Kings Park and UWA Scientists Dr Todd Erickson, Dr David Merritt, and Assistant Professor Andrew Guzzomi have won a top prize at the 2016 WA Innovator of the Year awards.
The team designed and constructed a 'seed flash flamer' that greatly improves seed handling for large scale environmental restoration, which took out the Mitsubishi Corporation Emerging Innovation Category at the recent State awards ceremony.
Kings Park Senior Seed Research Scientist Dr David Merritt said the team was humbled and a little surprised to win the award, as they knew they were nominated among strong contenders.
'But of course we were pleased that what we viewed as a successful collaboration between Kings Park ecologists and UWA engineers over the past three to four years had not only addressed an important practical problem in seed handling, but that the potential for the innovation to contribute to improved ecological restoration and land management had been recognised more broadly by others', Dr Merritt said.
The seed flamer works to remove fluffy appendages and hairs from seeds, which otherwise make them bulky and difficult to handle, store and process, as they are unable to pass smoothly through seeding machinery.
'The flaming process smooths the surface of seeds, improving their ‘flowability’ for direct seeding and also allowing for application of artificial seed coatings designed to enhance seedling establishment', Dr Merritt said.
'It reduces the volume of seeds by 30-40% so reduces the space required for storage, and in some cases, enhances germination through weakening the outer covering of the seeds.'
From their research, the scientists knew flaming of seeds had been attempted before without success, but by controlling the heat and using a pulsed flame, the team was able to adapt existing technology and achieve excellent results without burning the highly flammable dry seeds.
'The trick was how to subject seeds to a pulsed "flash" flame without overly complicating the system and thus avoiding the need for a completely new piece of equipment. We focused our research on adapting a commercial drum seed coater – an existing piece of technology used in the agricultural seed industry - that elevates seeds onto the side of the drum wall via a rotating base', Dr Merritt said.
Seeds are usually flamed for between 15 to 30 minutes and, so far, the team has tested up to three litres of seeds at a time. The circulation of the seeds via the rotating drum base helps remove burnt fluffy appendages and ensure all surfaces of the seed are effectively exposed to short bursts of heart from one or two flames.
An industry breakthrough, the seed flaming device could transform how revegetation projects are carried out on expansive areas such as mine sites and agricultural land.
'We know that revegetation practitioners currently avoid altogether or limit their use of fluffy seeds in direct seeding, so if we can apply the flash flaming to allow for these species to be included in seed mixes, that will have immediate benefits for increased biodiversity in restoration', Dr Merritt said.
'The flash flaming forms part of our broader research strategy to enhance seeds to improve their establishment. Currently only around five per cent of seeds establish as seedlings in restoration', he said.
Already, the seed flaming device has garnered interest both in Australia and overseas, showing its strong potential for commercial success.
'We have had interest from manufacturers of agricultural equipment here in Perth, and Greening Australia WA have run some trials with spinifex seeds for their restoration programs. Weed researchers in Australia who work on solving problems of herbicide resistance have expressed some interest for their weed seeds. And we’ve also been approached by a large commercial seed producer in the US', Dr Merritt said.
So far, the team has focused their testing on species of Spinifex (Triodia) from the Pilbara region of WA. But the Innovation Award $25,000 prize money will enable them to conduct further research in Australia and the United States.
'We will now work on demonstrating the applicability of the flaming to other grasses in Australia, as well as other types of seeds that possess similar hairs or appendages ... including many other species of grasses (e.g. Aristida, Cymbopogon, Enneapogon), Mulla Mulla (Ptilotus), Smoke Bush (Conospermum) and Featherflowers (Verticordia)', Dr Merritt said.
He said in the USA, the team would initially be collaborating with scientists in Utah.
'We are testing the application of the flaming on grass seeds used for rangeland management in the arid regions of central USA. The market in wild seeds in the USA is much more established in the US', Dr Merritt said.
'Large quantities of seeds are farmed for seeding following wildfire – the US Government spends around US $50M on over 1000 tonnes of seeds per annum for this purpose, but they have similar problems with seed handling. We hope to demonstrate the applicability of the flash flaming to the grasses and other seeds of the USA and generate some interest in the technology for this market.'
Dr Merritt said the team was hoping to generate some interest with a commercial partner within the next 12-18 months, so the innovative new device could be readily available for mining and agricultural use in the not-too-distant future.