Mark McHenry is a physicist, an innovator and an explorer of clean energy solutions. He’s worked on research projects in America, the Philippines and Mozambique and is an Associate Professor at Murdoch Uni’s Harry Butler Institute. He is also an avid organic veggie grower who loves sharing his passion for all things “geeky”.
“The way they teach you to think about physics at Uni basically gives you the fundamentals of everything,” Mark explains.
“People often poo poo that statement and say it’s an oversimplification but by understanding the fundamentals you can understand 80 per cent of everything with 20 per cent of the information – as long as that information is correct.”
Mark is currently putting his physics knowledge into numerous food and energy projects and one of his studies involves truffles.
“The issue with truffles in Western Australia is its reliance on just one or two species of host trees and only one species of truffle. We’re looking at creating diversification of host trees and more varieties of truffles so the industry can be more resilient and have an extended season. We’re also looking at the related issue of fungicides as you can’t use fungicides when you’re trying to grow a fungus, which is what a truffle is.”
So if your truffle-tree’s got pathogenic-fungus, what do you do? Mark does what every good academic does. He looks at what’s already known.
“All living things evolved to deal with the ultraviolet light that comes with sunlight. Research has recently discovered that the protective mechanism used by fungus to shield against UV doesn’t occur at night. This means we can use the same UV frequency to target fungus without the use of chemicals. All you need to do is shine a simple UV light over the plant at night and voila! No more fungus. Just think of the powdery mildew on your pumpkins, tomatoes, cucumbers – you can grow them without mildew without using fungicides.”
The type of UV Mark is specifically talking about is Ultraviolet-C which is a known disinfectant of air, water and nonporous surfaces. UVC lamps have effectively been used to reduce the spread of bacteria, hence they’re often called “germicidal” lamps. Mark says anyone can get a battery-powered UVC lamp simply by shopping online.
Mark’s also doing research into the issue of what to do with green waste.
“When you accumulate massive mounds of green waste it kind of stinks. It’s a fire hazard and it’s usually wet when burnt so it’s really smokey and no one likes to breathe that. We’re trialling a new way of dealing with this waste by turning it into biochar which can be used as soil conditioner.”
Simply put, biochar is created when biomass (green matter) is burnt in a low oxygen atmosphere. The resulting carbon-rich charcoal can then be used to improve and maintain soil fertility and increase soil carbon sequestration.
“You basically just stick it in a box and heat it. It sustains its own chemical reaction and when it gets hot it burns. Essentially you end up with carbon dioxide, water and carbon in the form of charcoal. Sixty to 80 per cent of the original carbon ends up being held within the biochar. It looks pretty much like grains of black fertiliser and you can just chuck it on the soil, dig it in or add it to your potting mix.”
For all Mark’s knowledge, expertise and enthusiasm it may be surprising to learn that he does not do this work for some big corporation or money-making venture. Mark works for the good of the people.
“For me it’s about collaborating and sharing information freely. When you’re an academic you’re trained to do things for the public good. You’re trained via a public investment in your university education and I reckon there’s a social obligation to try and teach people about scientific truths and do things that benefit the public.”