Veena Sahajwalla & Anirban Ghose: How can we re-imagine manufacturing?
Acknowledgement of Country: This interview was conducted on Gadigal and Bedegal Country. We pay our respects to the traditional custodians of this land, past, present and emerging. We recognise their deep connection to the land and their unique cultural heritage, which continues to enrich our shared community.
In this interview, we speak to two scientists from UNSW SMaRT Centre, who are at the forefront of recycling. Professor Veena Sahajwalla, Director of SMaRT Centre, is a trailblazer in sustainable materials and recycling. Anirban Ghose is the Head of MICROfactorie™ Technologies.
Together, we immerse ourselves in Professor Veena and Anirban's world of science and transformation, learning about SMaRT Centre’s groundbreaking inventions and vision for the future of recycling.
What challenges in manufacturing and recycling are you solving?
Anirban: At SMaRT, we use science and technology to turn waste materials into valuable products. This way, we can create circular solutions that help communities.
Veena: When we talk about recycling, it's often downcycling. But in our case, we're delving into the molecular level of waste materials and unlocking their hidden value. This allows us to transform them into even more valuable products.
The recycling process isn't straightforward, otherwise we wouldn't be seeing so much waste in landfill. To reimagine manufacturing, we need to reimagine the entire system, and recognise that every material has potential value within a circular approach.
Like Anirban said, how can we unlock those hidden values? Part of what we do is to challenge the norm and question, is that the best we can do? If we can have solutions, then it's up to our imagination, science and technology to work together.
Remanufacturing should be part of the long-term strategy. We don't make things once. We should also take them back into remanufacturing, and use the materials again and again. It expands to responsible production and consumption. Whatever we do, it should be fit for purpose. New solutions shouldn't create more issues down the line. If something isn't going to be sustainable, we shouldn't do it in the first place, because you're just leaving them for someone else to fix further down the road.
How will MICROfactories transform manufacturing?
Veena: We solve global problems, but we don't need big factory solutions. Instead, we need microfactories so that everyone can afford the solutions. Waste is a democratic problem. It shouldn't be just in the hands of those who have lots of money.
We need to start thinking of economies of purpose. Why are we doing it? Most people have believed that the only way to do things is just by having bigger and bigger solutions. But for us, scalability is fit for purpose.
For example our industry partner, Kandui Technologies. They produce our Green Ceramics in their micro factory in Nowra. They source waste glass and textiles locally, manufacture and supply the products back in their region and Sydney.
The MICROfactories approach comes with a lot of benefits:
Flexibility. We can start a micro-factory at a small scale, grow it over time. Even the scale is fit for purpose.
Local sourcing. We can reduce the transport and import of goods. The thinking that we need a tile from Italy, to tile a bathroom in Sydney, needs to change. But to do that, we need to give people the option to make that decision.
Community impact. By being fit for purpose, we focus on products that match with the local needs, using waste materials in their locality.
Community involvement. Setting up a micro-factory involves local communities - feedstock providers, manufacturers, and even local authorities. For instance, Shoalhaven Council has been actively participating in Kandui's micro-factory in Nowra.
Can you tell us about Green Steel? How does it decarbonise steelmaking?
Veena: Green Steel started as an experiment 20 years ago. It challenges conventional steel production methods, by replacing coal and coke with waste tyres. By doing that, we unlock carbon and hydrogen in the waste tyres. We need to find viable and sustainable alternatives to coal that provide carbon and hydrogen in steelmaking. We need solid carbon which comes from alternatives such as tyres and coffee and these waste materials also deliver premium hydrogen molecules. These are the requirements for making Green Steel, so our alternatives are premium materials, not waste.
Steelmaking is a very complex industry. It needs many additive elements, and they're produced by different companies in the supply chain. To talk about that, we need to first understand the foundational science behind it.
Steel is made from iron and solid carbon. Carbon is a key player. Retaining carbon in solid form is vital, as it contributes significantly to essential chemical reactions in steel production. Picture it like sugar dissolving in hot coffee; similarly, carbon dissolves into liquid metal.
We turned to waste tyres for solutions. The tyres, as a crumb, are injected when the furnace is at the right temperature at the right time. It turned out that they even performed better because the waste materials already contained hydrogen.
Even though many people doubted the product, we've shown that there are other ways to solve problems – and recycling is more than just downcycling. We're transforming those complex molecular structures, and liberating those elements that we need to become part of the solution. We're going beyond the three R's, reduce, reuse, recycle – with the fourth, reform.
There's also a match in scale. Globally, millions of tyres are wasted. Steelmaking isn't going to stop. The world is making almost 2 billion tonnes of steel.
