Prof Benjamin Eggleton/ Image: Unviersity of Sydney
We had the opportunity to speak to Professor Benjamin Eggleton, Co-Director of NSSN to learn about the origins of NSSN, the specific projects, the technology involved and the long-term vision.
Prof Eggleton is an ARC (Australian Research Council) Laureate Fellow, Director of the ARC Centre for Ultrahigh bandwidth Devices for Optical Systems (CUDOS), and a flagship head at AINST, the Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology, where he works from new laboratories at its $150m headquarters, the Sydney Nanoscience Hub at the University of Sydney.
Prof Eggleton said that NSSN originated from a conversation with the New South Wales government, in particular with NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer, Professor Mary O'Kane. Her office is responsible for advising government on environment, health, infrastructure and wildlife. Her roles include fostering and encouraging a lively state innovation system particularly by promoting productive links between business, the professions, universities and government and providing independent advice on how to address policy problems that involve engineering or science.
Prof O’Kane approached the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales around a year ago and asked them to put forward a proposal for a new research initiative that would provide expertise and skills addressing important problems in society. NSSN is the response.
Areas of research
The projects address a number of specific problems relevant to NSW, in particular in the context of air quality.The city of Sydney is surrounded by coal mines. The coal mines are an important part of the NSW economy, employing people and generating wealth. But the coal mines also create significant air pollution, both from the mines themselves and from the railway lines that connect the mines to the port.
“Many of the residents in the Hunter Valley region are concerned about the air-quality. So, the state government has asked us to build optical sensors that we will deploy around the railway line to study the pollution associated with the line itself. Now the technology that we are developing really addresses one of the grand challenges we face as a planet because air quality is enormously important. Not only here, but in China, in India, even in Singapore where you have significant air quality problems associated with the fires in Indonesia,” Prof Eggleton said.
The sensors being built are highly compact, portable and low cost and they measure the number and size of the particles with great precision. The sensors will be set up in networks to study how the air quality evolves with time.
NSSN projects are also looking at water quality. Chemists are developing sensors that will detect toxins in the groundwater and the waterways, using a portable ion-detection device.
NSSN is also developing technologies for healthcare, wearable devices that will be built into clothes. Optical technologies will be used to monitor health issues, obesity for example. They will also be used in sports science to study how extreme athletes perform.
The NSSN team is also looking at applying sensors for tracking wildlife. Prof Eggleton said, “In NSW, we have problems with our marsupial populations, with tracking the koalas. We have a real problem with sharks on our beaches. We are using sensors to detect sharks and in general, looking at how we can apply smart sensing technology to detect and track wildlife.”
(The NSSN website also invites proposals around Smart Sensing, aligned with the Network’s vision and mission. Proposals should be ‘Specific’ and provide details on ‘Measurability’, ‘Attainability’, ‘Relevance’ and ‘Timing’.)
The underlying technology
Simply put, photonics is the science of manipulating light. The University of Sydney is one of the top institutions of the world in photonics and optics. In NSSN, researchers are building optical technologies that use a laser to scatter light off small particles. By measuring the scattering off coal particles, the size of the particles and the concentration of these particles can be measured very accurately. This can be done in a device that’s as small as a smartphone.
Prof Eggleton described the long-term visionto integrate these sensors onto, maybe into the phone itself. So, photonic chips are being developed as part of the programme. These integrated silicon-based devices will be the size of a thumbnail and they will be used for sensing not only air quality, but also health. There might be a spectrometer built into it that allows the phone to interrogate the chemical fingerprint of blood.
It is important to have the ability to manipulate and mix fluids, if the sensors are to be used for diagnosing disease or other applications in healthcare. One of the most important instruments in any chemical lab is a centrifuge. Acoustic waves can perform similar functions.
Prof Eggleton went on to say, “My group is developing a very exciting acoustic technology that will also allow us to manipulate fluids on the scale of millimetres. This when you combine with spectroscopy, you have a complete chemical laboratory that allows you to manipulate and probe the chemical fingerprint of complicated biological and chemical fluids.”
Smartphones with these functionalities built intothem can provide point-of-care health diagnostics in regions of the world that don’t have access to modern healthcare facilities. Sensing technologies will also allow the citizens to monitor their own health in a very low cost manner.
The wearable technology relies on stretchable polymer optical fibres. These polymer fibres can be stretched almost by a factor of two. By building these polymer optical fibres into fabric, very simple optical techniques can allow precise probing of mechanical movements and strain and tracing how the body deforms in real time.
The air quality measurements will be shared with the state government. The information will be shared with the bureaucrats, industry, with all the key stakeholders. It will help in formulating policy, it will help inform and empower our community, how these issues should be managed. The data will most likely be published and made publicly available.
Explaining the importance of having easily available on air quality, Prof Eggleton said,“Air quality has a huge impact on our society. It takes years off our lives. It costs more than a trillion dollars a year in terms of its impact on the economy. It’s a massive issue in developed western societies, as well as in developing societies. We need our governments to step up and we need our industries to be more responsible. Developing compact, low-cost and accurate sensors is about providing more transparency.”
Prototypes and commercialisation
Twenty prototypes of the sensors have been developed and they will be deployed within the next two weeks and start taking measurements. There are plans for commercialisationwithin the next year.
There are ongoing talks with a number of companies for licensing the IP and entering into joint ventures. Partnering with a company with expertise in developing instrumentation, marketing and with existing presence in those markets can facilitate the commercialisation process. The possibility of a spin-off company is also being considered.
Talking about the partnership, Prof Eggleton said that the government in this context represents the end-userand the community. The government is interested in solving problems that enhance the quality of life for its citizens. The government would also like the economy to grow and hence the industry to grow. Industry is interested in commercialisation. Industry partnerships will be the basis of commercialisation. Going forward, NSSN will work with local industry and international partners, when required.