Going green: How NUS is protecting the future with sustainable solutions
In this series, NUS News explores how NUS is accelerating sustainability research and education in response to climate change challenges, and harnessing the knowledge and creativity of our people to pave the way to a greener future for all.
With each passing day, the dire warnings of climate scientists informing the world about irreversible and intensifying climate change are ringing louder for Professor Liu Bin.
For the NUS Senior Vice Provost (Faculty & Institutional Development), words need to be translated into action. There is a need to exemplify the sustainability refrain of living today for tomorrow, in protecting the environment for future generations.
“Sustainability research is to provide solutions that impact lives,” said Prof Liu, who leads sustainability research at NUS, an area of growing importance that has been ramped up vigorously in recent years.
The University has strengthened its expertise in areas such as food technology by upgrading it from a programme to a department, in order to tackle food security issues. Through workshops, it has also made a concerted effort to bring together researchers from different fields and disciplines, from STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to non-STEM institutions, to offer integrated sustainability solutions.
These workshops facilitate interactions and discussion, especially between researchers who are hitherto unacquainted, giving them the opportunity to identify gaps that they would be able to fill with their joint expertise. “Sustainability is complex and diverse, which needs many agencies and talents to work together,” she explained.
To ensure that research conducted is applicable to the real world, NUS has also been working closely with industry players and testing sustainability solutions on campus.
NUS as a living lab allows researchers to test-drive their solutions, which assures industry partners of their feasibility and effectiveness. “If it works in NUS, then it can be expanded to the rest of the country and industry can scale it up more easily,” said Prof Liu, who is also a member of the University Sustainability and Climate Action Council.
Sustainability research across the university currently prioritises six key areas: urban heat resilience, green energy technologies, aqua-agriculture-food technology, coastal engineering and flood prevention, nature-based climate solutions, and water treatment and purification.
The University’s goal is clear: to create valuable solutions that can positively impact our everyday life – for now and for the future. Here are two of the projects that NUS researchers are working on.
Keeping it cool
Without fail, Associate Professor Lee Poh Seng steps into his lab each day to measure the temperature of several Central Processing Unit (CPU) and Graphic Processing Unit (GPU) chips. This may sound mundane, but the routine is part of a much larger project with significant benefits.
Prof Lee, Executive Director of the Energy Studies Institute at NUS, heads a team of six NUS researchers who are pioneering the Sustainable Tropical Data Centre Testbed (STDCT). Going live in early 2023, the STDCT is where they plan to test high-efficiency performance cooling techniques for data centres.
Instead of the typical but inefficient air-cooling system, the team is looking to implement alternative liquid cooling systems to cool high heat-producing components of data centres, such as CPU chips. This direct chip hybrid cooling system allows for more targeted and efficient cooling.
Prof Lee estimates that the deployment of more efficient cooling systems could reap energy savings of up to 29 per cent.
During preliminary testing, the team made another exciting discovery: Besides saving energy, using alternative cooling systems also increases the performance of the IT equipment involved by about 39 per cent.
Armed with these groundbreaking discoveries, Prof Lee and his team have been able to forge vital industry partnerships. He views this project as a stepping stone to growing the STDCT into “a co-innovation platform for industry and academia to collaborate”.
This, he added, would accelerate the adoption of sustainable technology and increase awareness. “Anyone (working) alone can achieve only so much, but now we can unlock many interesting synergies,” he noted.
No carbon? No problem
Carbon emissions, the harmful by-products of burning fossil fuels and natural gases to obtain energy, have a bad rap and deservedly so. Many countries have thus put in place policies that mandate or encourage companies to pursue low-carbon energy solutions.
But attention could also be placed on non-carbon based energy carriers, observed Associate Professor Yan Ning, Head of the Green Catalysis Lab in NUS. Pushing the green agenda even further, he offered a radical proposal: “We talk about a low-carbon energy future. But what about no carbon?”
Together with Prof Chan Siew Hwa (NTU), Prof He Qian (NUS) and Prof Zhang Huangwei (NUS), Prof Yan has been working on using ammonia as a clean energy source. Consisting of only nitrogen and hydrogen molecules, ammonia seems like the perfect solution.
“It sounds good and exciting. We produce it from nitrogen, which makes up 78 per cent of the air, and we don’t produce any carbon dioxide when we use it,” he explained.
The team is working on two approaches to ammonia as an alternative energy source. The first is to decompose ammonia to obtain hydrogen, which can be utilised cleanly for energy; the second method is to co-burn ammonia with natural gas and use it as a fuel directly.
This promising no-carbon energy initiative has already received substantial funding from the Low-Carbon Energy Research Funding Initiative (LCER FI), as well as support from NUS.
Prof Yan and his team are now working on building a burner that will co-burn up to 50 per cent of ammonia with natural gas.
“We will make new scientific discoveries, but they must not remain only on paper. We hope to test our research and then scale it up,” he said.
Despite limitations in the current technology, he is confident that the industry will recognise the glaring need for such sustainable solutions. “The consensus of society is that excessive carbon dioxide emission is a big problem, and low carbon or even net zero carbon technologies need to be implemented. Even though the solution may be costlier, it is worth it,” he added.
As NUS presses on to tackle climate change, Prof Liu stressed that patience will be critical as ideal decarbonization solutions take time to develop.
Using the example of tree planting to cool the campus and improve air quality, she said: “We need to know where to plant, what type, which can absorb carbon dioxide most efficiently, how will the trees grow and provide shade in the future. We need science and data, to guide us systematically towards our ultimate goal.”
This is the third instalment of the Greening the Future series on sustainability and climate change.