Thought Leaders 2022: Laureate Professor Ravi Naidu
What opportunities do you predict for the growth of your industry in 2022?
There is a growing understanding that chemical contamination of the environment is an existential threat on a scale as great as, if not greater than, climate change. In the wake of this, we have seen a shift by industry and governments towards a circular economy. This shift will continue such that businesses and governments will hardwire circular economy principles into the way that they operate. This evolution also offers enormous opportunities in the context of waste management and reuse, as well as prevention and management of contaminated sites.
What are the three biggest challenges or threats facing your industry in 2022?
There are many issues that take attention and resources away from dealing with environmental contamination. The COVID pandemic is an obvious one in recent years, but also climate change, which remains the dominant environmental issue. These issues are gravely important, of course, but global pollution needs to be considered on the same level.
On a more practical level in Australia, differences in regulatory approaches across states and territories are a source of many frustrations and inefficiencies. CRC CARE has done much to harmonise assessment and remediation approaches and is continuing to do so. Examples include our development of health screening levels for petroleum hydrocarbons, which have been incorporated into national legislation and adopted by all regulators nationally, and the National Remediation Framework.
What impacts have the pandemic lockdowns had on your industry, and how does this affect your business strategies for 2022?
Research into contaminated site management and remediation has been constrained heavily by COVID-enforced closure of research facilities (eg, laboratories). We also had a lot of difficulty accessing field sites (for both research purposes and actual remediation) — contaminated site remediation can’t generally be done from a home office. In 2022, CRC CARE has strict COVID protocols in place (including a vaccination requirement) for personnel, to ensure safety and access to facilities and sites.
How is your industry preparing for artificial intelligence (AI) developments and/or advanced manufacturing?
We are seeing a groundbreaking capacity for AI and machine learning (ML) to crunch massive datasets, automate environmental visualisation, and solve extremely complex problems with a speed and accuracy previously unimaginable. AI and ML, combined with ‘big data’ analytics, will drive ‘precision remediation’, which can deal with the complexity of contamination (particularly mixtures) and heterogeneity of sites. AI and ML will also play a role in the design of industrial processes to minimise or eliminate waste generated in producing energy and materials (including hazardous materials).
We must develop new AI/ML-based systems to better conceptualise complex contaminated environments. This requires us to link existing and mined data approaches to new imaging platforms for subsurface and aerial geophysics, as well as to sensor data that take advantage of advanced AI/ML image correction and recognition algorithms. Ultimately this will yield a suite of new data-gathering tools that are rapid, cost-effective and require minimal ground disturbance (eg, via use of drones), while enabling more realistic virtual simulations of contaminated environments.
I can foresee several exciting developments in the waste sector. System analysis software models will use AI to accurately predict the outcomes of interventions or changes in the international environment. An AI-enabled database and framework for waste classification can provide a national waste archive that will define hazards in the material flow and identify viable pathways from waste to resources within individual sectors, as well as on a national scale.
Given that we will need to manage legacy sites well into the future, we also need to develop smart landfill management that employs AI-based digital twin systems (real-time virtual representations of a physical object or process) that optimise reuse, recycling and recovery from landfill, as well as help us avoid leaching of contaminants and other environmental impacts.
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