Finding The Key To A Sustainable Future

Amid the growing controversy over the potential environmental damage, it is comforting to know that two PhD students holding Environmental & Water Technologies scholarships administered by the NRF and PUB (EWI) are doing their part to help create a sustainable future. Melvin Tang and Ng Jiawei share their ideas and knowledge with blazing enthusiasm.

By Mabel Tan

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of environmentalists? Does an image of green crusaders with a penchant for preaching to anyone who is willing to listen come to mind?

Meet two students who are certainly not the tree-huggers or Armageddon prophets some people perceive them to be.

Both 26-year-old Melvin Tang and 29-year-old Ng Jiawei are pursuing their doctorate in civil and environmental engineering with the help of the Environmental & Water Technologies scholarship administered by the National Research Foundation and PUB’s Environment & Water Industry Programme Office.

Why did you choose to pursue a PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering?
Melvin: I feel that the decisions surrounding the topic of water have a political significance. This affects our relationships with neighbouring countries like Malaysia.
My dream is to help manage situations like these by drafting water policies for the government. To achieve this, I hope to enter the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy and the minimum criterion for entry is a PhD. Besides, I also like teaching and a PhD will open my door to a career in the academic world.

Jiawei: When I was pursuing my Diploma in Chemical Engineering in Singapore Polytechnic, I learnt about how the economic and industrial development led to civil destruction of our earth. From the knowledge I acquired from chemical process engineering, I see an impending need to create a sustainable flow to ensure that our development can continue, especially since the earth’s resources is being exhausted at an alarming rate. For my PhD, I want to further explore the techniques of waste minimisation.

Tell us about the PhD programme.
Melvin: We are required to generate a thesis by the fourth year of our programme and present our research findings to an external panel of industry experts. This ‘Thesis Defence’ session will determine if we are able to graduate. Of course, we also have to pass our examinable modules prior to that.

Jiawei: We have to take six modules and score at least a ‘B+’ for each paper. The school has the option to disqualify us should we fail to meet that grade. After that, we will have to conduct comprehensive literature reviews over a period of one year to understand the water industry, in Singapore or from a global perspective, before starting to make provisions on how we want our research to be angled towards.

What is your idea of a sustainable environment?
Melvin: A sustainable environment is one where there are leftover natural resources for our future generations. Unfortunately, the general public does not really understand the agenda of a sustainable environment.

For example, we seldom see people removing plastic caps from paper cups and disposing them separately. Furthermore, our refuse site at Pulau Semakau is also rapidly filling up.

In order to sustain Singapore, we must inculcate the previous values of sustainability into the minds of our fellow citizens and implement a concrete and comprehensive recycling programme that the public can easily comprehend.

Jiawei: Energy is never created and never destroyed within a close loop. For example, take the process of creating drinking water. To do this, we first need to remove the contaminants present in it. But even if we were to discard these contaminants into the sea, they will eventually return.

Of course, we need oil rigs and skyscrapers to advance our urbanisation and economic development for the betterment of life. In a sustainable society, the amount of resources that we deplete from the earth has to commensurate with the amount of energy being translated from this waste.

What are you focused on in your current research?
Melvin: My focus is on green water treatment alternatives, particularly those that can generate energy from waste water. I chose to conduct my research in this field because of the current concerns on energy and climate change.

To explain, waste water contains nutrients. From there, we cultivate bacteria which, under certain conditions, can produce methane. Because methane contains energy recovery value, the energy that is recovered from the waste water will help offset the overall energy consumption in the entire water treatment process.

Jiawei: My research encompasses the integration of nanotechnology with water treatment. First, a semiconductor catalytic is activated with the help of solar energy to oxidise organic waste materials, which are in turn, transformed into carbon dioxide and other natural gas. These can be used to generate energy, closing the carbon loop.
In the ideal scenario, there will be self-sustainable waste water treatment plants that are able to run on the energy generated by the waste that is removed from the water. But the issue with this process is that of efficiency. This is where our research work comes into play.

My objective for this research is to be able to treat water with the lowest amount of cost incurred in terms of energy.

How do you hope to contribute to society after attaining your PhD?
Jiawei: I think that it is a meaningful impetus to know that although water is abundant on earth, it is clean water that is scarce. There are many water-strapped developing countries that do not have access to clean water. I hope that from my work, the Singapore water industry will be able to generate clean water and abide to humanitarian aid and relief.

What advice would you give to anyone who may be considering pursuing a PhD?
Melvin: You have to possess a genuine interest in the chosen field of study; otherwise you may find it difficult to keep yourself motivated throughout the four-year programme. You shouldn’t just go for the fame and prestige of the PhD title, or because you did well and qualify for the programme. In fact, I have friends who took up a PhD programme for the wrong reasons and are regretting it now. You have to be true to yourself.

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