Researcher Spotlight: Natural fibres expert Associate Professor Rangam Rajkhowa

Associate Professor Rangam Rajkhowa.

Institute for Frontier Materials Associate Professor Rangam Rajkhowa was involved with a start-up and industry before the quest for scientific investigation brought him into academia – now he is developing research that is transforming lives.

‘I started in research even before starting a research degree and taking up a formal research position,’ Assoc. Prof. Rajkhowa says.

‘I was attracted to scientific investigations from an early stage. Soon after my Bachelor degree in Textile Technology, I started to research natural fibre development – bast fibres and silk – with a chemical engineer to start an entrepreneurial business.

‘This prompted me to do a PhD to take a formal approach to research. Innovations in product development and sustainability are key inspirations for my research.’

Now, he leads the silk and natural fibre particle stream of research at IFM. His team has expertise in fibre science, textile engineering, chemistry, biotechnology, microbiology, and engineering and works on diverse interdisciplinary projects.

One such project was the development of a silk-based membrane to repair a perforated ear drum – in partnership with the Ear Science Institute Australia. The ‘Cleardrum’ device addressed key limitations of existing graft materials by offering an off-the-shelf product in place of additional surgeries.

‘We are also researching other silk-based biomaterials to address challenges of middle ear implants and for sustained drug delivery,’ he says.

‘Our work is in partnership with Ear Science Institute Australia and jointly we have received many national and international grants. This work has significant social impact as up to 330 million people suffer from chronic middle ear disease each year with up to 200 million people suffering significant hearing loss.

‘There are an estimated 28,000 deaths attributed to complications of the condition each year. In Australia middle ear disease is particularly high in children (up to 25 per cent in some locations) and Indigenous communities. Untreated, the condition can lead to significant hearing loss and other more serious complications such as facial paralysis, brain infections and, ultimately, death.’

He was also part of the team that received the H&M Foundation Global Change Award in 2017, for their work producing coloured particles from old denim to be used for coloration of new denim.

‘It has huge impact on environment and society,’ Assoc. Prof. Rajkhowa says. ‘We are working on further development into fibre particle-based pigments for various applications.

‘I am developing natural fibre based picketing emulsifiers to replace harmful chemical emulsifiers that have significant impact on biomedical, food and personal care industry as many products contain synthetic emulsifiers not ideal for human health and potentially harmful.

‘While we do research on fundamental knowledge, my ultimate aim is to see products and applications that make a real-life impact, that are able to be manufactured commercially and sustainably and are appreciated by society. This is what drives me each day.

‘There is also huge satisfaction to train and develop highly skilled researchers for the future through PhD supervision and guiding young researchers and their success in life and contribution to science and society.’

Associate Professor Rangam Rajkhowa leads the silk and natural fibre particle stream of research at IFM. His team has expertise in fibre science, textile engineering, chemistry, biotechnology, microbiology, and engineering and works on diverse interdisciplinary projects.

He says now more than ever, research into natural fibres is essential.

‘Natural fibres will play a significant role in our future due to the challenges of climate change and the foreseeable reduction of non-degradable fossil fuel based synthetic fibres,’ he says.

‘Innovations will see wider uses of bio-based fibres to reduce fossil fuel-based fibres. Specifically, natural fibre research needs to address, firstly, sustainable production and processing into textiles.

‘Secondly, new products and applications beyond textiles for smart applications. And thirdly, develop technologies and applications to use natural fibre wastes generated by industry and consumers, and preventing them going to landfill. By diverting waste out of landfill we can create new value in this waste.

‘Though many research groups and industry work on extraction and processing challenges, there is a huge need for research into new applications and use of fibre wastes for innovative applications.

‘We are leading research internationally in some of these areas particularly the use of fibre wastes to develop particles and fibrils for smart applications. Our research is therefore vital for long-term sustainability of the natural fibre industry and for greater good of our environment.’