Behind the scenes at CSIRO

Manufacturers’ Monthly visited the material science and engineering building at CSIRO’s Lindfield site in Sydney to learn about some of its collaborative and innovative projects.

Walking down the long corridors of the material science and engineering building at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s (CSIRO’s) Lindfield site in Sydney, the first impression one might get is that the laboratories are working in isolation from the rest of the world, or even from other laboratories in the facility. That observation, however, could not be further from the truth.

This building is where some of the best examples of collaborations between researchers and industrial partners take place. CSIRO’s Lindfield site has a strong track record for engineering, design and prototyping – from the development of world-leading sensor technologies to the invention of ground-breaking motors that power solar vehicles.

The building is also home to the Lindfield Collaboration Hub, where tenant startups and SMEs are working on expanding their innovative ideas each day.

There is a good reason, however, that the laboratories appear to be isolated. As the Site Leader and the Group Leader – Applied Physics, Dr Scott Martin explained to Manufacturers’ Monthly, the building was originally designed to maintain and calibrate the national physical standards, including housing Australia’s atomic clocks (the national time standard).

In the past, the CSIRO was responsible for maintaining the physical standards in partnership with international standards community, but that task now falls under the National Measurement Institute, which still occupies the specialised labs at the CSIRO facility at Lindfield. The building needed to be custom-designed to enable full control of temperature and humidity. It is also radio-screened, so there is no mobile phone coverage.

“The susceptibility of electronic equipment to interference has improved a lot these days, but we still carry out some experiments that are highly susceptible to physical parameters,” Martin said.

Work at Lindfield includes device prototyping, materials science and discovery, electrical engineering, and software and systems design. Manufacturers Monthly visited the Electrical Machines and the Nanosensors and Systems to learn about their most recent work.

Cheap, wire-free tram technology
A recent project carried out at the CSIRO Lindfield site was a Rail Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) project involving CSIRO and the China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation (CRRC).

The project looks into using an on‐board energy storage system to power light rail tram vehicles in China, eliminating the need for overhead electricity lines for the trams – referred to as a catenary system.

Electrical Machines Team Leader, Dr Howard Lovattand his team are working on a low-cost on-board energy system for trams, in collaboration with China’s CRRC.
Electrical Machines Team Leader, Dr Howard Lovattand his team are working on a low-cost on-board energy system for trams, in collaboration with China’s CRRC.

Team Leader – Electrical Machines, Dr Howard Lovatt, told Manufacturers’ Monthly that the system offers a “much cheaper” alternative to the wire-free technology currently being deployed in sections of Sydney’s light rail system.

“The Sydney light rail system uses a third rail to energise the trams. As the trams pass over each bit of the rail, that section is energised to power the train and as the train moves on, the next bit energises and the previous bits go off. This system is very expensive, because it requires power switches to be placed every 10 metres throughout the track’s length,” he said.

The prototype system developed by Lovatt and his team, in collaboration with CRRC, involves carrying thousands of battery packs on the train, which are charged in the 20-second time intervals as the passengers are getting on and off the train.

The main challenge, Lovatt said, was to design an energy storage system with high enough energy density to travel between tram stations and high enough power density – in the order of several megawatts – to enable rapid charging and then acceleration of the vehicle from the tram stop.

The final prototype, Lovatt said, is a trade-off between a lithium-ion battery and a supercapacitor, which provides both a good life-time and the fast-charging ability.

“While the battery pack can store half the energy as that of a lithium-ion battery, this is not an issue for this particular application, because trains have enough space to carry a larger number of batteries,” Lovatt said.

The prototype unit has been transported to China with the CRRC project team now working to  manufacture the design. CSIRO has also partnered with CRRC on a suite of supercapacitor projects being overseen by the Rail Manufacturing CRC, an Australian Government Business Cooperative Research Centres Programme initiative that connects industry with Australian research institutions.

The projects carried out at CSIRO involve close collaboration with the client companies and organisations in the research and development process.

