Sydney meetings - 2011 - The Royal Society of NSW - Royal Society of NSW News & Events

Royal Society of NSW News & Events

Royal Society of NSW News & Events

1197th General Meeting

Grid-Connected Energy Storage: the Key to Sustainable Energy?

Professor Tony Vassallo, Delta
Electricity Chair in Sustainable Energy Development, School of Chemical
& Biomolecular Engineering, University of Sydney, NSW 2006

Date: Wednesday, 2nd November, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Venue: New Law Lecture Theatre 106, New Law Building, University of Sydney

Grid-connected Energy Storage: the Key to Sustainable Energy?

Many countries in the world are committing large amounts of research resources to the development of sustainable energy generation technologies. One major disadvantage in using electricity as an energy source is that it is difficult to store. Renewable energy sources have the added problem that they are only available at certain times. For example, solar energy is only generated when there is strong sunlight.

At the meeting of the Society in Sydney on 2 November, Professor Tony Vassallo, the Delta Energy Professor of Sustainable Energy Development at the University of Sydney, gave a comprehensive coverage of the issues, challenges and potential advantages of having energy storage that can be directly connected to the electricity distribution grid.

There are important technical and economic reasons for wanting to store energy so it is quickly accessible to the consumer via the grid. Electricity demand varies quite substantially over the day, with this pattern also depending on the time of year. In summer, air-conditioning loads in the afternoon are high, while in winter loads peak in early evening and early morning. Most of Australia's electricity is generated in large, coal-fired power stations and these can take hours to react to changes in demand, so for these to be able to respond without the risk of blackouts, a lot of energy is wasted. Currently, the only means of providing reasonably responsive energy to the grid is via the Snowy Mountains hydroelectric system.

Many technologies are currently being developed to provide energy storage capacity. These include thermal storage using molten salt (for example, in Spain), hydroelectric storage, compressed air, superconducting magnets, ultra-capacitors, high-energy/high-efficiency flywheels and a range of battery technologies.

One promising technology avenue is integrating battery technology with renewables. For example, used in conjunction with wind energy generation, battery storage can reduce short-term fluctuations and allows dispatch when the load is high. It also allows a higher proportion of the total wind generation capacity to be included in the calculation of base-load capacity and lowers the capital cost of transmission equipment because the variability in load is reduced. The question Professor Vassallo addressed was: is battery technology feasible?

Currently large battery banks have been installed in pilot installations in other parts of the world, for example a 34 MW battery bank in a 50 MW wind-farm in Japan. But it may not be necessary to install such large battery banks that have high capital cost. For example, batteries can be distributed throughout the grid to zone substations and local substations. Another innovative concept is to use the batteries in electric cars to provide storage – during the times when demand is high and cars are not being used (for example early afternoon on a hot day), car batteries connected to the grid could provide localised storage capacity. Commercial models of these concepts are currently under development.

Professor Vassallo's own research programme relates to developing advanced battery and super capacitor technologies, such as graphene/nanotube capacitors, the use of regenerative fuel cells and the role of distributed storage in electricity networks.

1196th General Meeting

Sex in the Sea: How Understanding the Weird and Bizarre Sex Lives of Fishes is the First Step to their Conservation

Professor Bill Gladstone, Head of the School of the Environment at the University of Technology Sydney.

Date: Wednesday, 5th October, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Venue: New Law Lecture Theatre 106, New Law Building, University of Sydney

In 1938 the pioneer deep sea explorer William Beebe described the sex life of anglerfishes as "sheer fiction, beyond all belief unless we have seen the proof of it". Beebe would be equally amazed today by the even more diverse reproductive strategies of fishes that have been discovered, and how this understanding is applied for conservation. This seminar will cover some of the more weird and bizarre examples of the sex lives of fishes from the deep sea to the Red Sea, the evolutionary pressures, and how this science of sex in the sea is being used for conservation purposes.

