Spicks and specks

Scientific research is all about making life more predictable. So it’s odd that one of the great fascinations of research is its very unpredictability. Who could have foreseen that the efforts of physicists in Europe to transfer huge amounts of data quickly to their American colleagues would have led to a technology that has transformed human society—the World Wide Web? In fact, whenever you bring together a bunch of researchers to work on a particular problem, it’s surprising how often they come up with a solution for something else.

Take the recent experience of the Co-operative Research Centre (CRC) for Clean Power from Lignite. As part of its work on brown coal gasification, the centre developed an instrument to detect specific contaminants in the gas produced. It resulted in a technology which can determine the elements in solids quickly and cheaply. The machine is potentially so useful to such a wide range of industries that it has been sold to a new Australian venture intent on building a business around it.

The original problem was to develop a means of measuring the level of sodium in fuel gas produced from brown coal or lignite. (Sodium, a highly reactive metal, corrodes the blades of turbines in power stations.) In collaboration with Monash University, the CRC assembled a team of researchers with expertise in lasers. While developing their instrument, they interacted with people from the power industry and recognised they could apply their talents to solving a longer-term problem.

Just as ‘Oils ain’t oils’, ‘Coals ain’t coals’. Coal varies in composition with the level of moisture, organic compounds, and trace elements. Some coals burn better than others, some lead to greater corrosion of furnaces, some deposit more ash and char. If operators know about coal composition before it is fed into a furnace, then the combustion conditions can be tweaked to increase burning efficiency, and decrease fouling.

So power stations analyse the coal that is delivered to them to determine trace elements. Using conventional techniques, this analysis takes many hours and involves fiddling around with a series of chemical reagents. The Monash–CRC team came up with a laser-based instrument which can achieve the same results in a matter of minutes from a small disc of packed coal dust. It can also be used to build up an elemental profile of almost any other solid, making it relevant to all sorts of other mineral processing industries, and many other businesses besides.

On the basis of the work, an instrument known as the Spectrolaser was developed by Laser Analysis Technologies, a joint venture between the CRC and Automated Fusion Technology. Several machines have already been sold to the coal industry in Australia and overseas. Automated Fusion and Laser Analysis have now become part of a much larger company, XRF Scientific, which plans to invest in developing and marketing the Spectrolaser worldwide.

So, here we have a new product emerging from a gathered group of researchers who were brought face to face with industry by a CRC. The anecdote illustrates the importance of flexibility, the free flow of information, and the mix of researchers from different backgrounds with each other and with industry. Access to information and expertise is as important. We need to be careful about giving industry too much control of information and technology, in the form of patents, trade marks, and other forms of intellectual property. Product protection is necessary to ensure company profitability, but it can also bring innovation to a grinding halt. 

Tim Thwaites is a freelance science writer.



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