Environment

Rose Amal: Using sunshine to create alternative fuels

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Professor Rose Amal on the rooftop of the Tyree building at the University of NSW. She is using sunlight to turn carbon dioxide into environmentally friendly fuels.

Photo: Louise Kennerley

In the year known as living dangerously in Indonesia, Rose Amal's father defied night curfews and police barricades to ride his motorbike through the Sumatran city of Medan to find a midwife to deliver his youngest daughter.

Today that child, now University of NSW's chemical engineer Professor Rose Amal, will receive one of the Queen's Birthday top honours for her work into cost-efficient ways to mitigate the impact of greenhouse gases that are causing climate change.

A companion of the order of Australia (AC), the honour recognises Professor Amal's "eminent service to chemical engineering" and exceptional achievement for her research into using sunlight to transform carbon dioxide – a major cause of global warming – into a sustainable and renewable source of fuel.

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"Australia is the land of opportunity for people, no matter what race you are, no matter what gender you are, if you work hard you will achieve your dream," said Professor Amal, who now proudly calls Australia home.

Professor Amal's laboratory at the University of NSW (UNSW) is designing more efficient catalyst systems that use the energy from the sun – collected in solar panels on the roof of the Tyree Energies Technology Building where she works – to convert water and carbon dioxide into a sustainable and renewable source of fuel.

The sun activates a catalyst, which splits water into oxygen and hydrogen. The hydrogen then reacts with carbon dioxide – a stable chemical compound that takes a lot of energy to break – to produce alternative fuels.

She likens the global race to produce a commercially viable system as being as fierce as the competition to build the first large-scale quantum computer.

While converting CO2 to fuel can be done, she's developing more affordable catalyst systems that don't rely on "exorbitant platinum" to split water to hydrogen, and can use solar energy to break CO2.

A University of NSW Scientia Professor and an ARC Laureate Fellow, Professor Amal is now putting together a multi-disciplinary team to develop a system which would achieve higher hydrogen generation efficiency and lower energy costs.

Professor Rose Amal when she was a high school student in Indonesia.

In the 1980s, Professor Amal came to Australia to attend university. Continuing discrimination against ethnic Chinese like her family – many were killed in the year leading up to her birth in 1965 – meant she was unlikely to be admitted to the best Indonesian university.

Her parents wanted Amal, the baby of the family, to be a doctor of medicine, but she opted for chemical engineering because biology experiments with frogs scared her.

But chemistry experiments, like the one with silver nitrate at home that turned her hands black, excited her.

She was also recognised for her contribution as a researcher and academic, and as a role model and mentor to women.

Even today, some people thought science and engineering were supposed to be male professions.

At university open days, Professor Amal is often asked by parents if 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 do it.

"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 also encourages high school students to study science, technology, engineering and maths [STEM] subjects. "Sometimes when I speak to some of the young ones, they feel STEM is difficult, [and it] might be better to do something easier to get good marks. We need good scientists, creative engineers, and innovative technologists. If not, I am not sure what our future will be.

"We need to nurture, inspire and support our younger generation," said Amal, who has a 14-year-old son and a 22-year-old daughter who was passionate about the environment.

"If our children are interested in football, we provide them with a good coach. And we need to do the same [with STEM]," she said.

In other news, Professor Amal's UNSW colleague, Scientia Professor Martin Green has won additional honours for his trailblazing research into solar photovoltaics.

Professor Green will share this year's Global Energy Prize, worth $820,000, for his work that "revolutionised the efficiency and costs of solar PV, making this now the lowest cost option for bulk electricity supply". He is the first Australian to win the award, which he will share with Russian engineer Sergey Alekseenko.

Australia celebrating Australians

Anyone can nominate any Australian for an award in the Order of Australia. If you know someone worthy, nominate them now at gg.gov.au

with Peter Hannam

Julie Power

Julie Power is a reporter for Fairfax Media

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