Monday, 24 September 2012

Scientists investigate Spinifex grass for alternative sustainable fibre

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spinefex“Our goal is to make insulating products with these spinifex grass fibres and resin that those communities could use in their buildings to give a natural cooling effect.”—Dr Gamage. Image: hannahspannaSPINIFEX  (Triodia sp.) grasses played an important role in Indigenous culture and researchers from University of Queensland (UQ) are working with traditional land owners in WA to understand more about the genus and its usage.

Plant ecologist Dr Harshi Gamage and an interdisciplinary team of UQ scientists and Aboriginal collaborators are investigating Triodia sp.

Triodia are the dominant plant species of more than a quarter of Australia’s land mass, and are also significant subdominant species in northern regions.

They are studying the genus’s biology and traditional uses; and investigating applied scientific solutions that attempt to utilise these arid-area grasses for modern industrial production.

“We are trying to make these uses much more durable and sustainable,” she says.

“This is a project that we try to develop for the use of Indigenous communities that are living in these areas.

As spinifex was traditionally used to construct shelters, the material scientists on the team are researching its insulating qualities and potential as a building material.

“These communities use a lot of energy because it is quite hot and dry up there to live, so they use electricity to run air conditioners in their houses,” Dr Gamage says.

“Our goal is to make insulating products with these spinifex grass fibres and resin that those communities could use in their buildings to give a natural cooling effect.”

Aboriginal tribes made extensive use of Triodia resins as a medicine and adhesive.

“That is something we want to develop in this project,” she says.

“In the wood industry most adhesives are formaldehyde-based and they are quite carcinogenic, so if we can make natural products as a wood adhesive it could be much more environmentally friendly and sustainable.

“We want to find out whether this resin has quite unique properties compared to other resins that people use.”

She says little research had been done on chemical and mechanical properties of spinifex fibres and resin.

“We have prepared composites using both threshed spinifex fibre and resin.

“We have also made nano-paper—within a fibre bundle you get microfibres, so we pulp the fibres and then extract the nanofibres [which] you can compress and make really thin light-weight nano-papers.”

Extensive research has been done into the ecological benefits of traditional Aboriginal patch burning, which prevents large hot fires, provides refuges for animals, and promotes the growth of various plants.

Dr Gamage says the research team hopes to find a method of harvesting Triodia in small sections of land, so as to have similar effects in Australia’s arid ecosystems.

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