SMH feature on circularity

In this feature story, published by Sydney Morning Herald for its Good Weekend magazine, journalist Tony Davis writes about various innovations unobstructed by the pandemic including those from the UNSW SMaRT Centre.

Read the full story on the SMH website which has been syndicated to various other Nine publications including The Age and WA Today.

Here is an excerpt:

Aussie innovations: mealworm snack packs, in-mouth robots, drone weeding and more

Tony Davis

By Tony Davis

Technology has missed very few beats during the coronavirus pandemic, and some of the most adventurous research and development has been happening here in Australia, from quantum computing and the circular economy to insect farming and remote dentistry.

Jens Goennemann, managing director of non-profit industry group Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre, cites medical technologies, batteries and renewables, hydrogen and robot-led farming as areas in which Australia could combine its creative smarts, raw materials and manufacturing capabilities to gain an edge.

He believes the worldwide effort to create COVID-19 vaccines will have a ripple effect through the health industry, too, helping people live “not just longer, but in a better fashion”.

And like many tech advocates, Goennemann is optimistic things will improve with every year. “You just need to look backwards: what has advanced mankind? It’s always been technology.” Here are some of the most interesting developments.

What goes around comes around

The circular economy is on the way and, according to KPMG, it will add more than $200 billion and 17,000 full-time jobs to the Australian economy by 2047-48. And there’s no bigger – and smarter – advocate of the “it’s not waste, it’s a resource” mantra than University of NSW Professor Veena Sahajwalla, a pioneer of micro recycling which creates, as she puts it, “a whole new range of very sophisticated recycling solutions that really didn’t exist before”.

SMH graphic

Robots will allow those in the city to ‘visit’ remote communities. CREDIT:ILLUSTRATION BY SIMON LETCH

Way beyond turning aluminium cans into more aluminium cans, the future will involve turning raw “waste resources” such as car tyres and beer bottles into high-value products such as green steel and home furnishings. Sahajwalla says the micro factories – buildings with a handful of staff – which her team have designed, with backing from the Australian Research Council, use a range of proprietary techniques, such as thermal isolation, to “unpick” complex structures.

They can therefore extract manganese and zinc from dead batteries, and create filament for 3D printers from mixed plastic structures such as old laser printers. Even more impressively, they can transform fabric into ceramic tiles. “A soft material is now becoming part of a hard, durable green ceramic,” Sahajwalla says. “You’re combining that with waste glass and heat … to create this integrated structure. That’s what we do in our microfactories.”