Nanotechnology and a desert grass seem an unlikely perfect match — but so did agriculture and computers in the mid-1980s.
Like all great love stories, innovative industry growth tends to be made possible when opposites attract and make a long-term commitment to creating success.
The native spinifex grass found around the far western outback Queensland town of Camooweal is abundant.
It’s Australia’s most extensive vegetation type and a natural resource that Aboriginal Australians have used for a variety of different, practical uses for tens of thousands of years.
In contrast, it’s only been the subject of research at The University of Queensland’s (UQ) Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) for 10 years — but its compatibility with nanotechnology and the biofutures industry is fast becoming apparent.
“We’ve figured out that the nanofibres from spinifex improve the physical properties of materials like latex significantly, and with as little as 0.05% added to the natural rubber” lead AIBN research Professor Darren Martin said.
“The nanocellulose from the spinifex can make products like condoms and gloves much stronger but at the same time they can also be manufactured much thinner — it’s essentially a natural supercharging additive for rubber.
“The latex and broader ‘dipped elastomer’ industry is worth a lot of money globally — in the tens of billions of dollars — so it’s research work that has the potential to make a real change to the latex manufacturing industry but also the building and transport industries too.
“There’s also potential to use the nanocellulose from the spinifex in a Gyprock® on steroids, like a super strong paper; or to use it in making better concrete with tiny amounts of the nanocellulose to create new properties that would allow concrete to bend further before fracture. There are so many possibilities.”
Since the research began, the team has received two Advance Queensland Research Fellowships plus a $995,000 grant from the Advance Queensland Biofutures Commercialisation Program in 2017.
“This allowed us to move from the pilot scale to demonstration scale, greatly improve production efficiencies, and produce large amounts of spinifex cellulose nanofibres for customer trials in various applications, as well as look at the various value properties of the product, as it’s not a one size fits all thing,” Professor Darren Martin said.
“While some properties are perfect for concrete, others might make a stronger, stiffer recycled cardboard box. These applications are now all proven in concept, so we must continue to work on the scale-up and sustainability of both biomass supply and safe, efficient and reliable manufacturing of spinifex cellulose nanofibres.
“Our next step is to further reduce water, chemicals and energy in our manufacturing process and the team is making rapid strides here.
“This puts pressure on innovation in a holistic way, because to hit a price point, we have been forced to come up with a new smart manufacturing process by changing many facets of what we do.”
Professor Martin is the first to acknowledge that the science comes secondary to supply.
“Our Indigenous partners in Camooweal, the Dugalunji Aboriginal Corporation led by Colin Saltmere, are the ones who are responsible for supporting the industry at a literal grassroots level,” he said.
“The teaching and training programs that have been set up around farming the grass have provided benefits just as important, if not more important, than the research itself and that is perhaps the greatest story of the nanotechnology breakthrough we’ve been afforded.
“There is absolutely scope for spinifex farms to be established one day to support the bio-refining industry that we’re working to build.
“We have been investigating whether or not this sacred resource really does have to grow in hot dry areas. We set up a plot at Gatton in south east Queensland and managed to grow it in a vastly different environment to its native location.
“What surprised us even more was the quality was really good. So that officially debunked the myth that the grass must grow in the desert and be stressed — so absolutely, in the future as this gains momentum, spinifex could also be a viable farming sector.
Professor Martin knows these things don’t happen overnight.
“These things take 20 years to really hit their straps and we have always known that you’ve got to stick with a technology for more than a decade, or two, for it to really prove itself,” Professor Martin said.
“At the end of the day this is about investing in a new industry that will have exponential positive impacts on real people — not just making sure my professional life stacks up to a pile of interesting PDF files!”
For one Queensland beef cattle producer and grain farmer, creating a whole new industry sector was the surprising by-product of the simple desire to have a better grasp of his financials.
It was 1984 and Wandoan farmer Lance Skerman had been reading about the increasing popularity of personal computers.
He wanted a simple cashbook program designed specifically for farm management, so he employed a graduate out of university to help him build and code the software.
Once friends and neighbours started hearing about the product, they wanted to try it for themselves, so it was tested for commercial release — and later that year, the business that’s still known today as AGDATA, started it’s nearly 35-year success story.
It’s an incredible ‘overnight’ feat that most modern-day start-ups could only wish for.
But as AGDATA Managing Director Glenn Skerman recognises, it’s a start that truly defied the odds — irrespective of the original aim for the ‘simple cashbook program’.
“There is a very large perception that all new ideas will be generated by start-ups, where in reality, only a very minute proportion of start-ups will go on from a crystallised idea to become a revenue producing commercial entity,” he said.
“The balance needs to be found to ensure a business that has the runs on the board is given similar incentives to bring their new projects to the innovation ecosystem.”
AGDATA put runs on the board early — launching at a point in time where technology was far from second nature and innovation was a word only applied to science.
“When the business first launched in 1984, computers were far from mainstream,” Mr Skerman said.
“This meant that our founders weren’t just out explaining the benefits that AGDATA could bring to their farming business with this new management software — they were also introducing most customers to computers for the first time!
“This created the extra overhead of training customers how to use a computer as well as how to use our software.”
It’s an investment that paid dividends.
As interest in the product, and technology grew, the company did too; moving quickly from a small family operation, to today, providing software to tens of thousands of active users across Australia — all based out of Toowoomba.
“AGDATA still offers the financial management tools, but the range of software has diversified into offering production management software as well. This integrated suite now comprises of financials, budgeting, mapping, cropping and livestock modules,” Glenn Skerman said.
“It’s a suite of tools which allows a farmer to measure key management elements within their business whilst also meeting compliance requirements and being able to better measure their business so they can then make more informed decisions on their management practices.”
For a business that was formed before the phrase ‘ag-tech’ was even coined, it’s been a ride they’ve taken in-step with their clients.
“Customers are more technologically aware than 20 years ago and as such, they’re asking more from businesses than ever before. It’s dramatically changed Queensland’s regional innovation landscape, driven by advances in technology obviously, but also better internet services for regional areas too,” Mr Skerman said.
“In the past, innovation in regional areas was often driven out of necessity due to people not having easy access to products or services available in metropolitan centres. But with technology advancing at such a rapid pace and with better internet services, people in these regional areas are more easily able to put into practice their ideas which they may not have had opportunity to do in the past.
“It’s essential that industry innovation is fostered in all areas of Queensland, especially regional and rural areas, otherwise there are innovative products and services which could be lost or just not reach their full potential — and that can only be realised with the right level of support and nurturing from both government and industry.”