Inside the Collection

National Science Week: Sustainability Science

It’s National Science Week! Tune in each day to meet MAAS’ science curators, discover objects from our wonderful science collection and find out what a science curator actually does in a day.

Green Materials Display
Green Materials display entered into the 2014 Sydney Engineering Excellence Awards by SMaRT@UNSW, OneSteel Ltd, and Brickworks Building Products (2016/4/1). Image: Ryan Hernandez, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

This year’s Science Week school’s theme, Future Earth, focuses on sustainability science. Sustainability is a big topic – it looks at how we can manage the earth we live on, whilst still having enough food, water and supplies to take care of all the people we share it with (and the plants and animals too). Australian scientists are working on solutions to help us meet the challenges of today and tomorrow, by coming up with better ways of building and new ways of getting the materials we need.

One such team leading the revolution are the engineers at the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT@UNSW) led by Professor Veena Sahajwalla. They are working towards turning our dumps into resource mines by rethinking, recycling and transforming rubbish into reusable, valuable materials.

Detail of Furnace designed by Ceramic Engineering
Furnace, designed and made by Ceramic Engineering and modified by the SMaRT group at UNSW (2016/4/1). Image: Tilly Boleyn, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

This furnace was used in their Green Steel project, where they successfully showed that car tyres could be used in the steel-making process. By substituting part of the coke (that’s coal) with rubber from the tyres they were able to improve the amount of steel produced and reduce carbon emissions!

After the success of Green Steel, the team asked themselves if they could recycle all of the waste from a car. They looked at the glass and plastic found in headlights and windscreens. These materials can be broken down to create useful mixtures of carbon, iron and silicon. The metal and silicon alloys (a mixture) are used in the production of steel, lightweight building products and even high-end electronics, like your smart phone or laptop.

Detail of Green Materials Display
Green Materials display entered into the 2014 Sydney Engineering Excellence Awards by SMaRT@UNSW, OneSteel Ltd, and Brickworks Building Products (2016/4/1). Image: Ryan Hernandez, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

But just like producing new materials, recycling old ones requires energy and we will need a variety of renewable energy sources to ensure a sustainable future. Scientists at the School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering (SPREE@UNSW) are working towards this goal by exploring better ways of harnessing the suns energy. Dr Mark Keevers and Professor Martin Green have developed a unique new solar ‘mini-module’ design, so called because it combines two solar cells together. A group of solar cells linked together in a circuit is called a module. A solar panel is made when we link enough modules together.

The Spectrum Splitting Prism
The Spectrum Splitting Prism, a photovoltaic mini-module designed and made by the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics, UNSW (2016/46/1). Image: Michael Myers, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

Usually solar cells are combined in flat modules, but this prism design broke the world record by converting 34.5% of the Sun’s energy into electricity. To make this possible, it uses two clever design ideas, a ‘triple cell’ and a reflective filter. Triple cells have three layers, each able to convert a different part of the light spectrum into electrical energy. The filter is applied on top of this triple cell and has been specially designed to reflect the unused part of the spectrum onto the second solar cell which is able to extract even more energy from the Sun’s rays. The most exciting part is that this technology could be coming to a rooftop near you! The scientists are connecting there mini-modules together to build solar panels that could be ready as soon as 2020.

The work from both of these scientific teams can be seen on display in the Museum’s science gallery, Experimentations.

And remember, if you get the chance, there are a wealth of opportunities to get involved with science this week as part of the Sydney Science Festival.

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