In the 1990s, Mumbai-born scientist and engineer Veena Sahajwalla moved to Australia to start work at the CSIRO - the organisation responsible for innovations such as WiFi and plastic bank notes. Now a few decades into her Australian tenure, Professor Sahajwalla is the director of the University of New South Wales’ Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT). Here she is leading the global charge to combat the recycling, waste and emissions crisis.
When Australia Innovates last checked in with Sahajwalla she was launching ‘green steel’. This project re-engineered traditional furnaces to use waste rubber tyres as a source of carbon in the steel manufacturing process. “The technology is up and running and recycling millions of tyres globally,” says Sahajwalla, who prioritised the commercial viability of the project before releasing the technology. “It’s one example of how waste materials can deliver positive outcomes and it’s the first use of waste material in commercial production,” she says.
Not one to sit still, Sahajwalla has since moved onto the next hurdle: revolutionising the world’s manufacturing landscape. “It’s the ultimate challenge, it’s where the environment, the economy and disruption all meet,” she says. Today, SMaRT is at the cusp of setting up the world’s first commercial microfactory.
Each year, approximately two billion tons of waste is created globally. It’s a number exacerbated by single use consumerism, with 99 per cent of all items purchased discarded within the first 6 months.
Sahajwalla believes that much of the waste ending up in landfill is a renewable resource. Yet the burden to deal with these unwanted items has fallen down-stream to the consumer and local councils. So to help stimulate a circular economy with minimal resources sent to landfill, SMaRT has developed micro-recycling science in the form of microfactories.
The team has already produced building panels from old clothing, 3D printing filaments from discarded plastic and metal alloys from electronic waste. “This collaborative economy is a fabulous way to support the development of a small town where you won’t expect big companies to come in and operate,” she says.
“It’s quite different to the way we’ve been thinking about manufacturing, but we have the opportunity to be quite clever in the way we produce new materials. A community’s waste could become part of the supply chain.”
Traditionally the word ‘manufacturing’ signals a looming, immobile factory with a large footprint. But SMaRT’s microfactories are a mobile series of small machines and devices that can operate on a site as small as 50 square metres. The team’s patented technology is then tailored to process a specific waste material.
“If you could recycle plastic to plastic or glass to glass, nothing would be going to landfill, but it’s not that simple. Therefore microfactories need to be flexible.” To testrun the idea, UNSW set up a microfactory in its basement in early 2018. It was so successful a second is currently being built and the university is now working with industry to deploy the patent commercially across Australia.
“We’ve had waste collectors, furniture designers, builders and local council come into our microfactory and be inspired to employ this clean technology. You only have to start a conversation to create change, and we see the microfactory growing globally into endless possibilities of positive change.”
Australia has long been at the forefront of science and innovation, with substantial funding from government fuelling the work of universities and research organisations. Increasingly, industry has also joined the charge by adopting the ideas and helping propel clean technologies into reality.
Professor Sahajwalla says it’s thanks to this positive climate that her work has been so effective. “It takes a whole country to innovate, that’s what I love about doing my work here in Australia.” Regardless of the final outcome, Sahajwalla says people here are genuinely excited about innovation. “We value our environment and want to protect it at all costs, and science is an important part of this. Australia is globally impacting how science is keeping our planet clean.”