Australian Biofilm centre a magnet for world’s best

A $12.5 million national research training centre headquartered at Flinders University is driving research solutions into biofilms – complex cells with billion-dollar cost implications for the world’s freshwater supply networks and marine environments.

The new Australian Research Council (ARC) Training Centre for Biofilm Research and Innovation is a collaboration between Flinders, Swinburne University of Technology, and the University of Tasmania and has officially opened with a ribbon-cutting and seminar day held with scientific and industry partners.

Centre Director Professor Sophie Leterme and Flinders Vice-Chancellor Colin Stirling.

It has also welcomed world-renowned University of Toulon (France) investigator Professor Christine Bessy and Ohio State University (USA) Professor Paul Stoodley to the group.

Biofilm Training Centre Director Professor Sophie Leterme explained the implications of biofilms and “biofouling” across the globe were enormous and Australia now has a research powerhouse in place to contribute to the development of solutions.

“Biofilms grow in all environments and on all surfaces, from catheters to drinking water pipes and ships,” Professor Leterme said.

Guests taking part in the Smoking Ceremony to commemorate the centre’s beginning.

“The work of the Biofilm Training Centre will play a major part in contributing to the global effort to enhance our understanding of biofilms and pioneer innovations to control and eradicate them.”

The Biofilm Training Centre already has major projects underway and significant partnerships forged across defence, technology, environmental and government sectors.

Flinders University President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Colin Stirling said the launch of the research training centre marks a significant milestone in Flinders’ commitment to advancing knowledge, fostering innovation, and contributing to solutions to overcome major environmental, economic, defence and trade issues.

“This goes to the heart of how innovation can transform industries, demonstrating that research and training can tackle complex problems and find solutions that benefit not just industry but the broader community,” Professor Stirling said.

“The training centre is an important reminder of the impact we can create when we come together as collaborators, uniting our expertise, our vision, and commitment to making a difference.”

Associate Professor Vikram Garaniya, Node Leader from the Australian Maritime College based at the University of Tasmania, said their research team jumped at the opportunity to partner on biofilms research to address challenges relevant to the maritime industry.

“We have been collaborating with Flinders for many years, both sharing outstanding students across the two institutions in a joint study program, as well as through our successful ARC Training Centre in Naval Ship Design,” Associate Professor Garaniya said.

Welcoming guests and introducing speakers including senior ARC and industry representatives is Deputy Vice-Chancellor Robert Saint.

“This new ARC Biofilm Training Centre further strengthens our collaborative partnership, and we are excited to work with new and existing industry and university partners to train the next generation of experts in this space.”

Swinburne University of Technology’s Associate Professor Scott Wade added the impact of biofilms on many aspects of society was significant.

“There is an increasing awareness of the significant impact that biofilms have on many aspects of society,” Associate Professor Scott said.

“While Swinburne University researchers have been working on biofilm associated challenges for some time, this new training centre is an amazing opportunity for us to work together with colleagues from Flinders University, the University of Tasmania and industry on this important topic.

“By combining our expertise to develop solutions and train a new generation of biofilm researchers we believe that we can make substantial long-term impacts, much greater than any of us would have been able to achieve alone.”

Among key partners already working with the Biofilm Training Centre at Flinders are ASC, BAE Systems, Defence Science Technology Group (DSTG), Osmoflo, Enware, SA Water, Sparc Technologies, Franmarine Underwater Services, DMTC and the Environmental Protection Agency.

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CLEAN WATER: Biofilms are a complex mix of cells that grow on all surfaces and wet areas, including vital plumbing systems, harbour infrastructure and defence vessels. Biofilms can contain pathogenic microbes which reduce the efficiency of water treatment plants and reduce water quality and damage equipment. Recycling wastewater in South Australia, the driest state in Australia, is becoming increasingly important with climate change. Flinders University environmental health experts have developed the pioneering energy efficient high-rate algal pond (HRAP) system over more than a decade. It is being used successfully at two regional locations in SA – at Kingston-on-Murray and Peterborough.  Now SA Water is teaming with the ARC Biofilm Training Centre to expand the pond system into other remote locations.  PhD candidate Sam Butterworth is working on the low-cost alternative for this sustainable and environmentally friendly form of wastewater treatment.

BIOSECURITY: The introduction of invasive aquatic species associated with global shipping is a significant threat to the world’s oceans and coastal ecosystems. In Australia, up to 250 exotic marine organisms have been introduced by various types of vessel, with an estimated 75% of these organisms likely to have arrived as biofouling organisms.

SHIPPING: Energy efficiency and infrastructure maintenance requires the development of environmentally safe antifouling coating for marine vessels. An established biofilm on a shipping vessel can increase fuel consumption by up to 40% caused by hull drag and poor manoeuvrability.

ENVIRONMENTAL REGULATIONS: The Australian Maritime Safety Authority and International Maritime Organisation impose pollution standards for handling waste materials, ships’ water discharge, cleaning methods and the antifouling coatings permitted in order to protect precious marine environments.  Franmarine is teaming with the ARC Biofilm Training Centre to enable sea biofouling inspections of vessels without divers and to enable autonomous biofouling removal from ship hulls while minimising dispersal of debris to particulates < 10 µm. Postdoctoral Research Associate Dr Thomas Chaffre is developing algorithms and reinforcement-based learning to allow for the fully autonomous scanning of vessels for large scale inspections.

DEFENCE: Innovation in biofouling and more sustainable marine infrastructure management and maintenance will support defence and shipbuilding industries and critical defence capabilities in the future. For example, corrosion costs across the Royal Australian Navy fleet can make up almost 40% of costs from the total maintenance budget.  DSTG is partnering with the ARC Training Centre to develop better methods of biofouling monitoring and the optimisation of Marine Growth Protection Systems (MGPS). Postdoctoral Research Associate Dr Tamar Jamieson is working on the characterisation of the environmental conditions and the biofouling potential of seawater.


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