Resilient Heart

by Jordan Pennells

Spinifex grass,
the resilient heart
of a sun-scorched nation.

Across vast, arid land
deserted by all
but those that resist
the absence of rainfall.

The resilience of life
in dry desert Australia
is embodied by grass
Indigenous in nature.

For a dreamtime story
has spiky, strong spinifex
as a symbol of life
and reproduction that reflects

The survival adaptations
woven in its genes,
for resilience to evolve
through evolutionary means.

Through death & new life,
and against solar blast
Spinifex survives
outlive, outstay, outlast.

And then a fiery plight
seems a deadly strike,
but is hardship required
to regenerate new life.

From these eons evolving
to thrive in harsh desert,
the resilience of spinifex
has researchers present,

Investigating a new family
of resilient materials
made from plant fibre
no longer ethereal.

Our research breaks down
spinifex plant fibre
to 1000th the width
of human hair, or finer.

These nano-sized strands
of sustainable source
bind together with bonds
to resist a great force.

Which is exactly what we
need the resilience to do,
through fire & plague
and socio-economic renew.

Spinifex is a uniquely Australian desert grass, and is the focus of my research group’s work into creating sustainable plant-based materials. As mentioned in the poem, one thousandth the width of a human hair (~100 microns) is in the nanometer range (100 nm), so our research deals with plant nanofibres.

Our hypothesis surrounding the high strength & toughness of spinifex nanofibres is rooted in their resilience against the harsh desert climate that they’ve evolve in – relating to the plant’s ability to grab and hold on to water. This trait also benefits sustainability in such that they don’t require much water to grow – which can’t be said about some other biomass sources like cotton & rice.

This makes spinifex an attractive biomass resource – with the potential to become a commercial Indigenous Australian product. And even creating an industry employing Indigenous citizens & knowledge, using a sacred Indigenous plant to give back some of what’s been lost in Indigenous culture & community!

Read more on my research about spinifex farming

Find out more about spinifex in general

More about the deal with the Dugalungi Aboriginal Corporation

Our research group at The University of Queensland 

My PhD research has now pivoted to another drought tolerant grass species – sorghum. We have identified sorghum as an agricultural crop with HUGE potential for making strong & sustainable nanomaterials.

The major challenge is dealing with the natural variation of plants to consistently make high quality nanomaterials, as well as being able to know what is high quality at different stages throughout the process. So my PhD is focusing in on creating a quality control tool for the cellulose nanofibre production process (bonus: my statistical framework for this tool has been repurposed from the evolutionary framework of Quantitative Genetics!).

Find out more below, or send me a message if you’re interested or have any questions about my work :)

My Three Minute Thesis video – Sustainable Resources for Sustainable Solutions

My research on different biomass sources to make Cellulose Nanofibres

Conference Presentation APPITA 2019