Universities are doing the hard research work on sustainability

5 March 2014 – [Updated 10 March 2014]: There is some fascinating and ground-breaking work now coming out of Australian universities around sustainability. It throws down the challenge for businesses to take up these breakthroughs. Following is just a taste of some of this work, with more to come.

The University of Queensland Global Change Institute is doing research into food security in an era of climate change. This will become a critical issue. It has economic and political repercussions with an estimated global population of 9 billion by 2050.

As part of its work, the university is producing a series of maps for the Australian context. These include: (1) national maps on plant productivity and the current production of major foods; (2) national maps that depict food fluxes for domestically-produced food both within Australia and to global markets, and; (3) national maps that project, on a decade by decade basis to 2050, potential shifts in plant productivity and national food production taking into consideration predictions for climate change, the national landscape, and land use patterns.

The University of Western Sydney is the first university in Australia to install and pilot “pulpmaster” – an innovative food waste to energy recycling system.  The system is an Australian patented design and is a best practice state of the art food waste to energy system in the newly upgraded Food Science precinct at UWS Hawkesbury.

The Pulpmaster system converts food waste into pulp which is then transported to a facility where it is transformed into green energy and/or fertiliser. For every 100 tonnes of food waste diverted from landfill, enough green energy is produced to power 34 homes per annum. So far they have recycled 52 tonnes of food waste in 3 years, saving tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions and plastic bags being sent to landfill.

The UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures has been collaborating with the CSIRO and five other universities on the Intelligent Grid Research Program, a collective name for all wires, transformers and infrastructure that transport electricity from power plants to users. It’s investigating technologies and practices to make our electricity networks smart, greener and more efficient.

The Institute writes: “Any power that is lost in transmission is a wasted resource and also contributes to Australia’s unwanted greenhouse gas emissions. For power companies, transmission losses represent lost revenue; and as the demand for power increases, it means companies and government have to spend a significant amount of money on building more infrastructure.

“By making the whole system run smarter, we can reduce transmission losses, reduce wastage, and also make the supply itself greener. In addition, a large proportion of the costs of electricity supply are incurred in the construction of and augmentation of the distribution system (poles, wires and transformers) often to meet peaks that occur infrequently.

“The use of energy sources and demand reduction methods located at or near customers can reduce these costs significantly. An intelligent grid will use energy much more efficiently and generate that energy closer to the point at which it is needed. It will seamlessly integrate intermittent renewable energy sources into the wider network. Intelligent grid technologies can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase reliability of supply, minimise energy waste and deliver higher levels of consumer choice and flexibility.”

The plan is to have the Intelligent Grid Cluster of research contributing to the CSIRO Energy Transformed Flagship’s research goal of halving greenhouse gas emissions and doubling the efficiency of Australia’s new energy generation, supply and end use technologies. Watch this space.

UTS is also involved in a project looking at new ways to recycle metals.

The University of South Australia is leading research into heat stress in Australian cities. It’s the kind of work that could save lives and reduce the carbon footprint.

UniSA’s Zero Waste Centre for Sustainable Design & Behaviour is examining urban micro climates in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.

A project that spans three years, it will bring together three universities and eight industry and government partners. It will provide directions for urban planners. According to this brief, the project aims to develop new summer design conditions for 2030 and 2050 and establish new adaptive thermal comfort criteria for buildings, incorporating anticipated climate change.

It will examine current behaviour of households during heatwaves and develop designs to avoid heat stress and ensure safety and comfort during heatwaves.

Curtin University has been doing some interesting research into different areas. It has looked at the impact that removal of tree canopies in cities has on public health. It has also done research identifying future habitat locations for precious flora and fauna threatened by climate change.

The University’s Sustainable Built Environment National Research Centre is examining what the roads of the future will look like.

The Centre’s Charlie Hargroves says the research is looking at incorporating renewable energy generation in road infrastructure. “So you can have your off-site wind farms and that kind of great stuff, but what we’re looking at is, can we tender road projects that have renewable energy components in the actual road project?’’ Hargroves says. “So things like if someone’s building a bridge, they can put some tidal or wave turbines underneath the bridge, or they can put some wind turbines under the bridge or inside the bridge structure.” Roads could also be designed to allow electricity generation through capturing solar or kinetic energy, he says.

Monash University has one of the nation’s largest and most diverse sustainability research programs, built on a collaborative partnership approach with other universities, the private sector, government and global experts across many disciplines. The Monash Sustainability Institute’s research partnerships include Monash for Liveability, Green Steps and the Sustainable Development Program, as well as cross-disciplinary programs including Economics for Sustainability, Indigenous Communities and Climate Change, Soil Carbon program, Systemic and Adaptive Water Governance and the Australian Bushfire Prevention Initiative.

ClimateWorks, created by Monash University and the Myer Foundation, has been doing research into best practice standards for light vehicles.

ClimateWorks executive director Anna Skarbek says this would achieve more than a 50 per cent reduction in the average vehicle’s fuel use over 10 years. “Even taking account of rising fuel prices, this would see the average driver pay less per year for fuel in 2020 than they do today, even after considering potential fuel price rises,” Starbek says.

Anyone wanting to find out the latest thinking in green buildings should check out the Sustainable Buildings Research Centre at the University of Wollongong.

The university recently won the Solar Decathlon which was conceived in 2000 by the US Department of Energy as a competition for university student teams “to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive”.

It was the first time any team has scored 957.6 out of a possible 1000 points.