1195th General Meeting

Distributed Small-Scale Production of Chemicals - Why and How

Professor Brian Hayes

Date: Wednesday, 7th September, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Venue: New Law Seminar Room 102, New Law Building, University of Sydney

In the last two decades tens of thousands of jobs have been lost from the Australian chemical manufacturing sector. As Professor Brian Haynes of the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Sydney explained at the recent meeting of the Society, there are a number of reasons for this. In Australia, feed- stocks often are in remote locations, the nation is geographically remote from large global markets, Australian industry has traditionally had a low R&D expenditure, and the domestic market often does not justify investment in world-scale manufacturing capacity. Nonetheless, sales of chemicals and pharmaceuticals in Australia amount to tens of billions of dollars per annum and contribute significantly to Australia's balance of trade deficit. Professor Haynes' group at the University of Sydney has been working on technologies that might change this situation dramatically. 

One of the important reasons that chemical plants are so big is that the relative capital cost per unit of production drops substantially as plant capacity increases. Historically, large plant capacity has been achieved by designing and building very large production equipment. This solves the capacity/cost problem but introduces other major costs and inefficiencies. In particular it is much more difficult to control chemical reactions in large reactors (so impurities and by-products are produced and have to be dealt with) and, often, energy efficiency is compromised. An alternative being explored by Professor Haynes' group is to used advanced reactor design technologies to make relatively small and highly efficient manufacturing processes that are scalable simply by adding more of them rather than by building very large production equipment. This approach enables production capacity to be located near feed-stocks or customers, capital costs are much lower, the process has much reduced environmental impact, is safer to operate and is more energy efficient. 

This "process intensification" approach to chemical reactor design uses technology that is analogous to that used in printed circuits. By etching or engraving small channels in plates of stainless steel (or other alloys) and stacking and then fusing the plates, pipework, heat exchangers and reaction vessels can be formed. Because of their very small size, control of reaction kinetics, heat transfer and mass transfer can be very precisely controlled. 

One way of achieving this is to design a series of small reactors known as "multiple adiabatic beds" laid out with heat exchangers between each bed. This enables maximisation of the heat generated during a reaction and gives very high energy efficiency. One important industrial process where this approach is being used is in "methane-steam reforming" in which methane and steam are reacted first to form carbon monoxide and hydrogen, and then the carbon monoxide being further reacted with steam to form carbon dioxide and hydrogen. For every mole of methane used, four moles of hydrogen are produced. Large processes currently use steam to reform natural gas (which has contains a high proportion of methane), producing large quantities of hydrogen for industrial use. In large-scale industrial processes, there is a great deal of heat wasted but using the process intensification approach, much greater energy efficiency is achieved. The group at Sydney University has demonstrated this process on a pilot unit which is both scalable and, unlike large industrial processes can be started in a matter of a couple of hours. 

There are number of other important processes that are used on very large scales to make industrial chemicals where this technology can be employed. These can be ideal for relatively small industrial economies like Australia and other markets remote from large-scale plants.

1194th General Meeting

Schizophrenia: from Neuropathology to New Treatments

Professor Cyndi Shannon Weickert, Macquarie Group Foundation Chair of Schizophrenia Research, Neuroscience Research Australia, and UNSW, and Professor, School of Psychiatry, UNSW.

Date: Wednesday, 3rd August, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Venue: New Law Seminar Room 102 New, New Law Building, University of Sydney Schizophrenia: from neuropathology to new treatments

Is schizophrenia caused by genes or environment? This question was posed by Professor Cyndi Shannon Weickert at 1194th ordinary general meeting of the Society. 

