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19 April 2017 3 min read

Article from resourceful: Issue 11


It's not often that researchers in one branch of science are called upon to apply their diverse skill-sets to problems that may not only be of use to their own discipline, but possibly to many other, unrelated fields.

This is how one could loosely describe the 12 test beds within CSIRO’s Active Integrated Matter Future Science Platform (AIM). Here, a vast number of highly-qualified scientists and researchers from across the organisation are brainstorming projects relating to the challenges all industries will face in the next 20 years.

It's about food science people talking to data technology experts, who in turn are talking to manufacturing and mining experts, because the megatrends relate to them all. All industries need to be across the coming changes in big data, materials, processing, sensors and robotics, and take advantage of them.

The AIM test beds relate to food technology, manufacturing, water technologies, chemical processing and far more.

Dr Kathie McGregor, who leads CSIRO's innovative process chemistry group, calls it 'foundation science' – developing the central, underlying principles of future technologies that will eventually be taken out and applied in a number of fields and disciplines.

The autonomous chemical processing test bed, run by principal research scientist, Mike Horne, is a mining and minerals led idea, but not restricted to it.

As Mr Horne himself says, the nature of the AIM platform work is collaborative, with teams drawing staff from across all business units within CSIRO to undertake this work.

"It's an unprecedented and cooperative effort that leverages skills from a diverse range of scientific disciplines and brings them to bear on some of the most significant problems we are currently facing," he says.

Mr Horne's test bed will generate new ideas, devices and data, taking what are essentially processing techniques and replanting them across the scientific landscape.

There is also a strong manufacturing bent to the test bed. Distributed manufacturing is one of the megatrends predicted to have a big impact globally and is already disrupting traditional models by relocating processing activities to the sites themselves rather than to the traditional remote processing centres.

"We want to be able to hold processing activities where the raw materials are generated or where markets exist, rather than transporting everything to and from a central facility," Mr Horne says.

"This type of thinking is essential for legacy mine site rehabilitation, waste processing and tailings reworking."

"Moreover, onsite manufacture of machinery spare parts using combinations of techniques such as additive and subtractive manufacturing is another possible field where this idea will have impact."

Mr Horne says AIM will have a more specific impact on the mining industry through projects that link novel and robust sensors with waste treatment, using a newly-developed high intensity electrochemical processing technique.

There will also be new methods of remote sensing which can be used to measure and control high-temperature operations, such as smelting and refining from a distance, as well as the ability to extract lithium from brines using selective electrochemical refining.

Dr McGregor, who sits on the AIM Science Council, says the interest for the mining industry is not just about improving mineral and chemical processing, but about technology that leads to the next level – a more efficient extractive process which is remotely operated and which continuously flows.

"We're interested in process intensification. It's really about revolutionising processes which involve chemical transformations of mineral and materials," Dr McGregor says.

Much of this is about increasing the inter- and intra-molecular interactions that simultaneously increase the mixing rate and reactive surface area.

"What we're trying to do is get more from less – how do you get dramatically enhanced efficiency and yield in the desired chemical transformation? We can do that with catalysts and innovative solvents, but we still have to design new, compact and efficient devices."

The new techniques, if successfully deployed, will lead to a win-win situation not just for mineral and chemical processing but for the environment, improving minesite environmental performance.

"Certainly in the longer term this is true," Dr McGregor says. "This kind of process intensification will bring about dramatic improvements in technologies for environmental remediation, processing and recycling."

Mr Horne's autonomous chemical processing test bed is now at the final planning stage.

The test beds were pitched to the AIM Director, Dr Danielle Kennedy, and the AIM Science Council for funding in February and a decision will follow soon on what will be funded.

"There are about 120 project ideas under 12 test beds," Dr McGregor says.

"AIM is a $28 million investment by CSIRO over three years. There is plenty of competition for this."

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