Judges' Award

Queensland University of Technology
Depolymerisation of waste natural zeolite rock and green conversion to synthetic zeolite

Are you eligible for Breaking Barriers Category: Yes

SUMMARY

I have recently commenced a position as Postdoctoral Research Fellow at QUT after completing a 4 year doctoral degree. I have been investigating the systematic depolymerisation of waste ultra-fine natural zeolite rock for the conversion into high value synthetic zeolite by low-cost, energy efficient processes. Synthetic zeolites are usually manufactured from pure laboratory reagents which attract significant financial and environmental cost to produce. They are used in a variety of industries with applications in water purification, carbon storage, agriculture and catalysis.

Research into greener conversion technologies will provide significant benefit for many industries around the world that rely on the manufacture of synthetic zeolite, thus, enabling the use of mining waste as an alternative starting material driving the industry towards a circular economy.

BENEFIT – A description of the benefit of your work to Queensland (max 500 words)

My PhD project was sponsored by the ARC research hub for Energy Efficient Separation which was a cross-institution initiative to develop advanced separation materials, products and processes with a low carbon footprint in Australia. The idea was to develop a robust process which could add value to natural zeolite, as it is present in QLD in abundant amounts, while simultaneously providing a greener avenue for synthetic zeolite manufacture. Ultra-fine zeolite dust is a waste product generated by the beneficiation of zeolite rocks and must be managed to prevent health risks on site.

 I worked with a local zeolite mining company to transform low grade ultra-fine natural heulandite zeolite dust to high grade synthetic zeolite LTA using a novel 2 step process. The first step involves activation of natural zeolite with caustic at elevated temperatures to form a depolymerised material, while the second step is the reorganisation of atoms into synthetic zeolite. For reference, the industry standard for the conversion of low-grade natural zeolite to synthetic zeolite usually involves alkali fusion, which uses high temperatures in excess of 400 °C. My research has enabled the activation process to take place at a much lower temperature of 100 – 150 °C by strategic optimisation of reaction variables.  

The target zeolite chosen for my research was zeolite LTA. It is made and utilised in the greatest amount by volume than any other synthetic zeolite with an estimated market value of USD $1.4 billion in 2018. It is predominantly used in laundry detergents as an additive, but also has uses for ethanol dehydration, water softening, catalysis and membranes. 

While the process was demonstrated to be successful at laboratory scale, there is scope to expand the technology to pilot scale and beyond which could potentially revolutionise the zeolite industry in QLD. 

My novel approach has the potential to be applied to other significant waste streams in QLD such as alum sludge, bauxite residue and coal fly ash, which are commonly used for alkaline fusion. It could provide a new stream of precursors for zeolite manufacture and reduce the amount of waste for treatment and disposal on mining sites. The end goal is to synthesise any choice zeolite (there are 240 types), from a variety of waste materials enabling the low cost, efficient utilisation of an otherwise unwanted waste material. 

ROLE MODEL – Why do you think you are a good role model for women and girls aspiring to work in STEM? (max 500 words)

Coming from humble beginnings, my experience with high school taught me lessons about speaking out against things you don’t agree with. I went to a predominantly white school and was one of the only people of colour. When it came to subject selection, I chose Chemical and Biological sciences and was allocated to the lower Math class (Math A) against my wishes, where most of the female students were situated. I was allowed to join the Math B class once I proved myself in the first exam and three years later, finished high school with flying colours. Once I started studying at QUT I quickly realised that I had a gap in knowledge because I did not take Math C (the highest level math), so I self-taught myself Math C principals: Matrices, Vectors and Imaginary numbers. Looking back on my time, I realised that it was assumed that I would not do high level Math or Science, because of the way I looked or my gender, regardless of my good grades. I was always fascinated by the Sciences, and it was an obvious choice to choose to study a Bachelor of Science. 

During my journey through university, I realised that there were very few First Nations students studying a Science degree and no Indigenous academics in Science or Engineering. I was the first in my family to gain a Bachelors Degree, and later a Postgraduate degree. 

