The ABC Science Show #2

The ABC's Science Show features a recent discussion with Veena and Thomas Maschmeyer at the Australian Academy of Science symposium talking about science and the public good.

Listen to or download the podcast, or read the transcript here, of the 14 minute discussion introduced by the host of the Science Show, Robin Williams.

This is the second Science Show featuring Veena in 2021 (first one here).

From the Science Show:

Science and the public good

This was the title of a symposium held recently at the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra. We hear from chemists Veena Sahajwalla and Thomas Maschmeyer. Both are working on solutions to reduce the use of resources, increase recycling and reduce pollutants from manufacturing such as carbon dioxide. Veena Sahajwalla has pioneered the use of old rubber tyres and plastic as a carbon source in steel making in place of newly mined coal and coke. She has also produced microfactories to allow small towns to be recycle ewaste.

Thomas Maschmeyer has designed new batteries which  come without the fire risk of lithium batteries and has developed new processes to recycle thin plastics. They discuss the challenges for chemists and the inspiration which comes from working on the big problems which confront humanity.

Symposium – Science and the Public Good – The Australian Academy of Science

Thomas Maschmeyer
Veena Sahajwalla

Robyn Williams

David Fisher

Duration: 14min 15sec

Broadcast: Sat 11 Sep 2021, 12:04pm


Robyn Williams: And so to the Academy symposium on science and the public good. It's presented by Veena Sahajwalla, famous both for the New Inventors once on ABC television, and recycling millions and millions of tyres to make green steel, plus that e-waste research. Tom Maschmeyer recycles the soft plastic we now can return to supermarkets. And he has invented batteries with gels which can form the walls of buildings.

Veena Sahajwalla: Well, in my world of making materials, I'm probably best known for making green steel, which is really all about bringing in the wonderful world of chemistry where all kinds of waste materials like tyres and plastics are used in the process of making steel.

Thomas Maschmeyer: So I'm best known for catalysis, and catalysis is how you accelerate a chemical reaction. If I have ten different chemical reactions I can selectively accelerate one reaction, making the whole system much more selective, producing less waste. And the two most impactful applications of this have been waste management, so taking plastic wastes and biomass waste into new products for the circular economy, as well as electric catalysis where we've been able to accelerate the internal functioning of batteries and make them much more effective.

So I fell in love first with chemistry, I'm told, at age two or three, so when I was able to stand up on my own two legs and walk around a little bit. I was a great experimentalist on the windowsill, mixing different colours and seeing what happens, and that really never changed and never stopped. I still love mixing things and see what happens, and all the way through high school and then at university.

And the main fascination as a synthetic chemist is to really draw up on a piece of paper something that you expect to happen, design a new molecule that just doesn't exist, and then make it happen, mix stuff together, and then a week, a month later you have it in your hand as a new crystal of a new compound that you've created that just did not exist before. That's super exciting.

Veena Sahajwalla: For me, chemistry was one of those disciplines in school to ask the almost impossible questions, which is, wait a minute, how is this steel made, for instance, how is this material made. And of course when I started to think deeper and deeper it was pretty obvious it was all about chemistry that made things come to life. For me that was that moment of realisation that I could take it further beyond what anyone had ever imagined, and I started to think about recycling materials, and actually imagining what different kinds of wastes could become in their new life.

Thomas Maschmeyer: Chemistry as a central science is really fundamental, and it is very fundamental to understand chemistry to influence what's happening, what the effects are in our environment, how we make processes better, cleaner, more effective, how we use energy more efficiently, how we store energy, how we generate power. That's all down to chemistry. Chemistry is really the interface between us and the rest of the world, and therefore having a deep understanding helps us to not just understand chemistry but to some degree understand our place in the world and how we interact with the world.

Veena Sahajwalla: Chemistry plays such an important role because it actually allows us to create safe products that are good for our people and good for our environment.

Robyn Williams: And both those professors have been out in the world making change happen for the best. Tom Maschmeyer from the University of Sydney was this week recognised in the international Falling Walls competition in Berlin for his work recycling plastic bags. And Veena Sahajwalla is the head of a Research Council transformation hub in Australia. And this was their discussion at the Academy:

Veena Sahajwalla: It's been a very rewarding journey. We've had all kinds of incredibly fantastic ways in which we've taken recycling waste tires, put that in the process of making steel, showing how discoveries like green steel can actually be taken out into the real world and can be commercialised. And I guess the ultimate revelation in all of this is all of that science that was being discovered in the labs, we are starting to see all the benefits come through in practical steelmaking operations. I think to me, the ability to use waste tires in the process of steelmaking is really just one example of how green steel has shown that you can not only recycle waste materials but you can reduce your dependency on coal and coke. And in light of where the needs are for our society, of our world to have real-world impact and benefit has been a very rewarding journey and we continue on that path where we wish to take that steelmaking work that we are doing to the point where we can completely eliminate the need for coal and coke in green steel.

Thomas Maschmeyer: So, many people ask me about how does one become a scientist and what especially it is about chemistry that is so exciting, and I think the scientists is really driven by his or her intellectual curiosity, this sense of wonder and a sense of fun. So it's really able to understand what is happening around us and then to interact with it. And we have heard the IPCC report recently, and of course there are some really big important problems. And chemistry holds a key to answering some of these very much. And clearly we need to absorb somehow CO2 and preferably not emit too much CO2 so that our carbon balance will be in a good shape.

Veena Sahajwalla: You mentioned in there an important word, having fun and being really curious. And really in light of all these challenges that the world is facing, what would you recommend to a young person who is thinking about this big world? So on the one hand it can be easy to feel overwhelmed, but on the other hand we've got to have hope that chemistry can really play such a positive role, and that's why I want to pick up on a comment you made around decarbonisation and perhaps I'd love to hear what you think about how we play our part.

