Explainer: what are algal biofuels?

By Kirsten Heimann

The problem we face with fossil fuels being ultimately a finite resource has exposed our need for renewable fuels.


But research is underway on new and more environmentally-savvy ways to fuel our growing planet – among them algal biofuels.

The situation is made more challenging with expected global population growth, increased pressures on food production and higher demand for energy and fuel.

Beppie K.

Third-generation biofuels, such as algae, are created without interference with human food production or land use, and are the subject of current investigations for capture and use.

This is particularly important for Australia, as only 6% of our continent’s surface is cultivatable.

Algae are the ideal crop to address all these issues – often simultaneously.

Hang on … what are algae?

Algae are aquatic organisms inhabiting freshwater and marine environments. They range from microscopic single cells called microalgae (visible with the aid of a microscope), to macroscopic, multi-cellular organisms (macroalgae).

Irrespective of size, these organisms convert carbon dioxide using the sun’s energy into organic carbon, just like plants.

Algae. Travis S.

Algae evolved when the surface waters of Earth were highly enriched in nutrients and trace elements. Algae, like plants, require nutrients and trace metals from their environment for growth – a process known as fertilisation.

Algae can absorb and store high levels of metals such as iron, copper and manganese, and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous, often more efficiently than plants.

Therefore algae are ideally suited to remediate metal and nutrient-rich waste waters.

What’s happening now?

The algal biofuels industry is still in its infancy and it is yet to be confirmed whether the technology can consume emission and produce substantial volumes of bio-fuel.

As is the case in other countries, Australia is doing its bit to develop algal biofuels and provide the leg up to help the industry mature.

A pilot project site at Tarong in Queensland is the first of its kind, testing and providing insights into the operating potential of algal synthesiser technology when attached to industrial power plants.

The pilot site in Tarong, Queensland. Image/ Kirsten Heimann

It is a vital pilot program that will help to shed light on automation, harvesting and processing options for the biomass. Testing and improving the technology is paving the way for more efficient, large-scale and low-labour carbon abatement operations.

Research into algal biofuel conversion to look into the potential of macroalgae – macroscopic, multi-cellular organisms such as seaweed – has been supported by funds from ARENA.

Specific funds have been earmarked for the development of renewable aviation fuels.

Aside from government funding, oil companies, airlines and aircraft engine manufacturers are joining Australian federal and state funding schemes to accelerate the development of algal biofuels nationally and globally.

What are algal synthesisers?

Algae synthesisers are vessels used to cultivate algal biomass. There are various types of systems technologies. These are classified as open, closed or hybrid systems, with initial costs being lowest for open system, and highest for closed systems.

Open systems are more prone to invasions by unwanted organisms compared to closed systems. Invasions present a challenge for the newly developing algal industry as they can be detrimental for target end product quality.


In all of these systems, carbon dioxide is converted to biomass carbon using the energy from the sun.

All these different systems tailor features of the operation depending on the end products of choice, the characteristics of the algal strain being cultivated, and the environmental conditions at a site.

Kirsten Heimann works for James Cook University. She receives funding from the Advanced Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre for research and development relating to biomanufacturing using microalgae and methane remediation from underground coal mine ventilation air.

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Blog: Under close watch in China

Whenever we Australian representatives of the Fourth Estate come to China, there are always a few little signs that they’re keeping an eye on us.


For starters, it’s wise to assume the hotel rooms are bugged and that if we leave electronic equipment lying around, it soon will be too. We’re advised to carry our laptops and tablets with us and not leave them unattended.

In some hotels, we are housed in rooms one under the other — presumably because that makes the cabling easier. In other places, lots of helpful staff come to the hotel room door to deliver things or check on things or fix things not reported broken and don’t always observe the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign. (And they’re just the ones who come while you’re actually in the room.)

Here in Sanya, we’ve been ably assisted at breakfast by a very cheerful chap with an Anglo name – let’s call him George – who speaks some English and is terribly helpful, considering our collective Mandarin is mostly lousy (with the exception of those correspondents actually based here).

George always seems to be around when we need something. We were amused to note that in a big, fancy hotel with hundreds of staff, it happened to be George, having assisted us at breakfast at 7am, who materialised to take our orders and serve us dinner in a different part of the hotel at 8pm that night. Now that is good service.

