Indian origin, Sydney scientist, engineer and inventor has been recognised for her pioneering research into waste, turning it into a new generation of green materials and products.

Prof. Sahajwalla is best known for her research and application in sustainability, particularly transforming waste products into steel. Her work converting plastics, tyres and discarded fabric for use in the production of steel and building material has won her much acclaim in the scientific as well as in the broader community.

‘Green steel’, ‘green ceramics’ and the ‘microfactories’ that produce these green materials, are now becoming commonly used terminology thanks to her pioneering work. They look set to become more commonplace in the coming years as we embrace an increasingly sustainable lifestyle.

Born and brought up in Mumbai, Prof. Sahajwalla arrived in Australia in the mid-1990s. She brought with her the best in science education that India offered – a degree from the Indian Institute of Technology (Kanpur) where she was the only girl studying metallurgy. Not surprisingly, it did not faze her one bit. Her interest in engineering took her to further studies in Canada and the US, where she met her husband, fellow-scientist Rama Mahapatra. They moved to Australia where careers in the CSIRO and UNSW awaited them.

Today Prof. Sahajwalla is Professor of Materials Science and the founding Director of the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research & Technology at UNSW.

The 56-year-old is no stranger to awards. Starting with the Eureka Prize way back in 2005, there have been business awards and innovation awards galore, even the Indian Government’s Pravasi Bharatiya Samman prize for eminent overseas Indians.

“I couldn’t believe I was nominated, let alone win the title of the 2022 NSW Australian of the Year. It is such a privilege to receive this award, and to live, work and have a family in Australia,” Prof. Sahajwalla said.

“This means so much to me and is a reflection on the wonderful people I’ve had around me. I am so passionate about my work and team at the UNSW SMaRT Centre, where we have been pioneering the science of microrecycling and developing new ‘waste to product’ technologies.

“Promoting STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] and greater sustainability continue to be extremely important to me. And as I engage with many people every day, I see these issues are generating a community and industry groundswell that we should embrace to help our society collectively tackle the challenges we face, to improve our environmental, social and economic wellbeing.”

UNSW Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research and Enterprise, Professor Nicholas Fisk congratulated Prof. Sahajwalla.

“Professionally, Veena is renowned internationally as a trailblazer in the field of recycling science, partnering with industry to drive her research through to real-world environmental and economic benefits. Personally, she is a charismatic, visionary tour de force, which underpins this well-deserved accolade,” Prof. Fisk said.

“Her approach has enabled the transformation of many of the world’s most challenging waste streams ­– like e-waste, automotive waste and batteries – into value-added materials that can be circled back into manufacturing. Her unique microfactory model enables local communities to produce many of the products and materials they need locally, using resources largely derived from waste.”

UNSW Dean of Science Professor Emma Johnston also celebrated Prof. Sahajwalla’s achievement. 

“This award speaks to how Prof. Sahajwalla’s work is transforming the way we approach one of the greatest global challenges of our time,” Prof. Johnston said. “I’m immensely proud that her pioneering approach to reusing waste and developing green materials has been recognised with this prestigious honour.”

In 2018, Prof. Sahajwalla launched the world's first e-waste microfactory and in 2019 she launched her plastics microfactory, a recycling technology breakthrough. In 2019, she was appointed inaugural Director of the Circular Economy Innovation Network by the NSW government through its Office of Chief Scientist and Engineer. In 2019, she was also honoured by Engineers Australia as a Centenary Hero for her work.

Prof. Sahajwalla was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 2018. In 2016, Engineers Australia named her one of Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers and in 2015, one of Australia’s 100 Most Influential Engineers. In 2013, Prof. Sahajwalla received the Howe Memorial Lecture Award, Pittsburgh, USA, in appreciation for her lecture on ‘The Power of Steelmaking – harnessing high temperature reactions to transform waste into raw material resources’.