Schizophrenia was first formally classified in 1887. Despite extensive pathological investigation there was no clear distinction identified between the brains of people who have schizophrenia and those who do not. Until 1930s it was considered to be primarily a behavioural disorder put down to bad mothering. But in the 1930s treatments involving insulin and shock therapy were shown to be somewhat effective. There was a breakthrough in 1952 when D2R blockers were introduced and found to be effective against some of the symptoms. However, it was not until 1988 that the first definite genetic link was established by progress was swift and in the last decade it has been shown that there may be several hundred genes involved in the disorder. Because of the large number of genes that are implicated, identifying treatments that target these genes is extraordinarily complex. Most researchers in the field now believe that the disease has both environmental and genetic origins. 

The approach taken by Professor Shannon Weickert's group is to attempt to identify the pathology of various genetic pathways to the disease, in particular identifying molecules that can be new drug targets. Once these have been postulated, the aim is to use existing drugs which are either known to or believed to affect those targets and then to test their effect in clinical trials. This approach has the advantage of using drugs that have already been approved for use in humans thereby avoiding the necessity for time- consuming and expensive early-stage clinical trials that establish general parameters such as toxicity and dosage levels. 

One notable aspect of schizophrenia is that it is virtually never found in children prior to adolescence. Most cases of schizophrenia are diagnosed from mid-teens to the early 20s but, interestingly, there is a second peak among women at menopause. This suggests that sex hormones could be an important part of the mechanism causing the disorder. Oestrogen receptors are found in the human cortex and act as "transcription factors", that is, they transport proteins across the cell membrane into the nucleus of the neuron. On investigating oestrogen receptor proteins a mutation specific to schizophrenia has been found in a transcription factor protein called ESR1. This protein cannot bind to oestrogen and hence cannot pass hormonal signals into the nucleus of the cell. Hence, the cell cannot activate important genes that produce their normal proteins and this may cause some of the symptoms of schizophrenia.

 An existing drug, raloxifene, has already been approved as a selective oestrogen receptor modulator for treating various disorders in postmenopausal women. Raloxifene has been found to stimulate the oestrogen receptor and overcome the mutant effect in the ESR1 gene. However, the great variability of genes means that the drug effect on one specific mutation is likely to be masked, so there needs to careful design of clinical trials to make the effect apparent. One such trial is currently being conducted by Professor Shannon Weickert's group and involves a double-blind trial in which patients and control groups are treated in two stages, with all trial participants receiving the drug in one or other of the stages. This clinical trial is still under way and is expected to be completed towards the end of this year. If successful it may be a major step in establishing personalised drug treatments for the 1% of the human population that currently suffers the debilitating effects of schizophrenia. [The May 2009 edition of the ABC's Australian Story was on Professor Shannon Weickert's work and is available at http://www.abc.net.au/austory/specials/allinyourmind/default.htm. Anyone interested in the clinical trial may be interested to read the transcript or to view it.]

1193rd General Meeting

Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine: Prospects for Realising the Prometheus Myth

Professor John Rasko, Centenary Institute

Date: Wednesday, 6th July, 2011

Time: 6:30 for 7:00 pm

Venue: New Law Lecture Theatre 106, New Law Building, University of Sydney

Professor John Rasko was appointed to the first clinical gene therapy position in Australia. Currently, he is head of the gene and stem cell therapy programme at the Centenary Institute and is a Professor in the faculty of medicine at Sydney University. At the general meeting of the Society on Wednesday 6 July, Professor Rasko gave a wide-ranging talk on the status of cellular therapies for regenerative medicine and cancer treatment and the potential and use of both embryonic and adult stem cells in the treatment of a wide range of diseases. Importantly, there was a comprehensive discussion on the ethical issues in relation to the use of both embryonic and adult stem cells, not only in the treatment of disease but also the implications for technologies such as in-vitro fertilisation. 

The Centenary Institute has a large research programme for cellular medicine and extraordinarily sophisticated facilities for the manufacture and cultivation of biological material. This includes four specialised laboratories with hyper-pure air flow, positive air pressure differentials, both for preventing contamination and the release of biologically-active material and sophisticated human-access protocols. 