And incoming phone calls to our mobiles always seem to register as some weird number.

So far on this visit, I’ve received two incoming calls from Australia (we communicate mostly by email – also presumably being monitored).

The first came up on my phone as being from the number +019661101. The second one a few hours later registered as coming from +019661102. Good to know someone’s keeping count.

On the whole, the surveillance thus far is not terribly intrusive and goodness knows what secrets they hope to uncover. Mostly, our conversations have been about our own deadlines, the logistics of the trip and how humid it is here in Sanya.

Having said all that, notwithstanding the usual heavy security which goes with staying in hotels involved in big international conferences (there are scuba security officers scouring the ocean just off the beach), the hotel staff are all super friendly and surely can’t all be spies. Surely.

Of course, there are a lot of people in China so they do have the capacity to do a very thorough job at any labour-intensive task.

And there goes the doorbell again now…

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Blog: Brutal simplicity tells story of war dead

The Prime Minister has concluded her visit to Papua New Guinea, paying her respects to Australian soldiers who died there during the Second World War.


She’s visited a war cemetery on the outskirts of Port Moresby, the Bomana war cemetery, from where SBS Correspondent, Richard Davis filed this blog.

The Prime Minister paused at the headstone.

“Wow” she said, “just 28”.

Surrounded by thousands of soldiers’ graves, she read the inscription.

“Corporal John French VC, age 28.”

Corporal French was posthumously awarded a VC for extreme courage under fire during the Kokoda conflict. It’s said that during the Battle of Isuvara, he killed 30 Japanese soldiers, firing his Bren machine gun from the hip before he was killed by a sniper’s bullet.

After touring the cemetery of more than three thousand gleaming white headstones, Julia Gillard shared her thoughts with journalists.

‘The tropical setting – the lush setting – is such a stark contrast to the headstones behind us, so the brutal simplicity of it really brings the message home very clearly .“

She paid tribute to the sacrifice and heroism of Australian forces who stopped the Japanese from reaching the strategically important city of Port Moresby.

“We are really commemorating the sacrifice that made our nation the safe place that it is today”, she said.

The manager of the cemetery, Jason Daniels says it’s the largest war cemetery in the Pacific, and has the highest number of Australian war dead buried anywhere in the world.

And it’s growing slowly.

The remains of many Australian soldiers are still missing, and every now and then they are found and new graves are dug.

Before she left the cemetery, the Prime Minister paused to write in the visitors’ book.

She wrote, “we remember and marvel at the courage and sacrifice”.

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Agent Orange still a problem in Vietnam

Nearly 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War, its youngest victims are still in their infancy.


Across the country, some babies are still being born with defects as a result of their parents’ exposure to dioxin found in in the crop-killing herbicide Agent Orange.

Three year old Dang Hong Dan was born with a cleft lip, and deformities in one hand and foot.

His mother, Oanh, told UNICEF workers in Vietnam she had a difficult pregnancy.

“I was sent to the hospital twice because of heavy bleeding,” she said.

“After Dan was born, the doctor did some tests and told us that the cause of his disability was Agent Orange.”

Both of Dan’s parents work as hired labourers, taking work where they can get it.

“We take any job we can but the work is unstable,” says his father, Phong. “We don’t earn enough money to look after Dan properly.”

(Image: Truong Viet Hung, courtesy UNICEF)

The family now receives assistance from a pilot scheme in An Giang province, where they live. The program, supported by UNICEF, aims to train local officials in basic social work and counselling skills.

This week, a team from UNICEF in partnership with AusAID travelled to Da Nang in Vietnam to launch their annual report on the State of the World’s children, which focuses on children living with disability. AusAID Director Peter Baxter visited young victims of Agent Orange in Da Nang.

“In this area of Vietnam, there are about 5000 dioxin victims,” he says. “This is a real challenge for the government of Vietnam and the education authorities to ensure that these people have opportunities.

“The most common types of disabilities people suffer from, particularly children, are related to their mobility, to their intellectual development and to their hearing.”

