The year 2019 has been a hectic and successful one for Professor Veena Sahajwalla and her UNSW Centre for Sustainable Materials Technology and Research (SMaRT).
But that doesn’t mean 2020 is going to be an easy one. In fact, the successes this year point to an even busier year to come. And the opportunity is significant not just for UNSW, but society more broadly.
Professor Sahajwalla and her SMaRT Centre team are pioneering what they call ‘microrecycling science’, and are aiming for real-world, commercial results. They have developed Microfactorie technology which, in the simplest description, converts complex waste items into valuable products and materials for re-use (see breakout box).
This year Professor Sahajwalla and UNSW SMaRT Centre have:
- been awarded $2 million from the NSW government to set up and run the new NSW Circular Economy Innovation Network (see box) and established new industry partnerships including with Mirvac and many councils across NSW
- been awarded their second Australian Research Council (ARC) Industrial Transformation Research Hub grant, this time $3.3 million, with similar contributions from industry to develop microrecycling of battery and consumer wastes
- had federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley in September launch the new, commercial-scale Microfactorie built at UNSW
- done dozens of media interviews, columns and engagements with over 240 media items published about UNSW SMaRT centre and NSW Circular work
- spoken at dozens of events and conferences across the world including at some of the biggest companies.
Why does all of this matter?
Professor Sahajwalla’s ambition is to ensure a greater level of sustainability in society and she sees 2020 as a tipping point.
“The focus on waste and recycling kicked up earlier this year after China banned countries from sending their unwanted materials there,” Professor Sahajwalla says. “Suddenly, other countries across South-East Asia started these bans too this year, because they realised the materials often just ended up rotting in piles and creating a mess.
“Policymakers here at home started to realise we were claiming a lot more recycling than was actually happening and that something urgently needed to be done.”
What is a Microfactorie?
Based on the foundation of microrecyling science, Microfactories are created to transform waste into sustainable materials and products, including where waste is not recycled in the traditional manner.
The future of global manufacturing lies in small-scale, decentralised Microfactories that will enable communities to produce many of the products, materials and resources they need locally by using resources largely derived from waste.
This emerging industrial revolution will profoundly disrupt today’s centralised, vertically integrated model of production. For example, silica from e-waste and carbon from end-of-life car tyres can make industrial grade nanoscale silicon carbide for industry use through microrecycling.
With new technology to transform waste into sustainable materials and products creating new local manufacturing capabilities, today’s model of mining finite virgin raw materials in far-flung locations and centralised materials processing will seem inconceivably unsustainable.
Economies of scale will always exist and have a role but Professor Sahajwalla talks about new ‘economies of purpose’ which aim to achieve sustainable outcomes where the opportunity cost to the environment of inaction is greater than the appetite of society to consume.
The science and technology of Microfactories makes it possible for a complicated waste stream to produce value-added materials which can then feed into different industrial supply chains for manufacturing products.
The commercial scale Microfactorie at UNSW currently converts discarded glass, textiles and plastics into engineered, hybrid-ceramic materials which are currently being made into furniture and other applications for the built environment.
Professor Sahajwalla says we need innovative, new ways to deal with our unwanted materials. And she is not talking about burning them for energy, because this merely destroys the materials and their value forever.
All Australian governments signed an agreement recently to ban the exportation of four key waste streams: plastics, glass, paper and rubber tyres. This has spurred all levels of government to think hard about how to shift from offshoring much of our non-perishable waste without creating more and more landfill.
Professor Sahajwalla sees greater commercialisation of existing Microfactorie technology as key to helping address the waste crisis and boost manufacturing.
Current Microfactorie capability can convert the materials from electronic waste into valuable filament for 3D printing and into valuable metal alloys. It can also turn discarded textiles, glass and plastics into engineered, hybrid ceramic materials.
“We are doubling down on developing our microrecycling science and advanced manufacturing technology and capability so more waste materials can be reformed into value-added materials and kept out of landfill,” Professor Sahajwalla says. “Microfactories can be located wherever waste is stockpiled, including in rural and regional areas. Ultimately, apart from the environmental benefits, this scientifically developed technology helps develop the emerging circular economy.
“The ultimate aim with this technology is to create jobs and enhance social and economic outcomes not just for local communities but more broadly as a nation because it contributes to new supply chains, in addition to helping to solve our immediate waste challenges.”
Veena Sahajwalla is directing the new NSW Circular Economy Innovation Network at the request of the state government. Hosted by UNSW, the Network has been developing and running a series of stakeholder events and workshops to support the transition to a circular economy. A circular economy values resources by keeping products and materials in use for as long as possible. It is ‘circular’ because unwanted materials and items get repurposed, reused or reformed in some way. In a linear economy, things get made, used and disposed of. In partnership with researchers, industry, and governments, NSW Circular aims to help create pathways to markets, and foster innovation through a more sustainable approach to design and production, use of resources and recycling of unwanted materials.