Research programmes include techniques such as extraction and cultivation of red cells and bone marrow prior to treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy in order to speed up patient recovery and exploring the extent to which adult stem cells might be used as a source of genetic material to help rebuild damage organs such as the liver, and blood and bone marrow. 

Professor Rasko explained the potential of embryonic stem cells that, one day, might be used to treat a range of diseases by replacing damaged or diseased tissue. Embryonic stem cells are taken from embryos at the time when little differentiation between cells has yet taken place. These stem cells theoretically are able to be cultivated and differentiated as "master cells" that could produce all types of fully-differentiated tissue in the body. Despite the theoretical potential for these, progress has been slow. The medical drawbacks of using embryonic stem cells are that the embryo has the same immune signature as the mother and father, so recipients of tissue cultivated from these cells would mean constant immunosuppressant therapy. So far, only three clinical trials have been undertaken. But a more significant challenge for embryonic stem cells may well be the moral issues. Pro-life groups have opposed the use of embryonic stem cells because they believe that cells taken from an embryo have the potential to form a complete individual; to them, destroying such an embryo amounts to taking a human life.

 An alternative to using embryonic stem cells is to take adult cells and to reprogram them to make them the same as embryonic cells. In the last few years, there appears to have been significant progress in making so-called "induced pluripotent stem cells". If this technology turns out to be viable (and there are still many challenges that have been identified), it could solve a number of the issues of embryonic stem cells. For example, because adult cells could be taken from the individual requiring treatment, induced pluripotent stem cells could be used without the need for immunosuppressant therapy. It also avoids the moral controversy that surrounds the destruction of an embryo. But this may not be the panacea that many had hoped for. There are two medical disadvantages in "reprogramming" cells: two of the transgenes required are oncogenic so pose an enhanced risk of inducing cancer in the patient; and the viruses used to carry the transgenes can be incorporated into the genetic material of cells and the consequences of this are unpredictable. It also appears that the older the organism, the more abnormalities there are in the resultant stem cell. Furthermore, the ethical issues may not be solved either. To date the efficacy of all adult stem cells need to be compared against embryonic stem cells, so the research programmes cannot be separated. In addition, there is the moral argument that if every cell in your body has the potential to produce a full range of differentiated cells (perhaps even a fully-formed individual) then it could be argued that every cell in your body has the same moral status as you do!

1192nd General Meeting

Variation of Fundamental Constants from Big Bang to Atomic Clocks

Professor Victor Flambaum, School of Physics, University of New South Wales

Date: Wednesday, 1st June, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Venue: New Law Lecture Theatre 106, New Law Building, University of Sydney

Modern unification theories suggest the fundamental constants (like the speed of light) may change in an expanding Universe. The study of quasar spectra has indicated the variation of the fine structure constant alpha in space (alpha is the dimensionless combination of electron charge, the speed of light and the quantum Plank constant). This spatial variation could explain the finetuning of the fundamental constants which allows humans (and any life) to appear. If the fundamental constants were even slightly different, life could not exist. We appeared in the area of the Universe where the values of the fundamental constants are consistent with our existence. 

These astrophysical results may be used to predict the variation effects for atomic clocks. These effects in atomic clocks are very small and require extremely high precision. Therefore, we are searching for the enhanced effects of the variation. One of our proposals is to use a nuclear clock where the effect is enhanced by five orders of magnitude.

1191st General Meeting

Heading Towards the World's Largest Telescope: The Square Kilometre Array

Professor Michael Burton, School of Physics, University of New South Wales

Date: Wednesday, 4th May, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Venue: Eastern Avenue Auditorium, University of Sydney

Meeting report by Donald Hector 

What do the kinetic energy of a falling snow-flake and radio telescopes have in common? Well, as Professor Michael Burton pointed out in his talk on the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the energy of a falling snowflake is about 30 micro joules and this is greater than all of the radio energy ever collected by all the radio telescopes in the world! These instruments are very sensitive! Radio astronomy looks at a part of the electromagnetic spectrum at wavelengths from 1 m to 1 km. Observations in the visible spectrum are badly affected by dust but this is not the case in the radio spectrum. Thus by combining information from optical, infrared and radio telescopes we can get a much more complete picture of what's going on in the universe. But because of the long wavelengths of radio waves, these instruments have to be very big. For example, the Parkes telescope with its 64 m diameter dish has an area of about 1000 m². This telescope can resolve galaxies but in order to increase the resolution to look inside galaxies, much larger instruments are needed. 

