INTHEBLACK July 2020 - Page 27



T H E S T R AT E G I S T
// P R O F E S S O R V E E N A S A H A J WA L L A
REFORMING
AND RECYCLING
your imagination goes wild. I wondered what they were
making and how they got the liquid chocolate to become
that solid slab and all the challenges there must have been
to get it right.”
That early interest in materials science led Sahajwalla to
study engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology,
where she was the only woman in her class. She went
on to earn her master’s degree at the University of
British Columbia and, while completing her PhD at
the University of Michigan, she was offered a job at
Australia’s national science and research agency, CSIRO.
WHEELS IN MOTION
Sahajwalla’s stint at the CSIRO led to an academic
position at UNSW, and it was in one of the university’s
laboratories that she pioneered her green steel technology.
In Australia, 50 million vehicle tyres reach the end
of their life each year, and only 16 per cent are recycled.
Sahajwalla’s technology involves melting down carbonrich rubber tyres to replace some of the non-renewable
coke in the production of steel.
Rubber is cheaper than coke. It also creates less waste,
which represents a cost saving to industry.
When rubber is transformed into smaller molecules
in a furnace, millions of rubber tyres have been diverted
from landfill thanks to Sahajwalla’s innovation.
“When we talk about recycling, it’s generally about
converting like for like – converting a plastic bottle into
another plastic bottle, for instance – but this is quite
limited,” Sahajwalla says.
“Old tyres are no longer roadworthy, so they can’t be
reused as tyres. What if you can see that old tyre as a
collection of molecules that can be transformed and used
in other manufacturing solutions?”
POWER OF COLLABORATION
In 2005, Sahajwalla won the prestigious Eureka Prize for
her green steel invention and, while she describes it as a
“wonderful outcome”, the scientific recognition was not
enough. “I wanted to use the research outcomes to create
sustainable industry practices,” she says. “I needed to be
able to show the steel industry that the benefits were not
just environmental, but also economic.”
Fast-forward over a decade, and she has visited
countless manufacturing centres across the country
to promote the environmental and economic benefits
of green manufacturing. She says engaging with the
business community has been vital to getting her
innovations to market. “We need scientific collaborators,”
she says. “We also need [industry] partners who are open
to trying new products and seeing the benefits in the
longer term.”
Michael Sharpe, national director – industry at
the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre, says
Sahajwalla “understands the path to commercialisation
and what it takes to be successful”.
32 ITB July 2020
“WASTE IS NOT A
PROBLEM TO BE
MANAGED; IT IS
AN OPPORTUNITY
TO BE EXPLORED.”
“Veena and I have walked the factory floors in
places like Dubbo and Armidale to talk about robotics
and automation, and we’ve spoken with manufacturers
in Perth and Adelaide about the benefits of recycling
and the circular economy,” he says.
“At every point, Veena is open about the
possibilities that exist for manufacturers, and this has
led to companies coming in from across Australia to
visit her at UNSW’s SMaRT Centre to investigate
ways of developing new technologies. Veena knows
what it takes to have a go, but, most importantly,
how to have a beneficial impact.”
Q&A WITH
THE INVENTOR
What is the greatest lesson
you’ve learnt in your career?
The more people think that
something is impossible, the more
likely that a solution can be found
if you put your mind to it.
You are an inventor. What does
a “eureka” moment feel like?
It’s absolutely exhilarating. Even
if it doesn’t present the complete
solution to a problem, discovering
what you think may work leads to
the next step. It’s a great feeling.
You get goosebumps.
What are you currently reading?
I’m reading The Cattle King by Ion
Idriess, which is about [Australian
pastoralist] Sir Sidney Kidman and
how he built his cattle empire. It
captures the Australian spirit.
Did you develop any new routines
during the COVID-19 lockdown?
The lack of clear routine has been
good for me. It means that I have
had more fabulous thinking time,
because I haven’t been caught in
traffic, driving to and from work.
Do you have any advice for
budding innovators?
When you challenge the norm,
you will have the spirit of
innovation in you. Don’t ever
let it die! People might think
you’re crazy because your ideas
are different, but don’t let it
bother you.
THE MICROFACTORY OF THE FUTURE
Many of these new manufacturing technologies
are being developed via Sahajwalla’s unique
microfactory model.
Microfactories feature a series of small machines
and devices that use patented technology to perform
one or more functions in the reforming of waste
products into new and usable resources. They can be
installed in an area as small as 50-100 square metres,
and can be set up wherever waste is stockpiled, such
as a building site or alongside regional waste disposal
sites, to process waste at the source.
Sahajwalla says the microfactory model may
disrupt the current highly centralised, vertically
integrated industrial model.
“My model is one that is laterally integrated
to allow different operators in the supply chain
to connect,” she says. “If you can localise your
solution, you’ve actually enabled everybody
across the country to benefit by enhancing our
manufacturing capabilities.”
The first microfactory was launched at UNSW
with funding Sahajwalla received from the
Australia Research Council (ARC), to convert
electronic waste input into new products.
Electronic devices are broken down and scanned
by a robotic module to identify useful parts, which
are then transformed into valuable materials.
Computer circuit boards, for example, can be
turned into valuable metal alloys such as copper,
while plastics can be converted into filaments for
3D printing, which Sahajwalla describes as a
“cost-effective” alternative.
E-waste microfactory industry partners include
MolyCop, e-waste recycler TES, and spectacle
manufacturer Dresden, which makes its frames
from recycled plastics.
A second microfactory was launched at UNSW
last year, to transform waste materials such as glass
and textiles into tiles, ceramics and panels that can
be used for building products and furniture.
Industry partner Mirvac has used Sahajwalla’s
ceramic tiles in its new apartment complex in
Sydney’s Marrickville.
Diana Sarcasmo, general manager design, marketing
and sales at Mirvac, says the partnership is part of
the company’s sustainability strategy to achieve
zero waste to landfill by 2030. The Marrickville
project is located on the site of an old hospital,
with 90 per cent of construction waste recycled.
“Veena is incredibly engaging and passionate,”
Sarcasmo says. “She’s a true collaborator.” Mirvac
is looking to set up its own microfactory on one
of its building sites. “The whole idea of having a
local plant is that we wouldn’t be using transport,
so we could recycle what we’ve got on site and then
keep it onsite, so that we can tap into the circular
economy,” Sarcasmo says.
This is exactly what Sahajwalla had hoped for her
microfactory model. The global rollout has already
started – Sahajwalla is talking with engineers in
India to set up microfactories across the country.
“The value-added part of creating highly valuable
products [from waste] that can be sold into the
economy has not quite happened in places like
India,” she says. “There’s been a lot of front-end
work with waste being collected, but we want the
economy to reward everyone in that supply chain.”
Sahajwalla sees innovations such as microfactories
and green steel technology as new export
opportunities for Australia.
“With green steel, we’re not putting steel on
a ship and sending it away,” she says. “We’re
exporting our knowledge and our intellectual
property. Waste is not a problem to be managed; it
is an opportunity to be explored.”
The Australian Council of
Recycling and the Waste
Management and Resource
Recovery Association of
Australia (WMRR) estimate a
A$150 million investment by
federal and state governments
is required to reboot the local
recycling industry and foster the
creation of a circular economy.
Sahajwalla says green
manufacturing is a vital part
of the circular economy. In
addition to her role at UNSW
and NSW Circular Economy
Innovation Network, she also
heads the ARC Industrial
Transformation Research Hub
for green manufacturing,
which works in collaboration
with industry to ensure new
science is translated into
real-world environmental
and economic benefits.
“It’s not entirely funded by
government,” Sahajwalla says.
“Industry contribution is vital
to the model.”
Green manufacturing aims to
transform traditional business
and manufacturing practices –
and the mindset of stakeholders
– to reduce the industrial
impact on climate change and
other environmental concerns.
Sahajwalla thinks about green
manufacturing as “reforming” in
addition to recycling.
“You’re not necessarily
converting something into the
same product, but rather
reforming it into something
else,” she says. “There’s a huge
amount of embedded value in
things like everyday electronic
products, so why shouldn’t we
tap into it and create that value
right here in Australia, rather
than sending it away for
someone else to tap into? I
think manufacturers are really
excited about it – they are
seeing lots of new opportunities
coming down the pipeline.”
intheblack.com July 2020 33

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