Environmental Science and Engineering in Singapore--An Outlook on R&D (Part II)

This is a continuation of last week's article, Environmental Science and Engineering in Singapore. This week, in Part II of the article, we highlight current R&D on the treatment of ship ballast water at the Environment Technology Institute (ETI) and air pollution studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and ETI.

Singapore's port is one of the busiest in the world, and with 180,000 ships visiting each year, the country is at high risk of invasion by nonindigenous marine species lurking in ship ballast water. At the same time, as Singapore is seriously looking into desalination as an important source of potable water supply, the presence of undesirable marine organisms in its seawater will make the process more costly and difficult to handle.

Jose Matheickal, PhD, who heads the ship ballast water treatment group at ETI, says that this problem is not only pertinent to Singapore but is an international one. Every year it causes billions of dollars of damage to the water treatment industry worldwide.

According to Matheickal, although there are various research groups around the world looking into this problem none has been able to develop a technology that effectively treats ballast water. His team started R&D into ballast water treatment in 1998 by evaluating existing technologies and identifying gaps in them. With this information in hand, Matheickal's team is currently working on two parallel approaches toward effective ballast water treatment--improving available technologies and developing new ones.

To test emerging treatment technologies, ETI has set up a pilot plant, the initial results from which have been promising. ETI is working closely on this project with the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, who's pioneering contribution to this research has been recognized by the International Maritime Organization. ETI, which aims to become a ballast water R&D hub in the Asia-Pacific, will be working closely with international institutions, including the University of Miami, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the University of Tokyo.

On air pollution, R. Balasubramanian, who is at the department of chemical and environmental engineering at NUS, has been investigating regional air quality in Southeast Asia over the past 5 years using novel approaches. His group uses a combination of field-based investigations, laboratory studies, and computer models to develop a quantitative understanding of both physical and chemical processes occurring in the ambient atmosphere so that effective solutions can be formulated. The smoke haze due to uncontrolled forest fires in the region is one such issue that the group has investigated in recent years.

According to Balasubramanian, the type of pollutants present in the air constantly change depending on the direction of the wind and large-scale air movement, thus making the task of identifying and addressing the problem more difficult. As one of the pioneers in air-quality research in Singapore, he says that one has to be proactive when addressing these issues, by determining the problems to be solved and at the same time anticipating the forthcoming problems. "Air pollution problems are more complex, more widespread, and affect everyone," says Balasubramanian.

Unlike other environmental issues, air pollution crosses national borders. So to deal with it, it is crucial for the governments and scientists from neighboring countries to work together closely. "Long-term studies and long-term collaborations are required to address and solve air-quality problems," says Balasubramanian. Thus, among the aims of his research program are to complement the efforts the regional governments are making to mitigate air pollution problems and to counter air pollution episodes based on scientific facts and practical strategies. Besides working on ambient air quality in Singapore, his group also studies pollutants present in indoor air. Singaporeans spend a significant amount of their time at the work place and can be exposed to various pollutants. Long-term exposure to these pollutants can have harmful effects.

The industrial and urban air-quality group at ETI studies toxic pollutants, greenhouse gases, and cleaner forms of energy. The group, which is headed by David Liang, has recently developed a new membrane-based process for the separation of methane and carbon dioxide from natural gas. ETI has since filed for a patent for this finding. This is an important development, as the presence of carbon dioxide reduces the commercial value of the natural gas.

With all this energy going into solving local and regional resource and environmental problems, it is clear that Singapore offers many opportunities for those interested in environmental research. You just have to find out where the most interesting work is taking place, get connected, and get involved.

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