Big solutions on the nanoscale

The greatest challenges have the tiniest solutions

From capturing water in thin air to unlocking neural codes for cures, hear exciting talks that take you behind the novel applications of nanoscience and nanotechnology.

Our material and chemical world functions in the nanoscale at just one billionth of a metre – so when we can get science and technology to work at this ultra-small, near molecular level, it opens up opportunities to revolutionise a huge range of areas including health and medicine, communications, security, energy and the environment. 

In this Sydney Ideas event, you’ll hear from researchers from the University of Sydney Nano Institute (Sydney Nano), who are working at the cutting-edge. They share their projects, process and progress in coming up with nano solutions for grand challenges

Associate Professor, chemist and science communicator Alice Motion hosts this event, with opening remarks from Sydney Nano Director, Professor Benjamin Eggleton

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Welcome. This is the Sydney Ideas podcast, bringing your talks and conversations featuring the best and brightest minds at the University of Sydney and beyond.


Well good evening and welcome to Sydney ideas. This is the University of Sydney's public talks program. My name is Fenella Kernebone and I'm the Head of Programming for Sydney ideas. We are joining you on our Zoom webinar but also on LinkedIn Live and it is fantastic to have your company. Thanks for joining us.

Before we begin proceedings, I would firstly like to acknowledge and pay respects to the traditional custodians of the lands on which we all meet and work and share ideas wherever you are today, and wherever you're joining us for our fantastic event. It's wonderful to have your company.

We are on Gadigal land. I pay my respects and acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation because it's on their ancestral lands at the University of Sydney's built. And of course, as we share our knowledge and our learning and our teaching and our ideas as well as our research practices in this university, we pay respects to the knowledge embedded forever within Aboriginal custodianship of country.

It is great to have your company. A big conversation for you today, 'Big solutions on the nanoscale'. From capturing water in thin air to unlocking neural codes for cures, some exciting talks coming up for you today.

Enough from me. It's now my great pleasure to introduce and welcome Professor Benjamin Eggleton who is the director of the University of Sydney Nano Institute. He is going to open tonight's event and introduce you to your MC, Alice Motion. Over to you Ben, thanks for joining us.


Thanks Fenella. Fantastic to be here with a great crowd on this lovely humid evening in Sydney.

I also want to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. I'm sitting in the Sydney Nanoscience Hub on the main campus and very proud to be on lands that have been associated with that community for many thousands of years. It is great to be with you for this exciting event.

I want to give some brief remarks and context to set the scene and then hand over to Alice, who will emcee this event. I want to start by acknowledging Alice Motion's leadership, a fantastic colleague, pleasure to work with us. I want to acknowledge your leadership in putting this event together. I also want to thank Fenella from Sydney ideas for the partnership to work on this event this evening.

So let me give you some background to this conversation that we're having. Sydney Nano is one of the University of Sydney's flagship multidisciplinary institutes. We were established to bring together researchers from across the university to conduct transformative and translational research in nanoscience and nanotechnology. Now that's a bit of a mouthful. Let me try and unpack that statement. Simply speaking, transformative is a fancy word for a paradigm shift. And I think you'll see tonight through the presentations that is indeed the philosophy and translational means that these paradigm shifts are going to change the world. They're going to change your world. So hence the the title of the event is 'Big solutions on the nanoscale'.

So Sydney Nano deals with nanotechnology, which is the study of the structure and function of materials on the scale of nanometers, which is one billionth of a metre, or roughly the size of about 10 atoms in a row. Now it does sound pretty obtuse, but in fact, it's already part of our world. One simple example that may change your world is your smartphone. Now the Sydney Nanoscience Hub, an amazing facility on the main campus that I'm sitting on as I mentioned, built specifically for nanotechnology. It incorporates high performance laboratory. I'm told some of the labs are in fact represent the most expensive real estate in Sydney. State-of-the-art clean rooms for fabricating nano structures. We're very proud that we host the Microsoft sponsored quantum computing project and much much more. And our research is multidisciplinary, which you will see tonight exemplified through these absolutely breathtaking presentations.

Now, normally this event would be held in the Messel Theatre in the Nanoscience Hub, it would have been wonderful to get together with a crowd, we fill the room usually with 250 people. We have a fantastic reception afterwards. A lovely event, and we hope and look forward to being able to host events like this in person very soon.

So this evening, you're going to hear from three rockstar scientists who have been leading three of Sydney Nano's Grand Challenge projects. These are indeed the flagship projects for Sydney Nano. The Grand Challenge projects, as the name suggests, aim to discover groundbreaking solutions to the world's greatest challenges that are all profound societal, economical and scientific significance. I hope they give you a flavour of what we're doing at Sydney Nano, and with that, I pass over to my wonderful colleague Alice Motion to emcee the rest of the evening. Over to you Alice.


Thanks so much Ben. We've got a real treat in store for you this evening. We've got an hour of spectacular science, some music and some more, so much more. And actually, what Ben mentioned in his introduction is that we're going to be celebrating the work of three researchers leading Grand Challenges at the University of Sydney's Sydney Nano Institute and they're going to be sharing with us what can happen when we zoom in and get technology and science to work on this seriously small scale.

