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People of Lincoln Agritech

Shaahin Saleh

Fibre Science Leader Shaahin Saleh always dreamed of being a chemist and inventor. After living in eight countries, he’s now living his dream.

I’ve always wanted to be an inventor and a chemist. I can remember as a child seeing a movie about an inventor. I got quite excited about that because it was so creative. Then in high school I discovered the chemistry lab and I just loved all the possibilities and that you could discover new things!

I remember a teacher explaining how to make acids, using the example of carbonic acid. I went home and I tried to make it in my mother’s kitchen! It didn’t work, so I went and said to the teacher, “That’s wrong, it doesn’t work.” He explained to me that carbonic acid was a very unstable molecule, so that’s why it didn’t work.

I never lost the fascination for experimenting with chemistry and seeing what happens. That didn’t always please my mother, because I used the kitchen as my lab. One time one of my experiments exploded in the refrigerator. Understandably she was very angry!

How did you get to have this job?

I did my bachelor’s degree in textile chemistry at Shahr-e-Ray University in Iran. Making fibres seemed like a wonderful mystery – how the silkworm makes fibres is intriguing and I always wanted to see that in action.

I was intrigued by organic chemistry and the intricate and elegant molecular mechanisms that underpin life. It offers endless possibilities for innovation and inventions!

While I was at university, I invented a process for making cellulose fibres. But this branch of chemistry wasn’t in Iran. A company from Austria was interested in my ideas, so they invited me to work there. I was there for a year, but we ran out of funds, then I went to France, and then to Britain.

While I was in Britain I won the British Inventors Society Double Gold Innovation Award, still working with cellulose fibres, but the global financial crisis came along, and we ran out of funds again. Then I went to Spain, and then to India, always trying to find backing for commercialising this method of working with cellulose fibres. Funding was a constant problem all around the world at that time.

In 2011 I was coming to a conference on invention and innovation at Lincoln University and I was asked to present. Back in Iran I had come up with a concept for wool fibres and I thought someone in New Zealand would be interested in this. So I asked around and I was referred to Garth Carnaby, and he approached Lincon Agritech and that’s how I got here!

The first funding we got from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) involved four partners – Lincoln Agritech, AgResearch, Otago University and Deakin University in Melbourne. That meant that while doing the research, I could go over to Deakin University and use that research to do my master’s degree.

Now I’m doing a PhD through Lincoln University and, once again, my research work is my PhD! It It’s good to have a job that is also your field of study.

What does your job involve?

My job involves polymer-to-fibre spinning using wet spinning chemistry to create new fibres to use as textiles.

Polymers are long chains of molecules and cellulose and wool are examples of natural polymers. To make new fibres with different properties, we break those polymers down with a solvent. We then use chemistry to dissolve the solvent and extrude the polymers in a new form, as fibres. We work with both wool and cellulose.

So my job perfectly fits my childhood dream of being a chemist and an inventor. Creating new materials is a constant journey into the unknown.

Coming to New Zealand was the best thing that’s ever happened to me, as it’s given me the chance to be the scientist I dreamed of being.

What motivates you?

I have a passion for discovery, so as long as I can do that, I am happy in life and at work

If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?

I would change the world so there was no more cruelty.