THREE postgraduate students and one undergraduate from three Malaysian public universities recently stole the hearts of judges with their ability to think, communicate and collaborate creatively at the 2018 International Nanotechnology Olympiad (INO) in Teheran, Iran.
The team — comprising Ho Kah Chun of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), Joshua Soo Zheyan and Muhammad Sollehin Idris of Universiti Malaya, and Rabiatul Adawiyah Zayadi of Universiti Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia — proposed using oil palm fronds as a nanotechnology ingredient to treat industrial wastewater.
They took home a gold medal, a certificate and a €2,000 (RM9,550) prize.
The team was sent by the National Nanotechnology Centre (NNC) as Malaysia’s representative to compete in the Olympiad’s science, technology and innovation category that took place at Teheran’s Pardis Technology Park.
The European Union sent three teams, the host country had two teams, and others came from Taiwan, South Korea and Russia.
Ho, a PhD student at UKM’s Faculty of Engineering & Built Environment, was a Yayasan Sime Darby scholar.
He said the competition required every team to propose a problem-solving research concept in wastewater management, agriculture, food and packaging, alternative energy, drugs and medication, and information and communication technology.
“Our project is titled Nano-palm frond titania fibre (PFTF) membrane for industrial wastewater treatment (Reduction of methylene blue dye and hexavalent chromium).
“The Nano-PFTF membrane is used specifically to decompose organic and inorganic pollutants in textile and mining wastewater.
“We took three months to complete the project, experimenting with the product and writing the report. The four of us come from different backgrounds and that helped us to come up with various ideas and solutions for our project.”
He added that participants had to pitch ideas in applying nanotechnology to solve real scientific and industrial problems. Teams were also tested in a question-and-answer session after their presentation.
Rabiatul Adawiyah said she and her team members were selected from a NNC olympiad competition last year.
“Our supervisors have always been supportive and motivated us throughout our journey,” she said, adding that it was really an exciting experience for all of them.
“The 10-minute duration provided for each presentation is a challenge for us to highlight and deliver our contents.
“I salute the team’s effort in maintaining calmness throughout the presentation. In addition to asking questions, I also like it when the jury gives constructive criticism and suggestions to enhance the potential of our product in future,” said Rabiatul Adawiyah, who is pursuing her doctorate in science.
Soo, who is studying for a Master of Science, said it was his first time joining the National Nanotechnology Olympiad (NNO) last year, and he was not aware there was an international competition.
“My aim back then was to gain exposure and meet participants at the national level. We joined talks, visits and workshops that increased our knowledge in nanotechnology evolution, from nanomaterial processing to characterisation, application and business development.
“We were then evaluated on essay writing and group pitching in topics related to nanotechnology application to solve water and wastewater issues.
“It was good to be able to extend my experience to the international level. We know we had to face participants from advanced countries, but we told ourselves: ‘Let’s do everything right and strictly follow by the book’.
“We were the only country to complete everything for the competition,” he said.
Sollehin, the youngest member, was planning to do an internship and pursue his Masters in environmental science. He is in his final year of a degree in applied chemistry.
He said he would keep in touch with his team mates and continue giving ideas to advance their research.
The 2018 INO competition was organised by the Asia Nano Forum (ANF) and carried out by the Iran Nanotechnology Initiative Council (INIC), as well as the Iranian INO’s permanent secretariat.
UKM Deputy Vice-Chancellor (economic and international affairs) Professor Datuk Dr Mohd Marzuki Mustafa said the ideas proposed during INO had potential to become industrial solutions.
He cited teamwork as one of the positive aspects of the competition, which presented opportunities for talents to synergise and solve problems.
“Such competitions are great opportunities for talented researchers to connect with each other,” he said.
UKM Faculty of Engineering & Built Environment dean Professor Dr Shahrir Abdullah said the competition was a good platform for students to combine ideas and come up with a winning product.
“Knowledge-sharing and team spirit are key elements for these students because not only they didn’t know each other prior to the competition, they also came from different backgrounds of study.
“Their efforts are commendable and we hope that they will continue developing their product and produce more research ideas in the future,” said Shahrir.
He also said the success of the Malaysian team should be used to catalyse research and development in nanotechnology.
Government initiatives, especially those by the NNC and Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry, could help make nanotechnology a priority research field.
“With NNO and INO, young scientists can broaden their knowledge and sharpen their soft skills. In addition, INO also provides Malaysia with the opportunity to collaborate with researchers from other countries to drive nanotechnology progress.”
There were three other winners in the 2018 INO. The Taiwan team won €3,000 (RM14,130) for achieving the best overall score. One Iranian team won the best project in terms of business development, taking home €2,000 (RM9,550). The South Korean team won €2,000 (RM9,550) for coming up with the most novel and highest impact idea.
Ho said his team would carry on its research into the Nano-PFTF membrane until it could be commercialised.
“The potential of this nano product in outlining more pollutants in wastewater will be identified, and the results of this research will be published in journals for reference.
“The team is grateful for its success and hopes Malaysia will create more success and great discoveries in the field of nanotechnology, as it is one of the key elements in the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” said Rabiatul Adawiyah.