Forging a career in science academia is no small feat, but the chances of making it as a woman are tougher.
According to the latest Labour Force Survey – women make up only 21 per cent of university-level science, technology, engineering and mathematic (STEM) occupations.
Women face several challenges that prevent them from entering or maintaining a career in STEM, including carer responsibilities at home, stereotypes and bias that deter girls from STEM at school, lack of job security in workplaces, social and cultural barriers and gender discrimination, and sexual harassment.
However, at the Institute for Frontier Materials, women are not only contributing to groundbreaking innovation, but they are also often leading it.
Today, on International Women’s Day, IFM is celebrating its impressive cohort of women and hope to inspire the next generation of young women into a career in STEM.
Professor Jenny Pringle
Professor Jenny Pringle is dedicated to finding innovative solutions to improve technology for next-generation batteries and energy storage.
She leads a research team that focuses on new ionic materials for energy technologies – one of its main topics is new electrolytes for next generation batteries, such as lithium metal or sodium ion batteries, to help improve safety and performance.
She also has an interest in using similar ionic materials to store thermal energy – an alternative approach to sustainable energy storage.
‘My background is in chemistry and initially I was more interested in environmental and green chemistry,’ Prof. Pringle says.
‘As time went on, I found myself more inspired by the materials engineering aspects, especially the idea of making new materials that have applications in devices to help address real-world challenges.
‘I am driven by the curiosity of making new materials and the outcome of seeing them used in applications. And in helping others achieve these goals by teaching them to be great researchers.
‘When I think of a new material structure, and then we make it and it turns out to have great properties, it is pretty exciting!’
Prof. Pringle says although better batteries are needed to improve battery life for phones and electric vehicles, improving stationary batteries, including making them cheaper and safer, is also important to store renewable energy until it is needed.
‘We cannot develop better devices without better materials, and that is where the chemist and materials engineers come in,’ she says.
‘We also have an increasing interest in recycling the important elements and materials from used batteries.
‘Our research will help address climate change by enabling renewable energies, either through better battery storage using more sustainable materials or by storing it as thermal energy. And improving the safety of batteries, for example, by using non-flammable electrolytes, is extremely important.’
Prof. Pringle looks forward to seeing more real applications of their materials used in devices through industry partners or at IFM’s battery prototyping facilities.
‘When we can see how our new electrolytes perform in real devices and in real applications, then we can also learn more about what is needed to further improve them and get to work designing even better materials,’ she says.
‘I am also interested in the challenge of recycling batteries, which is a really critical area that is only now starting to receive the attention it needs.
‘There is a great opportunity for more battery manufacturing and recycling in Australia. But it is not just about batteries – our new ionic electrolytes could have application in supercapacitors, for gas separation, for thermal energy storage.
‘We have the understanding to help design and choose the right materials for different applications.
‘The first step is simply to understand what the industry needs, and from there we can start discussions on collaborations to address those needs.’
Learn more about Professor Pringle’s work.
Professor Minoo Naebe
Professor Minoo Naebe understands the wide-ranging potential of carbon fibre and is searching for ways to make it a more cost-effective and sustainable option for industry.
She leads a research team in the field of high-performance materials, focusing on functional and sustainable polymer-based materials for various applications in automotive, construction, oil and gas.
Based at Carbon Nexus, her team has a particular focus on carbon fibre and composites working on the several challenges for these materials, including the development of next generation of low-cost sustainable carbon fibres from bio-based and renewable precursors, such as lignin, as well as approaches to enable circular carbon fibre composites.
‘My inspiration has been always the unique power of science and engineering to transform human lives through innovations,’ Prof. Naebe says.
‘Through human history, science has constantly improved the quality of our lives at many levels and of course material science and development has had a significant share of this contribution.’
Prof. Naebe says carbon fibre has enormous potential in industries such as aerospace, automotive, oil and gas, clean energy and sporting goods, to replace traditional materials such as steel and aluminium. However, the biggest challenge to overcome is cost.
‘Today’s latest passenger aircrafts structures like Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and Airbus’s A380 are made of carbon fibre materials, which has helped to achieve a 20 per cent improvement in fuel economy and a reduction in CO2 emissions,’ she says.
‘Currently, the demand for carbon fibre is limited by the high cost. As a result, the material is currently primarily used in products where performance is more important than price.
‘The main contributing factor in the high price of carbon fibre is the price of raw materials or precursor.
‘These days, most carbon fibers are made from polyacrylonitrile (PAN) which is an expensive petroleum-based polymer contributing to more than 50 percent of carbon fibre price.
‘Our aim is to develop a new class of cost-effective and “green” carbon fibres using sustainable and bio-based precursors. Another angle to our research is to develop circular carbon fibre reinforced polymer composites by recycling and reuse of carbon fibre . This will greatly contribute to a circular economy for end-of-life carbon fibre composite materials and a reduction in environmental impact, creating a more environmentally friendly future.
‘I am very much interested in translational research and hence greatly motivated by the potential of our research in materials to redefine and recreate carbon fibre and composites that are functional yet more affordable, accessible and sustainable.’
Learn more about Professor Naebe’s work.