'Phenomenal' demand for net-zero talent

Australia needs more investment in research and skills as economies compete for the best brains to develop emissions-busting technologies.

"Good climate and energy policy is good economic policy as well," federal Science and Industry Minister Ed Husic told researchers and industry innovators on Monday.

"Reaching net-zero goals requires an urgent system-wide change to how we live and work."

But Willy Zwaenepoel, a world-leading expert in experimental computer science research, warns there's a "phenomenal demand" for people to work in the fields of energy, emissions reduction and sustainability.

To escape the so-called valley of death, where great ideas fail to get out of a lab, many universities are already working with industry to develop commercially viable technologies to counter climate change.

"Above all, I think it's people that are important, and I think we're going to be short on people to do this," Professor Zwaenepoel told the conference.

"It's going to be particularly hard in the net-zero industry."

He said the old model of returning to university for a year or two of advanced research was no longer practical.

Student placements with industry and short courses to get micro-credentials were part of the answer, he said.

The first University of Sydney Australian Net Zero Initiative Conference is being run this week alongside a Circular Economy Conference to showcase research on emissions reduction, waste and pollution.

"A circular economy will ensure that we're on track to make these changes and support energy transformation," Mr Husic said.

"Sounds like a simple idea - we're using inputs into our economy more than once to retain their value and reduce environmental impact - but it's a transformative idea as well."

Deputy vice-chancellor Annamarie Jagose said their net-zero initiative, launched this year, had accelerated research in high-priority areas of decarbonisation that several decades ago would have seemed fanciful.

For example, Professor Jun Huang is leading a team working on capturing emissions directly from power plants and turning them into hydrogen fuel, or from air-conditioning systems in large buildings.

Hazer Group and Gelion Technologies are working with Professor Yuan Chen to develop carbon nanotubes, nanofibers and synthetic graphite as conductors for fast-charging electric car batteries and next-generation batteries for storing renewable power.

Other researchers are using complex mathematical models and data to better understand energy use or to develop smart and sustainable net-zero buildings.

All technologies are needed to confront the legacy of the industrial revolution and widespread fossil fuel use, which pumped 1.5 trillion tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, Professor Deanna D'Alessandro said.

Direct air capture, a process which sucks carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, can address the issue of past emissions, she said.

Her team of researchers is working with Southern Green Gas and AspiraDAC on the world's first solar-powered project that buries captured carbon in permanent storage.

She said a demonstration project intends to capture 310 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.

AspiraDAC has also sold its first credits to Frontier, which is a fund for carbon removal investments that is backed by Stripe, Shopify, Meta, Google and McKinsey.

Global services firm Worley announced at the conference it would fund two scholarships for students researching climate change risk at the university's John Grill Institute for Project Leadership.