This grass ain’t no weed

UQ digital content producer Matthew Taylor joined a team of researchers on a trip to north-west Queensland – to learn all about grass.


The remote Queensland township of Camooweal could list all its features on the back of a postcard – and still have room to spare. It has a population of 315, a pub, an airstrip used by the Royal Flying Doctors service, and a world-changing grass growing as far as the eye can see.

It’s this grass – spinifex – that has lured Professor Darren Martin, Dr Nasim Amiralian and Dr Pratheep Annamalai more than 2000km to the remote town in north-west Queensland, only a stone’s throw to the Northern Territory border.

I followed the team to learn more about spinifex and document their journey.

Dr Pratheep Annamalai, Dr Nasim Amiralian and Professor Darren Martin in Camooweal
Dr Pratheep Annamalai, Dr Nasim Amiralian and Professor Darren Martin in Camooweal

This team of UQ researchers specialises in materials engineering and nanotechnology, and the properties of the humble spinifex grass have them very excited.

“It’s really like nothing else we’ve seen,” Darren says, kneeling next to a large clump of spinifex.

“The nano-fibres that we can extract are long and thin, only tens of atoms wide but thousands of atoms long.

“As a materials scientist, this is exactly what we look for when we want to reinforce flexible materials.”

Magnified spinifex nano-fibres
Magnified spinifex nano-fibres

The nano-fibres, or nanos as they are affectionately known at the Dugalunji Training and Accommodation Centre camp where the team is staying, have already been used to improve the strength and flexibility of latex products, such as condoms and gloves.

But according to Nasim, who discovered the particles, that's just the beginning.

“Nanos are going to revolutionise material science,” she says. “They're going to be used in multiple industries."

It’s 37 degrees Celsius at Camooweal and there is almost zero humidity. It’s hot. Really hot. And there’s no shade. The average annual rainfall is only 120ml. But it’s these conditions that make the spinifex grass thrive. The grass has inhabited the Australian continent for 20 million years and has evolved perfectly to endure the harsh desert environment.

Indigenous people have been using spinifex for tens of thousands of years. The grass produces a waxy resin. Small beads of the wax can be knocked off and collected by thrashing the grass with sticks. The wax is heated and molded, and sets as hard as rock when it cools. Traditionally, the resin was used to bind rock points to timber spears, create molded handles for rock tools, and as a glue to repair containers.

The grass itself was used for thatching roofs and reinforcing mud brick. Even now, the Dugalunji camp vehicle shed has a spinifex thatch roof, and the resin is still used for patching holes in tanks and making stone tools.  

Using spinifex to make stone tools
Collecting the wax from spinifex and making stone tools 
Stone tool made with spinifex resin
Stone tool made with spinifex resin

In 2008, UQ Anthropologist Professor Paul Memmott led a multidisciplinary research team to look at the science of spinifex. That project led to Darren and his team discovering the nano-fibres.

Work is now under way to get spinifex nano-fibres into latex condoms and gloves, and other plastics and rubber compounds. There is potential for a renewable carbon fibre and Pratheep is working on stronger, more durable bitumen for use on roads. But it’s not just the potential of all these new and improved products that makes everyone involved in the project so excited.

Indigenous Land and Sea Rangers harvest spinifex grass
Indigenous Land and Sea Rangers harvest spinifex grass

Jobs are scarce in this remote part of Australia, and a new industry could deliver work and opportunities. The team is committed to helping develop a spinifex industry in collaboration with the Indjalandji-Dhidhamu people – the traditional owners and custodians of the spinifex and land.

Colin Saltmere is the Managing Director of the Indjalandji-Dhidhanu Aboriginal Corporation and plays host to the research team. He's excited at the prospect of a spinifex industry at Camooweal.

"I've been making stuff with spinifex since I was a kid. For it to become an industry that can employ our mob on our land – it's beyond exciting. To tell you the truth mate, we're giddy.”

This remote corner of Queensland could be destined for international fame. A mere two days here, surrounded by spinifex and people singing its praises, has convinced me that this discovery could well change the world.

Last updated:
8 April 2016