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Revolutionising Recycling for a Circular Economy, with Professor Veena Sahajwalla

· 900 words, 4 minute read

As we prepare for the upcoming Circular Economy panel, we had the opportunity to sit down with Professor Veena Sahajwalla, a distinguished panellist renowned for her groundbreaking work in sustainable materials research.

In this exclusive interview, we discussed two pivotal innovations; Green Steel Polymer Injection Technology™ and MICROfactorie™ Technologies, and their alignment with Circular Economy principles.

We also explored Veena's role in promoting a circular approach to manufacturing and recycling, the importance of closing the resource utilisation loop, and how her team is contributing to sustainable waste management and the broader transition to a circular economy.

Professor Veena Sahajwalla

UNSW Research
Professor Veena is an internationally recognised materials scientist, engineer, and inventor revolutionising recycling science. She is renowned for pioneering the high temperature transformation of waste in the production of a new generation of ‘green materials’ at the UNSW Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) Centre, where she is Founding Director.
Your work at the UNSW Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) Centre has been groundbreaking in transforming waste into green materials. Could you share some quick insights into the key technological innovations behind Green Steel Polymer Injection TechnologyTM and MICROfactorieTM Technologies, and how they contribute to the principles of the Circular Economy? 

For us at the UNSW SMaRT Centre, understanding hard to recycle wastes at the molecular level is the first step in developing innovative ways to use waste as a valuable resource and feedstock for manufacturing. In partnership with key and long term industry collaborator, Molycop, the SMaRT Centre has been carrying out next generation research into using waste bio-resources like coffee grounds and plastics as more sustainable alternatives to coke and coal in steel making. Our Green Steel Polymer Injection TechnologyTM already uses waste rubber tyres and one day we hope to be able to fully replace the need for coke and coal in electric arc furnace (EAF) steel making. We have learned that using waste resources as a source of the vital steel making ingredient of both carbon and hydrogen actually provides for an overall more efficient process.

The SMaRT Centre has also developed a range of MICROfactorieTM Technologies that can reform various wastes usually not subject to traditional recycling methods into value added materials and products, such as ecofilament for 3D printing and Green Ceramics made from textiles, broken glass and many other wastes, and Green Aluminium obtained from hard to recycle wastes like food packaging such as chip packets and coffee pods. While society first needs to prevent plastic and other wastes from getting into landfill, our oceans and waterways, we need innovative technical solutions to deal with existing and future wastes and this drives our mission for waste to be valued as a resource.

The Circular Economy emphasises the importance of closing the loop in resource utilisation. What role does your research play in encouraging this transition towards a more circular approach in manufacturing and recycling? 

In relation to net zero, recovering critical and valuable materials from waste has a big role to play in electrifying the world as we move towards renewable energies and reducing our carbon footprint. Many of the commodities and critical materials needed for this electrification are being subject to record prices and supply constraint issues. Through innovative manufacturing practices, New South Wales can play a leading role when it comes to the growth in the components needed for electric vehicles, wind turbines, domestic solar systems and batteries.

Innovative supply chains based on new technologies, which align sectors by using waste as a feedstock for manufacturing, are needed to create a true circular economy and enhance sovereign capability. Businesses and organisations generally rely on traditional supply chains, where reformed materials are usually not part of the chain. We need to ensure that alternative solutions to current common supply chain practices adopt new and local supply chains that incorporate resources made from our own waste. We believe the future of global manufacturing lies in small-scale, decentralised technologies that will enable communities to produce many of the products, materials and resources they need locally, by largely using inputs that are unwanted or thought of as waste. The severe impact of COVID-19 on global supply chains presented a significant case for this transition.

Your national collaborative research and development programs, the ARC Research Hub for Microrecycling of Battery and Consumer Wastes, and the NESP Sustainable Communities and Waste Hub shows a continued commitment to advancing recycling technology. How do these programs contribute to the sustainable management of waste materials, and what broader implications might this have for our transition to a Circular Economy? 

Research programs like this are vital if society is tackle its biggest challenges. And doing this work in partnership with industry, community groups, government agencies and other end users, is key to delivering successful outcomes. A combination of new science, technical innovation, strong industry collaboration and supportive government priorities will deliver the solutions needed for a more sustainable future in Australia, and the world.

In the sustainability space, the big challenges are clear. Reduce harmful atmospheric emissions, deliver greater renewable energy, readdress the growing waste crisis, enhance our manufacturing and sovereign capability, and reduce the reliance upon polluting global supply chains. There is growing appetite in industry and society to tackle these issues more swiftly.

Australia has world-leading scientific research and development institutions and leaders, but many feel progress on delivering practical outcomes to our big sustainability challenges has been lacking. Collaboration through co-investing and nurturing pathways to innovation and economic success must be our focus if we want to realise that “waste is a resource” that can be used in so many new, innovative ways. As we develop new and transformative approaches to what needs to be a new era of ‘green manufacturing’, we need to build new and localised supply chains that are laterally integrated.

The lateral integration of supply chains of green materials and products is needed to ensure we connect different sectors across our regions. This integration would build interconnectivity between and across markets, sectors and logistics networks, enabling decentralised, localised and regional pathways to new national and global opportunities. This can be done for micro to macro materials and manufacturing opportunities, eventually leading to mega solutions, depending on the volumes and values associated with the waste materials concerned. Such an approach will boost our sustainability and sovereign capacity.

We are thrilled to have Professor Veena join the Circular Economy panel for AusIMM's Thought Leadership Series 2023.

Register for for free today to access the Circular Economy webinar online from 3 Novermber 2023, or ask Professor Veena a questions ahead of the panel discussion to help shape the conversation. 

Register for SeriesSubmit question here

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