The largest radio telescope in the world at the moment is the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico. This instrument has 27 dishes each of 25 m diameter, with a total area of 10,000 m². These antennas are configured in a Y-shaped that can deliver an effective maximum baseline of 32 km. Data from each array is integrated using interferometry techniques effectively giving a telescope of this aperture. This substantially increases the effective resolution of the instrument. The VLA is capable of looking at radio sources such as pulsars, quasars and give insights into the formation of galaxies. If we are to be able to look further back through the history of the universe to the dust from which galaxies form, we need instrument orders of magnitude bigger than the VLA and that's where the SKA comes in. 

The SKA will be the largest telescope ever built with a collection area of 1,000,000 m² and a baseline of at least 2,000 km. The SKA will be able to peer far back into the history of the universe to observe the first black holes and stars, to search for Earth-like planets, to test aspects of general relativity, and to explore the origins of cosmic magnetism. 

The total cost of this project will be about $3 billion and the telescope is expected to be in full operation by 2025. Because of the cost of the project, up to 20 countries will be involved in the investment. About $450 million has been invested so far with prototype technologies being constructed in potential locations for the final instrument in southern Africa and Western Australia. The core instrument (where most of the dishes are located) needs to be sited in a "radio quiet" location. It needs to be flat, open, geologically stable and well away from man-made sources of radio waves. Final site selection is expected to be complete next year. The telescope will come on-line over a period of about 10 years, with the low and mid-frequency capabilities completed by 2023 and the whole instrument by 2025. Australia is well placed to be selected as the final site, given our leadership in radio astronomy and the "radio quietness" of outback Australia. If Australia is chosen, the core instrument will be located at the Murchison Radio Observatory about 500 km north-east of Geraldton and will have dishes extending from Western Australia to New Zealand, giving a total baseline 5,500 km.

The Dirac Lecture 2011

Beauty and truth: their intersection in mathematics and science

Robert Lord May of Oxford, AC, FRSN

Date: Friday, 29th April, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Venue: Scientia Building, University of NSW

Meeting report by Donald Hector 

On 29 April 2011, Robert Lord May of Oxford, arguably the greatest mathematician that Australia has produced, was invested as a Fellow of the Royal Society of NSW by the Governor. Earlier that day, Lord May presented the Dirac Lecture at the University of New South Wales, jointly sponsored by the Society. He took us on interesting exploration of some of the important concepts of mathematics, from Euclidean geometry via the concept of imaginary numbers to the mathematics of fractals and chaos theory and the extraordinary power of mathematics to describe observed real-world phenomena. 

Updating the observation by Galileo, "this grand book is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles and other geometric objects", Lord May pointed out that rather than triangles and circles, today the mathematical objects are more likely to be fractals and "strange attractors". Nonetheless, as Galileo observed, and referring to the examples of Julia sets and Mandelbrot sets, there is great beauty in the elegance with which we can both describe and understand the immense complexity of the universe. He went on to explore the paradigm shift that Einstein divined from the results of the Michelson-Morley experiment that had found that the speed of light was the same for all observers. Einstein's formulation of the special theory of relativity led to a profound shift in our understanding of the relationships between momentum, mass and energy that has enabled extraordinary insights and understanding of the nature of the universe, from gravity to nuclear fission. Lord May pointed out that, regrettably, many of the great contributions do not get the recognition that they deserve. In his view, Paul Dirac was such a person – his formulation of the Dirac equation and its implication of the existence of positrons was one of the greatest steps forward in theoretical physics in the 20th century, yet his name is nowhere near as well known as that of Einstein. 

