A world where plastic actually replenishes the earth it came from? THAT would be a big thing . . .
When I came to Australia, I started a PhD to work on Australian spinifex grass. At the time there was no science to understand its complexity, so my research was totally exploratory, working in collaboration with Indigenous Australians. What I discovered was a unique type of nanofibre that can be easily extracted from this grass. Since that discovery, we’ve developed a range of different applications. Based on this discovery, Australia now has a pilot production facility.
This is my big passion – I can now extract the raw material from agricultural and textile waste and introduce new functionalities for them.
Different industries have a need for these types of nanofibres. And since my PhD, I’ve been able to extract them not only from spinifex but from other kinds of agricultural waste. This is my big passion – I can now extract the raw material from agricultural and textile waste and introduce new functionalities for them. Here in Queensland, we have plenty of sugarcane, banana and pineapple waste. I’m planning to turn it into very valuable products.
They can be used as plastics for packaging material, for instance. I’m also working on a project to replace all these plastic face masks with a smart biodegradable material. Plastic pollution is a monumental issue – this is the time to take action. My team and I are working toward that.
These nanofibres look like a human hair – but 10,000 times smaller. We can’t see them with the naked eye, but depending on how you extract individual fibres, some of them are five times stronger than stainless steel. Because they are the building blocks of plants, they have great mechanical properties when you add just a tiny amount to other materials. When you recycle a cardboard box, for example, its strength properties decrease. But by the addition of small amounts of these nanomaterials, we can significantly improve their mechanical properties. We can also significantly improve the mechanical properties of plastic. There are many other applications for these nanofibres in other industries such as health, textiles, and flexible electronics.
The beauty is that the nanofibres are natural and they biodegrade. It’s cellulose – exactly like the paper that we write on. We’ve already made a bioplastic out of sugarcane waste. It has a very different structural composition, but can be used for packaging material to improve the shelf life of fresh food. We’re also investigating including many other kinds of smart features into these materials, such as anti-microbial properties.
The beauty is that the nanofibres are natural and they biodegrade. It’s cellulose – exactly like the paper that we write on.
I’ve received significant interest from different industries. If you look at the agriculture sector, the waste ends up going into landfill, or it’s burnt – we’re just not doing anything with most of it. It’s a problem.
I’ve always enjoyed fixing things. Probably the first big driver for me came from my family. They strongly encouraged us to go for higher education, and always try to have some positive impact on other people’s lives. It was that combination that led to my passion to work at a university, because it’s an educational place and I hope I can have a bigger effect and influence the younger generation.
Read more: How spinifex grasses got their ring shapes.
It hasn’t been easy for me to get a PhD scholarship because of the political challenges. My PhD scholarship was rejected several times because of sanctions and all those things. It was a very challenging time. When I got a PhD scholarship from The University of Queensland, at first I set out to study the spinifex resin, but I knew I had to make my research have an impact to change my future. So I introduced a new direction to my project. I thought that because this grass grows in a very harsh environment, where the climate is hot and dry, it should have a different kind of strategy to survive these conditions. I had to convince my advisory team by doing some preliminary experiments, but they accepted my shift in direction.
I now do some teaching, but I do a lot of mentoring. I try to talk openly about all the challenges that I have faced to be in this position. I found that a lot of people relate, especially when they come from a different culture and a different language as I have.
I am a strong advocate for cultural diversity and equity, and I try to support staff and students to grow as more effective leaders and create social good.
When I came to Australia, I faced the challenges of how to adopt Australian culture and my organisation’s working culture while still embracing my own culture. I happily share this experience with younger researchers, and hope I can help some people from overseas to find their career, so that when they have a dream, a passion, I can help them achieve it. I am a strong advocate for cultural diversity and equity, and I try to support staff and students to grow as more effective leaders and create social good.
Read more: How spinifex grasses got their ring shapes.
The reality is that university work is very challenging. You need to have a passion for science and the drive to make a positive impact. I call it a 24/7 job, because your mind is always busy.
Not everyone necessarily needs to stay in academia – there are great opportunities to work in other sectors such as industry and government. Educated people can be successful there as well. It is important to find what you want and then go for your passion.
As told to Graem Sims for Cosmos Weekly.
Dr Nasim Amiralian is Group Leader of Bio-inspired Materials research at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, University of Queensland. Her pioneering research uses a nanocellulose platform technology to develop innovative materials for diverse applications.