There is such fantastic opportunity to revolutionise areas such as medicine, health communications, with applications for things like the environment and also for security too. And we're going to hear from three absolutely fantastic researchers this evening. Dr Shelley Wickham, Professor Chiara Neto and Professor Zdenka Kuncic. And you're you're going to enjoy hearing from from each of our researchers, finding out about the different aspects of nanoscience that's applicable to their Grand Challenges.

So it gives me great pleasure to actually invite our first speaker. So I would invite Professor Zdenka Kuncic to come on, come online, the camera and microphone. Zdenka is a Professor of Physics and she will now share some of the work from her research team who are delivering cures for neurological diseases by rethinking interventions in the nervous system. So Zdenka please take it away.


Hi everyone, thanks for tuning in today. Before I start, I’ll just give you a bit of context around the research I’ll be talking about. So I’m a physicist and I’m strongly motivated by the potential scientific breakthroughs thatcan be made through interdisciplinary research. And this is where Sydney Nano comes in: it brings together researchers from across manydiscipline areas to work together on problems that can be solved with nanotechnology.

This project – a nano-bionic retina – is a prime example of this. It’s a project involving neuroscience and medicine that was first brought to my attention through Sydney Nano, where I met Professor Gregg Suaning, a biomedical engineer. Gregg has been working on developing a bionic eye to cure blindness in people with neurodegenerative disease. One of the challenges of this work is getting the biomedical device to communicate withsurviving neurons in the retina using electrical signals. Now, I had been working on a separate nanotechnology device that produces “neuromorphic” (i.e. neuron-like) electrical signals. So it became immediately obvious to us that we had a unique nanotechnology solution tomaking a bionic retina work. And now for the details...

The ability to see is taken for granted by most of us, and sight is arguably our most valued sensory perception. So when sight is taken away by neurodegenerative disease, such as macular degeneration or retina pigmentosa, it has a profound effect on people's lives, debilitating their sense of independence. These diseases are age related and affect around one in seven people over the age of 50. So chances are you or someone you know, may be affected by neurodegenerative blindness. As we age, sight can be lost due to dysfunction in the eye’s retina, which is an extension of our brain.

As a physicist, I’m fascinated by the myriad of coordinated biophysical processes involved in our visual sensory system. Upon reaching the retina, light is converted into electrical signals byretinal photoreceptor cells. Other retinal neurons then encode these electrical signals and send themvia the optic nerve to the visual cortex in the brain, where the signals aredecoded to form images. When retinal neurons degenerate, it’s possible to restore retinalfunctionality with a retinal interface. This is a type of neurotechnology: technology that uses bioelectronic devices to interface with neurons to stimulate them and restore functionlost due to damage.

Building a retinal interface to cure blindness is a challenging problemthat many research groups around the world are working on.

At Sydney, Professor Gregg Suaning has developed a retinal interface that works by using a pair of camera-enabled glasses, a mobile phone, and a small antenna to send signals to a microchip and electrodes implanted at the back of the retina. However, as with other similar retinal interfaces, the effectiveness of these so-called “bionic eyes” remains crude at best, limited by micro electronic device using the rational interface.

But at Sydney Nano, Greg and I have made an exciting breakthrough that could substantially improve the quality of vision produced by a retinal interface.

We're combining neuro-technology with nanotechnology to develop a completely new kind of retinal interface, a neuromorphic chip that produces electrical signals that are more neuron like than those produced by microchips used in existing neural interface devices. The neuromorphic signals can replace some of the signal loss due to damaged retinal neurons, but they can also enhance signals produced by the remaining functioning retinal neurons, which better recognise the neuromorphic signals.

We discovered that neuromorphic electrical signals are readily produced by a particular type of nanotechnology: nanowire networks. These are electrical circuit networks of silver wires of about 10 nanometers in diameter, more than a thousand times thinner than a human hair. And just like human hair, they can grow very long. We aim to show that when these neuromorphic signals are transmitted back to the brain via the optic nerve, the visual cortex can reconstruct a better image.

This is a potential game changer for retinal interface medical devices. It's the physical properties of nanowires that enables them to produce neuromorphic electrical signals. The nanowires and the interconnections resemble neurons and their synaptic connections. Just like neurons, nanowires are separated by a nanoscale gap across which information is transmitted. In response to electrical stimulation, new neurons communicate with each other by transmitting neurotransmitter molecules across this synaptic gap. Similarly, electrical stimulation in nanowires drives migration of ions across the air gap. In other words, the nanowire gaps represent synthetic synapses.

We found that collectively, the nanowires respond to electrical stimulation in the same way as retinal neurons. This means that inorganic nanowires can communicate with retinal neurons. We're upgrading the existing retinal implant microchip to a neuromorphic nanowire and network chip to realise the first nano bionic retina.

Our neuromorphic chip is not only by compatible, it's also green, made using our own in-house process that has a much lower carbon footprint than conventional semiconductor chip manufacturing.

Our vision is that a nanobionic retina will one day help people with neurodegenerative blindness see once again. And who knows, maybe with our nanotechnology, we might all upgrade to bionic vision in the future. And apologies to those in the audience who are not old enough to appreciate this cultural reference. Thank you for listening.


