Talking about a revolution

Sustainability powered by innovation
Fossil fuels made the Industrial Revolution possible. Now, another revolution has us walking away from them. By bringing a new strategy to the climate change fight, the University of Sydney's Net Zero Institute plans to speed things up.

Virtual power plants, electric vehicles, ‘green steel’ and aviation fuels with low emissions all form part of the ideal future envisaged by Professor Deanna D’Alessandro and the team of researchers at the Net Zero Institute.

Each one of these innovations would help Australia to reach its
climate change goals of a 43 percent reduction in emissions on 2005 levels by 2030 and net zero by 2050.

“What we’re talking about is a whole-of-society transformation,” says Deanna, the institute’s director. “We need to see enormous changes in technology, in policy and legislation, in our financial systems.”

To encourage more ideas and help advance them, in 2022 the University instigated the Net Zero Initiative (NZI), and later named Deanna, a Professor and chemistry expert in the Faculty of Engineering, as its director. This seems appropriate considering she made her first public statement on climate change at the age of eight, as part of a school public speaking assignment.

This year, the NZI has been elevated to a multidisciplinary initiative – or MDI – known as the Sydney Net Zero Institute. This will enable researchers to collaborate and work in partnership across faculties and University centres, to better harness their multidisciplinary capabilities – as well as collaborating with industry, government and the community – in their quest for net zero solutions.

Technologies at various stages of development now include producing ‘green steel’ made with renewables or alternative fuels; tapping into the fuel potential of ammonia by designing suitable engines and low-carbon ammonia production techniques; developing ‘green concrete’, since concrete production currently generates huge amounts of carbon dioxide; and rethinking aviation fuels to minimise emissions. Hydrogen fuel cells also offer great promise.

Then there is Deanna’s own area of expertise – carbon removals or, more specifically, direct air capture, which allows extraction modules to be built anywhere to process ambient air, unlike the better-known carbon capture which happens where the unwanted carbon is generated, for example, at fossil fuel power stations or indeed concrete factories. The idea is that direct air capture is likely to be more cost-effective and efficient in removing emissions at scale.

“I’ve always been interested in the environment,” Deanna says. She was raised in Far North Queensland and has rich memories of trips to the Great Barrier Reef, but now has concerns for its future. “I think the reason I gravitated towards science and engineering was I saw it as a solution. I’m very solutions focused.”

The Sydney Net Zero Institute is all about solutions, as it aims to produce technologies and ideas that are ‘ready to wear’, so to speak, for industries and government agencies. To this end, several boards have been created comprising industry representatives and scientific advisors from organisations including Arnott’s, HSBC, Hyundai, Origin Energy, Rio Tinto and Worley, and the NSW Government’s Department of Planning and Environment.

Professor Deanna D'Alessandro looking into the camera, smiling with her arms foldeed

Professor Deanna D'Alessandro, Director of the Net Zero Institute


The knowledge and experience of the people on these boards are used to help researchers produce technologies and solutions where cost-effectiveness and ease of deployment are already factored in.

“Any new technologies will present scaling challenges, cost challenges and, importantly, challenges around community acceptance – that’s happening now with pushback on wind farms,” says Deanna. “It’s not enough to have a great idea. You also must figure out how to get it used and embraced.”

The institute is shaped around four thematic areas: achieving zero-emissions energy and industry; reducing public and industry demand for energy; removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere; and managing the risks that come with climate change. One area getting serious attention is making the important switch to electrification.

Because Australians have been enthusiastic in their uptake of solar panels and storage batteries, University teams are working on ways to harness and coordinate the energy now being generated by individuals and communities. One example is microgrids, where a number of homes or a town will pool the energy that they produce and remove themselves from the main power grid, becoming an ‘energy island’. This also reduces exposure to supply mishaps caused by problems at the big regional power station often some distance away.

It’s not enough to have a great idea. You also must figure out how to get it used and embraced.
Professor Deanna D’Alessandro

Then there are virtual power plants (VPPs). They also harness excess energy from households but, unlike microgrids, VPPs are part of the main grid and supply energy into it by using centralised cloud-based computing that draws unneeded energy from domestic renewable energy batteries. VPPs can also operate over entire regions and scale up or down depending on demand.

Both microgrids and VPPs help to reduce consumer energy costs – and VPPs actually generate income. Ultimately, these ideas will mean less reliance on big, fossil-fuel-consuming power stations and make renewable energy a bigger part of the energy mix.

As energy supply has evolved in recent years, Deanna has helped to evolve carbon removal. Once a technology that might have been classified as a ‘nice to have’, the continuing rise of greenhouse gas emissions has made it a ‘must have’, along with every other carbon reduction and removal technology out there. In fact, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has announced that greenhouse gas removal is now “an essential element of scenarios that limit warming” and is factored into their calculations.

Deanna and her own research team, along with their industry partner, Southern Green Gas, have made significant advances – enough to receive several awards from the research community.

Apart from the pure technology side of the NZI equation, there is what Deanna calls the ‘ecosystem ideas’, which are more about shifting and informing the culture. This includes increasing the number of people studying in areas that relate to technology and engineering (Australia currently suffers a serious and worsening shortage of such people) and educating decision-makers in all industries so they can make informed, climate-friendly choices.

“We’re looking at short-course microcredentials in collaboration with the University of Sydney Business School, where people at the executive level who sit in boardrooms can become more informed about the issues around climate change and understand the huge positive impacts their decisions can have,” says Deanna. “And keep in mind, our current undergraduates are stepping into roles where they’re being asked to lead all sorts of industries.”

Talking with Deanna, you get the sense of an assured intelligence and someone who can communicate big ideas with a light touch. There are also times you can sense the emotion as she contemplates the enormity and urgency of the task. “But amazingly positive things are happening,” she says, “and it’s important we talk about that as well.”

For example, there are also non-climate side benefits of stepping away from fossil fuels. Uptake of renewables will likely remove some of the occasionally explosive geopolitics of oil and enable energy to be produced closer to where it is needed – and even by the people who need it. This will underpin cheaper energy costs that could stimulate economies, create new industries and take pressure off natural environments.

It could also save millions of lives worldwide, as people will no longer be exposed to dangerous fossil fuel air pollutants like nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide.

Meanwhile, with Australian Government predictions that climate change will take a massive $423 billion bite out of the Australian economy over the next four decades, there are still blind spots around gas, coal mining and land clearing. But there is also progress, with the federal government radically expanding a scheme to support new clean power generation and storage capacity, with the aim of Australia running on 82 percent renewable energy by 2030.

For all the growing green-energy momentum and new technologies coming to the fore, Deanna points out that the thing that has always been at the very top of the to-do list is still there: “We have to stop emitting and we have to stop using unsustainable and polluting fossil fuels.”

What is net zero?

  • The idea is to cut climate pollution to zero, or as close to zero, as possible.
  • Net-zero emissions refer to achieving an overall balance between greenhouse gas emissions produced and greenhouse gas emissions taken out of the atmosphere.
  • It doesn’t mean that we stop greenhouse gas pollution entirely, because there are some harder-to-abate sectors (e.g. heavy industry and heavy-duty transport) that will take time to transition. It does mean we invest in clean, renewable energy and phase out fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas.
  • Australia currently has a target to reduce its domestic emissions by 43 percent on 2005 levels by 2030, and to reach net zero by 2050.

Written by George Dodd for Sydney Alumni Magazine. Photography by Stefanie Zingsheim. Illustrations by James Gulliver Hancock.

14 May 2024

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