Quoting Keats "beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know", Lord May observed: well yes, but not really.

1190th General Meeting

The Royal Society of NSW Forum 2011

Belief and science: the belief/knowledge dilemma

A Discussion between Barry Jones and David Malouf

Date: Wednesday, 6 April 2011 at 6:00 pm

Venue: The Darlington Centre, University of Sydney

​Meeting report by Donald Hector 

Have scientists become polarised into the believers and non-believers? Barry Jones posed this question to David Malouf and members of the Society at our meeting on Wednesday, 6 April 2011. Reflecting upon this, Barry referred to the scientific paradigm that has emerged over the last several hundred years: scientists gather information in order to try to make sense of observed phenomena using rational analysis. Science has evolved to become not so much a matter of belief but rather of acceptance of the most sensible explanation based on the accumulation of evidence. Nonetheless, when major paradigm shifts in scientific thinking take place, there are often eminent experts who disagree and refuse to accept the new theory. This slows down the acceptance of a new paradigm but ultimately in most cases rational thought prevails. 

David Malouf pointed out that non-scientists have to rely on what they are told in order to evaluate scientific theories. He pointed out the significant shift since the 18th century when early scientists put their theories to learned academies (such as the Royal Society, London) for expert examination and they determined what was accepted as scientific knowledge and what was rejected. Today, however, with the highly complex issues that society faces there are significant public policy implications that need to be resolved based on expert advice. But what do we do when the experts disagree? We are largely dependent on the media to inform us. This is further complicated because important issues are usually not just scientific in their nature but often have economic and social imperatives that commercial groups, governments and other interests seek to manipulate. Barrie commented that the sheer complexity of science has forced scientists to increasing specialisation. Furthermore, scientists are heavily reliant on research grants from government and private enterprise and this has discouraged them from entering into controversies. This is quite different to the year of only 50 or 70 years ago when renowned scientists were not afraid to comment outside their area of specific expertise. 

David referred to the great advances that were made in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, for example, by Kepler, Newton, and Darwin. Darwin's book, "On the Origin of Species" was very readable but most science in the 20th century has become so complex that it is not able to be so readily accessible to the layman. Furthermore, whereas once scientific advances were often made by one person, nowadays it is far more likely for the work to be attributable to a team of scientists and it is often the "front man" who gets the Nobel Prize! Science is often seen to be different from other subjects but that is not really the case – just requires a different mindset. Barry referred to the mindset underlying creationism in the US, pointing out that often a deep-seated belief cannot be shaken by debate and discourse. Nonetheless, articles on science and the relationship between science and belief in popular magazines and newspapers are important. Writers like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking had not only popularised science but through their lucid writing had brought important arguments to a large public audience. 

In their final comments, Barry emphasised that the task of a scientist is to analyse inconceivably complex data and make sense of them but the public policy imperatives are driven by a media outcomes and necessarily requires the debate to be simplistic. David is fascinated by the rate of change of technology and almost unexpectedly has come the realisation that the more we know about the complexities of nature, of the human body, the weather and so on, it simply exposes ever more questions. Science has been enormously successful and exciting in bringing an understanding in a world that we know so little about.

the Royal Society Forum 2011

Barry Jones and David Malouf

Belief and Science: the Belief/Knowledge Dilemma

David Malouf

Wednesday 6 April 2011

Have scientists become polarised into the believers and non-believers? Barry Jones posed this question to David Malouf and members of the Society at our meeting on Wednesday, 6 April 2011. Reflecting upon this, Barry referred to the scientific paradigm that has emerged over the last several hundred years: scientists gather information in order to try to make sense of observed phenomena using rational analysis. Science has evolved to become not so much a matter of belief but rather of acceptance of the most sensible explanation based on the accumulation of evidence. Nonetheless, when major paradigm shifts in scientific thinking take place, there are often eminent experts who disagree and refuse to accept the new theory. This slows down the acceptance of a new paradigm but ultimately in most cases rational thought prevails.
Barry Jones

