Mon, Nov 06, 2017 - Page 16 News List

INTERVIEW: ‘Reform’ and the ‘micro-factory’ to revolutionize ‘green’

Veena Sahajwalla, director of the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research & Technology at the University of New South Wales, is known for inventing a cutting-edge ‘green’ steel technology to convert waste rubber tires into metal alloys. During an interview with ‘Taipei Times’ staff reporter Kuo Chia-erh in Darwin, Australia, on Oct. 6 ahead of the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge, Sahajwalla talked about ‘green’ manufacturing and the development of sustainable materials used in cars

Veena Sahajwalla, director of the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research & Technology at the University of New South Wales.

Photo courtesy of the University of New South Wales’ Centre for Sustainable Materials Research & Technology

Taipei Times (TT): Polymer injection technology is about transforming waste rubber tires into metal alloys. How does that work and why is it relevant to us?

Veena Sahajwalla: We can find basic elements like carbon and hydrogen in rubber tires. Carbon has got so many ways to be used, depending on what properties the products need. That technology is about the transformation of waste tires, which makes them into different types of materials for various applications.

Sometimes people burn tires for the purpose of energy. I think destroying waste tires just for generating energy is such a low-value use. The ability to produce high-value material is the key to achieving economic success. Therefore, we think about the idea of “reform” as a concept that goes beyond “reduce, reuse and recycle.”

TT: Does that take us away from traditional thinking?

Sahajwalla: People often consider that the economy and environmental sustainability are mutually exclusive: “If I am doing things good for the environment, that must be expensive.” However, our logic is a totally different mindset. You might achieve both goals if you try to combine the two things together. Environmental sustainability should be truly driven by the fact that you are making value-added materials, which transform the ways of manufacturing and bring economic benefits.

There are multiple ways toward sustainability. We have to anticipate what society will need and what the future drivers will be. For instance, how are we going to monitor the toxicity in gas and soil? All of that comes down to our ability to deliver sensors. How can we make those sensors available and affordable? What kind of material properties do people need in future sensors? We think about the solution not only for today, but also for tomorrow.

TT: Is the “green” steel technology mature enough to be fully commercialized? What is the driving force for scaling up?

Sahajwalla: The technology has already been running commercially in different parts of the world, such as Australia, the UK and South Korea. People are willing to implement new technologies if they see the potential and performance of those inventions.

Scalability is absolutely important. Can we have a solution in a way that is available to the masses? That question is the reason why our team at the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology began to develop the concept of a “micro-factory” that promotes “green” manufacturing and allows people to transform local waste materials wherever they are. You do not need to have a large factory to achieve capacity. For us, a micro-factory is module thinking. Mass production is about the numbers and upscaling comes from adding more and more micro-factories.

People can have many micro-factories for different conditions and can deliver tailor-made solutions for different kinds of waste. For example, a lot of our projects at the center are about electronic waste recycling and computer component manufacturers, who use different types of plastics to make products. Everyone can be a small producer through micro-factories and that also helps the development of small companies or start-ups. Start from your first micro-factory, earn some money and get another module. Micro-factories allow everyone to be part of global supply chains.

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