Rhys Pirie—six months after breaking the wall of broken glass

“We tend to think of glass as the good guy in the packaging world,” says University of Queensland PhD student, Rhys Pirie, during his three-minute pitch at the 2019 Falling Walls Conference in Berlin. “And there’s a good reason for this—it is, in theory, infinitely recyclable. But there’s a big problem with glass. More specifically, with little pieces of glass in the glass supply chain.”

The Falling Walls Conference is a global gathering of innovators and scientists, brought together to share their breakthroughs and visions to impact science and society. The Falling Walls Foundation is a non-profit organisation in Berlin dedicated to the support of science and the humanities. It was established in 2009, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. At its heart is the question ‘Which are the next walls to fall?’ as a result of scientific, technological, economic and sociological breakthroughs.

Challenging and inspiring

Each year, the foundation supports scientific organisations around the world to host their own Falling Walls Lab, a challenging and inspiring format for emerging bright minds. This forum promotes interdisciplinary connections between aspiring academics, innovators, entrepreneurs, investors and professionals, known for their excellent work. Participants are given three minutes to present their research work, business model or initiative to a broad audience from science and industry, including a distinguished jury who selects the most innovative and promising idea.

This year’s winner of Falling Walls Lab Australia will participate in the global finals at Falling Walls Berlin in November, giving them a unique chance to become the next big success story in innovation.

In 2019, that success story was Australia’s own Rhys Pirie, with his presentation ‘Breaking the Wall of Broken Glass’. We spoke with Rhys about his background and involvement with the Falling Walls competition, the impacts on his career,  and what life has been like since winning in Berlin last November.

In his winning pitch, Rhys explained how his research took broken glass that is currently unable to be recycled and headed for landfill, and extracted valuable sodium silicate out of the formerly ‘useless’ glass.  Also known as ‘water glass’, sodium silicate is a compound containing sodium oxide and silicon dioxide (silica) that forms a glassy solid soluble in water. This compound is sold as solid lumps or powders, or as a clear, sticky liquid.

“We can actually extract silicon from these tiny pieces of broken glass and use it in thousands of different consumer goods—everything from silicon gel to toothpaste,” Rhys explains. By winning Falling Walls Berlin, Rhys was named Young Innovator of the Year, a title that has provided him with invaluable exposure and networking opportunities with some of the most distinguished names in science and innovation.

“The last six months since winning in Berlin have definitely been a bit of a rollercoaster,” Rhys says. “Winning in Berlin certainly wasn’t something that I expected to happen. You don’t go to a place like that with hundreds of other great communicators with fantastic ideas and expect to win. Because of that, I probably hadn’t given as much thought to how important it would be for me from a career point of view. The experience has really helped me to network, and gain exposure to a lot of people that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.”

A ‘good opportunity’

Rhys initially became involved in the program after his supervisor sent through an email advertising the competition. “I thought it looked like a good opportunity to talk about my research, and meet other young people doing interesting things,” Rhys says. “I also wanted the opportunity to travel a little bit. That’s why I signed up.” Rhys had been working on the silicon project that he took to Falling Walls Australia, and then onto Falling Walls Berlin, for just over two and a half years—the majority of his PhD.

“Falling Walls is an excellent opportunity for researchers to showcase things that they’ve already been working on,” Rhys says. “I think that was one of the stronger points of my presentation—I actually had data to back up my idea. It’s one thing to have a groundbreaking idea, but it’s another thing to have a proof of concept.”

“Falling Walls is an excellent opportunity for researchers to showcase things that they’ve already been working on. I think that was one of the stronger points of my presentation—I actually had data to back up my idea.” Young Innovator of the Year for 2019, Rhys Pirie

Travel, social and funding restrictions imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have stalled research worldwide. Graduate students and early-career scientists have been particularly hard hit, having seen their plans for field research and projects suddenly thrown into uncertainty. Long-term research projects are facing unprecedented breaks in data collection, and there is growing uncertainty about the availability of grants and funding sources.

Going virtual in 2020

Falling Walls Lab Australia will be held on 8 September 2020 and, for the first time, will be in a virtual format—giving contestants a unique opportunity to showcase work that may have been stalled or postponed in light of current circumstances. Their three-minute pitch, possibly filmed in their own living room, could change science.

Rhys is currently working for the New South Wales Government but his glass recycling project is far from over. “Since winning Falling Walls we’ve been able to secure funding through the University of Queensland to conduct some internal testing of sodium silicate extraction, and that’s just coming back with the first results now, which are looking quite positive,” he says.

“If you’re thinking of applying, just do it,” Rhys says. “You have nothing to lose. It’s a fantastic experience and great exposure for your research. If nothing else, it’s an opportunity to think about how you communicate your research, and also to meet lots of other people who are doing interesting things in lots of different fields.”

Applications for Falling Walls Australia are open until 6 July. A jury of distinguished academics and businesspeople will select the winner of Falling Walls Lab Australia 2020, who will be automatically admitted to the Falling Walls Lab Finale in Berlin on 8 November. Watch Rhys’s three-minute pitch in Berlin, find out more about this opportunity. Make sure to read the application information on the Academy website.

We can't wait to hear your pitch!

© 2020 Australian Academy of Science

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