Creating a vibrant circular economy will require a deep overhaul of the way we design and manufacture products, and even how we think about innovation — and Ali Abbas is leading the charge.
The circular economy will provide fertile ground for engineers, but according to Circular Australia’s first Chief Circular Engineer, Professor Ali Abbas, the profession needs to enhance its understanding of what “circularity” means to make the most of the opportunity.
In fact, awareness is his top priority in his new role.
“People think they know what a circular economy is,” he said.
“But ask 100 people, you’ll get 100 different answers. So there is this important piece in getting people to properly understand and comprehend the circular economy — that it is much more than recycling. It is more around what I call this mantra of design manufacture and reuse.”
Abbas believes design is fundamental to all engineering disciplines and that engineers need to work more closely with those outside the profession to ensure waste is designed out of products and processes from the start. Design, manufacture and reuse, he believes, should be more strongly linked through information flow.
“We need to open up the conversation much more to social scientists, and also to non-technical fields, so we can have a conversation around behavioural aspects, policy aspects and the human experience, so we can get these pieces aligned.”
Abbas, a Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Sydney, said engineers like to solve problems, but need to be very conscious that when doing so they are not creating secondary problems that will hinder the transition to a truly circular economy.
He uses solar energy as an example, suggesting customers should lease solar panels and batteries instead of owning them or the critical minerals and materials they are made from. Customers should only need to focus on “energy as a service” rather than on the associated hardware.
“The circular design of the technology of the product, and the circular business model, go hand in hand,” he said. “Without that connection, we will always end up back in the linear economy.”
Manufacturing is another sector Abbas believes is set to boom in the circular economy.
“It’s going to create innovations, new industries in reuse and potentially new industries for managing those materials flowing back from the renewable sector — for example, end-of-life solar panels, end-of-life batteries and battery materials, and end-of-life electrolyser material,” he said.
Circular Australia is an independent not-for-profit company that aims to accelerate Australia’s transition to a circular economy by 2030. Abbas joined the organisation at the end of 2022.
Lisa McLean, its CEO and Managing Director, said the company is excited to work with Abbas, “who is bringing fresh ideas and new approaches to traditional engineering practices and driving innovative design thinking for the new circular economy”.
Abbas isn’t short of ideas. The chemical engineer is also the founding director of the University of Sydney’s Waste Transformation Research Hub; co-founder of Scimita Ventures, which seeks to redesign innovation itself through a marriage of science, engineering and entrepreneurship; and founder of Trofica, which commercialises agricultural technologies to capture traditionally wasted nutrients and transform them into new foods and bio-products.
He also has a track record of translating research and ideas into real-world solutions quickly.
Scimita, for example, was born out of a frustration with research and development being bogged down by bureaucracy, with the resulting innovations being misaligned with the real world.
“There’s a lot of potential in Australia to do great things. I am of the view that more of the research we do in universities should be translated into greater impacts on society,” Abbas said. “I’m becoming more and more critical of research that doesn’t do that. I like to do it rapidly and translate it into something meaningful, whether it has commercial value or impacts people in terms of training or developing their skills in bringing the technology out to be developed in society.”
Abbas said he asks hard questions of his university research team at the beginning of a project: “Where is this going? What impact will this have on society?”
His experience in research commercialisation and industry engagement, he said, has informed his research, innovations and technology development, supporting researchers to progress their work from publication into the commercial world.
Abbas says his appointment to Circular Australia allows him to “find that sweet spot where I am able to bring my passion for science and knowledge to connect with real world impact. I’m grounded in research fundamentals, but at the same time I’m able to help people, and the environment, by creating meaningful solutions”.
Abbas’s passion for circularity arose about a decade ago, when he was an academic looking to solve problems around process engineering.
“We sought feedback from industry and local government, and they were telling us they had so much waste — various quantities and types — and they didn’t know what to do with those potential resources,” he said.
This prompted Abbas to create the university’s waste transformation hub in 2015, a facility that supports the waste sector and other industries to create processes, technologies and solutions to address waste water, carbon, plastics, organic waste streams and electronic waste.
The hub now funds itself through industry partnerships and contracts.
“I listen very closely to industry, to understand the pain points and work out how we can help them resolve those issues,” Abbas said.
“We are very industry- and solution-focused in our approach, but we adopt systems thinking, and that’s core to the Waste Transformation Research Hub approach.
“Systems thinking is about understanding scale: from the atomic scale in our fundamental research, all the way up to systems — such as, for example, chemical processing plants and how to engineer those — and then all the way through to ‘systems of systems’ where we are developing engineering solutions for the design and operation of new NSW Government SAPs [special activation precincts].
“We are now looking at place-based circular economy solutions inside these SAPs in regional NSW, building training capability in the regions to support the scaling that’s required for these new circular industries and technologies.”
Abbas believes there is a risk of draining brain power from regional areas, as engineering students come to city universities, and often don’t want to return.
His solution is to extend the work of the Waste Transformation Research Hub to regional NSW to allow students to access training and industry to access development, potentially creating secure jobs based on circular economy principles.
Collaboration between research, industry and government is vital to the success of the circular economy into the 2030s.
“It’s fertile ground for engineers,” he said.
“There are a lot of excellent opportunities to innovate and create solutions, and my hope is that we capture those opportunities properly and avoid going back into a cycle of designing solutions that end up being problems, as we are seeing in the linear economy.
“The good news is that we are moving toward circular economy targets. We are creating awareness, governments are listening and we have the technology to innovate.”
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