David Malouf pointed out that non-scientists have to rely on what they are told in order to evaluate scientific theories. He pointed out the significant shift since the 18th century when early scientists put their theories to learned academies (such as the Royal Society, London) for expert examination and they determined what was accepted as scientific knowledge and what was rejected. Today, however, with the highly complex issues that society faces there are significant public policy implications that need to be resolved based on expert advice. But what do we do when the experts disagree? We are largely dependent on the media to inform us. This is further complicated because important issues are usually not just scientific in their nature but often have economic and social imperatives that commercial groups, governments and other interests seek to manipulate. Barry commented that the sheer complexity of science has forced scientists to increasing specialisation. Furthermore, scientists are heavily reliant on research grants from government and private enterprise and this has discouraged them from entering into controversies. This is quite different to the era of only 50 or 70 years ago when renowned scientists were not afraid to comment outside their area of specific expertise.

In their final comments, Barry emphasised that the task of a scientist is to analyse inconceivably complex data and make sense of it but the public policy imperatives are driven by media outcomes and necessarily requires the debate to be simplistic. David is fascinated by the rate of change of technology and almost unexpectedly has come to the realisation that the more we know about the complexities of nature, of the human body, the weather and so on, it simply exposes ever more questions. Science has been enormously successful and exciting in bringing an understanding in a world that we know so little about.

1189th General Meeting

Lecture delivered for the Two Societies Meeting:

Searching for Nanosecond Laser Pulses from Outer Space

Dr Ragbir Bhathal, University of Western Sydney

Date: Tuesday, 22 March 2011 at 6:00 pm

Venue: School of Physics, University of Sydney

Meeting report by Dr Frederick Osman 

On Tuesday 22 March 2011, the Australian Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of New South Wales held their annual Two Societies meeting at the University of Sydney and featured Dr Ragbir Bhathal on his topic of Searching for very fast light flashes.

 Dr Bhathal opened his talk by saying that we should be searching for nanosecond laser pulse from ETI. He believes that ETI would have surpassed the microwave threshold and gone on to use laser pulses for intergalactic communications. A nanosecond laser pulse has several advantages, he said. Apart from its directivity, a 1015 W or more nanosecond laser pulse would outshine its star by four to seven orders of magnitude. This pulse could thus be easily detected by present day optical telescopes equipped with fast response PMTs or APDs. Because the telescopes are being used as photon buckets they need not be highly sophisticated. The fact that the National Ignition Facility in the US has been able to generate 1015 W laser pulses although for a few nanoseconds lends credibility to the use of lasers as communication devices by ETI civilisations. The optical search strategy has been used in a dedicated mode only for the last ten years. Four groups, three in United States (Harvard University/Princeton University, University of California and the SETI Institute) and one in Australia (OZ OSETI Project at the University of Western Sydney) have led the charge for the optical search strategy. 

Dr Bhathal's optical search is the longest dedicated optical search in the Southern Hemisphere. Last year a group of Japanese scientists and engineers also joined the optical and microwave searches. However, to date no positive signals in the optical spectrum have been received. Although a laser look alike signal was detected in 2008 by Dr Bhathal emanating from the globular cluster 47 Tucanae it was dismissed after a six month search in the same region failed to detect the signal again. Considered as the Father of SETI in Australia, Dr Bhathal hopes to continue the optical search with a new dedicated one metre telescope which is on the drawing boards at the moment. Dr Bhathal also discussed the latest developments in the microwave search strategy which clocked 50 years last year and other programs which are underway for searching for life in the universe, such as searching for glycine, searching for earth like planets by extra-solar planet scientists and the Kepler mission, the Mars explorations and meteorites. 

