Professor Suresh Bhargava has become the first RMIT academic to be honoured with the CHEMECA medal.
He received the accolade, the most prestigious of its type in the chemical engineering profession in Australia and New Zealand, at the Australia and Pacific Chemical Engineering Congress before more than 800 global delegates.
RMIT University Vice-Chancellor and President, Martin Bean CBE, congratulated Bhargava on his achievement and paid tribute to his lifelong dedication to research and innovation.
“Leading edge research is at the heart of our intellectual identity and shapes our approaches to teaching and learning, economic development and our influence in the wider innovation system ... Suresh’s passion and commitment is fantastic,” Martin said.
Bhargava, who is Director of the Centre for Advanced Materials and Industrial Chemistry (CAMIC), said receiving the CHEMECA award was the proudest moment of his career.
“I am also very pleased that we have converted our research into innovative technologies, which provide solutions to real-world industrial problems.”
What drives you to achieve excellence in your chosen field?
After joining RMIT in 1990 I quickly realised that industry was looking for solutions to solve their problems, and hence we needed to adopt an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach.
So I became an interdisciplinary scientist and successfully translated my outcome-focused research into real-world applications.
Explain the impact of your research – who will it affect and how?
I tried to adopt a research culture where scientific research connects with the end user through technological applications and have been successful to date.
Out of my six patents, five have been used by industry in their technology and one patent has gone into worldwide commercialisation through industry.
I also incorporate the research into my teaching programs. So for example, after working with Alcoa for 24 years, nine years ago we introduced a program where my whole class flies to Perth to take lectures from top Alcoa scientists.
What drew you to this specific field?
I decided not to be specialised but to become an interdisciplinary scientist. I’m a chemist by qualification, but in practice I’m also a chemical engineer.
There are many people who have supported me, but I want to mention three in particular:
Professor Alan Finkel, who is the president of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) and now our incoming Chief Scientist.
Professor Brian Schmidt, incoming Vice-Chancellor ANU and a Nobel Laureate, who is also continuously advocating the translation of research into innovation.
Professor Robin Batterham, former Chief Scientist of Australia and president of the ATSE, who is also my mentor.
How has your work developed over the years?
I translate my fundamental research into real-world solutions and during this process, train my students to adopt similar pathways by introducing them to innovation platforms.
The CHEMECA medal is not an award for me; it is an award for my teams. They followed my training and have become successful in their own careers.
I am proud to say that many of my students are now top scientists in Australian industries.
You have collaborated with many resource sector heavyweights. How would you describe that experience?
It takes time to build up a trustworthy partnership. The trick is to speak their language and understand their problems well.
The message I try to pass on to my team is very clear: “If you can understand their problems well and provide innovative solutions, they will remain connected to you.”
The Australian resource sector is urgently looking for innovative technologies to get more from their low-grade ores in a very manner.
My team and I have been working with them for the past 24 years and have provided them many scientific and technological breakthroughs to their problems.
Tell us about your role in establishing the RMIT-IICT (Indian Institute of Chemical Technology) Joint Research Centre.
This is our first RMIT footprint in India, where 20 PhDs students are working under the joint supervision of Indian and RMIT scientists.
The first nine students have passed within 3.5 years and are now employed. I followed each student from start till finish so that they can become RMIT ambassadors globally.
This is the first Indo-Australian research centre of its kind in the field of chemical engineering.
We are successfully working with India in the areas of energy, water purification, air pollution control, green technology and bio-nanotechnology.
Over the next few years, what holds the most promise in your field?
RMIT is changing under new leadership. We have Professor Calum Drumond, our new DVC (R&I) who has unique experience in carrying out research with excellence and relevance to practical applications.
One major research area that I wish to undertake is the development of mercury pollution control and abatement technologies at all levels, starting from resource refining and energy sector to dentistry.
RMIT has built a state-of-the-art laboratory for this purpose.
Story: Greg Thom