There are about 1.2 million children living with disabilities in Vietnam. An estimated 150,000 of those are believed to be victims of Agent Orange. The US military sprayed around 12 million gallons (44 million litres) of the substance over the country from 1961 to 1971 as part of a program of chemical warfare.

Last year, the US government agreed to assist in clean-up efforts of Agent Orange, after a long period of bilateral discussions with the Vietnamese authorities.

Australia is not involved in the clean-up effort, but through AusAID is funding programs to help those affected by the substance as well as other children with disabilities.

Peter Baxter says Australia’s historical link to Vietnam through its participation in the war was not an influence on the decision to allocate aid money there.

“We don’t look at it through that lens, we look at it through the lens of it’s not only the right thing to do, it’s a smart thing to do to ensure that the human resources that are available in developing countries are actually used to benefit those societies.”

A UNICEF review of 14 developing countries found people with disabilities “more likely” to experience poverty than those with disabilities.

“If you look at global poverty, and you look at 20 per cent of the world’s poorest people, you’ll find disproportionately that people with disabilities are represented in that group, so if you’re going to tackle global poverty, you have to tackle the issue of people with disabilities,” says Baxter.

Through its partnership with UNICEF, Australia provides $2.7 million in funding for programs in Vietnam in Bhutan.

“What we’re trying to do is ensure that all of the programs AusAID supports, whether we do them directly or whether we do them through our partners like UNICEF, that disability inclusiveness is part of the design of those programs.”

Part of the funding will go towards training teachers to be better equipped for working with children with disabilities.

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Q&A: The future of cyber attacks

SBS reporter Rhiannon Elston talks to computer systems expert Suelette Dreyfus from the University of Melbourne.


Suelette, thanks for joining us. Can you explain to us exactly what’s happened here? Essentially what’s happened is that there’s an international non-profit organisation called Spamhaus in Europe. Their role is to track spam operators – people who send you junk mail in your email box and to provide protection to ISPs and people who provide your emails from that spam. And someone or some group of people have done a ‘denial of service’ [or DDoS] attack on Spamhaus.

What that means is that all of the internet pipes going to and from Spamhaus have been completely clogged up. The attacks on Spamhaus have actually caused something of a slowing of connectivity, particularly in Europe. It’s less likely to have an impact on individuals and consumers here in Australia. It might have a very small impact on large transfers of data between organisations.

The key thing that happened here wasn’t the fact that it happened at all, but the scale of how many were impacted by it. Why did it affect so many?

Well if you throw a large wad of gum into the pipes, if you think about the internet that way, you are likely to reduce the amount of material that can flow through the pipes. And that’s what’s sort of happened here. If you overflow them with a lot of information requests, then you will not have so much room for the legitimate information.

Is it concerning, the fact that this happened to a large computer organisation, presumably run by people with a high degree of computer literacy? Those of us who don’t know that much about computers might be wondering, shouldn’t they have been able to fend that off, and if they can’t – what does that mean for the rest of us?

Well, yes and no. It’s a little bit of a tricky question. You can do a number of things to improve the likelihood that you will not suffer attacks by hackers or other sorts of attacks. It’s a little harder to defend against a DDoS attack, because it’s sort of external to the organisation. So an average consumer can run a security software, that’s sometimes helpful. They can do sensible settings on their machines, not making access public, that sort of thing.

However, there’s always a trade-off. And it’s a bit like free speech, really. If you have free speech on the internet, there’s going to be a small bunch of people who are really noisy and saying really obnoxious things. There’s not much you can do except largely ignore them and wait for it to pass, and focus your time and energy somewhere else. But at the same time, you could have a system where you clamp everything down and it’s centrally controlled and there’s none of that annoying rabble and no DDoS attacks, but it comes at a cost of choices and freedom.

Does this sort of behaviour show that cyber attacks are becoming more sophisticated?

They are. With a DDoS attack what typically happens, and what probably happened in this case, although I don’t think the details have been worked out yet, is that an organisation, for example a spamming company, will go and somehow get access to a botnet. A botnet is a group of computers that have basically been infected by malware, by a rogue computer program or virus or whatever, and they’ll sit quietly on all those machines, and then one day they’ll activate. And they’ll say, ok, all 10,000 machines, let’s all try and connect to this one company. And when you do that, you flood the pipes that are going into the company and nobody else can get to that company – as an example. That’s a simplified version, but that’s kind of how it works.

