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A zero-carbon fuel with a bonus high value by-product and a potential biological therapy for cancer are two of the best developments to come out of recent UWA research.
One has the potential to provide clean fuel for our cars and zero-carbon batteries in just a few years, while the other specifically targets treatment-resistant tumours.
It is a bit of a leap, but the potential to alleviate energy problems and cancer is more than most universities would hope for in a decade.
The Office of Industry and Innovation (OII) has, in the past few months, helped to create two new spin-out companies based on innovative work from the UWA Centre for Energy's Professor Hui Tong Chua and cancer research at the WA Institute for Medical Research. OII would normally spin out perhaps one company a year, so this flurry of commercialisation is signalling a revival of the economy as well as brilliant research by UWA academics.
"The global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009 saw a loss of appetite in investing in early stage university spin-out companies," said Andy Sierakowski, Director of OII. "But it seems the bad times have passed and OII has just facilitated the creation of two early stage technology companies."
Professor Chua and his team in Mechanical and Chemical Engineering, the Centre for Strategic Nano-Fabrication and the Centre for Microscopy, Characterisation and Analysis have developed two valuable products by breaking the chemical bond of the naturally-occurring gas methane.
"By cracking the methane, we have been able to create hydrogen without producing any CO2," Professor Chua explained. "The by-product is solid carbon which also has potential for high-value applications."
Geoff Pocock, project manager, commercialisation with OII, said that in addition to its potential use in future zero-emission / low-emission energy markets, hydrogen was a significant industrial chemical in its own right, with some 50 megatonnes being manufactured annually, mostly used for ammonia production (and associated products such as fertiliser) and in the petrochemical industry.
"Current methods of hydrogen production are generally not energy-efficient, limiting the potential for hydrogen to be used in the global energy market, or are significant carbon polluters, releasing up to seven tonnes of CO2 per tonne of hydrogen produced," Mr Pocock said. "A clean and energy-efficient hydrogen production technology would therefore have significant commercial potential - a fact recognised by the researchers and OII, and by the investors in the new spin out company."
The company is called HAZER Pty Ltd (Hydrogen And Zero Emission Research), and was established by Pendragon Capital, the corporate advisory arm of Perth accountancy firm Barringtons, to commercialise the technology. The company has raised equity funding from private investors, with the University, the individual researchers and past commercial partner Wesfarmers are also shareholders in Hazer. Most of the funds raised are being used for further research at the University.
As well as the application of the technology for hydrogen production, the technology generates significant quantities of nano-graphitic carbon, which has potential high value application in electrodes for lithium-ion batteries and electrochemical processes in other areas, such as lubrication.
A manufacturer of batteries in China is very interested in using the purified carbon and has asked for a tonne of it for a trial.
"This request is music to our ears," said Professor Chua. "It proves there is a market for the carbon but right now, we are only producing something like grams of it each week. So we are working on upscaling the technology and we hope to be able to supply the company in China with a tonne of carbon within a few years."
"We really believe in this technology," he said of the work that he started at the National University of Singapore, which was then considered ‘blue sky' research. "We are currently working on the scale-up of the technology to make it more commercially viable."
While Professor Chua and his team are dedicated to providing clean energy for future generations, Professor Peter Leedman and his laboratory are getting closer to being able to save those future generations from cancer.
Professor Leedman, deputy director of the Western Australian Institute for Medical Research (WAIMR), and his team have developed a biological method of blocking some of the pathways involved in cancer.
Their work is at the molecular level, targeting microRNAs which are small, newly-identified elements of the cell that have been shown to play an integral role in numerous biological processes underlying disease states including cancer, heart failure, and viral infections.
"The beauty of the technology is that it simultaneously targets multiple parts of a pathway critical for cancer growth," Professor Leedman said.
"Our research has revealed microRNA-7 (miR-7) can cause significant reduction in cancer cell growth and often results in the cancer cells dying off. Although we are at a relatively early stage we hope to validate the very promising effects of this technology with extensive pre-clinical testing."
The technology uses miR-7 to target the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), an essential growth receptor for the development of a range of human tumours. Excessive activation of the EGFR pathway is often associated with resistance to chemotherapy and radiation therapy. The company, MiReven Pty Ltd, has been set up specifically to develop the miR-7 technology further.
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