Spinifex catching attention of best scientists
TO the Aboriginal people of Queensland’s remote north-west, the clumps of spiky spinifex grass that grow in the red dust surrounding the border town of Camooweal play an important role in their connection to country and culture.
For thousands of years, the traditional landowners of the region, the Indjalandji-Dhidhanu people, have applied ancient scientific methods to extract resin from the plant, using it to craft tools and weapons.
Now, in the 21st century, inside a Brisbane laboratory more than 2000km southeast of Camooweal, researcher Dr Nasim Amiralian, 35, is applying cutting-edge science to turn spinifex into products for the modern world, among them super-strong, ultra-thin condoms and surgical gloves.
The University of Queensland project carries huge promise to create jobs and a new industry in one of the state’s most remote areas where employment is hard to find.
At the same time, spinifex has given Amiralian, a talented Iranian-born textile engineer, a scientific lifeline.
For three years prior to Amiralian being granted a scholarship at the UQ-based Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, she was knocked back by universities throughout the world as a doctoral candidate.
Letters she received in Iran, where she was still living at the time, “politely” informed her that political reasons, rather than her ability as a scientist, were behind the multiple rejections.
But in 2010, Amiralian opened an email offering her the chance to study spinifex resin under the supervision of UQ Professor Darren Martin.
The opportunity has not only changed her life, it has created enormous potential to transform the economic outlook for an indigenous community by providing jobs.
UQ and the Camooweal-based Dugalunji Aboriginal Corporation have signed a unique agreement recognising the traditional owners’ knowledge about spinifex and ensuring they have ongoing equity and involvement in the commercialisation of Amiralian’s work.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Amiralian said.
“I believe in this. To provide a big help to this community, nothing is more important.
“My aim is not just working in the lab. I want to use my research in order to help people. This is happening. That’s the most exciting part.”
Ultimately, she hopes to encourage more Aboriginal students into science, technology, engineering and maths subjects at university.
During her PhD, Amiralian found the spinifex resin could be effective as an anti-termite treatment for timber. But her most exciting discovery was the nanofibres – 1000 times thinner than a human hair – that make up the blades of the spinifex grass.
“These nanofibres, they are really thin and long,” she said.
“This is what you need to reinforce a polymer.”
Amiralian, who was awarded her PhD in 2014, has extensively tested the nanofibres in latex to create super-strength condoms and surgical gloves. She is also working on using the spinifex nanofibres to make more durable compounded rubber products, such as coolroom door seals.
“We’ve already done thousands of different experiments,” she said.
She has two patents on the nanofibres and their application.
The latex manufacturing industry is a multi-billion dollar global market.
In 2016, Science and Innovation Minister Leeanne Enoch awarded Amiralian an $180,000 Advance Queensland fellowship over three years – funding that helped her secure permanent Australian residency last September.
The fellowship is allowing her to refine her formulations to extract the highest performance from the spinifex-reinforced latex and compounded rubber before any products are launched.
“Leeanne Enoch has provided major support,” Amiralian said.
“I promised her I would deliver this project. She did a great service to me.”
A team of 13 scientists at the AIBN are researching spinifex, based on Amiralian’s nanofibre discovery. Projects are under way to test the spinifex nanofibres as a way to strengthen cardboard, concrete and plastics.
More than a dozen people are also employed by the Dugalunji Aboriginal Corporation to work on spinifex applications.
Australia has dozens of spinifex species, covering an estimated 27% of the country.
“My project is one of UQ’s top projects with potential commercial applications,” Amiralian said.
NEW IDEA: Spinifex plants near Camooweal are being used in an exciting research project.