UNSW fire safety innovator wins at Shaping Australia Awards

Professor Guan Yeoh was recognised at the awards, along with finalists Scientia Professor Veena Sahajwalla and the UNSW Founders’ pitch competition, the Peter Farrell Cup.

Guan Yeoh says FSA Firecoat fire-retardant paint could help prevent bushfires from spreading, because it protects buildings from burning down. Photo: UNSW Sydney

UNSW Sydney Professor Guan Yeoh and his team have won the ‘Problem Solver’ People’s Choice prize at the inaugural Shaping Australia Awards for their innovative fire protection technologies.

More than 35,000 votes were cast to select people’s choice winners from finalists across three award categories – The Problem Solver, The Future Builder and The Community Champion. The Awards have been created by Universities Australia to ‘recognise excellence and the contributions universities and individuals make to Australia and Australians’.

Universities Australia chief executive officer Luke Sheehy said Australia was stronger for the transformative research, world-class teaching and the community spirit our universities support and deliver.

“On behalf of Universities Australia, I want to extend my congratulations to our seven winners and 11 finalists,” he said.

Prof. Yeoh and his team were one of six finalists in the ‘Problem Solver’ category which ‘recognises an individual or team’s work, research or otherwise, that has changed or has the potential to change the lives of Australians for the better’. They were nominated for their highly innovative fire-retardant paint that helps protect buildings from direct exposure to flames and extreme heat in a fire.

Prof. Yeoh, who is director of the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) Training Centre for Fire Retardant Materials and Safety Technologies and the ARC Research Hub for Fire Resilience Infrastructure, Assets and Safety Advancements at UNSW, said he was thrilled to be voted a people’s choice winner.

“This award is dedicated to my research team and also to my family for their support as I worked on our product, a paint which will help to protect homes from the impact of bushfires,” Prof. Yeoh said.

He said the fire-retardant paint could help prevent bushfires from spreading, because it protected buildings from burning down.

“If a building is not protected in any way and it starts to burn then it can become a source of heat for the fire to continue, like a chain reaction.

“But our paint contains chemicals that produce a thick layer of char, which acts as an insulating barrier to deflect heat. Testing has shown that once this char is wiped away, it leaves the structure underneath virtually undamaged.”

The paint was developed and commercialised with industry partner Flame Security International and was partially funded via a $3 million Cooperative Research Centres Projects (CRC-P) grant from the Australian government. It recently passed a stringent Australian standard BAL-40 test that simulates a bushfire attack, meaning it’s proven to provide increased protection against bushfires in areas prone to extreme fire conditions.

The paint is available at selected Bunnings stores under its brand-name FSA FIRECOAT. 

Photo of UNSW Professor Veena Sahajwalla

UNSW Professor Veena SahajwallaPhoto: UNSW Sydney

Recycling trailblazer recognised

Scientia Professor Veena Sahajwalla was also named a finalist in the ‘Problem Solver’ category, for her unparalleled portfolio of new recycling technologies that turn waste into green materials, products and resources.

Prof. Sahajwalla is an internationally renowned materials scientist, engineer, and innovator who has revolutionised recycling science. Her microrecycling technologies transform problem waste such as e-waste, glass, textiles and plastic into new, value-added materials – for example, green ceramics for building and filament feedstock for 3D printing.  

Through her rigorous research and extensive community and industry engagement, she is shifting the mindset of the nation to see unwanted materials not as waste, but as a valuable resource. As the founder and director of UNSW’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT@UNSW), she leads visionary research programs that foster innovation and promote collaboration with industry, government and other partners on solutions for the world’s biggest waste challenges.

UNSW Founders’ Peter Farrell Cup acknowledged

UNSW Founders’ startup idea pitch competition, the Peter Farrell Cup, was selected as a finalist in the ‘Future Builder’ category. The award recognises an individual or a team that has gone over and above to equip their students with the knowledge and skills they need to make a positive impact in the world.

The Cup is a four-month innovative teaching program that guides students through the phases of a startup business. Participants benefit from hands-on experimental learning, including access to mentors and UNSW’s cutting-edge ‘makerspace’ facilities. They learn how to develop a new idea, pitch it to a panel of judges and have a chance to share in more than $20,000 in prize money.

Standout ideas in 2023 included an AI-driven storytelling app for child mental health and AI-powered robotic pets for older people. The diversity in ideas highlighted the program’s success in fostering innovation and positive societal impact.

Read more on the Shaping Australia Awards website.