Environmental Science and Engineering in Singapore--An Outlook on R&D, Part I

The Singapore National Science and Technology Board (NSTB, a sponsor of Next Wave Singapore) identified environmental science as one of the key areas to be developed in the country in the 1990s. Since then many initiatives have been taken to develop the necessary infrastructure, initiate R&D, and to train the required workforce in this field. Most R&D activities in environmental science are geared toward industrial applications, because Singapore is an industrial country with limited natural resources.

The main areas of focus for R&D in environmental science and engineering are related to water and wastewater technologies, waste management and minimization, air pollution and air quality management, and cleaner production technologies. Water-related R&D are of prime interest because Singapore needs to produce cheap but high-quality water for public and industrial use. For many industries in Singapore, water serves an essential part of the operational process. At present, though, Singapore depends on Malaysia for about half of the 300 million gallons of fresh water it requires daily. To help meet its industrial needs, recycling wastewater is a feasible option for Singapore. And on the other side of the water equation, the country embarked on its largest sewerage project in January this year. The S$7 billion Deep Tunnel Sewerage System Project aims to meet the country's long-term needs for the collection and treatment of wastewater.

As early as 1994, the National University of Singapore (NUS) formed the Environmental Technology Enterprise (ETE) for the purpose of providing a focus for environmental studies undertaken by its staff members. The ETE comprised different research programs relating to the environment carried out at the NUS faculties of engineering, medicine, and science with research efforts focused on the following six areas: biotreatment technology, membrane technology, adsorption and regeneration, environmental chemistry, environmental catalysis and air pollution control, and air quality management. A number of active projects of the ETE were supported by a seed grant from the NSTB and further supplemented by a cost-sharing grant from the Academic Research Fund of the Ministry of Education. Although the ETE was ended in 1999/2000, it helped various research groups get started and it identified the key areas for R&D.

Associate Professor K C Loh, from the NUS Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, was one of those who benefited from the NSTB seed grant. He was studying biological treatment of persistent organics in industrial effluents. Loh, who had just returned from the U.S. after obtaining a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when the ETE was formed, witnessed the take off in environmental science R&D. He says that the R&D carried out in Singapore are among the top in the region and are in line with studies carried out in the U.S. "Singapore is moving toward the knowledge-based economy and was one of the earliest countries to identify environmental studies as a key area for development. As a knowledge-based economy, its R&D efforts are focused on the science of the subject matter," says Loh. At present, Loh's research interest cover electrochemical energy conversions, biological treatment of industrial effluents, bioremediation of soil and oily sludges, and bioreactor design for wastewater treatment.

Apart from these studies, other studies currently in progress at the NUS Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering include studies in wastewater treatment, reuse, and recycling, which focus on the use of physicochemical and biological methods, including adsorption, solid-liquid separation, and membrane systems. Research efforts in remediation and biotreatment focus on the treatment of heavy metals and recalcitrant organics in industrial effluents and contaminated land. Water and air quality studies, which we'll hear more about in Part 2 of this article, focus on both organic and inorganic pollutants in the environment, while environmental management studies cover process safety, health and environmental protection, strategic environmental assessment, and life-cycle analysis.

The Water and Biotreatment Group (WBG) at the Department of Civil Engineering, NUS, has been actively involved in water reclamation R&D since the late 1980s. The group works on water and wastewater treatment technologies, with an emphasis on biotreatment. It has developed several versions of membrane-based water-reclamation systems capable of delivering product water suitable for high-value reuse application. The WBG has also achieved considerable success in its development of the Sequencing Batch Reactor (SBR), under Professor Ng Wun Jern, Dean of Engineering at the NUS. The SBR records optimal performance when treating low- to medium-strength wastewater that has mainly dissolved organic substances. Besides local industries and institutions, the group collaborates with universities in the ASEAN region, East Asia, Europe, and North America.

The Nanyang Technological University (NTU) also carries out R&D in environmental science and engineering. It's Environmental Engineering Research Centre (EERC) aims to establish a focal point for upstream R&D in environmental engineering, develop appropriate environmental technologies, and innovative approaches to cater to the national and regional needs. R&D carried out here cover wastewater technology, wastes recycling and reuse, purification and membrane technology, biotechnology, water quality management, and environmental hydraulics. The EERC is carrying out various joint research projects with the Ministry of Environment and is collaborating with industries and overseas universities including Imperial College and Kyoto University.

Professor Tay Joo Hwa, acting director of the ETI, is also the director of the EERC.

The NSTB launched the Environmental Technology Institute (ETI) in 1996 to serve Singapore by researching, developing, and promoting advanced environmental technologies. Besides R&D, the ETI also provides a postgraduate workforce trained in environmental technology in collaboration with the NUS and NTU. The ETI's new acting director, Professor Tay Joo Hwa, who took over on 16 September this year, has set new directions for the institute. Its focus will now be more on upstream research related to new frontiers, as compared to the past structure, which was geared more toward industrial commercial needs. Although the previous emphasis will continue, the institute's current focus areas are advanced membrane technology, environmental biotechnology, nanomaterials for environmental application, and clean energy technology.

To help Singapore meet its water needs, the ETI carries out R&D related to the production of potable water, upgrading current water resources to higher standards, industrial wastewater treatment and recycling, and production of ultrapure water. Wong Fook-Sin, PhD, who heads the industrial wastewater treatment group at ETI, says that although one of the best options for Singapore industries is to recycle wastewater, the challenge is in doing this cost-effectively. He says that at present about 20% to 60% of wastewater is recycled by Singapore industries, depending on the industry. It can be as high as 40% to 70% in the wafer fabrication industry. A new area that Wong's group is moving into is using biological methods to monitor industrial wastewater treatment plants. Studies to identify the type of bacteria present in treatment plants, as well as methods to determine the bacterial population have been initiated. By continuously monitoring bacteria in the wastewater treatment plants, it should be possible to know whether the plants are functioning under optimal conditions, so that remedial actions can be taken before a major problem arises.

The NEWater project aims to produce an alternative source of water for wafer fabrication industries in Singapore. Water is obtained by treating secondary treated sewage effluent using the dual membrane technology of microfiltration and reverse osmosis. An area of studies at ETI is to upgrade wastewater to ultrapure water, which is extremely clean water used in semiconductor and electronics industries. To address this challenge, the ETI has set up an ultrapure water pilot plant, one of five worldwide and the only one in Asia outside Japan.

In land-scarce Singapore, waste management and waste disposal are important issues. Although Singapore is a small country, the waste disposal per person here is equivalent to large industrial nations. Because the country's landfill on the main island has been exhausted and currently there is only one offshore landfill, new methods to manage and dispose of waste have to be devised. The ETI has launched projects to study disposal of problematic and hazardous wastes, and it has developed a novel method that allows immobilization of mercury waste, thus preventing it from escaping into the environment. The ETI complements the government's efforts by actively carrying out R&D on industrial waste treatment and recycling. It aims to establish a world-class R&D capability that will support Singapore industries to develop and use economic waste treatment and recycling technologies and is also looking into ways to minimize waste production as the concept of waste minimization holds much promise for Singapore in the coming years.

(Next week we will bring you Part 2 of this essay, which will cover air pollution and other issues.)

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