interview | veena Sahajwalla Business

‘Micro factories will enable decentralised manufacturing’

Veena Sahajwalla  

Laureate Professor Veena Sahajwalla, Director, Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) of University of North South Wales (UNSW) Sydney was recently honoured with the Jubilee Professor award from the Indian Academy of Science, Bengaluru, for her pioneering work in inventing Green Steel from recycled materials and dealing with the problem of electronic waste (e-waste). Now, she, along with her team, is working on micro factories which recycle e-waste generated from end-of-life computers and cell phones and turn them into valuable materials. The Hindu was in conversation with the Mumbai-born professor, who was the first woman to achieve this honou


How significant is this award?

The Indian Academy of Science has given this tremendous honour this year and has named me the Jubilee Professor in recognition for scientific research and development on Green Steel which was invented by us. It was not only for development of science but also for the technology.

As part of the award, the Academy had given me the privilege to travel through the country and meet so many incredible Indians and bright minds at IITs and some in the industry. I am humbled by this honour. The objective is to engage with the scientific community and industry in India.

The Academy Trust is interested in developing a collaboration with us where e-waste and our micro factory module could become an example for showing to industry and researchers in India how e- waste plastic could be transformed into value added product.

You are the inventor of the micro factory. Can you elaborate?

Think about how much of electronic waste is created from our computers and phones all over the world and how to monetise and maximise the economic benefit from these end-of-life products. It is not enough to say that we have collected it; we must bring in a technology to transform these materials into economic value. When you convert, you are creating more jobs and economic prosperity. The people who are in the business of collecting, recycling can use the micro factories to create value-added materials. In the long-term, India can benefit enormously.

We can have access to rare earth oxide (REO) from such electronic waste. But how to get it, is the question. And this is where science can allow us to use e-waste to create value-added materials. The moment you create these materials, you have material security. Now, you can tap into these materials to produce the next generation of products.

Where are micro factories deployed today?

UNSW has developed the micro factory technology. Our goal has been to handle the problem of e-waste. People have phones and computers even in small towns. At the end of lives of the product, what do you do with them? You have to transport these over long distances for processing and dismantling. Now, either you lose money in transportation or have a micro factory locally, wherever waste is collected. Micro factories will promote decentralised manufacturing. You can have small-scale micro factory operations distributed across the country wherever e-waste might be. If you are a company that wants sensitive data from your hard drive to be completely destroyed, micro factory technology can take care of the destruction of hard drives.

Besides, the micro factory can take care of the physical material which contains different valuable elements. It also provides data security.

When will it be operational?

We are building it right now. It will start running early next year. Various modules of the micro factory are already running in our SMaRT Centre. We are now building the physical space for the micro factory. We are building two micro factories. The first will handle e-waste and will be commissioned in the first quarter. The second, a green manufacturing micro factory, will be commissioned in the second quarter. The green factory will process a mixture of materials like glass and plastics. It can make products for the building industry. Flooring can be made out of the mixture. The micro factory can make panels which can be designated for the building environment.

Small-scale ventures can be set up to supply materials for affordable housing. Though made of waste, these have fantastic properties. It makes the whole house far more affordable. Affordable homes must look beautiful also. Expensive granite in the kitchen can be replaced with panels made out of waste glass.

How long you have been working on the science?

We have been working for around five years in developing the science. We spent lot of time understanding how these materials can be transformed. We are still working on the scientific development but we have not just stopped at science. We have actually made the products and we have shown the products to our industry partners.

How serious is the electronic waste problem?

Electronics is one of the world’s fastest growing waste materials. The value of these resources are in billions of dollars. From the environmental point of view it is a serious challenge but if you couple it with the economic imperative, then you can see that this is an industry that is waiting to take off and sky rocket. We are not going to stop using our phones and computers and import will always be there. The micro factories will be recycling these. Micro recycling technologies actuality can create new opportunities in terms of creating new business opportunity for the society and industry as a whole.

This is a huge challenge and it can be seen as a huge opportunity.

Apart from recycling companies even small small players can set up these factories on a truck and take to different places. We are actually thinking of developing mobile macro factories. This will help in decentralized manufacturing. The micro factory will move around creating value. For small business, this is a golden opportunity to create wealth from waste materials.

Has anyone in India shown interest in micro factory?

There is tremendous amount of interest. One company has shown interest to be the licence holder for the micro factory for India.

How is the Australian government and industry helping in research?

The Australian Research Council (ARC) has been very supportive and encouraging research. Industry engagement has been very strongly encouraged. We have a green manufacturing hub that is funded through the ARC. The industry is also playing a role in providing funding and remaining committed to it. ARC has created hubs which are fostering partnerships. The companies are excited about the work at universities and participating.

What should India do?

Wherever the Indian government is making an investment in R&D, the universities should be asked to build partnership with the industry. Some are already doing that. But if every one did that would not that be fantastic? That should be the role of the government. Wherever the funding has been provided and the seeds have been planted, the universities as part of their growth journey should actually be partnering with the industry.

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Printable version | Apr 16, 2021 7:57:24 PM |

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