Game changing restoration

Damaged and desperate for native plant restoration, over 2300km of land from former mining projects are crying out for a new lease on life. Due to a lack of vegetation and growth, a sparse future is imminent and workable solutions to this problem have been scarce for a many years.

But in an age where innovations and revolutionary breakthroughs provide realistic workarounds for issues such as this, it was only a matter of time before someone found a solution that would allow these areas the opportunity to flourish once more.

In Western Australia alone there is approximately $2 billion worth of mining projects currently on hold or rejected based on the inability of mining companies to demonstrate to regulators they will be able to restore sites to greater than 70 per cent pre-mined plant species biodiversity upon mine closure.

A three-year collaboration between a multi-disciplinary team comprising Dr Andrew Guzzomi, Research Assistant Professor in Agricultural Engineering at the School of Mechanical & Chemical Engineering at The University of Western Australia, student Alan Ling from the UWA School of Mechanical and Chemical Engineering, researchers Dr Todd Erickson, Dr David Merritt and Professor Kingsley Dixon from King’s Park and Botanic Gardens and UWA School of Plant Biology has led to a valuable discovery with enriched potential to forever transform the industry of land rehabilitation.

Revolutionising the ability to effectively handle seeds to enhance the land rejuvenation processes, the collaboration led to the creation of a seed flamer device.

Dr Guzzomi, an esteemed agricultural engineer who?has overseen the design and construction of the seed flamer, said it was fluffy appendages and hairs on many wild collected seeds that made them bulky to store and difficult to transport. Their appendages also hinder seed enhancement technologies, such as the coating of seeds in artificial polymers or aid precision machine sowing.

Native grass seeds are typically highly irregular in shape, with surface hairs and awns that make them very difficult to work with.

“Successful large-scale restoration of minesites relies on the effective use of seeds from wild or native species,” Dr Guzzomi said.

“The seeds stick together, making them hard to sort and use in direct seeding machinery.

“Removing the appendages enables the application of artificial coatings to seeds to further improve germination and allow precision machine sowing.

“The technique has many benefits including increasing the bulk density of the seeds which saves on storage, processing and handling costs and increasing their flowability which assists with their planting using mechanised techniques.”

Traditionally, the success rate of plant regeneration from native seeds has been quite low with approximately 95 per cent failing.

“Through application of our technology and subsequent seed coatings, we can increase the success rate from five per cent to approximately 40 per cent,” Dr Guzzomi said.

Devising and arriving at the final concept for the device over a period of three years wasn’t without its challenges, according to Dr Guzzomi.

“We knew that dry plant material is flammable and burns. The challenge was devising a way to use this attribute to subject the seeds to sufficient heat energy to remove the appendages without damaging the seed inside,” he said.

Taking home the top prize in the Emerging Innovation Category of the 2016 Mitsubishi Corporation Western Australian Innovator of the Year Awards, the seed flamer device exposes the seeds to a precise amount of pulsed heat.

“Through modifying a rotary seed coater with an engineered flaming apparatus, we developed a novel flash flaming technique which carefully removes the appendages without subjecting the seed to damaging heat energy,” Dr Guzzomi said.

By repeatedly exposing the seeds to short flaming pulses, appendages are removed without damaging their ability to germinate.

Once treated, the seeds are easier to handle and coat as they are reduced in bulk and fluff, with a smoother texture.

They can then be planted to revitalise degraded land.

Not only does this encourage sustainability and vegetation security for the future, it also has the power to restore confidence in zones where potential mining projects for the future can become reality.

Dr Guzzomi said the $25,000 prize money would translate into further exciting research and exploration into the revegetation field.

“Winning the award has allowed the potential commercialisation of the technique, meaning we could see some real traction with our research,” he said.

“Our innovation will transform how vast areas are revegetated using native seed. The money is being used to explore seed flaming of diverse plant species at a commercial scale in Australia and Dr Todd Erickson, the project manager of the Restoration Seed Bank Initiative at UWA and Kings Park, is currently visiting the USA exploring opportunities for revegetation and rangeland management there.”

The ‘flash flaming’ device has been patented and a partnership to support the commercialisation of the invention is being offered through UWA’s Research Development and Innovation office.

Picture: Dr Guzzomi with the seed flamer.

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