It’s all in the chemistry

Rewarding experience: Dr Suhaila says her team was one of the earliest in Malaysia to produce carbon nanotubes.

A scientist talks about research and her

passion for the job.

FOR Dr Suhaila Mohd Sanip, the teaching style of a lively secondary school teacher was what it took to spark her foray into the world of polymer science.

(Polymer science is the study of the physical and chemical materials as well as the development of new types of materials.)

Currently the Education and Research manager at the University of Southampton Malaysia Campus (USMC), Dr Suhaila said that it was her Form Three Science teacher’s “animated” style of teaching that sparked her interest in the sciences.

She subsequently developed a fascination with chemistry in her upper secondary years, particularly on the subject of polymers.

“I found chemistry to be colourful, and the study of long chain molecules is interesting because of the unlimited number of applications that are possible.

“I saw the potential of polymers as the material of the future,” she said.

This interest spurred her to pursue a degree in Polymer Science and Technology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (now merged with the University of Manchester), United Kingdom (UK).

Dr Suhaila later completed a post doctoral degree in Engineering (Nanotechnology) at the Nagoya Institute of Technology (NIT) in Japan.

Dr Suhaila said that her academic interest in nanotechnology began with her involvement on a research project on hydrogen storage for fuel cells under the auspices of the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry.

Simply put, fuel cells refer to devices which generate electricity through chemical reactions, usually hydrogen and oxygen.

“This (project) led to the numerous literature reviews and brain storming sessions, (and) our team decided to embark on using carbon nanotubes as a medium of storage because they are highly absorbent, and are a safe medium.

“We were one of the earliest teams in Malaysia to produce our own home grown carbon nanotubes and it was such joy to see the first images of tiny tubes with my fellow researchers,” said Dr Suhaila.

A carbon nanotube is a minute-sized cylinder of carbon atoms, and the properties of each tube depend on how the atoms are arranged.

For example, a carbon nanotube can be made to be much stronger and lighter than steel to be used as building material, or as effective semi-conductors in microprocessors depending on how individual carbon atoms are arranged.

Building on her earlier work, Dr Suhaila’s current research project on carbon nanotubes is a collaborative initiative between USMC, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) and NIT.

She said that her team is also looking into the development of mixed-matrix membranes.

“Membranes are used as filters for the separation of both gases and liquid.

“Mixed-matrix membranes are considered as new generation materials which possess the synergistic properties of both the inorganic and polymeric materials making them more robust and potentially durable especially in harsh conditions,” she said.

Dr Suhaila said that such research could be potentially useful in creating portable power-generation, with hydrogen as a renewable energy source.

“Additionally, carbon nanotubes account for 28% of the market share for all nanomaterials globally and is continuing to augment as industry demands better performing materials, especially in energy and environmental sectors,” she added. She further explained that the idea to collaborate with these institutions was one that arose naturally, as she had previously worked at UTM and earned her postdoctoral degree at NIT.

“A common interest in the area of research will enhance much collaborative efforts between universities.

“Personal networking and the trust in fellow researchers do play an important role in putting collaborative research in place,” she added.

Having been part of USMC’s core team from the start, Dr Suhaila shared that her experience of setting up the Malaysian campus was “overwhelming”.

“We literally had to get the campus ready just a day before we moved in to have our first open day.

“There were many challenges that we had to overcome but it was all worth it when we saw our first batch of students walking into our campus in October 2012.

“It was like having your first-born, and all the labour of hardship in getting to that milestone was worth every minute,” she said.

Commenting that local engineering research has come a long way from its initial focus on fundamental studies, Dr Suhaila said more work still needs to be done to connect universities with industry.

She further shared that USMC aims to build a world-class research centre within 10 years, and position itself as one of the top research institutions in Malaysia.

“The research centre will focus on particular engineering issues (and) research groupings will reflect existing ones at the University of Southampton in the UK.

“Areas of interest include energy; mechatronics; computational engineering, materials; and aerospace,” she said.

She added that USMC also hopes to make an impact on the local research community as well as the country as a whole.

“A mentoring programme would be beneficial for new and upcoming researchers and academics from local institutions with renowned academics in their field of expertise through collaborative research and exchange programme with USMC as the platform.

“The USMC campus will also encourage the registration of intellectual property and the formation of new companies.

“Hence wealth creation for the nation through outstanding research and development will be one of the main contributions for the country,” she said.

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