ANU researchers strike gold with science academy honours

Publication date
Thursday, 10 Mar 2022

Professor Richard Henley.

A scientist whose research has shed light on how gold forms in hot springs around volcanoes is one of four researchers at The Australian National University (ANU) to receive honours from the Australian Academy of Science today.  

Professor Richard Henley, a geochemist from the Research School of Physics, received the 2022 Haddon Forrester King Medal for his contributions to the search for gold and other valuable metals during a 50-year research career. 

Many of the world's most valuable deposits of metals such as gold and copper were formed deep inside ancient volcanoes.  

"Volcanoes release lots of gas into the atmosphere. What I've been doing with a lot of good people is trying to understand how those gases move metals around so that you end up with minable deposits of copper and gold and silver and all those essential metals that we have in our economy today," Henley says.  

His research, which has also helped to discover how mountain belts like the Southern Alps in New Zealand grow, has greatly enhanced exploration concepts and led to the discovery of major ore deposits around the world. 

Henley and his colleagues at ANU have developed techniques such as X-ray microtomography to examine how rocks work and how fluids can move through them, and to find the best ways to extract valuable metals such as copper. 

Global demand for these valuable metals is only growing as we head towards a more renewable energy future, he says.  

"You can't supply power to cities from wind farms or solar farms unless you have copper and iron and aluminium available to transport the electricity through," Henley says.   

ANU received the most honours out of any institution from the Australian Academy of Science, which awarded 20 researchers from around the country for their contributions to the advancement of science at the early, mid and career level. 


Investigating ancient climates  

Geophysicist Professor Andrew Roberts from the Research School of Earth Sciences received the 2022 Mawson Medal for his contributions to paleomagnetism. His work using geologic and fossil records has enabled scientists to use the geological record to reconstruct global plate tectonic movements and to understand variations in Earth's magnetic field through its history. 

The magnetic field extends from Earth's deep interior out into space, serving as a protective shield around our planet against things such as solar radiation.  

"When the field reverses polarity, it undergoes massive change, all of which changes the amount of shielding we get from solar radiation," Roberts says.  

The last polarity reversal happened about 780,000 years ago. It's hard to predict the timing of the next switch, but it will impact the strength of the magnetic field.  

Could that lead to an increase in skin cancer rates, or even animal and plant extinctions?  

"We're on the cusp of being able to address questions like that, that have historically been much harder to address," Roberts says.  

Research into paleomagnetism can also help us to better understand climate change.  

"If a mountain belt has eroded away and is no longer there, the sedimentary record tells you about its former existence. By looking at the geological record, we can reconstruct what the climate looked like in the past," Roberts says.  

Roberts has gone to great lengths to piece this puzzle together, conducting field work on every ocean basin and every continent, including three field seasons in Antarctica.  

He says the level at which humans have perturbed climate is of an equivalent to the warmest states we had several million years ago.  

"I have a fair bit of optimism that humans are creative and can find solutions and I'd like to see a whole lot more work being done in that space," Professor Roberts said.  

Given his work in Antarctica, he says he feels particularly honoured to receive the Mawson Medal named after famed geologist and Antarctic explorer Sir Douglas Mawson.  


From lab to industry  

CT scans aren't just used by doctors to see inside our bodies. At the ANU CT Lab, physical chemist Professor Tim Senden and his colleagues scan everything from advanced composites to fossils. He has been awarded the 2022 Ian Wark Medal for his contribution to Australia's prosperity.     

"As soon as you have a technique that allows one to look at opaque objects in 3D at huge resolution and high fidelity, then you can ask all sorts of questions in all sorts of fields," Senden says.  

Working in all sorts of fields is something that Professor Senden does often. As a physical chemist, his pioneering research helped us better understand what happens at the surface of materials at the nano scale.  

His fundamental discoveries have led to many applications including 3D imaging techniques that visualise how fluids are retained within porous materials such as rock.  

"Our version of the CT is one designed for very high geometric fidelity, it's designed for experimental purposes. The group has been able to translate that into a commercial product in its own right."   

As the Director of the ANU Research School of Physics, he works to join the dots between science and industry.  

"One of my great pleasures in my current role is to help others take risk in collaboration in that art of translation," Senden says.   


Understanding ecosystems with maths  

Ecosystems around the world are facing many threats from climate change to overfishing. Statistician Dr Francis Hui from the ANU College of Business and Economics is developing tools to better monitor these growing threats and scientifically understand their impacts.  

He has been awarded the 2022 Christopher Heyde Medal, an early-career honour, for his contribution to statistical methodology and their applications. 

"If an ecologist has gone out and surveyed a bunch of sites and they've collected data on a whole lot of species in an ecosystem, I'm interested to form models to try to analyse all those species at the same time," Hui says.  

"This is a much bigger challenge, but it's also a much more important challenge because it allows us to answer questions that we weren't able to answer with just studying a single species."  

The applications of Hui's research are wide ranging, including in the field of mental health, and he describes statistics as the universal language.  

"You get to play in everybody's backyard," he says.