Choose from our list of research topics and let your students lead a 30 minute Q&A session with our ANSTO experts.
Dial-in from school via Zoom for this free videoconference with our scientists.
This learning program is designed to address:
- Science as a Human Endeavour and Science Inquiry Skills content descriptors for Years 5-10.
- Skill outcomes for Year 11 and 12 science subjects.
Our staff are experienced science communicators and can discuss ANSTO's research with primary or secondary classes at an appropriate level of detail.
Please ensure your students do some pre-reading about the research topic and come prepared with questions to ask during the session. We also ask that teachers send us a copy of the student questions the day before, so we can let the scientists know what to expect.
Teachers must be present during the session with their students.
We will continue to add to these topics as speakers become available:
Air pollution and monitoring
Rapid population growth has resulted in a rise in fine particle pollution. These fine particles, which are about 40-50 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair, are produced by industrial processes, vehicle emissions, coal-fired power stations, and other man-made sources. Nature also generates fine particle pollution such as sea spray, wind-blown soil seen in dust storms and the smoke from bushfires, as experienced by eastern Australia over summer. These fine particles can cause significant health problems, as the human nose and throat are inefficient at filtering them out, meaning they can penetrate deep into the lungs and even into our bloodstream. ANSTO scientists have been monitoring fine particle air pollution across Australia and the Asia-Pacific region for 30 years using particle accelerators. This research helps to determine the sources of air pollution.
Small‐animal studies are typically a part of scientific research into diseases of humans and animals. Live animal x-ray imaging techniques, which are particularly suited to studying living processes, are done at the Synchrotron. Animals are used in research to understand how living things work, as models to study disease and to develop and test potential treatments, and ethical controversies around their use often arise. The ability for live imaging of small animals enables longitudinal studies to be done and may reduce the number of animals used for biomedical research purposes. Animal research in Australia is permitted by the Australian Government and is controlled by Codes and institute Ethics Committees.
Aquaculture and food provenance
Isotopic techniques used on a living organism can also show its dietary sources. ANSTO is leading a research project that focuses on the novel application of nuclear techniques to seafood source and quality authentication. Barramundi and giant tiger prawns have been analysed to determine where they came from and whether they were farmed or wild caught. This can assist with food safety, quality, food fraud (substituting cheaper products for the expensive ones) and regulatory breaches helping consumers and producers
Batteries and Fuel Cells
Alternative energy sources, and new materials that support them, have risen as a result of the combined needs for energy and environmental sustainability. X-ray and neutron diffraction techniques used by ANSTO’s Australian Centre for Neutron Scattering, allows characterisation of the properties of lithium, sodium and potassium ions, and hydrogen in materials used in fuel cells and batteries, at the molecular and atomic level and are invaluable in the study of new-energy systems. The research is expected to improve batteries for the future and decrease reliance on fossil fuels for energy.
Chronic Kidney Disease
ANSTO is using its world-class nuclear science infrastructure to research environmental and health factors linked to Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown origin (CKDu) including contaminated groundwater, malnutrition and infections. CKDu has emerged as a significant public health issue in low and middle income countries such as Sri Lanka, India, Central America and Egypt where it generally affects poor, rural, male farmers in hot climates with no other known link to kidney disease and can result in poverty at the family and community level. This research will be relevant globally, including in rural and remote Australia, where higher levels of kidney disease are also experienced.
ANSTO’s Antarctic research and unique nuclear and isotopic expertise, infrastructure and analytical capability can provide new knowledge of complex environmental and climatic processes, allowing opportunities to understand long term changes in global climate variability and the link between climate and greenhouse gas concentrations. Using naturally occurring radionuclides, isotopic, geochemical and biological indicators found in glacial ice, past climates can be reconstructed. Australia's climate is changing with predictions of warmer temperatures, reduced rainfall, more frequent and intense fires and susceptibility to sea level rise. Understanding past climate variability puts modern trends into context and helps improve the accuracy and certainty of future predictions to ensure Australia's environmental, economic and social prosperity.
Coastal systems and wetlands
Using particle accelerators, ANSTO’s environmental researchers use nuclear and isotopic techniques to assess the impact of climate and humans on Australia's aquatic ecosystems which include freshwater and coastal sites. Researchers are able to understand relationships in the food chain, track changes in ecosystems and understand the cycling of nutrients and pollutants through an aquatic ecosystem.
ANSTO’s Australian Centre for Neutron Scattering is using neutron techniques to provide an insight into food materials and formulations to improve quality and nutritional value in the development of food products. There are significant challenges facing food supply and demand in the world today, including a growing population, a demand for healthier better quality food and concerns over the impact of agriculture on the environment. When designing new food products for the consumer, it is increasingly important to understand the relationships between structure and function of food ingredients and implications for processing, nutrition, digestion and taste.
ANSTO’s expertise in the development and characterisation of advanced materials used in extreme environments, such as nuclear reactors, is assisting with the world’s largest engineering project, the ITER tokamak fusion project in France. Fusion energy, which has been promised for many years but is difficult to achieve, has all the advantages of fission energy without any of the problems, such as radioactive waste. The environment inside the ITER fusion reactor, where nuclei of atoms of deuterium and tritium will be joined making heavier helium atoms and releasing energy, will be extremely challenging and requires advanced materials that can withstand extreme radiation, extreme heat, plasma chemistry and thermo-mechanical stresses.
