Australian power for the future

20 Jul 2017

Author: Leigh Dayton

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Green plants harness sunlight to produce food. Solar cells convert sunlight into energy, and now Australian chemical engineer Rose Amal is using sunlight to transform unwanted carbon dioxide into environmentally friendly fuels that will power the future. And if that’s not enough, Amal champions the sciences and encourages women to enter a male dominated field.
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Engineers solve problems. They use the principles of science to produce devices, predict outcomes and test solutions to problems as diverse as exploring distant worlds and protecting this one from the harmful effects of 21st Century living. And Rose Amal is the problem solver’s problem solver. Not only has the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Scientia Professor built an impressive career tackling environmental pollutants, Indonesian-born Amal has solved the work-life balance. How? Pacing.

“I paced my career so that I had my first child when I was an academic and could do a lot of work from home,” explains Amal who holds a 2015-2019 Australian Research Council (ARC) Laureate Fellowship. “My second child was born seven-and-a-half years later. It was planned.”

It is a strategy that has payed off well. Right now, Amal is using her prestigious ARC fellowship to do hands-on research as head of UNSW’s Particle and Catalysis Group. She is also the 2016-2017 chair of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) Australia – the first woman to hold the position in the institution’s 50-year history – and was Australia’s youngest ever female Professor of Chemical Engineering when appointed to the position in 2003. 
Rose Amal

Leading the field 

Amal is also a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering and was the first woman elected to the Australian Academy of Science as an engineer. Little wonder that she was named in the top 100 most influential engineers by Engineers Australia, four years in a row.

It’s an astonishing list of accomplishments. Remarkably, family life has not taken a back seat to Amal’s career in a demanding profession, one still regarded as a ‘boys’ club’. She shares a close and fulfilling family life with her husband Stephan Tjandra, an electrical engineer and businessman, her 21-year-old daughter Tara, and her son Ari, 13.

This accomplishment points to a second ‘P’ behind Amal’s impressive successes  -- Persistence. It is a trait Amal and her four older siblings learned from her father, a second-generation businessman in Medan, Indonesia. “My father always encouraged us to study and work hard,” recalls Amal.

It was a formula teenage Rose enjoyed. “I always liked studying. I did high school chemistry, physics and maths.” Given her scientific interests, her parents encouraged their bright daughter to study medicine. “But my passion wasn’t biology,” confesses Amal, who was strongly influenced by her brother Sari who studied civil engineering in Canada. She realised that if she followed in his footsteps she could continue to explore the why’s of fundamental science while creating the how’s of real world problems. It would be a fascinating way to make a living, while “contributing to society”, Amal says.

But where to study? According to Amal, she was tempted to study in the US or in Canada like her brother. Australia, however, was her choice. There, she could expand her personal and professional horizons and study in English – important for her future career – yet still be close enough to home to visit family in Indonesia.

From Indonesia to Australia

So along with Stephan, then her boyfriend, young Rose arrived in Australia in 1983, aged 18, keen to study chemical engineering at UNSW while Stephan studied electrical engineering. “I did not know what to expect,” she says of those early days. “I enjoyed the courses and learned a lot, not just about science and engineering, but how to survive away from my family.” Amal adds: “I worked in restaurants and learned a lot about life”…not to mention pacing and persistence.

Demonstrating good pacing, Stephan and Rose married after she completed her PhD. While Stephan began a career in information technology, she spent about 18 months at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology before returning to UNSW where she has remained, clocking up 25 years at the university in 2017.

Today, Amal focuses on that blend of science and application which entranced her as a school girl in Medan. Along with her UNSW colleagues, Amal is building a system that exploits the sun’s energy to create clean, renewable energy from CO2, the unwelcome byproduct of coal-fired power plants.  

“It uses the energy of the sun to go beyond solar panels,” she explains of the multistage process: sunlight actvitates a catalyst which splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is used to convert CO2 into methane, the main component of natural gas.
Rose Amal

The next generation of sustainable energy

Amal’s lab is designing the catalyst, while a team led by UNSW Associate Professor Francois Aguey-Zinsou  is developing materials for storing the hydrogen. “We’re currently setting-up a small solar fuel demonstration plant on the roof of my office building,” she says, confiding that they are talking with “a few industries” about commercialising the process. “It has lots of potential.” Indeed. Think of a nothing less than a new generation of sustainable energy.

Amal’s earlier projects are equally impressive. Imagine a self-cleaning bathroom with special surfaces that kill microbes and break down organic compounds when exposed to light. The concept has been taken up by industry, and products are on the market. What about water purifiers, able to remove pesticides and pharmaceuticals? A project in China is under discussion.

Amal wishes more Australians understood the importance of science to their economic and social well-being. “The public associates science with white lab coats,” she sighs, pointing in contrast to mobile phones, medical advances, safe food, and clean air and water.
That is why Amal spruiks for science, urging governments to support research and development. As well, she encourages young people –especially girls – to study engineering. An exciting and productive career lies ahead. 

Plus, it’s easier to for women to make their way than when young Rose arrived in Sydney. “It’s pleasing to know that we now have women contributing at the very top of our professional body in Australia”, says Amal, noting that Ms Allyson Black will take over the IChemE Australia chair in 2018.

Yes – times have changed. Still, pacing and persistence never go astray. Just ask Rose Amal.