Thank you so much Zdenka. That was fantastic. I think we could possibly see this is a new kind of gadget for James Bond in an upcoming movie at some point. I wanted to ask you a few questions Zdenka. One of them was, why have you chosen silver? Is there a particular property of silver that makes it work particularly well as a chip?


Yeah, that's a good question. So I guess there's two reasons. One is because experimentally, it just ended up being a nice metal to make nanowires out of and the second reason is that silver is relatively biocompatible. The nanowires are also actually coated with a polymer sso that kind of makes them a bit more biocompatible as well for this particular application.


Thanks Zdenka, and another question just as a follow on, I just wondered, in terms of the testing and checking how this might work, how far away do you think the team are for maybe trying this in humans? Or what's the roadmap to get that tested in people?


Sure, so I think in humans, we're several years away. Of course, that's a very big challenge, to do a first in man trial. But certainly, we can envisage doing a study in a mouse, for example, that would be our first step towards a preclinical study to demonstrate proof of concept.


Zdenka, I also wondered something else about your chip. So it's been designed specifically with this idea of restoring sight in mind. But is there other potential for chips of this kind if they behave in a different way to our traditional microchips, could you think about other applications?


Yeah, of course. So actually, the initial project that involved these nanowire chips, if you like, is to use them for information processing. So sort of like a hardware version of artificial intelligence. Because the way in which the nanowires self-organise themselves is exactly like a neural network. So it's kind of like a synthetic neural network, if you like. So instead of having neural networks and software to do AI, you could actually do neural networks in hardware and do computation that way.


Now, that's fantastic. So there's so many different applications of this research. And perhaps one more just for you, as a physicist, and does it ever surprise people that you're working on an area that perhaps, if we talk about sight perhaps people think this is a domain of medicine or biology – and I was wondering, what's the impression you know, when people ask you what you do? And you share that you're a physicist working in this space, how do people react and how do you respond?


Yeah, great question. Of course, it is very difficult to explain this. But I think the best way to help people understand the power of cross disciplinary research is through these, you know, success stories of the research. This is just one of them and there are several other success stories that I can point to as well. So it's not easy to do, it's a lot easier just to stay in your own narrow field.

But at the end of the day, when you reach out and talk with other researchers in other disciplines, you learn so much more, and you get so many more ideas, and you can make these breakthroughs that would otherwise be very difficult to do.


I couldn't agree more. I think this is why Sydney Nano and other multidisciplinary initiatives at the University of Sydney are so important because it brings together people to tackle really challenging problems. And usually, if a problem is really tricky, you can't rely on people from just one discipline, you need to have that kind of mixed mixture of expertise.

Now Zdenka, just before I let you go for now, we're going to hear a little extract from a song that was composed in response to the research of your Grand Challenge and this was part of Live from the Lab last year, that was a partnership between Sydney University and FBi Radio and Sydney Nano Institute.

So let's hear if we can, an excerpt of the song 'Visible to me' by Gemma Navarrete, who's actually a student at Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

[Grab of 'Visible to me' by Gemma Navarrate. Listen to full track via soundcloud.com/gemma-navarrete]


Gemma Navarrete, so we're going to fade that one out now. If that's piqued your interest, you can go and listen to the whole of Gemma's track 'Visible to me' and you can find out more about Professor Zdenka Kuncic's work by looking at Sydney Ideas or on Sydney Nano but thanks for now Zdenka.

We're now going to move to our next speaker and it gives me great pleasure to welcome Dr Shelley Wickham.

Shelley is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Chemistry and Physics. School of Chemistry and Physics – I can't forget that one. And she's working on an amazing project that is building autonomous programmable robots. This isn't sci-fi, it's a sci-fact that can detect disease early for treatment and prevention. So please, Shelley, let us hear more about your wonderful research.


Thanks, Alice. Great. So where this grand challenge starts is with a question and that was the question posed to surgeons. The question was, if you could do the science fiction, because if you could miniaturise yourself inside the body, and see inside the body as if you were actually there yourself – how would that change the way you did your work?

And what this particular hot person Professor Paul Bannon said, was that it would then be possible to detect early treatable damage to your heart, when you're 25 years old, before you get properly sick, and that this could then avoid your premature death.

Now, as someone who works in nanotechnology, that was a very exciting thing to hear, it gave us a goal. And what I want to talk about to you today is how we took inspiration from this idea and a developing the technology so that we might one day be able to do exactly that. And what you see on this picture, here are some red blood cells in an artery and that yellow deposit that you can see there, that's early stage heart disease, way before we can currently detect it – and this is what we're working towards building nanorobots for, to be able to detect and treat.

So nanorobots, what might they actually look like? What features will they need?

Here, we started thinking about the anatomy of another robot. Well, it needs to have a core to hold itself together. It needs to be able to move around the body so maybe it has some sort of legs. It needs to be able to sense its environment and detect what type of cells are there and if those cells are diseased or not, and react to those things, and then interact with us outside the body, and maybe also interact with other nanorobots. If we think about the size of this robot, well, it needs to interact with things like those red blood cells on that last slide there, which are about 6,000 nanometers. So we need it to be significantly smaller than one of those cells, maybe around 600 nanometers. And I'm going to tell you that we're going to make this robot out of DNA origami nanostructures.

