Caring for the environment with chemistry: Meet Farhat Ikram

Just a few weeks after the Sydney dramatic lockdown in 2021, I returned to the lab gleefully and was surprised by a new face in the office. I met Farhat for the first time when we were doing our chemistry lab duty together. She was a hard-working woman, passionate in her research and in creating an impact on the environment. I was drawn to her stories about how she made it to Australia from Pakistan in the midst of the pandemic. A year later I finally got the time to interview her and to learn more about her research and what it was like to be a woman in science in Pakistan.


Farhat is a third-year PhD candidate in the School of Chemistry, UNSW, Sydney. Her research focuses on developing nanoparticles to carry out reactions or nano-catalysts for energy applications. Currently, in our world, most human activities that require energy such as heating, transportation, and electricity, involve fuel combustion which leads to increasing global carbon emissions, hence contributing to the climate change that threatens our environment. Farhat’s research aims to produce much environment-friendlier energy from water. Under the mentorship of Professor Richard Tilley, Farhat seeks to develop and optimize the design of nanoparticles that could efficiently split water into oxygen and hydrogen. The hydrogen could then be used to power any energy-requiring processes in day-to-day life, providing green energy for our future.

Farhat seeks to address the challenges that we have for a catalyst to perform effectively and efficiently. Water catalysts tend to be expensive, and we need to develop new ways to create catalysts that are less expensive and that could speed up reactions while producing maximum energy. The small-sized nanoparticles are advantageous in this case because this means more surface area that we can work on. Just with a small number of nanoparticles, we can tailor the surface area to expose more available catalytic sides of the particles, hence more reactions could occur. Currently in her work, Farhat investigates the size, volume, and surface area of the nanoparticles, as well as the morphology; round, cube, or with branches, all of which contribute to their efficiency in catalytic activity.

The catalysis reaction, the splitting of water into oxygen and hydrogen turns out to be the most challenging part of her experiment. Oxygen evolution, at the anode, requires a large amount of potential to force the reaction to happen. With an effective nanoparticle catalyst, we can reduce the amount of potential needed for this reaction; from around 400-600 millivolts without a catalyst to less than 300 millivolts – indeed a much-improved efficiency. The electrons from that reaction will go to the cathode where the hydrogen evolution reaction occurs. This step produces hydrogen gas which is basically the green fuel that the world needs. Countries like USA and Canada have started introducing buses and other transport vehicles that use hydrogen gases. This is part of the world’s 2040 project for the zero-emission environment. Farhat’s work represents a good start towards figuring out the best nanoparticles design so that one day they could be used to power the whole building, even the whole city!1, 2, 3

Farhat graduated from a joint bachelor's and master’s program in chemistry at the University of Karachi, Pakistan. From her master’s thesis, she started contributing towards protecting the environment. She was concerned about water contamination because when she started searching for the cause and type of contaminants in water then surprised to know that water contains some heavy metals and one of the main sources of those contaminants is industrial waste. Therefore, she decided to work on sensors and synthesized a nanosensor for the detection of lead (Pb2+) in seawater. After that, she continued her work in the same field and worked on some other nanosensors4, 5.  

Without any role model or mentor in Pakistan, Farhat found it challenging to navigate what she could do next to progress in her career in science. All she knew was that she wanted to do something different but always with a mission to use her science for the environment. She was more ready than ever to travel anywhere in the world to do it. She spent a chunk of her free time on top of her lab work in Karachi in chemistry research and reaching out to those leading professors in the field.

Until now, Farhat’s journey in science has taught her to be persistent and to believe in herself in anything she aspires to do. Having gone through the twist and turns in her journey, Farhat has a clear message to all women out there who seeks to pursue science – “Don’t let others discourage you or stop you from doing what you love”. 





  1. M. Maisch, A QUT at the forefront of Australia’s hydrogen push, Oct 17, 2019.
  2. F. Cotter, NSW bus, truck ‘green hydrogen’ boost via $15 million plant, 2021.
  3. K. Banks, Groundbreaking Edmonton-Calgary heavy-duty hydrogen truck pilot ready to roll, 2021.  
  4. F. Ikram, A. Qayoom, Z. Aslam, and M. R. Shah, “Epicatechin coated silver nanoparticles as highly selective nanosensor for the detection of Pb2+in environmental samples,” J. Mol. Liq., vol. 277, pp. 649–655, 2019.
  5. I. Ali et al., “Sensing Applications of Triazole Conjugated Silver Nanoparticles,” J. Mol. Struct., vol. 1226, p. 129306, 2021.



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