Solutions for a net zero world the focus of Sydney’s newest research flagship

Director of the Net Zero Institute,   Deanna D’Alessandro. Image: Stefanie
Director of the Net Zero Institute, Deanna D’Alessandro. Image: Stefanie Zingsheim, University of Sydney
The University of Sydney has elevated a previously grassroots collective of researchers to one of its flagship research centres to accelerate solution-based research and assist the world in meeting its climate change goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The Net Zero Institute , previously the Net Zero Initiative, brings together more than 150 researchers from across the University to develop solutions across various disciplines, from extracting critical minerals from waste and greenhouse gas removals to net zero health and green computing.

University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor and President Professor, Mark Scott AO, said: "Decarbonising our society and our economy so our kids and grandkids have a liveable planet is one of the greatest global challenges of our time."

"Our  Sydney in 2032  strategy sets out our aspiration to be in the solutions business, bringing the considerable expertise of our diverse community of researchers together to partner with industry, government and civil society for the common good. I’m delighted that the Net Zero Institute is the first new multidisciplinary initiative to be supported under the strategy and I congratulate all those involved."

The University’s research flagships, known as  multidisciplinary initiatives  (MDIs), aim to address some of the biggest challenges of our time, from the mental health crisis to reducing inequalities.

Professor  Deanna D’Alessandro  from the Faculty of Engineering will lead the Net Zero Institute with a focus on decarbonisation solutions in partnership with government, industry, business and communities; technologies and policies that allow for responsible and rapid adoption and impact.

The Institute already has established industry and scientific advisory boards comprising sector-leading experts from Worley, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Veolia, Origin, HSBC, Hyundai, Arnott’s, and Rio Tinto. Recently announced, the University of Sydney Business School will also offer an  executive Net Zero course  in partnership with HSBC Australia to support Australian corporates preparing for upcoming mandatory sustainability reporting.

Professor Emma Johnston , Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), said Professor D’Alessandro will lead the new multi-disciplinary Institute while continuing to play a direct role in driving the net zero mission forward. 

"Professor D’Alessandro is a world-leading researcher whose team worked with industry partners Southern Green Gas, to develop technology that captures and removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. She is focused on the translation of research innovations to commercialisation and impact, bridging the gap between science and the boardroom to accelerate change." 

"Professor D’Alessandro is ideally placed to harness the immense breadth and depth of expertise at the University to support the rapid transition the world needs to make towards net zero emissions." 

Professor D’Alessandro said since the Initiative was first conceived in 2022 as a "grassroots" collective, it has quickly gained momentum.

"We now comprise over 150 researchers and the pace of growth is only quickening with our elevation to Institute. The broadening of the Institute’s scope is integral to developing decarbonised solutions that address climate change drivers across society, spanning the whole decarbonisation puzzle.

"Climate change is a pernicious, whole-of-society issue that requires a whole-of-institution response. It is deeply embedded in every facet of our society, and it is an issue we must tackle on every front."

"Take, for example, computing. It was initially heralded for reducing paper use. But now we have e-waste, we have data centres that require vast amounts of energy to run."

This area is being addressed by Associate Professor Chang Xu who is improving the efficiency of algorithms so that the hardware they run on requires less energy.

"Most of the time when people use large language models like ChatGPT, they are making small queries or asking for help on pretty simple tasks. Yet these models still fire on all cylinders to develop a response, increasing energy use. When you think about a healthy human brain - it doesn’t fire all neurons or use all’of its brain power at once. It selectively uses neurons from different hemispheres of the brain to perform different tasks or thinking.

"We are developing algorithms that do just that, that bypass the redundant computations they don’t need, so they don’t automatically go into high gear, meaning far less energy is required."

The Net Zero Institute complements the University’s own push to put sustainability at the heart of campus operations, environments and engagement activities. The University of Sydney is  ranked #1 in Australia for sustainability and #7 in the world.

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