Thomas Maschmeyer: Yes, thank you. First of all I always say we've got to learn to love the future again. We shouldn't be scared by it, but the future is a great place to be and much better than the alternative, and there's a lot of good stuff happening out there. And in terms of what people can do on an individual basis, well, every molecule of carbon dioxide that is not emitted doesn't have to be somehow sequestered or dealt with. Equally every little bit of litter that's going around in the world does not need to be picked up again if it doesn't end up there in the first place. So everybody on an individual basis can make a difference, and a difference that over many years does count. So from that point of view, even small things really add up and they do count.

One big keyword here is the circular economy, so reusing our materials over and over again. So if we wanted to live the same lifestyle for the whole of the world as Australia has, we would need resources of something like six planets. We only have one. So we need to reuse better and better.

Veena Sahajwalla: So in everything we do, the kinds of processes and materials that go into meeting the needs of our society, we do play a very important role in really challenging the norm and asking if this production has always been done in a certain way, is that really the right thing to continue? And so it's about questioning as a young person who is thinking about the impact that they can have, whether it's about actions that they take at the local level, you know, it could be in their schools, in their communities. I think that's all-important because what you do is you actually inspire others to think differently. So I think sometimes connecting what you might have in your mind about your scientific endeavours and bringing your communities, your friends, your family on that journey with you is such an important role to play.

Thomas Maschmeyer: Yes, I agree. So the acceptance by society of one's ideas and solutions is key. And as scientists, as engineers, all we can do is really offer opportunities, options, but society has to choose those options. And often they need to be demonstrated. So we did it in combination with Nestlé and Coles where we are showing the whole value chain of soft plastics which normally end up in landfill or get incinerated or get into the environment, and able to recycle all of those back into plastic wrappers for the next generation of foods to be protected by very lightweight, very effective packaging. And that was a revelation for many people who didn't realise that there were about ten companies involved in that whole value chain.

So as scientists I guess people need to also think through not just making the option but interacting with society to really help society understand what that option is and how can it be potentially implemented.

Veena Sahajwalla: Look, that's such an important point you make, isn't it. What we've done in terms of production and manufacturing and taking it right back to a really small level, which is where our micro-factories to have come in, we've actually shown this year by launching it out into the commercial world and the support of science but also equally that support of where that journey to commercialisation comes in, and I'm sure I don't need to tell you about that.

But I want to use a particular example, because we actually took our micro-factory out into a regional town and we were running that in Cootamundra. And the reason why I wanted to use that as an example is showing locally available waste glass and textiles and all this feedstock material, coming in to manufacturing a green ceramic that then can go back into building applications is kind of showing that we've got all these different pathways. So when you feel a little bit overwhelmed, you feel like, okay, I've seen all this, sometimes bad news, but you've got to lift yourself up and think about that spirit of collaboration and working with industries and your research partners. That can be really uplifting, when you can actually share your passion.

Thomas Maschmeyer: Yes, and to be, in a sense, inspired by the problems, that there is a problem out there and you as a young person might be the one who will solve the problem with the rest of the world. And some of you may have seen that there was recently a fire in the latest large Tesla factory, and LG has had to call back 10,000 of their batteries in the US because of issues. So safety is a big issue with current lithium ion technology. So that inspired me to come up with a new kind of battery which is flameproof, explosionproof, that stops a bullet, so we are trying to shoot it with an army rifle and it's doing very well. So trying to address that safety element was really a response to the issues that we had out there but still the need for batteries to be absolutely part of the solution to the transition for renewable energy. So don't get downhearted by problems, get inspired by them.

Veena Sahajwalla: Exactly, which I think also then allows us to really think about making new products. If you are starting to challenge yourself in a far more holistic manner, it's about ultimately taking a product, making it in a way that is safe and sustainable all the way through manufacturing and use, but also there are other important questions when we think about how are we going to make sure that access to these kinds of technologies are available across the world. So it's back to that point about scalability of something that can be done on a small scale in a local setting has got a lot of important benefits.

Thomas Maschmeyer: Yes, and for markets to be able to interact with those sorts of things, we need obviously enlightened politicians and market setters. One of the research areas that is certainly for the public good is plastic waste up-cycling or recycling. We are trying to take about 50% to 60% of all of Australia's waste and put it back into the circular economy. We are rolling it out worldwide with a million tonnes projected by 2025, and having that kind of impact will mean that environmentally things are better, energetically things are better, and more jobs are created in regional areas. And it's also a developing economy kind of problem where there is no value for waste at the moment, and with this kind of technology, that waste will get value and therefore will be treated differently and there will be more resources that can be deployed to get a better outcome.

Veena Sahajwalla: You can do it in a decentralised way, and we want to see that happening in small communities, in remote communities. We can actually now start to imagine recycling being coupled with manufacturing, so you are looking at waste transformation in a way that you can actually re-form waste into completely different products. So an example of what we are doing in setting up and running our micro-factories is showing that the kinds of green ceramic products that we've made, bringing together waste glass and waste textiles, converting that into hard, durable products that can go into built environment settings really shows that we can actually manufacture some of these highly engineered products from waste without having to then depend upon products that have to be imported from overseas. So it's also showcasing what we can do in a small-scale setting in a micro-factory. So whether it's about making green ceramics or indeed harnessing some very important metals and rare earths coming out of e-waste, the ability to do that in a micro factory setting means that it allows us to really decentralise these solutions.

Robyn Williams: Professor Veena Sahajwalla, University of New South Wales, and Tom Maschmeyer, Professor of Chemistry at Sydney. Both on chemistry and the public good, at the Australian Academy of Science. Next week, physics.