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Engineering a green future

Shamik Chowdhury: Winner of the Green Talents Award.  

The Green Talents Awards recognise young talented researchers and provide them a platform to share their innovative ideas which aim at answering pressing sustainability and environmental protection questions.

The eighth edition of the awards was recently held under the patronage of the German Research Minister Professor Johanna Wanka. A high-ranking jury of experts selected 25 upcoming scientists out of 757 applications from over 104 countries. From India, Shamik Chowdhury, a PhD student in Environmental Engineering from the National University of Singapore (NUS) talks about his award-winning project and its benefits.

Was there any specific inspiration behind choosing this stream?

I firmly believe that as ourEarthbecomesincreasingly urban, cities — their inhabitants and governments — must take the lead in fostering a more sustainable stewardship of the planet’s natural resources. To realise this vision, I chose to pursue a Ph.D. in Environmental engineering.

Tell us about your award-winning project.

As a novel 2D nanomaterial with a plethora of intriguing characteristics, graphene — a new carbon allotrope, is playing an increasingly important role in renewable energy conversion technologies, water filtration and desalination, gas separation and storage, sensors for detection of pollutants, and remediation of contaminated air and water. Graphene must be manufactured through industrially appealing, cost-effective processes based on renewable and sufficiently abundant resources. To this end, I have successfully devised a simple, safe, robust, environment conducive, and cost-effective thermal graphitisation technique. The key motive of this effort was to make high quality graphene (comparable with those from the synthetic routes) in potentially large quantities from a sustainable precursor — empty fruit bunch (EFB) of the oil palm.

How does your project help in advancing sustainability?

EFB biomass is a low-cost agricultural residue largely available in several tropical regions of the world (West and Central Africa, Central America and South East Asia) and is seldom converted to value-added products. Much of the waste is either illegally burnt, thereby contributing to air pollution and smoke haze, or simply left to decay in dedicated landfills emitting methane (CH4), a more potent greenhouse gas (GHG) than carbon dioxide (CO2). Utilising EFB biomass as a base feedstock to mass-produce graphene would not only solve the waste disposal crisis in oil palm growing countries (with a possible revenue benefit), but would also curb the unsustainable handling of this waste by-product. Most importantly, it may change the economics of graphene, allowing for widespread commercialisation of graphene-based technologies for sustainable living.

Further, the EFB-derived graphene features an impressive CO2 capture profile for effective deployment in power plants fueled with either coal or natural gas, as inferred from preliminary measurements.

How was your experience of the tour?

Touring across Germany during the two-week ‘Science Forum’ gave me the rare opportunity to meet and interact with stakeholders of the German sustainability framework, including experts from academia, research and industry; engage in dialogue, exchange knowledge, and showcase a myriad diverse ideas transcending an array of highly topical domains. Germany, in general, offers productive and diverse research. The forum is a commendable initiative to extend insights into this landscape which also double up as a networking platform to initiate appropriate collaborative ventures.

How do you plan to use the ‘Research Stay’ period of the programme for your project?

My current doctoral dissertation, which integrates concepts across multiple disciplines, has equipped me with certain original and exciting skills, transcending from novel research techniques to transferable skills involving critical thinking and problem-solving — prerequisites for disruptive and relatively independent research. However, I want to build on this by getting involved in a wider interdisciplinary research project. This will allow me to assimilate new scientific techniques while refining my pre-existing research skills and creative talents.

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2020 12:30:38 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/education/Engineering-a-green-future/article16443697.ece

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