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Translating waste tech from laboratory to local manufacturing

Founded in 2008 by Professor Veena Sahajwalla, the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) at the University of New South Wales, collaborates with industry, global research partners, not-for-profits, and governments to develop innovative environmental solutions for some of the world’s largest waste challenges.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, SMaRT forged collaborations with several organisations, some of which were the result of connections made via the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre (AMGC) COVID-19 Manufacturer Response Register.

“We used our Microfactorie technology recently to reform waste plastic into high-quality filament to 3D print frames for PPE face shields for testing in medical clinical situations,” Sahajwalla said.

“There is currently a huge demand for 3D filament worldwide, yet Australia has to purchase most of its supply from overseas. Being able to create local supply chains using waste plastic creates opportunities to develop parts and products that are not readily available in Australia. This is particularly important when global supply chains are disrupted, as was the case when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit,” she added.

Trialled at Port Macquarie

Numerous face shields that utilised SMaRT’s high-quality filament were produced and trialled at a medical clinic at Port Macquarie, with excellent feedback received across various clinical settings.

These collaborative partnerships have seen SMaRT create various Microfactorie technologies that transform problematic waste materials—like glass, textiles and plastics—into new value-added materials and products. From engineered green ceramics for the built environment, through to plastic filament as a renewable resource for 3D printing, all of the materials and products created by SMaRT eradicate, or greatly reduce, reliance on virgin resources.

According to Sahajwalla, “Through our ongoing collaborations, we have developed these new manufacturing and recycling solutions. These solutions address some of the urgent problems and deficiencies in relation to waste, while at the same time boosting manufacturing capability, job creation and, of course, environmental benefits.

“We now have an incredible opportunity to solve numerous existential problems at once: we can collectively address waste and recycling issues and lower our carbon footprint, while also enhancing our manufacturing capability. This, in turn, will create new supply chains that enhance our sovereign capability.”

Business partnerships

With support from AMGC, SMaRT has partnered with various businesses over the years, including several SMEs in regional areas. The objective of all these partnerships has been to translate SMaRT’s technologies from a research-focused lab environment into a commercialised industrial setting, enhancing local manufacturing capability and supply chains in the process.

For instance, SMaRT has worked with Form Cut, an Adelaide-based manufacturer of packaging, handling and storage solutions for defence materials, to research plastics recycling.

SMaRT is also working with AMGC member Native Secrets, a manufacturer of natural skincare products. SMaRT is adding high-grade plastics to Native Secrets’ biowaste to create building panels.

Based in Cootamundra in regional New South Wales, Mattress Recycle Australia (MRA) is also collaborating with SMaRT on the manufacture of high-quality ‘green ceramic’ using old beer bottles and mattresses.

Tackling mattress recycling

According to MRA managing director, Andrew Douglas, “Mattresses are the worst thing for councils because they are big and bulky and they take up a lot of space in landfill, which is not good.

“About seven years ago I approached Veena and her team and said, ‘Look, this is a big problem, we need to find a solution for all this textile waste’.”

And they did.

Councils and individuals pay MRA to collect mattresses which they deconstruct and use magnets to extract any steel components, which are then recycled. Industrial blowers then separate the wood from the textiles. Both the wood and textiles are then reused, thanks to the help of SMaRT’s technology and progressive industry-research collaboration.