Spinifex catch­ing at­ten­tion of best sci­en­tists

The Northern Star - Northern New South Wales Rural Weekly - - News - Janelle Miles news@ru­ral­weekly.com

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.

PHOTO: THINKSTOCK

NEW IDEA: Spinifex plants near Camooweal are be­ing used in an ex­cit­ing re­search project.

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