“We did not develop this project in isolation. The CSIRO and the CRRC closely worked on the project as a team,” Lovatt said.

Also, while some research projects can go on for years, others could yield results in as short as a month. “When the clients know specifically what they want, the projects can be delivered quite fast,” Lovatt said.

The research and development capabilities in the Electrical Machines division of CSIRO’s Lindfield site range from electrical motors and generators to power and control electronics, battery management systems, prototype development, and Finite Element Modelling for magnetic, thermal, electrical and mechanical optimisation.

The research facility has a successful track record that includes developing battery packs and electric drive solutions for numerous hybrid vehicles, including with Holden in Australia and General Motors in the US; developing battery pack and electric drive solutions for BusTech electric buses in Australia; and numerous commercial projects in electric motors, power electronics and sub-systems.

The facility is behind the famous Aurora electric motor, used in solar cars across the world since 1996. “Most solar car racing teams use our technology. That’s if they want to win,” Lovatt said proudly.

Using gold nanoparticles to detect chemicals
Our tour of the facility also takes us to the nanosensors and systems laboratory, another division of the CSIRO Lindfield facility with an interesting track record in innovation.

The laboratory has developed a chemiresistor sensor array – an innovative technology that uses the high sensitivity and tunable selectivity of gold nanoparticle films to detect and quantify organic chemicals in water.

The chemiresistors are based on gold nanoparticle films that change their electrical resistance when an analyte absorbs into the film. The technology offers the ability to analyse complex mixtures by using cross-reactive sensor arrays customised for the organic contaminants of interest.

Andrea Sosa Pintos, Team Leader – Nanosensors and Systems at CSIRO Lindfield, told Manufacturers’ Monthly that the technology has multiple potential applications; including real time, on- field environmental monitoring.

Andrea Sosa Pintos, Team Leader – Nanosensors and Systems shows the chemiresistor sensor array she and her team have developed.
Andrea Sosa Pintos, Team Leader – Nanosensors and Systems shows the chemiresistor sensor array she and her team have developed.

“The environmental monitoring is one area where the technology has already been proven in the lab for a variety of different chemicals and we will commence field trials next year,” she said.

“Using this technology, the underground water contaminations could either be monitored automatically through devices installed permanently on the site or tested in-situ using hand-held detection devices,” she explained.

Another potential area of application for the technology is in the medical testing processes. The team, led by Martin, has been working to develop a portable point of care diagnostic tool to detect tuberculosis (TB) without the need for laboratory analysis.

“We are trying to simplify sample collection and testing for TB patients. Instead of collecting sputum samples and testing them in the laboratory, the bio markers in the urine or saliva samples could be detected using portable devices,” Sosa Pintos said.

The chemiresistors are low-cost, disposable devices. They are easily manufacturable using standard photolithographic techniques, inkjet printing and high-throughput liquid handling robotics. As only tiny amounts of gold nanoparticles are required for each sensor, the production of a million sensors is possible with just a gram of gold nanoparticles.

While CSIRO has developed the fundamentals of the electronic devices required for capturing the information from the sensors, it is working closely with industry partners towards miniaturisation
of the detection devices as well as looking for interested manufacturers to assist with development and distribution of final products for particular applications.

Lindfield Collaboration Hub

Apart from all of the in-house research going on in the physics and materials laboratories, the facility is also home to the Lindfield Collaboration Hub, an innovation incubator housing some of the most innovative start-ups and SMEs.

The Collaboration Hub, supported by the NSW Government’s Department of Industry, offers a co-working space to tenant start-ups and SMEs, allowing them to access CSIRO’s facilities and laboratories to further develop their ideas. This includes access to a Maker Space, which houses digital and analogue electronics, prototyping, general laboratory equipment and small- scale workshop tools.

“With the Collaboration Hub, our intention is to create an environment where the companies can share their expertise in various areas. We regularly organise events to helps the tenants interact with each other and learn about the projects they are working on,” Martin said.

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