Hydrological cycle and groundwater monitoring
ANSTO’s groundwater researchers apply nuclear tools and isotopic tracer techniques including tritium, radiocarbon and chlorine-36 to improve the sustainable management of groundwater resources at local and regional scale. These techniques allow the scientists to look at connections between surface water, groundwater and aquifers, determine the age of the water source and how quickly the aquifer is refilled to assess sustainable use and water management for all stakeholders, one of the greatest challenges facing Australia and the world today.
Low energy electronics and thin films
Researchers at the Australian Synchrotron are developing thin film organic solar cells and ultra-low energy electronics devices. The ultra-flexible thin film organic solar cells are three micrometres thick, or ten times smaller than the width of a human hair, and enable bendable and stretchable solar cells for wearable devices such as fitness and health trackers, and smart watches. A significant amount of global energy (8%) is used by billions of transistors in information and communications technologies, such as mobile phones and computers, when they ‘switch’ from electrical conducting to insulating. Ultra-low energy, atomically-thin, topological transistors switch using an electric field, which is more energy efficient than conventional silicon-based electronics.
Magnetism and superconductors
Neutron scattering at ANSTO’s Australian Centre for Neutron Scattering can play a key role in developing better magnets for technological applications. Magnetism and superconductivity are generally thought to be incompatible with each other but a thorough characterisation of superconductivity is closely linked to characterisation of magnetic behaviour. ANSTO scientist Kirrily Rule uses TAIPAN – thermal triple axis spectrometer – to look at novel and low dimensional magnetic materials including the natural minerals azurite and linarite which are quantum magnets and show intriguing magnetic behaviour at low temperatures and high magnetic fields.
Medical research and the Imaging and Medical Beamline (IMBL)
Synchrotron x-ray imaging techniques are suited to the study of living processes. The Synchrotron beamlines allow accelerated research into understanding and treating tumours with minimal disruption to healthy tissue, bone/cartilage tissue engineering materials and the structure of viruses, allowing future development of new drugs and vaccines. The Imaging and Medical beamline (IMBL) provides researchers with 3D x-ray imaging at very high resolution. It has uncovered the structure of COVID-19 proteins at atomic resolution, allowing researchers globally to work on developing drugs to stop its ability to infect and replicate. The IMBL beamline has also provided an insight into tissue-engineered scaffolds and associated bone/cartilage growth during the healing process that conventional x-rays cannot show.
Nuclear waste management
ANSTO is a world leader in nuclear waste research and is developing new materials for advanced nuclear waste forms. Nuclear waste contains radioactive elements that emit higher levels of radiation than natural background radiation and can be classified into three main categories - low, intermediate and high, each requiring different management practices to ensure safe handling, transport and storage. Future nuclear systems will need new long-term waste management solutions. ANSTO’s Synroc technology, mimics the natural ability of rocks to lock up radioactive elements for hundreds of millions of years, minimises volume and provides an extremely durable and safe solution for final long term storage of radioactive waste.
Origins of Life
Chemistry plays a key role in understanding the origins of cell based life on Earth. Using ANSTO’s gamma irradiation facilities to create chemical changes in soft matter resembling early cell membranes, researchers plan to study how primitive cells may have used the available basic chemicals that existed on early earth to create the first chemical changes that formed the amino acids and ribonucleotides leading to the proteins and RNA building blocks of the cells of today. The aim is to understand how cellular life got to the point where it could sustainably grow and reproduce and how Darwinian evolution may have come to take over from chemical evolution.
Researchers at ANSTO and the Synchrotron are exploring alien worlds by making crystals of them on Earth. Scientists mix chemical compounds thought to make up other bodies in the solar system, apply otherworldly pressures and use powder diffraction to watch their crystal structure change. They have uncovered the likely mineral composition of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, and revealed a world of exotic organic crystals, unlike any found on Earth. When jarosite was found on Mars, its presence suggested that, at some time, Mars had vast liquid oceans. Current research is focussed on the asteroid belt – a ring of asteroids and dwarf planets between Mars and Jupiter.
Materials for future nuclear applications all need to maintain functionality during exposure to extreme levels of irradiation and understanding how these new materials react in a radioactive environment is essential. Radiation damage cannot be observed directly, even using the best experimental techniques as the processes are too small and too fast. ANSTO researchers use high energy ion irradiation of stainless steel, a commonly used alloy in marine, chemical, petrochemical, transport, manufacturing and nuclear industries, in ANSTO’s STAR accelerator, electron microscopes and atom scale computer simulations to understand how a material responds in radioactive environments.
Radiotracers for improved health
ANSTO researchers are working to build knowledge and improve the beneficial impacts of nuclear science on human health. Research into detection, diagnosis and treatment of disease focusing on the development of radioactive tracers for PET and SPECT imaging and techniques that optimise the assessment of the status of a disease, can lead to personalised medicine that enables the best treatment plan for patients.
Trace metal recovery and sequestration
The toxicity of trace metals from mining and other human activities is of global concern due to contamination of the landscape. Synchrotron-based x-ray fluorescence microscopy (XFM) and x-ray absorption spectroscopy (XAS), are valuable tools for the analysis of contaminated materials at the micro-scale with field-scale applications for remediation. The properties of mine waste contaminants and how they are affected by weathering and remediation treatments, determines their bioavailability, toxicity, and mobility in the environment. Understanding this allows new, low cost ways to utilise these materials, such as accelerating carbon sequestration, soil formation, trace metal recovery from mine tailings and strategies for bioremediation.
Suggested Learning Sequence
|Lesson 1 (in-class) or pre-work at home||Lesson 2 (videoconference)||Post-work or homework|
As a class, students:
As a class, students: