Scientia Professor Veena Sahajwalla, shares how the rubbish heaps of Mumbai inspired her to invent a way to use recycled plastics and tyres in steel making.
It might be difficult to imagine how the rubbish heaps of Mumbai would be inspiring. Yet for one local girl, watching the ragpickers trawl landfills for items to sell sparked a career that has led to award-winning inventions and international recognition.
Materials engineer and innovator Veena Sahajwalla is the Director of Sustainable Materials Research and Technology – the SMaRT centre – at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). The Scientia Professor and her research team are at the forefront of waste recycling technology. They work with industry and research partners to translate their developments into viable technologies to use in commercial manufacturing.
Veena is the inventor of ‘green steel’ manufacturing – an environmentally-friendly process for using recycled rubber tyres in steel making. In 2005 she received the Eureka Prize for Scientific Research and the 2006 Environmental Technology Award from the Association of Iron & Steel Technology in the United States. Since then, Veena has won many more awards, including an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship in 2014.
Underpinning those impressive credentials, she is a citizen of the world and a passionate ambassador for using waste as raw materials in manufacturing. When she talks about her background, the reasons behind her vocation become clear.
Veena was born in Mumbai and brought up in India’s industrial heartland. The most populous city in India, Mumbai produces an estimated 10,000 metric tonnes of waste a day. It’s also the electronic waste capital of the country, sending 11,000 tonnes of it for disposal a year.
Mumbai is well known for its slum-dwellers, who pick among the rubbish heaps for paper, plastic, cardboard and anything of value to sell on to scrap dealers.
“People in the most disadvantaged communities were doing so much with so little,” says Veena. “They were making livelihoods around collecting and recycling end-of life products. People can be very entrepreneurial.”
Seeing so much garbage piled up and people finding value in it has influenced Veena’s understanding about the reality of waste from a young age, and her career direction.
“There was a lot of rubbish lying around that would end up polluting the local environment,” Veena says. “I suppose I had a eureka moment as a girl. I thought: ‘How could I improve things around me?’
“When you’re a child, you don’t have all the answers in your head, but you know what your heart is telling you about what you’d like to do as an adult,” she adds.
As she grew up, Veena developed a “fascination” with science and technology. She pursued studies in science and engineering. She was the only woman in her Bachelor of Engineering class at university in India.
After her first degree, Veena moved to North America for her postgraduate courses. She undertook her Masters of Science in Metals and Materials Engineering at the University of British Columbia, Canada, followed by a doctorate in Materials Sciences and Engineering at the University of Michigan, US.
Veena says she chose to study in North America to broaden her horizons.
“I wanted to see the world, something different to India, and to learn how its approach might not be the best way to deal with the environment,” says Veena. “Also, like many young women at that time, I had a desire to make an impact on the world as a woman.”
By studying in the US and Canada, Veena learnt that even though the nature of waste can vary from region to region, nobody wants it in their backyards. This expanded her thinking about how rubbish could be re-used, and how society was taking resources for granted. This gave her a steer for putting her knowledge into practice.
“As a society, we have not been smart in tapping into end-of-life materials as a resource,” says Veena. “I had long been interested in science and doing work with a practical purpose. When combined with my desire as a materials engineer to see waste as a resource, I could see lots of exciting opportunities.”
In her research, Veena says she was motivated by the environmental three Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle – which she describes as “the low hanging fruit in waste management”. For instance, recycling generally meant turning glass back into glass products and PET plastic bottles back into plastics.
However, she realised that society had a problem with goods that didn’t sit within the three Rs. Some products were landfilled because they were made of a mix of materials, which could not be recycled easily.
“I started thinking about when we can’t recycle, we need to think about re-forming the waste,” says Veena.
This direction turned her traditional thinking about recycling products upside down, leading Veena to the view that hard-to-recycle waste could have great value if its elements were targeted.
“You have to ask the right questions,” says Veena. “It isn’t about asking, ‘What is it?’ – It’s a plastic bottle that’s the wrong sort of plastic to recycle. One needs to ask: ‘What is the plastic bottle made out of and how can we get to those elements?’”
This was the trigger behind Veena’s research into using end-of-life products as raw materials in manufacturing. In addition to creating a new resource to draw from, this would have the added environmental benefits in reducing landfill and increasing energy efficiency in the production process.
The SMaRT Centre
After finishing her PhD in the US, Veena wanted to remain in academia. The opportunity to combine research with building collaborative partnerships with external groups led her to the Faculty of Science at UNSW.
“That working together – with other researchers, government and industry bodies, and manufacturers – to exchange knowledge and learn, is encouraged at UNSW,” says Veena. “That helped us when developing the green manufacturing hub.”
When talking about her invention of ‘green steel’ technology, Veena explains it as a decade-long journey, rather than a single moment. It was 2003 when she pioneered the technology in a laboratory at UNSW. The name developed as the research came to an end through discussions with industry partners. Then in 2005 she won the Eureka Prize for Scientific Research for her innovation.
Veena then describes 2008 as a “landmark year”. She was appointed Founding Director of the SMaRT Centre at UNSW, which was being established to focus on advancing the sustainability of materials and processes in manufacturing. In addition, One Steel, now Arrium Mining and Materials, came on board as an industry partner. That was when the commercial possibilities of her invention started progressing.
Veena had already gained prominence for her award-winning idea of using the carbon and hydrogen from waste plastics to make steel. However, as her research team worked on a way to commercialise it, they found another efficient method was to use the polymers from end-of-life tyres.
The waste tyres provide the carbon required, replacing the need for as much coal or coke. Using this product also speeds up the process. This increases the energy efficiency of the furnace, costing less for the manufacturer to produce.
SMaRT conducted successful trials with One Steel, who then incorporated the technology into its commercial production process in 2009. So far, this has led to more than 2 million tyres in Australia being diverted from landfill and processed into a feedstock for manufacturing steel. The SMaRT Centre has since licensed the technology to One Steel, and it is being rolled out around the world.
Veena won several awards for this commercial application of her team’s technology, including The Australian Innovation Challenge award in December 2012, which recognises inventors who create “solutions to world problems that also offer positive environmental and community benefits”. The awards committee said her technology “was a fine example of how you can have a win/win for both industrial productivity and the environment”.
Then in May 2013, Veena became the first Australian to deliver the Howe Memorial Lecture, in Pittsburgh, US, a prestigious invitation in the global iron and steel industry. The honorary lecturer is selected for their outstanding contribution to scientific and developmental research.
Veena is rightly proud of her individual and team’s successes, and the positive outcomes these have generated for the SMaRT Centre.
In June 2014, the centre was singled out to become a green manufacturing hub with an $8.8 million investment. The federal government contributed $2.2 million as part of the Australian Research Council’s Industrial Transformation Research Hubs scheme. Industry partners agreed to fund the balance of the investment and provide in-kind support for the four-year project. The hub’s goal is to research transforming waste from mixed plastics and glass to manufacture products for the building and mining industry.
“With items like windscreen glass, that are made from several elements, you need to extract the valuable materials within them to create a new generation of value-added products,” explains Veena. “At the same time, you are using waste that would otherwise be landfilled, and it can lead to energy efficiencies in the process.”
Veena also won an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship in August 2014. This included a $2.37 million award to the SMaRT Centre for research in micro-recycling of electronic waste into high-value materials.
Veena says the overarching goal of both these projects – and the SMaRT Centre team – is to change the perception of waste, so industry and the general public see it as a valuable commodity. She says that so much more can be achieved in green manufacturing, calling it “the green revolution”.
“We want to change attitudes about landfilling waste,” says Veena. “As scientists and engineers, we can create solutions that go beyond conventional thinking. We can look for smarter, cleaner ways of manufacturing that have a low impact on the environment.”
As a result of the recognition she has achieved as an inventor, and the SMaRT Centre’s growing reputation, Veena’s role now is broad and varied. Her daily work at UNSW involves discussions with students and colleagues on new concepts, which can often continue into the laboratory. She also has regular meetings with the SMaRT Centre’s collaborators and industry partners, as part of the research and development process.
“When you’re leading a unit, you are part of the intellectual drive to promote its work, the analysis and interpretation of the research done,” says Veena. “But it’s also a very hands-on role, evaluating students and mentoring and supervising in the laboratory on new ideas.”
She is also a sought-after keynote speaker on the conference circuit for a range of industries and organisations.
Most recently, Veena has been involved with moving the SMaRT Centre, along with the rest of UNSW’s School of Materials Science and Engineering, to a new building on campus. Its new home includes a state of the art laboratory, and has the capacity to allow the centre to grow significantly.
Despite having so much on her plate, Veena is already looking at another challenge. She would like to see recycling and manufacturing of waste materials achieved in local areas, in “micro factories”.
For this to happen, Veena says there has to be a change in mindset, where people appreciate the ongoing value in their end-of-life products, and councils see themselves as raw materials suppliers. She gives one example that e-waste has a concentrated resource of copper, at 10 per cent, compared with 1 per cent from mined ore.
“In effect, councils will become owners of above-ground mines of valuable resources,” says Veena. “They will be processed by niche specialists to extract the valuable elements, which can then by used by manufacturers.”
For Veena, this could help secure an ongoing manufacturing industry in Australia. She would like to see young people choose science and engineering at university, and consider an exciting future in innovating new waste re-use technologies.
Veena says that this is where researchers, like those at the SMaRT Centre, can innovate technology for processing end-of-life products.
“It would be cool if we in Australia could demonstrate to the rest of the world that this can be done,” says Veena. “I’m excited that the Australian Research Council is supporting green manufacturing research with us, which will lead to economic and environmental benefits… We need to leave behind a planet for future generations that’s better than when this generation found it.”