So the nature of those attacks and the idea of getting more and more botnets – so more and more of these clusters of computers — they’re called actually zombies. That is actually getting more sophisticated. And you can now sort of buy on the black market a cluster of 1,000 or 2,000 or 10,000 of these machines, that are just people’s everyday machines but they might have this backdoor software in it that turns them into zombies and a botnet.

How far could these cyber attacks go? Is it possible, for example, for a really large-scale attack to take out the internet entirely?

I don’t think that’s the future of these cyber attacks, and the reason is because of the beauty of the internet’s design, and what really is quite a beautiful design, is that it is so decentralised. There are so many pieces of it all over the place that you can always do a workaround. So, if one connection between you and I is broken, there’s another path, or 100 other paths we could use to get to each other.

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Explainer: Why are tornadoes so destructive?

By Ailie Gallant, Monash University

Tornadoes are a part of life for people living in the Great Plains of the United States.


In Oklahoma, a state that averages 62 tornadoes a year, people are prepared as best as they can be and are well warned.

It’s imperative that they are when a large population centre – the metro-area of Oklahoma City that contains over 1 million people – is in one of the most dangerous places on earth for significant and destructive tornadoes.

Monday May 20 starkly highlighted this vulnerability when a violent and deadly tornado bore down on the sprawling suburb of Moore, south of Oklahoma City. Warnings came thick and fast and survival plans were enacted. At 3:14pm on that day, the US National Weather Service warned on its Facebook page: “This is as bad it gets. Deadly dangerous tornado. Don’t know what else we can say. Take cover right now!” Nature is sometimes capable of laying waste to even the best-made plans.

Tornadoes are some of the most dangerous weather phenomena on earth. Their strength is measured by destructiveness using a system called the Fujita (F) Scale, or the Enhanced (EF) Fujita Scale, with numbers given from 0 to 5.

Weak tornadic winds (F0) will break branches and shift roof tiles. The strongest tornadoes have winds of up to 500km/h, dislodging asphalt from roads and uprooting concrete foundations (F5).

Wind speeds in an F5 tornado are much faster than their tropical cousins, hurricanes, although they affect a much smaller area. While hurricanes span hundreds of kilometres and last for days or weeks, tornadoes span only a few kilometres wide at most and usually last for less than an hour.

The mechanisms causing violent tornadoes are unique, making them relatively rare. However, on the Great Plains of the United States in the northern hemisphere spring, several factors come together to create the perfect conditions, giving the area the nickname “Tornado Alley”.

Fast-moving streams of air bring warm, moist air northward from the Gulf of Mexico. These provide the ingredients needed to generate tornadoes, which are usually spawned from a particular type of thunderstorm called a supercell. These thunderstorms have vigorous, rotating updrafts that are characterised by buoyant air rapidly moving upwards and spinning as it goes.

The winds rotate because the wind speed and direction changes with height, providing an abundance of something called vertical wind shear. It is this wind shear that causes supercells to rotate, and it is this strong rotating updraft, that spawns hail the size of cricket balls and devastating tornadoes.

Leaving a damage path more than 30km long, and lasting for more than 40 minutes, the tornado that hit Moore has been rated at least an F4, and may be upgraded to F5.

The tornado was a monster, but it was not unprecedented. The vulnerability to destructive tornadoes in this area of the world is high, and Monday’s tornado took a similar track to a similarly devastating tornado on May 3, 1999, which, at the time was described as the most destructive in history.

But no matter where in the world such a violent tornado hits such a highly populated area the consequences are devastating.

Ailie Gallant is affiliated with Monash University and the Centre of Excellence for Climate Systems Science. She receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

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Eclipse to light up Australian sky

By Ian Musgrave

Annular Eclipse as seen from Tennant Creek at maximum eclipse, 8:48 am ACST on May 10 Ian Musgrave, simulated in Celestia

On the morning of May 10, there will be an annular Solar eclipse.


In an annular eclipse the Moon does not completely cover the Sun, and the Sun forms a thin ring around the Moon at maximum eclipse depth.

