Her inspiration and her goal in life, she says, came from growing up in the bustling city of Mumbai.
Mumbai born, Professor Veena Sahajwalla, pioneering waste-research scientist and engineer, has been named 2022 NSW Australian of the year. She is also the founding director of the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and has been a prominent advocate of recycling science. Professor Sahajwalla is a known face internationally as a materials scientist, engineer and inventor.
Professor Sahajwalla’s interest in material science was set in motion during her growing up years in Mumbai, where she saw the capacity of people to reuse objects instead of throwing them away as junk. In a documentary, aired by ABC News earlier this year, she talks about her observations as a child.
“The sense of repurposing and reusing, and sharing was driven by economic necessity, of course, but people were more than happy to have hand-me-downs, whether it was clothes or furniture items,” Sahajwalla says. “We would rarely throw away things that were in decent working order.”
She went on to study engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur and earned her master’s degree at University of British Columbia. It was while completing her PhD at the University of Michigan, that she was offered a job at the Australian Government agency responsible for scientific research, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).
She launched the world’s first e-waste micro-factory in 2018 and harbours plans to export the model throughout Australia and the world. These factories extract valuable metal alloys from discarded smartphones, laptops, circuit boards, and turning them into plastic filaments for 3D printing. At present her micro-factories are converting waste materials, such as plastic, glass and textiles into industrial-grade ceramics to be used in the building industry. The junk which usually end up in landfill are now being harnessed to produce valuable objects that can be utilised in a variety of ways.
Professor Sahajwalla’s adeptness with molecular chemistry is well known. The Australian steel industry has for long been all praise for her 2003 pathbreaking invention of ‘Green Steel’ or Polymer Injection Technology (PIT), by which hydrogen and solid carbon are extracted from waste plastic and rubber from discarded tyres to make steel, thereby completely replacing coal in the manufacture of alloys.
This breakthrough technology has been patented and used in the production of more than 30 million tonnes of steel all over the world. Last year she was made a fellow of the esteemed Australian Academy of Science.
In an interview with The Australian, broadcaster James O’Loghlin, who featured her as an expert panellist on his ABC show The New Inventors, has remarked very astutely: “What I love about Veena is that she motivates people to do the right thing by the environment, not necessarily because it is the right thing to do, but because it is cheaper and more efficient. She points out the opportunities.”
Considered an icon and role model of STEM in Australia, Professor Veena Sahajwalla’s work, and field of research and inventions are becoming incredibly valuable for a world that continues to grapple with sustainability and environmental challenges.