Light Conversations: Sustainable Solar Energy

The energy we obtain from burning coal today comes from the energy that prehistoric vegetation absorbed from the Sun millions of years ago. But it instead only takes microseconds to convert sunlight directly into electricity. Global electricity consumption continues to accelerate with economic growth and industrial demand. Around 23 trillion kilowatt hours of energy were consumed in the single year of 2018 – the equivalent power needed to turn on 1,800 billion LED bulbs for an hour. To provide our growing population with the level of energy the developed world is used to, we would need to generate 60 trillion kilowatts worldwide. Power plants as we know them cannot satisfy these demands; however, the sunlight energy striking the Earth’s surface in an area the size of Texas alone could provide up to 300 times the total power output of all the power plants in the world. “Solar energy has the greatest potential to fill this energy gap,” says Dr Wallace Wong.

Shining a Light on Patients

Dr Rajesh Ramanathan combines nanoparticles with light to achieve a wide range of biomedical applications. From sensing chemicals and bacteria, to healing wounds and imaging patients, his nanotechnology is at the forefront of biomedical science and its potential is endless. Winner of the 2019 Phillip Law Postdoctoral Award for Physical Sciences, Dr Ramanathan shared his journey to incorporate elements of nature into the design of nanoparticles for a wide range of biomedical applications. By shining a light on patients and nanoparticles, he can reveal their glucose levels, repair their wounds, and image their tumours.

Our Valuable Waste

In a collaboration between researchers, the government, and production manufacturers, materials can be recycled and reformed into new products. We talk about three R’s: reduce, reuse, and recycle. Professor Veena Sahajwalla offers a fourth: reform. Instead of shipping waste offshore, we could be harvesting the high value materials in our waste. Each year, 50 million tonnes of e-waste is produced globally. In Australia, fewer than 1.5% of the 4 million computers sold a year are recycled. The total value of the resources embedded in them approximates $70 billion.

The Future of Electronics

Our uptake of new technologies and electronics comes at a cost: information and communications technology (ICT) consumes about 8% of global electricity, doubling every decade. A massive amount of energy is consumed in the thousands of factory-sized data centres that house “the cloud,” as well as computer systems for telecommunication and storage. Most of the energy consumed in data centres, computers and other devices is dissipated as heat rather than being used to power the device itself, meaning that much of it is wasted. ICT is now on par with the aviation industry for their contribution to global warming, and it’s time for a change.

Fashionable Science

How can textiles quietly heal us? Are wearable medical devices of any use when patients are too stigmatised to wear them? What good is fancy cycling gear that won’t protect the rider? Can we close the loop on global fashion, the world’s second biggest polluting industry? From comfort and style to function and protection, clothing fulfils some of the most basic human needs; but now we’re exploring textiles that can contribute to wound healing, or even become body implants through a next generation recycling process.