I wished to support others through their journey, so I made it my mission to advocate for Higher Degree Research (HDR) students with caring responsibilities, women, LGBTQIA+ and First Nations students. I have represented my cohort of 2,500+ HDR students as the Post-Graduate Student Representative for the Research Degrees Committee (RDC) at QUT for 2 years (2019 – 2021) and Student Research Misconduct Committee at QUT for 1 year (2021) as well as Vice President/Treasurer of Science and Engineering HDR Student Society at QUT for 2 years (2019 – 2021). I submitted and was successful in passing a formal notion to the RDC committee where sick leave compensation was extended to carers of sick people, which was particularly important at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It is important to me that women and First Nations scientists are represented at community events, conferences and cultural festivals so I attended the NAISA (Native American and Indigenous Studies Association) conference and the Yothu Yindi Foundation’s GARMA festival. I was very humbled to have been awarded the SAGE Higher Degree Research Publication Prize 2021 for best paper by Indigenous HDR Student based on my published work (K. Wruck et al. (2021) “Transformation of heulandite type natural zeolites into synthetic zeolite LTA”). 

My work as a Sessional Academic for the Science Faculty in 2017 was particularly exciting and I continued to teach, demonstrate and tutor in the Chemistry/Science space until I was offered a full-time contract as Postdoctoral Research Fellow in 2022. I have shared my story with thousands of students through various outreach programs, teaching opportunities and community involvement. It is my hope that I have helped break the barriers that prevent First Nations people and women from studying STEM degrees.

ENGAGEMENT – Describe any STEM promotion or engagement activities that you have undertaken, including both scientific and non-scientific audiences, particularly with women and girls (maximum 500 words)

As an advocate for inclusivity in the STEM space, I have been involved in various science communication roles that aim to raise aspirations for young people to pursue STEM careers. I have been particularly active in attending schools formally and informally since 2018 as an Ambassador for Wonder of Science, QUT Extreme Science Van and QUT STEM Widening Participation for students in Grades 4 to 12. During the QUT pre-orientation program for the Oodgeroo Unit (for commencing Indigenous students), I was the Lead for Science and Engineering Ambassador and led various activities on campus around teamwork, networking and engagement. I was also a mentor for the CSIRO Young Indigenous Women's STEM Academy in 2020 and guided a female student through the development of a project to calibrate and test the quality of salt vs fresh water. 

I have had the privilege to share my story and/or research at various events, which of note, include the Victorian Indigenous Engineering Winter School (VIEWS) with the University of Melbourne (Aug 2021), The Leadership Film Screening and Panel Discussion with United Nations Women Australia (May 2021) and Master of Ceremonies at the Wonder of Science State Conference with 400 pax (Dec 2019). 

In addition, I have also spoken at other STEM career and outreach events such as the:

  • Young Leadership in Environmentalism and Sustainability Q&A with the QUT Environment Collective (Panelist) Aug 2021
  • Indigenous STEM Award Presentation and Yarn with Corey Tutt & Deadly Science with CSIRO (Panelist) Sep 2020 
  • Annual QUT Science recruitment event (Panel Chair) Jun 2020
  • Gas comes to Brisbane Parliament event with the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) (Speaker) Oct 2019
  • STEM Careers at the World Science Festival (Keynote speaker) Aug 2019
  • Vacation Research Experience Scheme (VRES) Orientation (Keynote Speaker) Sep (2017, 2018, 2019)


Finally, I would like to share my experience in far north QLD during a school visit. I was lead presenter for a 4 school multi-day outreach program with Tayla Griffin (CSIRO Indigenous tertiary student award winner) and was approached by 3 young boys. They told me “you are the first Indigenous Scientist that we’ve ever seen” and that “they couldn’t believe I was both a Scientist and from the (Torres Strait) Islands”. I replied “you can do anything you want to do! Don’t let people stop you! Work hard and stay in school”. The experience was so profound and cemented my belief that I had found my calling. 

If my application is successful, I plan to coordinate STEM based workshops with the Murri school in Brisbane and continue to share my story. I would also like to travel to remote communities to engage both elders, parents and students with STEM concepts. The prize would also allow me to attend the GARMA festival in the coming years and facilitate STEM workshops for the young people in attendance. 
It is my sincere hope that I have made an impact on the lives of others and that I can help spark the curiosity driven science that lies within all of us. 

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