The annular eclipse will be seen from a thin strip in WA, the Northern Territory and remote far north Queensland. Everywhere else will see a partial eclipse of varying depth, the north-east coast of Australia having the best views. The eclipse starts shortly after sunrise. In places along the annular eclipse path, such as Tennant Creek (NT) and Musgrave Roadhouse (QLD), viewers will see a thin rim of Sun around the moon.

Partial Eclipse as seen from Cairns at maximum eclipse, 8:48 am AEST. Ian Musgrave

Elsewhere viewers will see between 13% (Hobart) – 83% (Cairns) of the Sun covered by the Moon.

A diagram showing eclipse times in Universal Time is here, and an interactive map of the path is here. Click on the map for local timings of the eclipse.

Do NOT look directly at the Sun! Do not use so called filters. Over exposed film, smoked glass etc. used as filters are NOT, repeat NOT safe. Only special solar-rated viewing spectacles from astronomical suppliers should be used (for one example see here), they may cost a bit, but your eyesight is without price. Never use eyepiece filters for telescopes. These can crack at inopportune times and destroy your eyesight. In the annular eclipse path, as there is always some of the solar disk visible, at no time is it safe to view the eclipse with the unaided eye.

Partial Eclipse as seen from Adelaide at maximum eclipse, 8:18 am ACST Ian Musgrave

The easiest and cheapest way to observe this event is by making a pinhole in a stiff square of cardboard and projecting the image of the Sun onto a flat surface. You are basically making a simple pinhole camera, which will reveal the changes to the Suns outline quite satisfactorily. A card with a 1 mm hole should be projected onto a surface (eg white paper, or a white wall) about 20 cm away, a 5 mm hole should be projected onto a surface 1 to 1.5 meters away.

Partial Eclipse as seen from Perth at just after sunrise, 6:58 am AWST Ian Musgrave

You need to create a reasonable sized image, so you need a fair distance between the pinhole and the surface you project the image on. This will mean the image is going to be fairly dim, so you also need some sort of sun shield to keep in image in shadow. I use the longest available postpac postal tube, with alfoil over the top (and the pinhole in the alfoil), and wide ring of stiff cardboard to ensure that the image of the sun is projected into a dark area. This link will show you several methods to make pinhole projection systems.

You can also use binocular and telescopic projection systems. This link will show you how to make safe solar viewing and telescope projection systems. Here is my step by step guide to making a binocular projection system, and a guide to aiming your binoculars or telescope when you can’t actually look at the Sun. And this is the projection system I use with my refractor telescope.

Remember, do NOT look directly at the Sun, as irreparable eye damage or blindness can occur (see this video for a graphic demonstration).

City Eclipse Start Mid Eclipse Eclipse End % Sun covered Adelaide (ACST) 7:09 am 8:15 am 9:22 am 38 Alice Springs (ACST) below horizon 8:07 am 9:31 am 79 Brisbane (AEST) 7:41 am 8:58 am 10:28 am 40 Cairns (AEST) 7:28 am 8:49 am 10:27 am 83 Canberra (AEST) 7:50 am 8:55 am 10:10 am 26 Darwin (ACST) below horizon 8:07 am 9:28 am 68 Hobart (AEST) 8:06 am 8:59 am 9:57 am 13 Melbourne (AEST) 7:50 am 8:52 am 10:02 am 25 Musgrave Roadhouse (AEST) 7:26 am 8:47 am 9:29 am 95 Annular eclipse Perth (AWST) below horizon below horizon 7:45 am – Rockhampton (AEST) 7:34 am 8:54 am 10:30 am 56 Sydney (AEST) 7:50 am 8:57 am 10:14 am 27 Tennant Creek (ACST) 6:57 am 8:07 am 9:28 am 95 Annular eclipse Townsville (AEST) 7:29 am 8:49 am 9:28 am 74

Ian Musgrave does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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Comment: Fracking? Not in my back yard (or yours)

By Adam Briggle, University of North Texas

Fracking is utterly transforming the global energy industry.


It has opened up new energy reserves by making it economically viable to extract natural gas from coal seams and shale formations. As a result, Australia now boasts six of the world’s ten most expensive energy projects, all of which involve liquefying natural gas for export to foreign markets. The impact in the US is equally profound: it is now forecast to be nearly energy self-sufficient by 2035.