But hang on a minute, DNA origami? Why am I using these words? So these are the words you've probably heard of before. And I'm actually using them in the same way that you might have heard of them before.

So for DNA, we made the DNA that stores your genetic information. For origami, I mean, folding paper up into cool little objects like this robot here. But nanometres I mean, it's the thing I mentioned earlier, very, very small. But if you think of the human hair, that's about 100 microns. So we're working here things about a thousand times smaller than a human hair.

I'll talk about DNA origami and what I mean by that in the context of building the nanorobots for. Here, we're using DNA, not for storing genetic information but instead we're taking a more physical approach and thinking of DNA as a material you can store any information in. So it might be the genetic information that turns you into you. Or it might be other types of information. For example, some scientists have actually stored Shakespeare sonnets in a strand of DNA. What we do is sort of structural information in DNA. So that's instructions for the DNA to tell it how to fold up into different shapes. This is where the origami comes in. You can think of paper origami, where you can take a two dimensional piece of paper, and you can fold it up into three dimensions. What we're doing here is taking one long one dimensional piece of DNA and folding it up in this case into two dimensions. Then we design these short staple DNA strands to crosslink it in place and hold it in the fixed shape. This is all nanometers in size, like this one here on the right. And when this work was first published in 2006, by a really great scientist over in America, Paul Rothemund, the technical term for this particular shape was a three hole disk.

So how can we use DNA origami as a technique to build nanorobots? What we need to do is fold our DNA origami into a useful shape. And so this would take inspiration from another thing you might have played with as a kid, which is these books over here. And what we know is if you have this two by one block, that's very multifunctional, and you can use it to build pretty much any shape that you like. And what we're building here, in these, these are microscope images taken on an electron microscope is a two by one block made of DNA origami. And then we're using that as a building block to build much larger and more complex structures. And this series worked by a very talented PhD student, Min, who just got his PhD literally this Monday.

Now, this next slide is a compendium of some of the beautiful structures we've been making with these building blocks recently here as to the manner. And you can see we have a gallery there of all different shapes we can make, when we get back to the size that we're thinking of each of the circles that you see is the top of half of one of those blocks. And there's 30 nanometers across. So that's about 20 times more than our final nanorobot will be, or 200 times smaller than that red blood cell on the first slide. So there are great blue building blocks are making things the right size to go into the body. And we've made some great three dimensional dinosaurs here, we've also made this nano Australia, so we can really make any shape we like. And so we have fun in the lab making some interesting shapes. But we also make useful shapes that will be the core of our nanorobots. And the neat part of this is that we don't just get one of these, when we make them, we get billions of copies simultaneously forming in solution. That's some of the science we're developing towards making more complex nanorobot cores here at Sydney Nano using DNA origami.

What about some of the other features we're interested in? How will a nanorobot sense where it's going in the body?

For this, we need to develop a mechanism for it to interact with cells. And for this, we started off by thinking about how we interact with say, for example, our bodies in regular life. We might go to the doctor and they'll take a syringe and take a blood sample. What we're envisioning here, and what we're developing, is ways that we can take samples, but not have millilitres of your blood, but of individual blood cells.

So if we could have another syringe that could extract a small piece of information from a single cell, we could then understand if that cell was diseased or not. Or we could instead inject a really small amount of a drug.In this case, we're also building these nano syringes out of DNA origami.

So you can see here, this is a barrel shaped DNA origami and inside it has a pore, which is like the needle part of your syringe. Another very talented PhD student, I'm lucky to work with, Jasleen, has made a structure in a state where the pore can either be held inside or released and pushed out of the barrel where it can then interact with the cell. And what we're currently doing is understanding how these nano syringes interact with lipid membrane. And those are the membranes that wrap up ourselves. You can see here in this microscope image, again, taken by electron microscope, a bubble in the middle. And that's a small piece of lipid membrane, which we call liposome. And what you can see are these barrels docking onto it, and also potentially some of those pores piercing into it. And what we're doing now is figuring out what molecules can get in and out of these ports.

Then finally, I want to talk about some ideas we have towards working towards how these things might move around the body. As you might think it's very challenging to put a robot in the body, because what is the battery? What is the power source? What we're trying to do is make use of the fact that we already have an energy source in the body to power these robots. And that's blood flow. Here we're thinking about how white blood cells move around the body. When they go through our bloodstream, they attach to the wall of a blood vessel. And then they roll along it until they find a fight inflammation and infection. And they stop and deal with it.

I like to imagine this kind of like a molecular Roomba, those robots that can randomly search your house for dust. What we're working on is to use the same properties to design our own synthetic white blood cells that can roll around blood vessels powered by blood flow. The way that we're testing these is we're also building what is essentially a synthetic blood vessel on a microscope slide. And we're studying how these nano structures move in blood under a microscope to understand how they might one day work inside the body.

