Sustainability research awarded

10 July 2015 | Research
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Front row from left: Dr Gibson, Dr Wang, Dr Zuo, Dr Rohit and Dr Setyawati with their prizes, together with Dr Feng (2nd row, in white) and Prof Kankanhalli (2nd row, 2nd from left)

Discovery on how nanomaterials could induce leaky blood vessels, and new high-performance hollow fibre membranes that enable the production of biofuel, were some of the sterling work by NUS graduate students that won the World Future Foundation (WFF) PhD Prize in Environmental and Sustainability Research.

An award of $13,500 (US$10,000) each was presented by WFF Chairman Dr Feng Lun to 10 outstanding NUS and Nanyang Technological University researchers on 9 July. The WFF PhD Prize acknowledges excellence in doctoral-level environmental and sustainability research in Singapore, and is the highest cash award among student prizes locally.

Said Dr Feng, who founded WFF, "Over the years, we have recognised 60 bright and promising scientists who have made significant contributions addressing the challenges facing mankind in the face of global climate change…this platform not only provides an excellent opportunity in recognising top young scientists, but also inspires them to make the world a better place for mankind.

At the event, Professor Mohan Kankanhalli, NUS Vice Provost (Graduate Education), said NUS places strong emphasis on raising the translational impact of its research. He noted that the award recipients have demonstrated creativity, rigour and depth in developing high-quality solutions to address real-world sustainability issues.

The nanomaterial study by Dr Magdiel Inggrid Setyawati from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering first reported this nano-specific effect. The research worked out the mechanism by which nanomaterials disrupt forces holding blood vessel cells together, allowing gaps that even whole cells can squeeze through. Besides explaining the health threat posed by possible long-term and widespread nanomaterials exposure and use, the study also contributes towards developing safer and sustainable nanotechnology.

Dr Setyawati was pleasantly surprised about the win, saying that she appreciated the recognition from the scientific community and WFF for encouraging budding scientists to press on towards a sustainable future. On the prize, "I have donated a portion to it to charity and the rest of the funds will come in handy to further my research, she said. Her impactful work that garnered several poster prizes in international conferences has been published in leading journals.

Currently a postdoctoral fellow at NUS, Dr Setyawati is continuing in her quest to determine which nanomaterials' characteristics are important in inducing leakiness between blood vessel cells with the overall goal of being able to control this powerful effect.

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Dr Setyawati posing with her award-winning poster

For Dr Zuo Jian from the NUS Graduate School for Integrative Sciences and Engineering, his breakthrough in biofuel separation technology comes from thin film composite (TFC) membranes that he developed. These membranes enable the production of bioalcohol, a type of biofuel, to be more economically viable.

The Research Fellow, who has been focusing on the project after his undergraduate study at NUS, designed organic-inorganic nanostructure in the TFC selective layer, which combines the advantages of both materials. The new technology is energy efficient, environmentally friendly and easy to operate. Two patents have been filed for the research, which could see application in biofuel dehydration  and concentration of natural flavour extracts.

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Dr Zuo presenting his work at the award ceremony

This year's PhD Prize winners examined technologies in wide-ranging areas such as renewable energy, biodiversity, payoffs from sustainability and Singapore's coastal development strategies. They were evaluated on criteria including novelty, societal relevance and commercial potential of their work, and their passion for environmental sustainability.

The 2015 NUS WFF Prize recipients and their research are as follows:

Dr Luke Gibson, Faculty of Science ' The fate of biodiversity in modified tropical forests

Dr Rohit Nishant, Business School ' Understanding the payoffs from sustainability

Dr Magdiel Inggrid Setyawati, Faculty of Engineering ' Titanium dioxide nanomaterials effect on endothelial cells barrier integrity: A case study of nanomaterial interaction with biological system

Dr Wang Liangliang, School of Design and Environment ' Urban form-based adaptations to extreme sea level events for waterfront development

Dr Zuo Jian, Faculty of Engineering ' The development of thin film composite membranes for pervaporation dehydration of alcohols