On the other hand, uncertainty around its environmental and health consequences has made fracking controversial, especially in populated areas. This has sparked a debate that is so polarised you might think the opposed groups are talking about two different things. Actually, you would be right.

Fracking is indeed two things at once. On one hand, it is a matter of national and global energy policy. On the other hand, it is a local land use issue.

From the first perspective, natural gas development is compared with coal, wind, and solar power. But from the second perspective, the relevant comparisons are to pawn shops, adult video stores, and paper mills. Fracking represents both our global interdependence on networks of commodities and our place-bound lives in communities.

This dual identity can be mapped onto different layers of governmental jurisdiction. Fracking-as-energy-policy and mineral development is a matter for state and federal government control. But fracking-as-land-use and community character is a matter for local government control. This raises the ultimate political question: who should decide?

On that question, I side squarely with Australian Lock the Gate Alliance and their principle that “communities should have the ultimate say”.

I know that local places in the developed world cannot function without the placeless energy network to sustain them. This leads some to sneer that any local restrictions on fracking are mere NIMBYism (not in my back yard). The allegation is one of hypocrisy: “You depend on the very stuff you are decrying. You will gladly consume the minerals as long as they are produced far away”.

Local groups should proudly own the NIMBY label, because I see it as a principled stand against a crass utilitarianism that would turn some places into sacrifice zones and some people into guinea pigs for the greater good. From the perspective of energy networks, it does not matter if there is a park, farm, or school on top of the hydrocarbons. But of course it does matter a great deal. It is that distortion that comes from higher levels of government abstraction that is the real danger. The view from local places is far more accurate: fracking is like Frankenstein’s monster, an unholy creature out of sync with the order of things.

The local perspective is the more human one. It is from this angle that the most important questions come into focus: what can happen in my neighbourhood and what will it do to my children, my lungs, and my water? That’s the stuff of local government and that’s why its power should trump state and federal laws.

But this is not about saying “no” to fracking as much as it is about simply having a say. It is only at the local scale of political activity that we can genuinely exercise “public freedom,” the capacity to take part in the decisions that directly affect our lives.

If a well is planned near your home or your child’s school, you ought to be involved in that decision, and local government is the only political institution that will be responsive. Take it from those in unincorporated areas living near wells governed only by the bare bones rules of state agencies concerned primarily with getting the minerals out of the ground. If you don’t live in an area with police and zoning powers, you are treated not as a person in a place but as a node on a network.

Ultimately, the case for local control of fracking is that being a citizen is more basic to our identity than being a consumer. At the local level, space opens up for citizen participation in a way that does not happen at the state and federal levels where things run according to big money. As Alexis de Tocqueville argued:

Municipal institutions constitute the strength of free nations. Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it. A nation may establish a free government, but without municipal institutions it cannot have the spirit of liberty.

State and federal government are welcome to set minimum standards for how fracking must be done, but local governments should be able to raise these standards and to decide where fracking can take place. This upholds the vital good of local self-determination, so that people can exercise meaningful control over their lives. After all, there is more at stake with fracking than environmental and economic concerns. There is also the question of whether we can escape the stupor of private consumption and find purpose in crafting the public good.

Adam Briggle is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion Studies and Faculty Fellow in the Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity at the University of North Texas. Until recently, he was Chair of the Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group, a citizens committee with the mission of fostering public education and civil dialogue and making policy recommendations about the local impacts of fracking in Denton, TX.

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Explainer: methamphetamine use and addiction in Australia

By Nicole Lee, Flinders University

More commonly known by the street names speed, ice or crystal meth, both amphetamine and methamphetamine belong to a group of stimulant drugs called amphetamines.


Australia has one of the highest rates of illicit methamphetamine use in the world and the highest use among English-speaking countries. Around 2.5% of Australians over 14 years – around half a million people – have used methamphetamine in the last year. This rate is three- to five-times higher than the USA, Canada (0.5%) or the UK (1%).

But what exactly is methamphetamine? And if so many Australians are using it, how is addiction or dependence treated?

Historical uses

Amphetamine was first synthesised in the late 1800s. No medical use was found until the late 1920s, after which amphetamines became widely available as an over-the-counter drug in the form of an inhaler, much like a ventolin inhaler is today.

