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Australia, the magazine : Australia, the magazine
84 CRYSTAL CLEAR Many said it was impossible, but together, scientists from Queensland and China made it happen. As a result, cheaper, more reactive solar cells and a simple paint that purifies air may be less than a decade away. The breakthrough came when the University of Queensland's Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) laboratory collaborated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. For 15 years, AIBN had been working on "the Holy Grail" of isolating crystals of titanium oxide in order to increase the reactive surfaces and cause the brilliant white substance to produce more hydrogen, making it more cost-effective in power generation. "The conventional wisdom was that the activity has been pretty low," says Professor Max Lu who headed up the research. "We made a major theoretical and also experimental breakthrough in creating the active surface of these crystals." Lu says the eureka moment came with the help of two scientists from the Chinese Academy, including Chenghua Sun "who is very good in computer modelling so he helped to interpret the fundamental understanding of what was happening". The research continues, focusing on the practical applications. BUGGING OUT One in 10 people around the world are at some stage a ected by locust plagues. Twenty percent of the world is in icted. Desert locusts are known to swarm by the billions, ravaging farms in parts of Africa, China and Australia. And yet the reason why the normally shy, solitary locust would suddenly become gregarious and join a swarm eluded scientists during almost 90 years of a empting to unravel the conundrum, until a collaboration between the University of Sydney and Cambridge and Oxford in the UK discovered the trigger -- the body chemical, seratonin. "Phase change", the ability of locusts to change their behaviour, was the centre of research for University of Sydney scientist Professor Stephen Simpson and his team for almost 20 years. "To e ectively control locust swarms, we must rst understand exactly how it is that a single shy locust becomes a highly social animal that swarms," says Simpson. A er rst discovering that phase change was caused by stimulation of sensory hairs on the hind leg of locusts, Simpson's team began to investigate the neurological and neurochemical basis of this e ect. Along with their colleagues in the UK , the group measured levels of 13 neurochemicals in locusts in both solitary and swarming phases. "It was clear that as locusts switched from solitary to gregarious, the amount of serotonin in their central nervous systems also increased," says Simpson. " e next step was to determine if this relationship actually meant that serotonin was the cause of gregarious, and thus swarming, behaviour in locusts." e signi cant discovery is a vital clue to preventing future devastation of crops and land in some of the world's most vulnerable populations. SWARM TRIGGER Scientists identify what makes normally shy locusts go gregarious -- and wreak havoc on crops across the world. BLUE SKY PROJECTS iStock Climate change presents scientists with a vast array of new challenges. Associate professor Ashish Sharma at the University of NSW's School of Civil and Environmental Engineering has been working in the field since 2002 alongside his former PhD student, Dr Raj Mehrotra, whose thesis piqued Sharma's interest. "Climate change is not really fixable in the short term, at the very least, difficult to fix in the short term," says Sharma. "So the next best thing is to figure out how we can live with it. But to work out how to live with it, we first of all need to work out what might happen. Once we know what might happen, either increased rainfall, or decreased, we need to see how life needs to adjust and then work out how to make those changes." Sharma is currently working with Mehrotra on a collaboration with Indian scientists at the Indian Institute of Science and the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, to see how soil moisture will change in the future in selected catchments: in Australia's Murray Darling Basin and the Mahanadi Basin in central India. "This will give you advice on the types of crops you can afford to plant and the timing of those crops," he says. The work is being funded by the Australia-India Strategic Research Fund. The work sounds simple but it involves an intricate system of statistical approaches and down- scaling models that were developed by Sharma and Mehrotra. "It's a mixture of science and empiricism," says Sharma. "The science is to figure out things such as the drivers behind rainfalls observed at previous times, lower level pressures and pressure derivatives, turbulence in atmosphere -- processes that need to be identified then cast into a statistical framework to formulate downscale predictions." Downscaling means "zooming in" so predictions can be made for very specific regions, rather than in the large-scale assessments for which predictions are generally made. The outcome will be crucial advice for human livelihood. "It impacts at such a basic level and everything is happening now. Climate change is a certainty ... so the best thing is to advise on how best to proceed under these new circumstances, reducing negative implications later on."