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AFR and Westpac 100 Women of influence winner on waste

11 April 2016

Prof Veena Sahajwalla 100 Women Of Influence Awards 2015 Gala Dinner Credit Belinda Rolland 9

Professor Veena Sahajwalla (above) grew up in India. She remembers walking with her mother through the streets of her home city, Mumbai, and being endlessly fascinated by people’s entrepreneurial verve and their ability to re-use and recycle.

“It was the inventiveness of the people I saw as a child in Mumbai that really inspired me in my career. I studied at university but innovation comes down to determining what the available elements are and using your creativity to do something with that knowledge.

“In my work, understanding what is available at a molecular level, and its value, can be used to explore how those same molecules might be used in a completely different way. Things get very exciting when you see how to transform them into a new product. Of course, you have to consider how useful the new products will be to society,” says Veena, who is director of UNSW’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (smart@unsw.edu.au).

Judged top of her category, Innovation, in the 2015 Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence awards, Veena’s mantra is ‘reduce, recycle, re-use,’ and most importantly, ‘re-form’.

“It’s not just about turning glass into more glass, or one type of plastic into more of the same, and it’s not about simply burning our vast mountains of waste to create energy. It’s about harnessing the power of high-temperature reactions to transform waste at its most basic molecular level - to ‘re-form’ those waste products to create new products,” says Veena.

According to this scientist, those opportunities around re-forming have to begin at an asset’s or technology’s inception. The important questions to ask are, what are the components of any new asset or technology and how can they be used when the initial life of the asset or technology is over?

One example of this process has been her close collaboration with industry partner OneSteel to develop Polymer Injection Technology.

“The technology,” she explains, “uses old tyres and plastics to provide a source of carbon to replace a significant proportion of the non-renewable coke used to make steel in electric arc furnaces”.

Polymer Injection Technology, according to all reports, is good for the environment and has financial benefits, “reducing electricity consumption, lowering carbon injectant costs and delivering yield and productivity improvements.”

It has also reduced dumped tyre waste in Australia by more than two million tyres, says Veena, who has now set her sights on transforming another part of used cars.

“Automotive glass is mostly silica, along with waste plastic, such as Bakelite, and iron oxide and can be transformed into something valuable without the need for separation when processed at high enough temperatures.

“The output is a valuable metallic alloy, but what is fascinating is none of the inputs were metallic. You have waste oxides, silica in glass and iron oxide, and plastic mixtures,” she finishes.

In 2014, Veena was awarded $2.37 million for research into micro-recycling of e-waste by the Federal Government, an ARC Laureate Fellowship.

One can only imagine what she has in store for our growing piles of electronic waste where, she believes, the high-temperature approach could be used to transform the mix of plastics, glass and valuable materials inherent in it while ridding us of toxic land fill.

“My childhood in Mumbai introduced me to the idea of micro-enterprises,” she says of her vision to see small factories transforming these products in a distributed and decentralised fashion.

Waste for Veena is not valueless. It’s not something to be downgraded: “Transforming something from waste into a high value product, perhaps a niche product that might then play a part in a greater supply chain, is an exciting manufacturing and small business development.”

Transforming plays yet another part in Veena’s life. She has an ambassadorial role promoting women in STEM through her Georgina Sweet Fellowship (awarded to her as an ARC Laureate Fellow).

Science 50:50 is a concept developed by Veena which aims to inspire Australian girls and young women to pursue degrees and careers in science and technology so they can succeed in what she sees as an innovation-driven future.

“To inspire young women to continue into STEM [Science Technology Engineering Maths] careers, you need to think about how you get them excited. Seeing and experiencing product manufacture and the development of concepts in the real world is a great way of doing this.

“The 50:50 program does this and with the support of industry and other organisations it’s gone so much further than I ever thought. It’s a program I am proud to be associated with and its success is very humbling,” Veena finishes.

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