Demand for clean water, air and energy are driving many innovations in the field of engineering. One of the profession’s top minds was just honoured with an AC for her work in finding ways to produce all three.
ARC Laureate Fellow, Honorary Fellow of Engineers Australia, Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering – now UNSW chemical engineering professor Rose Amal gets to add Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) to her list of accolades.
Amal was named a Companion as part of the 2018 Queen’s Birthday honours for her research into cost-effective ways to treat water, eliminate greenhouse gases and produce renewable energy through photocatalysis.
“It’s an honour not just for me, but for all chemical engineers – recognition that what we do makes a difference, and we make the world a better place to live,” she said.
Ray of light
Photocatalysis is a process that uses light to activate chemical reactions. According to Amal, the process has many practical applications, including water and air treatment, chemical synthesis, and hydrogen generation and carbon dioxide conversion.
Amal is researching ways to generate renewable energy from photocatalysis, including reverting CO2 into usable fuel and generating hydrogen gas by splitting water.
The process begins with hitting a semiconductor material with light to activate a catalyst, which then splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen molecules then bond with CO2 to form methanol and hydrocarbons that can be further refined into liquid fuels.
She is also working to make the photocatalysis process as efficient and environmentally friendly as possible. Normally it takes large amounts of energy to break atomic bonds. Advances in process design, such as creating materials that can absorb a wider range of the light spectrum, would make photocatalysis more economically viable as a method for generating renewable energy.
Advocate for engineering
Amal has long been recognised as a world leader in the fields of particle technology, photocatalysis and functional nanomaterials. She was named as one of Engineers Australia’s Most Influential Engineers for three years in a row (2012-15), and is notable as the first woman engineer elected to the Australian Academy of Science.
In addition to her academic and research roles, she serves as the director of the Particles and Catalysis Research Laboratory in the School of Chemical Engineering at UNSW and is the chair of IChemE’s Australia division.
Her award comes at a time when more attention is being paid to the number of women – or lack thereof – in engineering and other STEM fields. Amal is a vocal advocate for more women to pursue a career in engineering. She told The Sydney Morning Herald she often fields questions from parents at university open days about whether their daughters can be chemical engineers.
“I get questions like, ‘Can my daughter do it? Can she be an engineer?’. Yes of course, if I can do it anyone can,” she said.
“It is important that girls who are really passionate about science are nurtured and given support, and for us to say, ‘Yes, you can do it!’.”
She takes her job as role model seriously, and works to encourage the next generation of STEM leaders by showcasing the opportunities a career in science, technology, engineering and maths affords you.
“We need good scientists, creative engineers and innovative technologists,” she said.
“We need to nurture, inspire and support our younger generations. If our children are interested in football, we provide them with a good coach. We need to do the same with STEM.”
You can view the full list of Queen’s Birthday honours here.