And so I'll bring you back to where we started with our vision of what all these pieces of technology will be assembled into and where they're going. That eventually instead of having invasive surgical procedures, instead, nanorobots would one day travel through our blood vessels, identify early stage heart disease and treat it way before you have any symptoms. And that could improve the health outcomes of many Australians dramatically. They could also be applied to many other hard to treat conditions such as cancer and dementia.

And to finish off, I just wanted to say that there's lots of ways that people can get involved in this project, particularly students who are thinking of starting university soon or PhD Students; we run this exciting student competition called Biomod, which is a way for students at all levels to do hands on research in an international competition in this area.

Our 2018 team actually inspired the work on the nano syringe sensing device that we're currently developing further in the lab.

And our 2019 team here featured one the global first prize for their projects, also on trying to treat heart disease. And just to say, science is a very collaborative area.

And this is the wonderful team that I'm very lucky to work with, and a lot of talented students who have put together the work in my life today. Thank you.


Thanks so much, Shelley, it's always fantastic to see what you and your group have been up to. And those images of the robots inside the blood cell, really give a great sense of what it might be like to have the perspective of one of these nanorobots. 

I was wondering how important it is to you that you can design and build things that actually look like the things you can draw? So we saw with your dinosaurs, those structures really do look like dinosaurs, and I wondered how much how something looks and how something behaves is important for your research?


Yeah, that's a great question. And a lot of the time we ask ourselves, when we need to make a nano syringe, for example, what should it look like? Should it look like a macroscale syringe? Or should it look completely different? And a lot of times, we have to test that experimentally to find out. But very often, it does turn out that what we can do is look to biology, because biology already makes all these really cool nano machines, their proteins and our cells. And so often what we end up doing is copying proteins. We also like to you know, it's a really playful area of science, and we take that challenge of well, can you make anything? Let's make a nano Australia, as part of the part of the job. And so we we use that to show that we can really make any any device that we'd like to make.


Yeah, I think the sense of play in your team is really evident and it's lovely to see. And I like the idea of plagiarising proteins and seeing what they can do and if you can do them better with the things that you can build.

I was wondering too, how does the body respond to putting, you know, new objects in there? They might be built out of DNA or RNA but what does the body do when it has something like this, something like a nanorobot, injected or inserted in some way?


That's a really great question. And I think the key thing is that the first thing that the body does, it degrades it, unfortunately. So we have a challenge in stabilising our structures, so coating them in lipids, coating them in a protective layer to protect them when they're in circulation.

And so our first challenge is to stop them from being destroyed by the body. After that, because they are biomaterials, they can be more biocompatible than other materials compared to say, we think of other medical devices made of metals or things like that.

But it's a really interesting question. And when you ask, is something biocompatible or not, there's lots of different ways it could be compatible with the immune system or with the blood; and the answer is some of these systems we don't know yet. So we're actually currently looking into with people at the Heart Research Institute, into the interactions of these structures with blood and particularly for blood clotting.


And Shelley, so how do you see these structures? You mentioned, you showed us some fantastic images? What do you and your team do to look at these images and to create these, you know, these these visual images of what you've made?


Thanks. Yeah, what attracted me to this part of science is that I really need to see pictures for me to believe it. And what's exciting is also seeing molecules like, those are individual molecules – they're really real.

And I'm glad that you asked that question because I can nerd out about electron microscopes for a little bit. It's basically like a light microscope, like you might have used in high school science, but instead of having light coming down through it, it has electrons. So basically, a little filament like you might find in a light bulb with a really high voltage on it, enough to shoot out electrons. And because electrons don't travel very far in air, the whole thing is in a vacuum chamber, so it looks very dramatic and very cool. And it's about two times taller than a person so you feel like a real fancy scientist sitting in front of it. And what that means is that because electrons have an effective wavelength, much smaller than light, you can see much smaller things. So we can see individual atoms with electron microscopes, which is pretty cool.


I think it's very cool indeed, I think zooming in on this nanoscale, it really opens our eyes to what what we can build and what we can achieve on this scale.

But we might just have a listen Shelley to the song that was composed in response to the research in your team last year as part of Life from the Lab. So if we start to cue that one in I will introduce the musician who created this track. It's Luke Davis and this track is called 'The more I think the bigger it gets'.

[Grab of 'The more I think the bigger it gets' by Luke Davis. You can find and listen to the full track on Spotify or other streaming platforms.]


Luke Davis – I picked the wrong time to come in just as it was building – and so that's a little bit of an extract from Luke Davis' 'The more I think the bigger it gets', created in response to the research being conducted as part of the Grand Challenge at Sydney Nano Institute that Dr Shelley Wickham leads.

So it's now time for our final speaker and I'm delighted to welcome Professor Chiara Neto, who's from the School of Chemistry at the University of Sydney. She's a Professor of Physical Chemistry and we'd love to hear about the research that you're leading as part of the Grand Challenge at Sydney Nano Institute, the ACWA challenge, where Chiara and her team are developing a low cost method to capture water from the air and to try and tackle some of the impacts of drought and water security. So Chiara, please take it away. We'd love to hear about Team ACWA.


Thank you, Alice and thank you everyone for joining us today. To start with, I'd like to ask you to become aware of the air around you. I'm sure you're all aware of the fact that we need the oxygen in the air to breathe and to survive.

