Engineering innovations and industry-transforming research were acknowledged at the 2018 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science.
The first of two major Prizes for Science went to Emeritus Professor Kurt Lambeck AO for “transforming our understand of our living planet”. Lambeck has dedicated his 50-year career to a specialist field called geodesy, more colloquially known as ‘Earth watching’.
Even if you aren’t familiar with his field of study, you will definitely be familiar with his work. He has helped enable more accurate planning of space missions and satellite trajectories by studying Earth’s gravity field. More recently this work has contributed to improvements in GPS tracking and navigation as well as continuing improvements in satellite operations.
Lambeck was heavily involved with the AuScope geodetic monitoring network, which consists of 100 GPS stations, radio telescopes and laser tracking systems around Australia. This project also helped lay the groundwork for the Australian Government’s $225 million investment in the National Positioning Infrastructure.
Highly accurate GPS-based systems underpin everything from precision agriculture, to exploring mineral deposits and groundwater, and using mapping apps on smartphones. Precise navigation will also play a big role as autonomous vehicles take to our roads.
“That’s really created the need for a very, very precise referencing system, whereby we know where every point on the Australian continent is, or in the world in fact, at sub-centimetre accuracy. And that’s what’s been developed in Australia over the last decade,” Lambeck told the ABC.
Internet for the masses
The Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation was shared by a team of engineers and scientists – Dr Simon Poole, Andrew Bartos, Dr Glenn Baxter and Dr Steven Frisken (aka the Finisar team) – for creating a device that helps us search, watch, read and write everything on the internet faster and more reliably.
The global internet relies on optical fibres crisscrossing the planet, but the speed and volume of internet traffic was limited by the need to convert light to electrical signals.
Finisar’s device uses a prism to divide the light into many different colours, a liquid crystal on silicon (LCoS) chip that can steer the light into different optical fibres, and algorithms to manage the transactions. This ‘light-bending switch’ has the capacity to process a million high-definition streaming videos at once.
Back in the early 2000s, when the company was first founded, the four had trouble convincing network equipment manufacturers and large telecommunications companies they could tackle such a global problem. Now, about half the world’s internet traffic travels through one of their devices.
“We did have a challenge to convince people that our approach was worthwhile … But in about the last four or five years, it’s become the dominant technology in the industry and now it’s unquestioned,” said Bartos, an electrical engineer.
Both Lambeck and the Finisar team will receive $250,000 for their achievements.
Innovations now, education for the future
Nanotechnology and chemistry expert Associate Professor Jack Clegg was recognised with the 2018 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year. His work focuses on manipulating molecules to make them behave a certain way or to create new, complex materials – like flexible crystals.
“I often say my work is a cross between cooking and playing with LEGO,” Clegg said.
Two areas that benefit from his work include electronic devices and chemical purification. Using computer modelling, Clegg has developed designs for flexible crystals with applications in wearable, bendable and shatter-proof electronics. Another design includes ‘cage molecules’, which could function like molecular sieves and remove undesirable elements in pharmaceuticals, crude oil, water, minerals and more.
The Prize for New Innovator was awarded to Dr Geoff Rogers, a mechanical engineer and CEO and Director of startup Wintermute Biomedical. His innovation is a robotic guidewire that cardiologists can steer through the body to reach damaged arteries.
The idea started when Rogers was still an undergraduate and developed through his PhD. The guidewire is as slim as two human hairs, and can be steered remotely using a joystick. This differentiates it from previous guidewires, which had to be steered by hand.
Two awards were given for excellence in science teaching – one in secondary schools and one in primary education.
The former went to Dr Scott Sleap, who helped establish the Cessnock Academy of STEM in the Hunter Valley to prepare students for careers of the future in fields like aerospace and robotics. Thanks to his efforts, the number of students enrolling in STEM subjects is growing, and there are plans to start similar programs in other regional centres.
The prize for primary school education was awarded to Brett Crawford, the lead science teacher at Warrigal Road State School in Brisbane. He is credited with helping encourage young students to approach STEM subjects with curiosity and an open mind, and for helping his fellow teachers engage with science as well.
Dr Lee Berger won the Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year for her research revealing extinction threats and solving the mystery of the world’s disappearing frog populations. Berger was the only woman on this year’s list, and only one of nine to receive a Prime Minister’s Prize for Science in the past five years.