Dr Bhathal ended his lecture by quoting from the great 19th century mathematician and physicist Karl Gauss who said that the detection of a signal from ETI "would be greater than the discovery of America". The Australian Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of New South Wales thank Dr Ragbir Bhathal for his outstanding lecture!

1188th General Meeting

Lecture delivered for the Four Societies Meeting:

Geothermal Energy - Current State of Play and Developments

Dr Stuart Mc Donnell, Chief Operating Officer for Geodynamics

Mr Stephen de Belle of Granite Power

Date: Thursday, 24th February, 2011 at 6:00 pm

Venue: Hamilton Room, Trade & Investment Centre, Industry & Investment NSW, Level 47, MLC Centre, 19 Martin Place, Sydney.

Meeting report by Donald Hector 

The annual meeting of the "Four Societies" - the Royal Society of NSW, the Australian Nuclear Association, the Nuclear Engineering Panel of Engineers Australia (Sydney Division), and the Australian Institute of Energy - heard two perspectives on geothermal energy as a major energy source for the generation of electric power. The speakers were Dr Stuart McDonnell, chief operating officer of Geodynamics Ltd and Stephen de Belle, managing director of Granite Power Ltd. Both companies are developing "hot rocks" technology for the generation of electricity. The technological concept behind this technology is straightforward enough: a source of hot rock, typically granite at temperatures of 150-300 °C at depths between 1500 m and 5000 m below the Earth's surface, is identified. The rock is fractured and water is pumped under high pressure from the surface down through the hot rock where it is heated to very high temperatures. When the water returns to the surface, the energy is used to drive turbines which in turn generate electricity. The thermal resources in Australia are huge­- in the Cooper Basin alone, there are hot rock deposits capable of generating as much electricity as burning 750 million tonnes of coal or 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. 

Of course, the devil is in the detail. It is technologically challenging and expensive to drill to these depths. In addition, there are other significant technological challenges that need to be resolved such as fluid chemistry when the hot water reacts with the minerals in the rock and the components in the system, the ability to manage multiple fracture-zones in order to extract the maximum amount of heat, the gradual reduction of the temperature of the resource over time, and the challenges in creating viable, efficient heat exchanger designs in rock several kilometres beneath the Earth's surface. 

If these technological and economic issues can be overcome, geothermal generation is well placed to provide a substantial proportion of Australia's baseload electricity demand. This could be as high as 2,300 MW of base-load capacity by 2020. Some government and private funding has already been committed with the intention to seek further capital from institutional investors during 2011.

Annual Dinner and Awards 2011

The Society held its Annual Dinner for 2011 at St Paul's College, University of Sydney on Friday 18 February 2011. Our guest-of-honour was the Governor of NSW, Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir AC CVO, one of our two Patrons and a long-standing supporter of the Society. We were also pleased to have three Deans of Science from universities in Sydney present. In her Occasional Address Her Excellency made reference to the antecedents of the Society and the work of one of her predecessors, Governor Lachlan Macquarie, in creating a climate in which Societies such as ours might germinate. We appreciate her support and that of the unbroken line of her predecessors.
The Governor, Marie Bashir, presents Fellowship to Professor Michelle Simmons.
The Governor, Marie Bashir, presents Fellowship to Emeritus Scientia Professor Eugenie Lumbers.
The Governor, Marie Bashir, congratulates Dr Ken Campbell on his award of the Clarke Medal.​
The Governor, Marie Bashir, presents Assoc. Prof. Angela Moles with the Edgeworth David Medal.​
The Governor, Marie Bashir, presents Prof. Rick Shine with the Walter Burfitt Prize.​
The Governor, Marie Bashir, presents Dr Julian King with the joint AIP/Royal Society of NSW Studentship Award.​
The Governor, Marie Bashir, with Society President John Hardie after he presented her with a token of the Society's appreciation.​
Vice President, Heinrich Hora, gives the vote of thanks.​
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