But today I'll ask you to also focus on something else that's in the air – and that's water. It's just this water that we'll be talking about for the next few minutes. Can you feel the air around you? We need oxygen in the air around us to breathe, to survive. But in the air around us there is also lots of water. And it’s this water in the air that I’d like you to focus on. 

My name is Chiara Neto, I am Professor of Physical Chemistry. I’d like to talk to you about ACWA - “Advanced Capture of Water from the Atmosphere”.  

The air around us is rich in water, quite a lot of it in fact. To visualise how much water there is, picture one cubic meter, that is approximately the space that both your washing machine and your dryer would occupy together. In this one cubic meter of air at 70% humidity and at 30 °C, there is approximately one tablespoon of water. At higher temperature and higher humidity there is more water. Imagine if we could harvest this water from the atmosphere and use it where we need it.  

To understand how atmospheric water capture works, think of when you got your bottle of milk out of the fridge this morning. Did you notice that the outside of the bottle became wet? That’s because water in the air condensed onto its cold surface. As the volume of water condensed is proportional to the area of the surface, if we want to capture substantial volumes of water we need to collect water over large surface areas. Ideally we would like to do this in a way that is affordable, sustainable and uses no energy. Can you imagine what problems we could solve if we could accomplish this?  The supply of clean water is one of the most significant global challenges of the 21st century. Many of us here in Australia have seen first-hand the devastating consequences of a drought.

In New South Wales in 2019 we had one of the worst droughts on record, which caused loss of livelihoods, ecosystems, and the destruction of whole communities. 

One third of the world’s population lives in countries facing water scarcity. More than one billion people around the world are without access to an adequate supply of clean water, and if this trend continues unchecked, it is estimated that two thirds of the world’s population will live in water-stressed conditions by the year 2025. Yet we have the means to produce small amounts of water in a delocalised fashion, and the solution is all around us, in the air.  

Here at the University of Sydney, we have designed a nanostructured surface coating that captures water from the atmosphere – without any input of energy.

As mentioned before, we need to collect water on large surfaces, for example on the roof of buildings. Our team has developed a surface coating that can be applied over a large area, in the form of a paint; it looks like plain white paint, but it’s not; it’s much more than that. It is a polymer coating with a nanoscale structure designed specifically to keep the surface cool, cooler than the temperature of the air surrounding it, even when exposed to the direct sun. We have optimised the structure and chemistry of the surface, so that the water droplets, once condensed, readily roll off the surface, allowing us to collect more water. 

The process of water condensation and collection is shown in this stop motion video, collected in the lab at high humidity and subcooling of the surface. Because the coating is colder than the air around it, water contained in the air can condense onto the surface in the form of droplets, just like on the milk bottle. If we collect the droplets, we have a new source of water, right there. What we are doing is collecting droplets of dew, and dew forms more rapidly when the humidity is high. Luckily many areas in Australia are very humid, like in Sydney most of the year, and other areas with sub-tropical and tropical climate. Our nanostructured coatings allow us to collect dew not only at night time, but also during part of the day, when you normally would not see dew on a common surface. 

The reason we can collect water also during the day, is that we are using Passive Radiative Daytime Cooling. The chemical and physical properties of the surface have been designed so that when the nanostructured coating faces the sky, it remains cool even in the sun because it reflects sunlight (so does not heat up) and radiates heat in the so-called atmospheric window of the infrared part of the spectrum (to get even colder). The atmospheric window is a range of infrared wavelength in which the atmosphere does not absorb, so the coating dumps heat directly to the cold of space. 

Our solution has no moving parts, requires no energy input, produces water in a delocalised fashion, and works during most of the day. Ultimately, we hope that ACWA coatings will collect up to one litre of water per square meter of surface per day, in large part of the year. To picture it in your mind, think of this:  right now one side of the roof of your house – the side that faces north – is covered by solar panels; in the future, the other side of your roof could be covered by water-collecting coatings, and you could either use the water immediately, or store it in your rainwater tank. This water will supplement our existing water resources and could enable survival in remote locations and in emergency situations where water is scarce; it could be used to support wildlife and high-value plants through long periods without rain. 

This breakthrough has been enabled by a Sydney Nano Grand Challenge project, and as part of the project we have worked with the core team shown here and many colleagues and students in faculties across the University of Sydney. Industry and investors are very keen on this technology and this project has really taken on a life of its own. Recently a venture capitalist has offered to help us spin a start-up company which will grow this scientific idea into a real product. 

Atmospheric water capture has the potential to help us survive the challenges ahead of us, but it is just one component of the new consciousness we need to strengthen, which involves consuming less, cherishing our finite resources, and taking better care of our environment for the next generations.

As Nardean says in her beautiful song inspired by ACWA: “Every single atom inside every single drop is what makes a tide.”   Thank you.


Thank you so much Chiara. I always love hearing about your research. I wanted to talk a little bit more about this pigment, this coating or this coating rather. My question was about pigments. Is the coating mixed with anything else? What gives it this colour? Is there any other material that's part of this coating, as well as your new nanotechnology?


