Growing up in densely populated Mumbai inspired Engineers Australia Honorary Fellow and Chartered engineer Veena Sahajwalla HonFIEAust CPEng to see the potential in what looked, to anyone else, like rubbish. Now, her pioneering research into waste has earned her the title of the 2022 New South Wales Australian of the Year.
Scientia Professor Sahajwalla, an Australian Research Council (ARC) Laureate, is known for spearheading the high temperature transformation of waste to produce a new generation of ‘green’ materials.
She is the founder and Director of SMaRT@UNSW, the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology, and head of the new ARC Microrecycling Research Hub.
This is a five-year research and development program that aims to transform Australia’s waste and resource recovery industry by equipping it with advanced manufacturing capability.
Despite her many achievements, Sahajwalla said she couldn’t believe she was nominated for the award, let alone be given the title.
“This means so much to me and is a reflection on the wonderful people I’ve had around me,” she said.
Sahajwalla said promoting STEM and greater sustainability continues to be extremely important to her.
“As I engage with many people every day, I see these issues are generating a community and industry groundswell that we should embrace,” she said.
“[This will] help our society collectively tackle the challenges we face to improve our environmental, social and economic wellbeing.”
Sahajwalla is also a member of Engineers Australia’s Chemical College Advisory Board. College Chair and Engineers Australia Fellow Grant Scott FIEAust said the award was recognition not only of her impressive achievements, but of the vital role of engineers in society.
“I think it provides crucial commentary and recognition of the unequivocal value engineers provide to the community,” he told create.
“Engineers are the innovators (doers and solvers of problems), utilising scientific principles to solve challenges for the benefit of humanity.”
Scott encouraged other chemical engineers to join the college and connect with their peers.
“It is the home for those in the chemical engineering field — whether agricultural, metallurgical, petroleum, biomedical, materials, mining or pharmaceutical engineers — to collaboratively engage to drive initiatives and professional development to the benefit of those involved and all of society,” he said.
Micro solutions to a growing waste problem
Sahajwalla launched the world’s first e-waste microfactory in 2018, following this with a plastics microfactory the following year.
She said micro-recycling recognises that complex products like laptops or phones contain a number of recoverable materials.
“The science we are developing, called micro-recycling science, is to reveal what happens at the micro level and below when materials react with each other,” Sahajwalla told create in 2020.
“It’s not just about the metals, it’s not just about glass or plastics, it’s about every individual material and every component and every part that is so intricately connected that needs to be recognised and reformed into high value outputs.
“If we look at the example of a magnet that contains a rare earth element like neodymium, how do we isolate that element in order to recycle it?
“That comes back to understanding micro-recycling science. If somebody gave me a brand-new machine that can crush these magnets down to a fine powder, that is not going to help me. But the science will show us a way.”