Bridging the Gap between Research and ApplicationAurea Christine Tanaka
Finalists of the 2013 ProSPER.Net-Scopus Young Scientist Award in Sustainable Development. Photos: Elsevier
There is a common understanding amongst sustainability practitioners that we need to find viable options for the increasing environmental, social, economic and cultural challenges humanity is facing. Media and academic circles have overly stressed the need for an integrated approach in education and especially in policy-making. Underlying this thinking is the question of how to enhance more interdisciplinary-based learning, understanding and collaborations, and thus, how scientists can generate knowledge, dialogue with other audiences, translate the findings into applicable solutions, and provide relevant information to assist the formulation of policies.
Prof. Muttucumaru Sivakumar, Prof. Ng Wun Jern and Prof. Ashim Das Gupta (L to R).
One step of this most needed transformational process is to bridge the gap between research and its application or the need to translate scientific results into concrete alternatives that promote improved quality of life, especially for the poor. Professor Ng Wun Jern, Executive Director of the Nanyang Environment and Water Research Institute (NEWRI), Nanyang Technological University, strongly emphasized this approach at a symposium that gathered finalists of the ProSPER.Net-Scopus Young Scientist Award in Sustainable Development.
Annually recognizing young scientists’ and researchers’ work contributions that demonstrate the impact or the potential to address pressing problems affecting local or regional communities, the ProSPER.Net-Scopus Young Scientist Award in Sustainable Development is an instrument to identify and reward researchers who go beyond their work to design, create and innovate for a sustainable society.
The award categories change every year to reach different fields, following the idea that sustainability should permeate all realms of science. In 2013, the awarded categories were Water and Transport. Winners of the award receive a cash prize and a prestigious fellowship by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation for a stay of up to 18 months in any research institute of their choice in Germany.
Clean water with less energy
In the Water category, panelists awarded Shi Lei, a research fellow at the Singapore Membrane Technology Center, which is part of NEWRI in Singapore. Shi Lei’s work is focused on hollow fiber membrane development, a novel technology for gas separation and liquid purification. His research follows the idea of forward osmosis, a natural process in which water passes through a permeable membrane that retains pollutants and metal ions and is captured in a high saline solution at the other side, from where it is retrieved clean. The high saline solution is then recycled to capture and retrieve clean water again. The process demands less energy for water purification and desalination; Shi Lei is even looking at the possibility of regenerating power using water pressure at the end of the process.
Dr. Shi Lei (centre) receiving his award from Elsevier Chairman Mr. Y.S. Chi (left) and UNU Vice-Rector Prof. Govindian Parayil (right).
Through an ongoing collaboration with Singapore’s Public Utilities Board (PUB), the country’s National Water Agency, Shi Lei is doing tests at the Ulu Pandan Water Reclamation Plant to verify the feasibility of scaling up the implementation of this new technology. For a country like Singapore, where water is scarce and high investments have been made to establish a model water management system to secure this important natural resource for Singapore’s citizens, research dedicated to improving current processes and saving energy is extremely relevant.
This new technology based on forward osmosis for water purification also has other important applications such as portable water filters that are useful in disaster-stricken areas where drinking water may not be available until regular systems are restored. Wastewater, contaminated water from streams, flood and muddy water can be a source of clean drinking water. Theseportable filters were utilized in Haiti for earthquake victims and in flooded Western Kenya.
Upon receiving the award, Shi Lei reinforced the merit of initiatives to recognize the work of young scientists toward sustainable development, mentioning the great encouragement the award gave him in his scientific career, providing him with even stronger aspirations and dedication to more practical research work in the future, one that focuses on diversifying sustainable water supplies and closely engaging with communities. He further expressed his hope that the fellowship of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation will be a precious opportunity to broaden research and networking horizons.
Green transport in China
Liangfei Xu from State Key Laboratory of Automotive Safety and Energy, Tsinghua University, was the winner in the Transport category. His research focuses on dynamic modeling, optimization and control of PEM (Proton Exchange Membrane or Polymer Electrolyte Membrane) fuel cell systems, advanced powertrains for HEVs (hybrid electric vehicles), BEVs (battery electric vehicles) and FCEVs (fuel cell electric vehicles), automotive networks and software technologies. PEM fuel cell technology has been used in the past mainly in spaceships because of its elevated costs. However, innovations have made possible a wider application in the transport sector, for example in city buses, providing for a cleaner mode of transport and an excellent alternative to oil-fueled vehicles. Examples of PEM fuel cell technology applied in city buses have been demonstrated in China during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, 2009 Shanghai Expo and in the 2010 Singapore Youth Olympic Games.
Dr. Liangfei Xu (centre) receiving his award.
Currently, Liangfei Xu’s most important work is on the optimal design and adaptive control of the PEM fuel cell powertrain systems, with the purpose to prolong its working lifetime and accelerate its commercialization in China, where a sustainable transport system is highly desirable. The number of vehicles has been increasing at the rate of 13 per cent per year and China is the second oil consumer country in the world, with around 60 per cent of the oil demand for vehicles. Therefore, improving the performance of fuel cell durability holds an impact potential to improve air quality in highly urbanized areas and to reduce the consumption and consequent dependence on oil.
For Liangfei Xu, receiving the award was an important first milestone in his academic career and an international recognition of the scientific and social impact of his research work, also providing a worldwide platform for advanced progress in the future.
From laboratories to the real world
Although in different fields, both winners are making a direct contribution to building a more sustainable society. The challenge for their research to have a greater impact is how to scale up these applied research initiatives so that a larger portion of our communities may enjoy the benefits of such innovative solutions. That is the moment when a meaningful bridge between science and policy is needed, but also society’s acceptance and contribution to absorb and utilize scientific-based knowledge for further sustainable development. Improved dialogue and systems thinking in multi-stakeholder collaborations shall be fostered in this regard, so that relevant research work can take the leap from laboratories into the real world.
 Professor Ng Wun Jern from NEWRI, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore; Professor Ashim das Gupta, Emeritus Professor, Asian Institute of Technology; and Professor Muttucumaru Sivakumar, University of Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia.
 Panelists were Professor Lee Der-Horng, National University of Singapore; Professor Sorawiti Narupiti, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand; and Professor Nuwong Chollacoop, National Metal and Materials Technology Center, Thailand.