Yeah, so really crucial part of the materials design is that we could not have any pigments in the formulation, because pigments absorb UV light. So the standard paint that's on your walls is white, mostly because it contains titanium nanoparticles, and they give it opacity and scatter the light. We are able to scatter the light through these nanoscale voids that we've created within the paint structure and they obviously do what we need, which is, they reflect the light – sunlight – and do not absorb any of it, or very, very little of it. And the material that the polymer or the polymer that we made the coatings on is ideally suited to emit in the right IR wavelength. So the design is really part of the success of the material.


Yeah, no, I was wondering about that. I also wanted to ask you in terms of, can you add other materials or other layers of material on top of your coating? So for example, if you wanted to minimise bacteria in the water, or the sort of pollutants from the atmosphere, is there a potential to add more layers to your already wonderful research?


Yes. So already, we have a design that involves several layers. The main feature that we're really focused on is the first aspect that I mentioned, the condensation, but also the roll off. So the main coating that we apply is a coating that makes it easy for droplets to roll off the surface once they've condensed. And really, we want them to come off at the smallest possible volume, so that the efficiency of our collection is higher.

In the future of course, it would be nice to add functionality, the type of things that people would be attracted by, for example, colour. So being able to paint your roof whatever colour you want, unfortunately, that will lead to a decrease in the efficiency. So for now, we have to stick with a white if we want to collect water.

The other thing that people have asked us a lot about is can we make this coating transparent. So for example, it could be applied to the roof of greenhouses. There is possibility that that could work, but it would be a very different material design. And so that's something that we might explore in the future.


Thanks Chiara. I think for some of those benefits, I'd be happy to go with a white coating on my house to try and capture water in this way. We're not going to play your song just now Chiara because I think we might play people out with Nardean's video.

And I'd like to welcome the Zdenka and Shelley to come back and to see if we can start to answer some of the questions that are coming up on Slido.

An anonymous person asks, "Would it be possible to use nanowires to correct other forms of, to correct other things for for vision?" So to rephrase this, could nanowires be implanted to straighten up eye deformation or other complications to improve vision?


Yeah, great question. So it really depends on what's causing the dysfunction in the eye. So for example, if there was dysfunction due to damage to other types of neuron cells, like the photoreceptor cells which convert light into electrical signals, you couldn't use this for that. So it's really quite specific to the layer, a particular layer of cells in the retina. And the retina has multiple layers of different types of neuronal cells. So we're really focusing on the layer of retinal neuronal cells that can receive electrical signals from the photoreceptor cells, and then send that through to by the optic nerve to the, to the visual cortex. So it's quite quite specific to that with the functionality.


Thanks Zdenka, that was a great question and a lovely answer. We might go to Shelley next, I can see a question for Shelly. 'Could you please speak to other applications that you mentioned for this technology, such as cancer or dementia?' Could you share a little bit more about that for us?


Thanks. I'm really glad somebody asked this question, because I just didn't have time to really talk about that. I promise, I didn't ask anyone to ask it. So when we have cancer, for example, or some a lot of neurological conditions, we have quite good drugs for those conditions. The problem is the side effects of the drugs. So the side effects of chemotherapy are the side effects of some drugs we use to treat, for example, Parkinson's and other neurological diseases. And what these nanorobots could potentially do is only deliver those drugs to specific places in the body. And so you could use the active drugs, or maybe you could even use some drugs we can't currently use because the side effects are too high, by reducing side effects by only putting them exactly where they need to be.


Yeah, it's fantastic. So delivery systems for some of these medicines, and we might pop to Chiara now. We've got another question here, which I think is a great one. So somebody is really interested in your water capture technology. But wants to know, 'Are your team conducting climate modelling? Are there any unknown effects on the climate that occur occurs from harvesting water from the atmosphere in this way?'


Yes. So we have as part of our team, a hydrologist Willem Vervoort, and his project is all focused about exploring the effects of microclimate on collecting locally atmospheric water. I would say we don't have enough results to make a statement on that yet.

My own expectation would be that in the way that we envisage this to work at the moment, which is, you know, on people's houses, or maybe on the roofs of large buildings, it wouldn't have a large scale effect. But obviously, if this became really well spread everywhere, then that effect on the microclimate will need to be explored. And, you know, we would need to adapt to what the results of those studies are.


Thanks Chiara. And I'm going to come back to Shelley now. So somebody who's really impressed by the nanorobots, but they'd like to know how will they be recovered from the body? Or with the biocoatings that you mentioned Shelley, will they just stay in the body?


Yeah, that's a great question. And that comes back to what I mentioned, is that when we're making these, we're making billions of them. So each individual nanorobot, it's not particularly precious, we don't have to retrieve it from the body afterwards. But what will happen is, even with our best coatings that we currently have, they're probably stay active in the body for maybe 24 to 48 hours.

So what we imagine is, this could be something – the same way that you might get a contrast agent for a CT scan or some other medical imaging, it will be something that could be in your body for a short time and then it degrades and it gets excreted through the kidneys, and then it's gone from your body, but it's falling apart. So we don't, we wouldn't try and recover them.


Thanks, Shelley. And now go to Zdenka. Somebody would really like to know Zdenka, "If a person was blind, in theory, using the technology that your team are trying to design and develop, would you think that their sight could be fully restored?"


