Professor Veena Sahajwalla. Photo: Anna Kucera

Ahead of our Printed City exhibition and panel event on Thursday we caught up with guest panellist and exhibitor Professor Veena Sahajwalla from the University of NSW who will bring along her green ceramic tiles for people to see for themselves what they look like and feel like. She will then join the panel discussion that in conjunction with the audience will ask what will “join the dots” to commercialisation.

Having stunned the industry 20 years ago when she created a revolutionary way of using old tyres for steel manufacturing, now-renowned waste innovator Professor Veena Sahajwalla has continued to find new ways of bringing unused resources back from the dead.

Her latest vision involves creating highly refined feedstocks out of recycled goods, that can be created in “microfactories” across the country and one day could form part of a truly circular economy.

She described the feedstocks as “almost the finished product” which can be coupled with a 3D printer for instance to create products serving an almost endless range of purposes.

“We always say that what you have to give the end users is the power to make whatever they want,” Sahajwalla told The Fifth Estate.

Out of a microfactory in the basement of Sahajwalla’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research & Technology (SMaRT), which she heads at the University of New South Wales, the magic of turning waste into something useful and beautiful is already underway.

Using waste glass, plastic and textiles the team at SMaRT create green ceramics that are both functional and beautiful, as well as a type of green steel that involves extracting hydrogen and carbon from old rubber tyres and plastic.

But Sahajwalla says ideally she would like to see feedstocks created out of a wider variety of waste products to serve a multitude of purposes, from construction materials to high-end tech.

“Ultimately, it comes down to can you have the feedstock of the right chemistry, of the right performance, so that ultimately it goes into a finished format,” she said.

“There are all these other areas, whether it’s plastics or metals, I think we’re sitting on literally an above ground mine so let’s harness that.”

Sahajwalla also has a novel approach to the manufacturing process. She says when you’re looking to scale manufacturing, the options are to go for a large centralised factory or lots of smaller microfactories, which for a country the size of Australia may be the better option.

She pictures microfactories dotted throughout Australia’s regional towns, where with populations of just thousands of people, specialised microfactories can operate efficiently and effectively to create jobs and reduce waste.

“I spent the last weekend in South Australia, talking with all kinds of regional towns about potentially in their region having microfactories,” she said.

“They’re concerned about the waste, they want to create jobs and they want to be able to utilize the products.”

Competing with what is already available on the market is key to the success of any scheme and Sahajwalla admits that in terms of price it is difficult to match what is already out there.

However, on the metrics of job creation, carbon footprint and health and safety, her method is highly competitive, if not a complete game changer.

“It’s about economies of purpose, not always economies of scale. And if we pay a little bit more premium to be environmentally sustainable and to be safe, I think it is well worth that conversation,” she said.

Sahajwalla says that this sort of innovation and much more is possible in Australia if funding is directed well and coupled with scientific innovation already on the verge of being market-ready.

“It’s not about funding research, it’s not about funding all of that. It’s about funding people who’ve got that industry partnership, the science, the patents, all of that ready. Because quite often it’s that last step where things fall through the cracks, which is a real pity,” she said.

“Our example of what we’ve done successfully has been because we were with the right  partners. We had the right industry partners and UNSW supporting us, and funding from the physical sciences fund. I think to me we’ve proven that the partnership between research and industry was a success.”

To discuss her own inventions and the broader issue of seeing Australian innovations achieve social and commercial success, Sahajwalla will be joining our Printed City event on 17 June.