disciplines,” said Associate Professor Pringle. “The job opportunities are there, but few people have the skills to do them well.”

For Prof Tiffany Walsh, a member of the Australian Research Council College of Experts and board member for Victorian Endowment for Science, Knowledge Innovation (veski), collaborating with other scientists is ultimately in Australia’s best interests.

“We can’t necessarily compete with America and China for everything, but if we want to punch above our weight, then Australian scientists need to work together,” she said.

Prof Walsh, who returned to Australia from the UK five years ago on a veski Innovation Fellowship, focuses on molecular modelling for a range of applications. Her team is currently working on developing technology to assess a person’s level of stress or fatigue using real time, non-invasive methods.

“We want to be able to chemically measure the biomarker molecules that indicate stress or fatigue in the body without taking blood samples, for example by monitoring sweat or tears,” she explained. “It’s a revolutionary technology for measuring vigilance and stress at a molecular level.”

Prof Walsh’s team is mostly male, which she attributes in part to the traditionally male disciplines her work requires.

“Our research lies at the junction of many disciplines, including physical science aspects, such as maths, chemistry, physics and materials science. It also includes biology, where historically there has been greater female participation. Ultimately, you just want the best people on your team regardless of gender, who contribute, get along and help each other.”

As Deakin’s chief researcher in short ultrafine fibres, Dr Alessandra Sutti heads IFM’s award-winning short polymer fibres group. She said IFM’s open and supportive culture encouraged collaboration across teams and disciplines, regardless of background or gender, which allowed her team to actively collaborate with others across Deakin on successful projects.

The short polymer fibres group studies a range of questions and applications in future fibres and materials, particularly exploring ways to enhance and apply properties such as water repellence or chemical absorption. In conjunction with IFM industry partner HeiQ, the group’s work last year led to the development of a commercially-released product “HEIQ RealSilk,” which allows ordinary fabrics to mimic the feel and characteristics of silk.

“RealSilk is the result of hard work by a dedicated team of multidisciplinary researchers at IFM, Deakin’s School of Engineering and HeiQ,” Dr Sutti said. “Our task now is to enable HEIQ’s scaled up production and together develop new products and new devices to make those products.”

Dr Sutti, a materials scientist and engineer, said IFM’s collaborative approach was a reflection of how things are changing in the scientific world.

“More and more you don’t just have specialists working only in a narrow field. You also have a growing number of researchers who can apply their expertise to a wide range of research that has a real impact on fundamental and applied science.”

Women cause a spin at Carbon Nexus

Four women researchers are helping to take Carbon Nexus to the forefront of carbon fibre research. Senior Research Fellow Dr Minoo Naebe, Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Fellow Dr Nisa Salim, Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Claudia Creighton and Research Fellow Dr Mandy de Souza are working together, with their male colleagues and in collaboration with CSIRO and a spectrum of industry partners from aerospace and automotive.

Early career researcher Dr Nisa Salim has had an outstanding career since she arrived at Deakin on a scholarship from India in 2008. Amongst several awards, she received a prestigious Victoria Fellowship, delivered by veski, in 2015 that allowed her to visit world leaders in “wet spinning” carbon fibre technology during 2016.

This work directly led to the installation of a wet-spinning line to improve the characteristics of the precursor fibre essential in the production of carbon fibre — it is the only such facility in the Southern Hemisphere. This was a joint investment with CSIRO’s Fibre group at the Waurn Ponds Campus. Recently launched, the new line significantly increases the research and production capabilities at Waurn Ponds.

Another multi-award winning researcher, Dr Minoo Naebe, is focused on developing novel functional and structural hierarchical composites for light-weight ballistic armour and aerospace/automotive composites.

Dr Naebe has developed a successful nanocomposite fibre system, which has significantly improved the performance of polyolefin-based polymers and led to a joint patent with industry. Another achievement is the work by Dr Naebe and her team to develop and commercialise a manufacturing technology to fabricate highly curved armour materials from advanced fibre systems, such as polyethylene, Kevlar and carbon fibre.

Drs Creighton and de Souza are working together to design and develop a carbon fibre composite automotive seat for vehicle light-weighting — an important energy saving. This project is part of an Excellerate program and supported by the Auto Cooperative Research Centre. They hope to see their design used in vehicles around the world in the not-too-distant future.