So the short answer is yes. But with the qualification that only if it were, if the blind was due to this particular type of neurodegenerative disease, like macular degeneration or retinal pigmentosa.

So again, this kind of relates back to the first question that there's lots of different parts of the eye that could be damaged. If that damage it occurs to a particular type of retinal neuro neuronal cell, these are called retinal ganglion cells, then that's what our technology has actually been developed for. And so in principle, blindness do do these particular types of neurodegenerative diseases could be cured.


Thanks Zdenka. So I think we'll, we'll finish on one last question, and this one is probably for Zdenka or Shelley. You probably can both have a go answering this if you can give us a quick answer.

A question we'd like to know, "Will we live long enough to see medical applications of nanotechnology extend our healthy lifespans indefinitely into the future?" So maybe I'll go to Shelley first.


That's a difficult question. I mean, indefinitely is a really long time. I think in our lifetimes we will see, particularly nanotech applications to drug delivery, affecting people in our lifetimes. And certainly helping, you know, that's my – that's where I see it going. If I try and look into the future – indefinitely, I don't think so.


What about the Zdenka, any addition there?


Yeah, sure. So in separate research that I'm working on, I'm already working on nanoparticles that are clinically approved for detecting cancer. So really early detection of tumour cells. And as we know, early detection is key to extending the lifetime of people. Now, of course, extending it indefinitely, is impossible. You know, we can't we can't live forever, but instead of becoming immortal, we might become a mortal where, you know, we can kind of prevent some of these diseases and end up, you know, being run over by a bus instead or something like that.


Well, let's, let's focus on the a mortal part. I think that's a good point to end this evening. If you want to hear more about the research that our fantastic colleagues, Professor Neto, Dr Wickham and Professor Kuncic, are performing here at the University of Sydney, please head over to the Sydney Ideas website. This recording will be up as a podcast. I think it remains as the thunder and lightning rolls in here in Sydney, just for me to extend a very warm thanks to all of you for joining us this evening. And to thank the people who are, who helped to organise this in Sydney Ideas. Sydney Ideas is the public talks program for the University of Sydney. There's a fantastic range of public talks that are on year-round. Please do join us either online or in person as we're able to, and we will look forward to seeing you at future events.

We're going to finish this evening by playing you out with the track by Nardean, 'Nanosteps', that was composed in response to Chiara's research in the ACWA team; and all that remains to say is thank you very much. I've been Alice Motion and it's been lovely to join you all this evening. Thanks so much.

[Grab of 'Nanosteps' by Nardean]


Thanks for listening to the Sydney Ideas podcast. For more links, resources or the transcript, head to the Sydney Ideas website or subscribe to Sydney Ideas using your favourite podcast app.

Live from the Lab

Related to the projects are three incredible songs created by Australian artists for Live from the Lab last year, inspired by the musician’s emotional response to Sydney Nano's Grand Challenges. Check it out.

Gemma Navarrete 'Visible to me' – for Unlocking the neural interface

Luke Davies 'The More I Think The Bigger It Gets' – for Nanorobotics for health 

Nardean 'Nanosteps' – for Advanced Capture of Water from the Atmosphere (ACWA)

The speakers

Zdenka Kuncic was awarded a BSc with first class honours in physics from the University of Sydney and a PhD in theoretical astrophysics from the University of Cambridge, UK. She now leads a distinctively interdisciplinary research program at the interface between physics, medicine, biology, neuroscience and engineering. Her research focuses on developing and applying physics and physics-based approaches to challenging problems that can only be addressed with highly multi-disciplinary perspectives and strategies.

Chiara Neto’s research on the physical chemistry of interfaces takes inspiration from nature, seeking ways to replicate natural phenomena to apply to such diverse challenges as developing self-cleaning paints, increasing the energy efficiency of commercial shipping and alleviating water scarcity in arid climates.

Shelley Wickham is an ARC DECRA Fellow, Westpac Research Fellow and Senior Lecturer in the Schools of Chemistry and Physics at the University of Sydney. She earned both her Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in the School of Physics at the University of Sydney, working on photonic structures found in biology.

She received her PhD in Condensed Matter Physics from the University of Oxford working on building synthetic molecular motors out of DNA. She then moved to a postdoctoral fellow position at Harvard Medical School, based in the Department of Cancer Biology, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, where she worked on designing 3-dimensional DNA origami nanostructures, and using them to study biological systems.

Benjamin Eggleton is the Director of the University of Sydney Nano Institute. He also currently serves as co-Director of the NSW Smart Sensing Network (NSSN). Benjamin was the founding Director of the Institute of Photonics and Optical Science (IPOS) at the University of Sydney and served as Director from 2009-2018. He was previously an ARC Laureate Fellow and an ARC Federation Fellow twice and was founding Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Ultrahigh bandwidth Devices for Optical Systems (CUDOS) from 2003-2017.

Alice Motion is a chemist and science communicator at the University of Sydney. Her research focuses on open science and Science Communication, Outreach, Participation and Education (SCOPE). Finding ways to connect people with science and to make research more accessible is the overarching theme of Alice’s interdisciplinary research.