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Posted: August 28, 2009
Nanotechnology part of A*STAR's funding for research in sustainable development
(Nanowerk News) Scientists in Singapore have been awarded S$27.5 million in research funding for 28 projects in four key areas of Sustainable Development, namely, Carbon Capture & Utilisation, BioEnergy & BioFuels, Sustainable Construction and Sustainable Materials. The funding from A*STAR's Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC) will support research teams from A*STAR research institutes and local institutes of higher learning to develop innovative solutions to manage environmental deterioration, pressures on natural resources and climate change brought on by rapid growth and urbanisation.
Said Prof Charles Zukoski, Chairman of the SERC, "This is part of SERC’s efforts to leverage on science and technology to grow mission-oriented research for high value technological outcomes for the benefit of industry and the community. By establishing excellent scientific capabilities and resources, we are able to push technological frontiers in areas pertinent to energy and environment. This will help develop Singapore into a global centre for knowledge and expertise in the emerging area of Sustainable Development."
Carbon Capture & Utilisation
Seven of the 28 projects, which will be led by Dr PK Wong, Deputy Director (Research) at A*STAR’s Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences (ICES), will develop technologies to capture, store and utilise carbon dioxide effectively to address the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide and reduce its adverse effect on the environment.
In particular, one of the projects will explore the idea of using cheap and widely available magnesium oxide-based mineral silicates to trap carbon dioxide from industry flue gases via a process known as dry mineral carbonation. The by-products of this can be used as construction or landfill materials. Another project aims to use hollow fibre membranes as a reactor to convert carbon dioxide and methane in natural gas into syngas, an intermediate product useful in the chemical industry that can be further processed to synthesize a wide range of chemicals and fuels.
Said Dr Wong, “In order to contain atmospheric CO2 by developing the means to store and use it, we first need to consider how it may be captured because capture accounts for the bulk of the costs. Capturing technologies for power generation and large-scale manufacturing are already available commercially; however, they are inefficient and result in significant increases in both fuel consumption and overall production costs. This programme seeks to address that by developing novel, more energy- and cost-efficient solutions that will empower the global effort to mitigate CO2 levels that threaten our environment.”
BioEnergy & BioFuels
Seven other projects will carry out research in BioEnergy & BioFuels, which are renewable energy sources harnessed from biomass. Said Associate Professor Jeffrey Obbard from NUS who is also the programme manager for the seven projects, “A key deliverable is to explore optimal ways to maximise how non-edible biomass resources such as microalgae, urban waste and residues from agricultural crops can be converted into biofuels and other useful products. In order for the biomass to become a sustainable energy source and for it to play a role in energy diversification, we need to develop value-added solutions to ensure the efficacy and efficiency of conversion processes at reasonable cost.”
An example is the project that will examine ways that marine microalgae, the fastest growing plant in the world, may be processed to produce a higher yield of biodiesel. Microalgae, reported to produce 15 to 300 times more lipids compared to conventional biomass sources, is an efficient source of biodiesel feedstock. To maximize the potential of microalgae, the researchers will explore ways in which the residual biomass, that which remain after first extraction, can be further harnessed to produce more biodiesel using thermochemical conversion techniques. Another will look at how lignocellulosic materials from biomass of waste timber and agricultural crops can be converted into useful end-products via a bio-refinery. Similar to a petroleum refinery, a bio-refinery requires the development of a complex system of novel biocatalysts and high-strength enzyme cocktails to breakdown, separate and purify the biomass into biofuel and a plethora of product components such as bioethanol, pharmaceutical derivatives and biopolymers.
Six projects will focus on research in Sustainable Construction. They will explore ways to develop novel, environmentally-friendly materials for the building and construction industry to optimise the use of sustainable, natural resources for urban cities. A collaborative effort between A*STAR and the Building and Construction Authority (BCA), the research will introduce new functions by improving the mechanical properties of construction materials, and develop alternative materials to reduce long-term reliance on imported ones.
Of particular interest is the project to employ microbial biotechnology to develop an environmentally-friendly and sustainable approach to producing cement for applications in geotechnical engineering that can potentially revolutionise the construction industry. Biocement, made by combining naturally occuring, non-pathogenic microorganisms and cheap waste materials at ambient temperature, is the new alternative to conventional cement manufactured from limestone, sand and clay. With the availability of this option, dependence on cement and sand is greatly reduced. Energy consumption, pollution, and cost are also significantly reduced in the production of Biocement, since the microorganisms responsible for production are abundant in nature and can be easily reproduced. In addition, Biocement can be used over large areas or in places where machines cannot access since it can penetrate great depth, making it particularly useful in land reclamation and underground construction.
Another project employs nanotechnology to optimize development of multifunctional construction materials (MFCMs) for the dual role of self-cleaning of concrete surfaces and for the removal of air pollutants. Such intelligent materials are manufactured by the addition of nanosized, photoreactive additives to construction materials ranging from concrete to mortar to cementitious coatings. When activated by sunlight, chemical reactions on the surface will repel dirt and filter airborne particulates.
Said Mr Tan Tian Chong, Director, Technology Development Division of BCA, “We are pleased to be a partner in this milestone research collaboration in Sustainable Construction with A*STAR and the local universities. Such a partnership allows BCA to leverage on scientific expertise and resources to develop solutions that cater to the technological needs of the construction industry in Singapore. The effort to jointly identify and formulate novel construction materials for a sustainable built environment will enhance resilience and competitiveness of the industry moving forward.”
Sustainable Materials: Composites and Lightweights
The final eight projects are on Sustainable Materials: Composites and Lightweights. Led by Dr He Chaobin, Senior Scientist at A*STAR’s Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE), these projects aim to develop composite and lightweight materials that are energy efficient, non-toxic, and recyclable for targeted industries such as the aerospace and automotive sectors. The new materials developed will have enhanced properties that will make them durable and reusable, thus improving cost-efficiency and enabling better management of industry waste. Two of the projects will explore the various ways lightweight, high strength magnesium-based alloys and composites may be used to enhance mobility, save fuel and reduce carbon dioxide emissions due to their capability to realize weight savings and improve fuel economy.
Said Dr He, “The intent of this programme is to develop new and sustainable engineering materials for industries that are strategically important to Singapore. The materials will be developed with the understanding of industry needs, and with one key focus in mind - to minimize the environmental footprint over the lifetime of a given product so that there will be less waste produced, less energy consumed and less damage incurred.”
Besides research projects in Carbon Capture & Utilisation, BioEnergy & BioFuels, Sustainable Construction and Sustainable Materials, A*STAR is also conducting research in Solar Photovoltaics, Next Generation Power Grids, Intelligent Energy Distribution, Fuel Cells, Sustainable Production of Fuels & Chemicals and Sustainable Manufacturing.