Professor Veena Sahajwalla says, “Just call me Veena,” when one addresses her as ‘Professor’, when introduced. Veena is Director of the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research & Technology, Faculty of Science at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), in Sydney, Australia.
The born ‘n’ brought up in Mumbai, now in Australia scientist, Veena was in Mumbai recently on business. She says. “It was my first business engagement in the city. I felt so privileged to be part of a delegation in India.” Veena spoke at a Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) event in Mumbai and to business leaders in Ahmedabad earlier about her ‘green steel technology’.
Veena’s technology uses waste products like plastics and old tyres as fuel in steelmaking. This method Veena says is better for the environment and cost efficient. Veena was exploring possible tie-ups for her technology in both Maharashtra and Gujarat. Her visit was in conjunction with a visit by NSW premier Barry O’ Farrell who was looking to building ties with both states.
Though it was all business and little leisure on that frenzied Friday, when one met Veena at the hotel Taj Mahal Business Centre, Mumbai is a ‘homecoming’ for her. Veena moved to Sydney in the 1990s. She is originally a Mumbai girl, having studied at St Anne’s School in Colaba, after which she did her Science from Jai Hind College.
Just back from a talk at a South Mumbai club, Veena seemed enthused by the response she was met with. “There was so much interest evinced. I had brought along a magazine with a write-up on the technology and my work. I was simply besieged for copies,’ she laughed. Veena elaborated about her technology, “I have two technologies - one of them uses glass and plastic from old cars as a source of raw materials to make “green” alloys. In this method, one would use plastic and windscreen and window glass from cars, which are defunct to make an alloy of iron and steel called ‘ferrorsilicon alloys’. This, in turn could be used to make materials like stainless steel, silicon steel and cast iron.”
The other, she says, is a technology called, “Polymer Injection Technology (PIT), which uses old tyres to replace coke as a source of carbon in steelmaking.” She stressed the three ‘R’s - reuse, recycle and reduce as the cornerstone of her technology. Yet, in the Indian context one could slip in a fourth R to those three - reform in the way we live and think here. Sustainability, recycling, green ideas, the carbon footprint - these concepts have made their way into the Indian sub-conscious of late. Yet, these are still “fashionable” concepts rather than concrete (maybe the wrong word to use here) reality. Words that are bandied around at Page 3 parties, between bites of finger food and at events where people mouth go green but have little idea of how to put it into practice.
Though hers is a business venture, Veena talks about how sustainability can become a culture here, instead of just being relegated to industry. “People get it when you de-mystify these concepts and talk in plain and simple language. Corporates and NGOs can channelize workers collecting waste, you see them all across here picking through rubbish dumps, bringing these workers into the mainstream. We can give them a label and dignity. Industry ropes them in, making them an integral part of the economy, and the workforce. In this way, you make them important to the sector.”
Today, the buzzwords are Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) where business houses are making an effort to give back to community. CSR is becoming a legit and important arm of the business world, many enterprises making an effort to prove that they are not purely driven by profit. “Sustainability too, is CSR and can become part of the corporate world, they are not mutually exclusive, as many believe,’ explains Veena. She does admit though that the audience here expressed so much interest in her technology also because of the cost effectiveness factor. “Of course, money is a powerful motivation,” says Veena. “I know that businesses are interested when you show them the bottomline which is money and there’s nothing wrong, is there?” she asks.
Sustainability and recycling - uberchic though they may sound, is hard to put into practice in a country which does not even have basic recycling bins at public places. Veena looks out at the Gateway of India from the Taj’s Business Centre’s windows. People are milling around the tourist attraction. In a city where it is hard enough to find a dustbin, bins that are marked separately for plastic, glass and non-recyclable waste are a distant dream. Veena says, “Maybe, if industry moves in aggressively, the philosophy will percolate down to people.” She points towards the Gateway, with the crowds surging around the structure. “Companies can put huge recycling bins here with signage saying: ‘plastic here, glass here, other trash’ here. Put their names on it and it will be an advertisement for them too.”
Currently, a company called OneSteel in Sydney is using Veena’s PIT. Veena is realistic enough to realize that enthusiasm is one thing - action, quite another. Would all the interest expressed here, translate into business tie-ups? Veena says smiling, “I am optimistic though, that my India visit will bear fruit. I have also demonstrated how it could have a positive impact on profitability, so something should materialize,” says Veena who was going back to Sydney via Singapore. She was going to stop in Singapore for work.
The PIT technology has seen takers in Thailand and a South Korean company too. Explains Veena, “You have to make people excited about renewable materials. For instance, these, boards and panels (pointing at the business centre) could be made out of renewable material. In Australia, we use the shell of macadamia nuts, to make material which can be used like this. Mumbai may not have macadamia, but, Veena says, “coconut shells, maybe? After all lab tests are run, coconuts could be used in ways like that for they have a hard shell. We have to see if they are feasible of course, but, all I am saying that there has to be an emphasis on what we can use and reuse locally,” she winds down illustrating her philosophy with an example closer to home.
Talking about coconuts, the Mumbai gal was yearning for a taste of them - Literally. “I long to have Mumbai’s naariyal paani,” she says laughing when asked what she got nostalgic about in Australia. “Just feel the fresh coconut water down my throat and then the malai (cream).” The four ‘R’s - recycle, reuse, reduce and reform can have a fifth ‘R’ added on: Relive, that quintessential Mumbai naariyal paani experience.
What Can Be Done
>> Technology uses waste products like plastics and old tyres as fuel in steelmaking.
>> In one technology, glass and plastic from old cars are used as a source of raw materials to make ‘green’ alloys. Plastic and windscreen and window glass are taken from cars which are defunct to make an alloy of iron and steel called ‘ferrorsilicon alloys’. This, in turn could be used to make materials like stainless steel, silicon steel and cast iron.”
>> In Polymer Injection Technology (PIT), old tyres are used to replace coke as a source of carbon in steelmaking.