Dr. Hemali Rathnayake, associate professor of nanoscience, received UNCG’s 2022 Early Career Research Excellence Award for her work on designing and making innovative nanomaterials that have the potential to build a greener, more sustainable future.
She’s had more than 40 papers published in peer-reviewed journals, as well as several book chapters, and has been PI or co-PI on more than $1.7 million in grants at UNCG. She also co-founded UNCG spin-off company Minerva Lithium, which focuses on harvesting rare and technologically valuable minerals while simultaneously reducing water pollution.
“At UNCG I’ve directed my research toward the design and manufacture of nanomaterials for environmental sustainability applications – energy harvesting, energy storage, water purification, and critical minerals. We’ve designed a series of novel nanomaterials. One can selectively extract critical minerals while also purifying wastewater. We also make nanomaterials that are biomolecules, which can self-assemble into very thin metal wires that you can use in the semiconductor industry for patterning transistors.”
“There are a lot of harsh, toxic chemicals used to make nanomaterials. While we’re making these nanomaterials to solve environmental problems, their production is actually toxic to the environment. My lab prefers to use green chemistry to avoid pollution.
“Green chemistry means most of the reactions are done with nontoxic solvents. You consume less energy for your reactions, and you do the chemistry at room temperature. There’s much less toxic waste.”
“The nanomaterial we developed using agricultural waste makes a very environmentally friendly biomass-based nanomaterial. It can absorb the most important critical minerals that we use for batteries in electric vehicles – for example, lithium. We can make it cheaper and at room temperature, using minimal water. The commercial potential is huge. The economic impact that we can make is huge if we can solve the problem of directly extracting lithium from water resources.”
“I participated in UNCG’s NSF-funded I-Corps training and advanced to the national level of the program. I learned a lot about thinking outside the box from a commercial perspective. I stepped in, took the risk, and I’ve learned a lot. It’s paid off. Now I see the academic research point of view and the commercial point of view. I see myself as an academic entrepreneur.”
“I give them a small problem in the lab, and they try to solve it. During the first year I work with them in the lab training them. I help them understand the science behind the problem. Rather than teaching them the theory directly, I teach them scientific concepts through this hands-on approach. Building critical thinking – that’s what I focus on. We need to make sure they’re not technicians, that they become scientists.”