Methamphetamine was first synthesised shortly after amphetamine in the late 1890s and was approved for use in the United States and other countries at the end of the second world war for treatment of a wide range of problems narcolepsy, mild depression, chronic alcoholism and hay fever.

War stockpiles of methamphetamine were released in the 1950s. Imperial War Museum

Both amphetamine and methamphetamine were used extensively in the second world war by both allied and axis forces to prevent fatigue in their combat troops.

The release of the war stockpile created the first amphetamine epidemic in the 1950s. Civilian users of both drugs began to see the recreational potential and the rise in use around the world caused many countries to ban or restrict production.

Today, amphetamines are prescription-only medicines used to treat attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy (a sleep disorder), and sometimes depression and obesity.

Occasionally prescription amphetamines, such as dexamphetamine, are also diverted to the illicit market.

Illicit use

The illegal manufacture of street amphetamines in Australia is almost exclusively methamphetamine.

Illicit methamphetamine is manufactured in local “meth labs” and also imported from South-East Asia.

The drug usually comes in powder or pills (speed) or crystalline (ice) forms. Although both can be used in many ways, speed is usually swallowed or snorted and ice is usually smoked or injected.


Methamphetamine in small to moderate doses increases energy and wakefulness, self-esteem and sociability and sexual arousal, and reduces appetite and lowers inhibitions.

Large quantities can result in paranoia and hallucinations, and a range of physical effects such as chest pain, dangerously high body temperature, muscle spasm, brain hemorrhage, heart attack and seizure.

Regular, long-term use of methamphetamine can result in dependence and neurotoxicity (damage to the brain). This is a particular risk of Australia’s 73,000 dependent users.

Crystal meth is manufactured locally in ‘meth labs’. Radspunk

How it works

Methamphetamine increases the level of dopamine, the brain’s natural pleasure chemical, to ten times its normal levels. Very little else can increase dopamine like methamphetamine.

Over time, the brain stops being able to produce enough dopamine on its own. It then needs more and more to get the same high (tolerance).

When a person stops using methamphetamine, they may start to feel depressed because their dopamine system has been worn out from over-producing dopamine. This is part of the withdrawal process: when the brain misses having the drug in its system. Symptoms of methamphetamine withdrawal include intense craving, anxiety, flat mood, decreased energy and motivation and problems sleeping.


Currently, the main treatment for methamphetamine dependence is cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). The main premise of CBT is that unhelpful thinking drives feelings and behaviour.

A methamphetamine user who has quit, for example, might think, “I can’t cope with these cravings,” and go back to using. CBT would teach them to identify and modify those thoughts that lead to relapse. A new thought might be, “these cravings are hard, but if I wait the feeling will go away.”

CBT has been show to be effective, even in small “doses” of two to four sessions.

However, methamphetamine users are often reluctant to seek treatment. The lack of an effective pharmaceutical therapy is considered a significant barrier to getting methamphetamine users into treatment.

Drug development

The search for a medicine to treat methamphetamine dependence has been ongoing for the best part of two decades. More than 18 different drugs have been trialled but none have been approved for methamphetamine treatment. While some of these medicines have shown some effects for some users, none have shown a big enough or widespread enough effect to be considered broadly useful.

One of the difficulties in finding an effective medicine is that methamphetamine can have a very complex action in the brain, affecting (and damaging) many systems, including reward pathways and multiple systems that control thinking, memory, attention and mood.

Now the US Food and Drug Administration has reportedly fast-tracked human tests of a potential new treatment after UCLA researchers conducted tests that showed that this new drug is safe for people who use methamphetamine, and seemed to reduce craving and improve brain functioning.

The new drug, ibudilast, is an anti-inflammatory substance that is used to treat asthma and stroke in Japan, and is thought to reduce reward from the activation of the dopamine system.

But the current UCLA ibudilast trial is in the early stages of development. Further investigations are still needed to see whether the medicine helps reduce or stop methamphetamine use, before it can be considered for general use.

The testing of any promising medicine is a crucial step forward for the treatment of methamphetamine dependence. Many drugs have previously looked promising and have made it through early testing but failed to show any significant benefits for dependent amphetamine users.

