Rakesh Joshi
Rakesh Joshi

Materials Today meets researchers from New Zealand and Australia who are making waves in the world of materials science.

Dr Rakesh Joshi leads the graphene research programme at the School of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney. His research interests include 2D materials (e.g. graphene and metal chalcogenides), nanomaterials, semiconductor thin films, and sustainable materials. He also works closely with many industry partners, including Sydney Water, on the application of graphene to real-world challenges.

Rakesh is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry (FRSC), and has been awarded several prestigious research fellowships throughout his career. This includes a Marie Curie International Fellowship, which saw him work alongside the 2011 Nobel Laureate in Physics, Sir Andre Geim. He held a Fellowship from the Japan Society for Promotion of Science in 2016, and in 2017, was granted a Humboldt Research Fellowship for Experienced Researchers. Rakesh has published ~70 refereed journal papers (over 50 as first or lead author) and two international patents.

Laurie Winkless spoke to Dr Joshi about his background, his research, and his approach to collaborating with industry.

Why materials?

I never planned to go into materials science. I was interested in semiconductors, but more on the electronics side, and that’s what my Masters is in. So, in the early stages of my PhD, I still had the idea that I’d become an electronics engineer, someone who develops devices. But my supervisor was an amazing materials scientist, Professor H.K. Sehgal, at the Indian Institute of Technology. He really inspired me, and made me see how remarkable materials science can be, and how much of an impact it can have on our world. After that, I was hooked and never wanted to change fields!

What did your post-grad studies involve?

After my PhD, I was keen to work with researchers all over the world. I managed to secure several fellowships to make this happen. My first postdoc was at the department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Duisburg in Germany. I did a lot of work on gas sensors; some that could detect down to the parts per billion level, but I was soon looking for another challenge. I was offered a job at Toyota’s Nano High Tech Center in Nagoya, and that’s where I first started working on carbon materials

Like a lot of Indian students, I also wanted to get experience working in the US, so I secured a job at the University of South Florida. I learned a huge amount in my three years there – it honestly changed the way I worked. I’d previously only really focused on doing research, and usually on a single project, but in the US, I did a bit of everything. Alongside doing the science and writing papers, I supervised students.

The US experience was so important to my career – the skills I picked up there helped me to get my Marie Curie Fellowship, and have continued to shape the way I work.

You worked in Manchester with Nobel Laureate Andre Geim. What was that experience like?

Working with Andre Geim was a dream come true. When I first contacted him for my Marie Curie Fellowship, he hadn’t yet been awarded the Nobel Prize. He was already the biggest name in graphene, which is why I wanted to work with him, but I arrived in Manchester a couple of months before he got the Nobel.

I’ve never met anyone like him – honestly, he is incredible. Andre doesn’t think like anyone else, and he has a great sense of humour. He’s so efficient with his words. What would take anyone else ten sentences to say, Andre could say in one, and you’ll learn everything you need from those few words! It was an experience I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.

Who has influenced the way you now run your group?

I am still growing as an independent researcher, and I think the growing up part will continue until I have the ability. I am still highly influenced by my PhD supervisor, Prof Sehgal, He wanted to do great science, but he knew that he could only do that by developing the next generation of researchers. So, he was incredibly supportive of us and provided an atmosphere that encouraged creative thinking. That had a big influence on me, and I try to emulate him when working with my own group.

What brought you to Australia?

After working with Andre, I’d published a high impact paper in Science and had two patent applications, so I thought I was in a good position to apply for faculty positions, ideally in an English-speaking country. So, I started looking at Australia – UNSW in particular does amazing research.

I contacted someone I respect very much – Professor Veena Sahajwalla. 10 minutes after I sent her my CV, she phoned me and we chatted for an hour! She was hiring researchers at the time, but knew I was looking for a more senior, independent role, so we kept in touch. Then one day, I received an email from Prof Paul Munroe, our Head of School, who invited me for an interview. I eventually got a Lecturer role.

Veena has been another major influence on my career – she’s a highly respected scientist in Australia, but she is known for her work with industry. Before I came to UNSW, my mind-set was “I’m a scientist, so my job is to do research in lab and write papers.” Now I think this isn’t enough, I feel our work should to go beyond the lab, so it can benefit as many people as possible. That was a massive shift for me.

Do you enjoy collaborating with industry?

I love coming up with creative solutions to real-world problems. I’m still doing great science and publishing in top tier journals – that’s important for my students – but because I work with companies, I can also directly see the impact of my work. It’s a very different way to do science, but it’s motivating.

Right now, I’m leading four industry projects, and a few more coming, all in graphene applications– around 80% of our funding comes through that route. We’re working with Sydney Water to develop graphene oxide membranes for water filtration. They have some very good scientists there, including Dr Heriberto Bustamante, who I work with. Our project is going very well – even at low pressures, our membrane can remove 99% of all natural organic matter from drinking water, while keeping the water flux high. So, we’re stepping up activity on that.

We’re working on other topics too. For example, we’re collaborating with a tire manufacturer to extract methane from waste tyres, and use it to produce graphene on steel to make it stronger. We’re also exploring the use of graphene oxide as a desiccant material – so far, it seems to completely outperform silica gel in all desiccant applications. And we’re working with colleagues in Community Medicine to develop carbon facemasks for use in healthcare.

And on the fundamental science front, I am just about to go to Germany as part of my Humboldt Research Fellowship. This will help me to extend my work on 2D materials to include compounds like MoS2. There, I’ll be working on membranes that can separate gases and produce pure hydrogen.

Scientific curiosity is an important thing, but I really want my work to make a difference to my community and have a global impact.  One should have the ‘qualified background knowledge’, along with certification, in order to really contribute to the state-of-the-art. Peer reviewed papers, in good journals, counts as a kind of science certification. So, publications immediately followed by directly working with industry to create an impact, is our way of contributing.