Team UOW’s house project, labelled “Illawarra Flame”, also scored first place in the categories of Engineering, Architecture, Solar Application, Energy Balance and Hot Water.  Among the winning design’s many innovative features was an internal thermal mass wall, 90 per cent of which was constructed from recycled content, including crushed terracotta roof tiles from the ‘original’ house.

The university has also developed a “transpired solar collector” which is a solar wall (a modern, unglazed adaptation of the age-old Trombe wall idea) suitable for both new and retrofit applications. It uses exterior metal cladding to capture solar energy, which then heats and ventilates indoor spaces.

Murdoch University’s Institute for Social Sustainability has been doing some work into areas like the relationship between climate change, ecosystem health and human mental health.

And the University of Sydney’s unit called Integrated Sustainability Analysis has produced a Consumption Atlas, in collaboration with the Australian Conservation Foundation which shows people the greenhouse gas emissions created by households in their suburb.

The atlas shows households in areas straddling Sydney harbour and Queensland are the country’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters. These areas are closely followed by inner suburban Canberra, Woollahra and Mosman in Sydney, Southbank and Docklands in Melbourne and Fortitude Valley and Newstead in Queensland. The lowest greenhouse gas emitting households are in Tasmania, specifically in the Derwent Valley, Kentish and Brighton areas.

The University of NSW Faculty of the Built Environment hosts the Low Carbon Living CRC, led by Scientia Professor Deo Prasad, AO and the City Futures Research Centre led by Professor Bill Randolph. The specific programs of City Futures include Sustainability and Climate Change Adaption, and the Healthy Built Environments Program (HBEP) funded by the NSW Ministry of Health, which brings together health practitioners and built environment practitioners to connect the dots between urban design and human health impacts including obesity and diabetes. UNSW also has a Sustainable Design and Development Research Hub which is examining issues including product lifecycles.

Lismore’s Southern Cross University together with the Gold Coast and Tweed Campuses engages in a range of sustainability research and development programs under the banner of Sustainability, Partnerships and Community Engagement (SPaCE) – this includes the Regional Food Network, a network of scholars and practitioners focused on developing partnerships within and across regions in the Asia Pacific. SCU has also undertaken pilot projects into the effectiveness of hemp for effluent mop-up and the subsequent use of the hemp fibre as a building material.

Griffith University has an Asia Pacific Centre for Sustainable Enterprise doing some important work on creating green businesses throughout the region.

All this research from Australia’s universities is globally significant. Potentially it could change the world. It’s time for industry to step up.

Please send details of more research that we could cover to editorial@thefifthestate.com.au

12 replies on “Green MashUp: Aussie universities – A glance at what their research teams are up to on sustainability”

  1. Yes, La Trobe University has invested a fair amount of resources into sustainability research. See the ‘research’ section of our past sustainability reports for previous efforts: https://www.latrobe.edu.au/sustainability/report

    A current highlight is the work undertaken in our ‘research focus areas’, particularly one focusing on “Securing food, water and the environment”. See our website for more info: https://www.latrobe.edu.au/research/strengths-and-impacts/research-focus-areas/securing-food-water-environment

  2. Yes, La Trobe University has invested a fair amount of resources into sustainability research. See the ‘research’ section of our past sustainability reports for previous efforts: https://www.latrobe.edu.au/sustainability/report

    A current highlight is the work undertaken in our ‘research focus areas’, particularly one focusing on “Securing food, water and the environment”. See our website for more info: https://www.latrobe.edu.au/research/strengths-and-impacts/research-focus-areas/securing-food-water-environment

  3. At RMIT University’s School of Property and Construction Management research has begun research on what constitutes sustainable outcomes through retrofitting of existing buildings, the processes of using Energy Performance Contracts in these upgrades, and how these environmental upgrades contribute with workplace productivity gains. Exciting times!

  4. At RMIT University’s School of Property and Construction Management research has begun research on what constitutes sustainable outcomes through retrofitting of existing buildings, the processes of using Energy Performance Contracts in these upgrades, and how these environmental upgrades contribute with workplace productivity gains. Exciting times!

  5. How could you miss out the Monash Sustainability Institute from your list. We have over 50 staff comprising scientists, engineers, social scientists, economists, lawyers, psychologists and more working on a wide range of interdisciplinary research and education projects in sustainability. Great idea for the article but do your research!!

    Dave Griggs. Director Monash Sustainability Institute

  6. How could you miss out the Monash Sustainability Institute from your list. We have over 50 staff comprising scientists, engineers, social scientists, economists, lawyers, psychologists and more working on a wide range of interdisciplinary research and education projects in sustainability. Great idea for the article but do your research!!

    Dave Griggs. Director Monash Sustainability Institute

  7. At USNW in the Faculty of the Built Environment we have a lot of research, as well as the national Low Carbon Living CRC funded by the federal ARC, $104 million over 7 years, led by Scientia Professor Deo Prasad, AO.

    Then there is the City Futures Research Centre, led by Prof. Bill Randolph, doing a lot of sustainability research.

    Get in touch, we’ll be happy to share what we’re doing and how we are leading.

    Best regards, Michael Neuman, Professor of Sustainable Urbanism

  8. At USNW in the Faculty of the Built Environment we have a lot of research, as well as the national Low Carbon Living CRC funded by the federal ARC, $104 million over 7 years, led by Scientia Professor Deo Prasad, AO.

    Then there is the City Futures Research Centre, led by Prof. Bill Randolph, doing a lot of sustainability research.

    Get in touch, we’ll be happy to share what we’re doing and how we are leading.

    Best regards, Michael Neuman, Professor of Sustainable Urbanism

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