Nicole Lee has previously received funding from the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing for research into modafinil for methamphetamine withdrawal. Nicole is Adjunct Associate Professor at the National Drug Research Institute and Director of LeeJenn Health Consultants.

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Programmers take aim at sex trafficking

Their aim was to create a website where victims of trafficking could access information, services and help quickly and without detection by those who have detained them.


While non-governmental organisations across the globe struggle to agree on the figures, current estimates suggest around 1.2 million children are trafficked worldwide every year.

Research compiled by the University of Queensland puts the number of trafficking victims of any age in Australia at less than 100 per year, although that figure refers only to reported cases.

There’s a touch of deliberate irony in using the internet to help victims, says Ms Mirmomeni, given websites are often used to lure women and children into servitude.

“Three out of four of these girls were trafficked online,” she explains. “This project aimed to use the internet in the opposite direction.”

Their task formed part of a global challenge initiated by anti-trafficking organisations and supported by Microsoft.

Yasmin Vafa of the Human Rights Project for Girls in Washington D.C. says the idea of creating an online resource to help victims came out of years of working with survivors of trafficking and at-risk youth in the United States.

“We have become increasingly aware of and concerned with the role the internet was playing in the exploitation and marketing of children online for sex,” she says.

“So as an organisation, we had been playing and grappling with the idea of… how we might use the internet to protect these children and liberate these children.”

The web is also commonly available to girls even in marginalised situations, she says. “They’re still high-level consumers of internet technology.”

“The idea was to have a one-stop shop that would give the girls the resources, information and access to support to help them exit the life and seek the freedom they need.”

But the policy and advocate workers in Ms Vafa’s organisation had “zero experience with technology,” so they teamed up with Microsoft to assess the requirements.

Microsoft in turn set the task as a “hackathon” challenge – a women-only crowdsourcing event designed to encourage up-and-coming computer programmers in universities around the world to push their skills.

Rane Johnson, a research director for Microsoft, says the decision to target human trafficking as one aspect of the hackathon was intended to inspire women in technology as well as work towards solutions for a critical problem.

“The number one focus, really, is how do we encourage more women who want to be a computer scientist?” she says.

The challenge allowed young programmers to think creatively to get information to women whose movements might be monitored or restricted.

For participants, mobile phone apps were a popular choice.

“A lot of them wanted to go towards phone apps because most young victims aren’t going to have access to a computer, but they will have access to a smartphone,” says Ms Johnson.

In some cases, teams submitted apps that contained valuable information in clever disguises, such as a ‘princess’ game.

Mahtab Mirmomeni says the unusual nature of the task also helped her team stretch their skills in unexpected ways, as they were forced to consider complex problems and solutions.

Some, like the problem of hiding a digital footprint, had relatively simple solutions.

“One of the requirements is the website has to be hidden from the traffickers,” she says. “Their browsing history would not be saved on the computer.”

“Another problem was that we found out the girls [often] don’t even know where they are.”

A geo-locator button – similar to GPS – could be added to show a victim a map of her own location.

But the more challenging problems, says Yasmin Vafa, are related to the complex social issues that victims often face. “One of the things that we’ve seen in our work with survivors is that [help] has to be on her own time, and on her own terms.”

“It’s very rare that you’ll have a girl come in and be immediately ready to exit that kind of lifestyle.”

“Our vision was just to have a website there as a resource so that girls could come to it as many times as they needed and… at least know what services are available.”

Although the website will initially be targeted at US victims, it’s a model that could be adapted to suit other regions, says Ms Vafa.

The internet and sex trafficking

As the internet has grown and become a more sophisticated tool, sex traffickers have adapted their methods to use it to their advantage.

Activists at international anti-trafficking organisation Polaris Project have called it the “number one platform for pimps, traffickers and johns” in the US.

Websites such as largely unregulated virtual message board Craiglist have been found to be used as a mechanism for selling sex, sometimes illegally.

Unlike prostitution, trafficking involves the soliciting of sexual services under force or coercion. Often, it’s the most vulnerable girls and women who end up in the situation.

That includes a “vast number” of children and runaway youth in the US, says Ms Vafa.

View more about the Hackathon project here.

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