Our industry partner started making Green Steel in Newcastle this year. Overseas, Spain is one of the countries in the world where green steel has been used for a while now. We were visiting them a few months ago. The fact that we've got other organisations in the world looking to a country like Australia for its solution, it's a nice position to be in.
Kandui Technologies is producing Green Ceramics from wasted glass and textile. Can you tell us how you started the project?
Anirban: Green Ceramics are tiles made from waste glass and textiles. Kandui Technologies are our commercial partners to bring the technology to market.
I remember talking with Veena and Heriyanto in Veena's office when we first started. It was one of those late-night conversations. A lot of magic seems to happen after 7pm, when things get a little bit quieter. There's always coffee or bananas involved.
Heri explained he was searching for a solution for waste glass, but the technology wasn't working as intended. Similarly, Veena was also was working on textile waste and shared similar problems. We thought, what if we put them together, would the issues go away?
So we started combining glass and textile waste. We're lucky with SMaRT. We get to work with the most fantastic materials, even though they come in the form of what we call waste. They're locked in a different compound, but that doesn't mean they're not valuable resources.
We output them as tiles because it was easy and testable. When we showed it to people, their reaction blew us away. They liked them, and said they would use them for bathrooms and splashbacks. That made us realise the potential in these tiles. There's a beautiful connection – people see the wasted materials in the products; they become part of people's lives.
We then worked with designers to refine the colours and properties. Those experiences propelled the product to be fit for the market. That's why people now value it and are willing to pay for the technology.
How has 3D printing helped your process? Can you also tell us about your 3D printing filaments that are made from e-waste?
Anirban: Another technology we have is turning plastic from e-waste into 3D printing filament. One third of e-waste is category 7 plastic, which is very hard to recycle. But for us, it's like a treasure trove to access those raw materials.
Category 7 plastic is the most engineered plastic. It's a mix of polymers like ABS, polycarbonate and nylons. It's difficult to recycle, because it contains flame retardants and other additives. When used in e-waste, it also comes in layers of metal or other materials, making it hard to access.
With our industry partners, we managed to convert these plastics into high-quality filaments for 3D printing. During COVID, we were making face shields using these filaments on our 3D printers.
At the time, an engineering company we knew needed brackets from China. They could 3D print those parts, but there was no 3D printing filament available due to supply chain disruption. They came to us for filaments. We knew how to source those materials. We had the technology. So we ramped up our production and made a batch of products for them.
This is the advantage of a local micro-factory. We improved the design, and made them in one plastic piece without mixed materials. With 3D printing, we also reduced the weight to 10% of the original product. At the end of its life, we can take them back and recycle them.
How important is collaboration in achieving circularity?
Veena: To us, collaboration means we share the same vision, and we're working together to translate research into practice. We value our relationships with people who work with us. This includes governments, NGOs, citizen science groups and the broader community.
Appreciating good science is vital in this transition to a circular economy. Like music, to appreciate good music, you don't have to be a musician, do you? But it has to touch your heart and mind.
Our partners are not scientists, but they're as passionate as we are. They're open to seeing things through the lens of novelty. It takes a bit of time for them to fully understand what we do. In the end, we all bring our own expertise and experience to the table. That's why our partnerships work.
Anirban: Working with different organisations lets us combine challenges and solutions. For instance, if one person has waste materials and another person is procuring, we can match them up and bring in technologies that can solve their problems. I'm thankful that our partners are constantly thinking about how to support us and how to take these technologies forward.
What's your vision for SMaRT and the manufacturing industry in Australia?
Veena: We have an opportunity to build remanufacturing supply chains. Things have changed a lot in the last couple of years. Previously, we had to do a lot of the pulling to initiate a conversation. We've been talking about MICROfactories for the past 8 years. Now, people are coming to us wanting decentralised modular solutions.
Decentralisation has social benefits, and that's one of our ultimate goals with MICROfactories technologies. Right now, most of the value gets concentrated at a few specific stages, benefiting only a few people. I hope we can redistribute that wealth.
Partnership is at the heart of what we do. It's built on our shared vision and purpose. The key role we play at SMaRT is to continue to provide scientific support to achieve that vision. All of us are part of the solution. If we're going to reimagine manufacturing, it has to give benefits in multiple ways. Only then can we reimagine manufacturing.
Danling is the co-founder of ReCo and Creative Director of reco.digital. Danling has an unwavering passion for creativity, spirituality and the pursuit of positive change in the world. Connect with Danling on Linkedin.
November 1, 2023
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