Dr Chantara Thevy Ratnam: Polymer power

  • People
  • Tuesday, 26 Aug 2014

Dr. Chantara Thevy Ratnam is an award-winning nuclear scientist whose research could have implications for Malaysia's rubber recycling industry. Her childhood ambition was to become a medical doctor, and her favourite song is Daddy Cool by Boney M.

Meet the first Malaysian to win the Grand Prix Award at the 34th International Exhibition of Inventions, New Techniques and Products.

While we sip lattes at morning meetings or crunch numbers at a computer, scientists like Dr Chantara Thevy Ratnam are most at home in the lab.

Doing experiments. Generating data. And solving a million problems we didn’t even know existed.

Being a nuclear scientist doesn’t mean you make bombs, though it’s a question Chantara gets asked a lot.

On the contrary, her work at the Malaysian Nuclear Agency involves the radiation processing of polymers – large molecules made up of sub-units connected to each other by chemical bonds.

A polymer can be anything from DNA to rubber, although most often the word is used to refer to plastics.

One such plastic Chantara invented, a radiation-sterilisable PVC compound, won her a Grand Prix Award at the 34th International Exhibition of Inventions, New Techniques and Products in Geneva, Switzerland, back in 2006.

Being the first Malaysian to win this prestigious prize has been highly motivating.

Her invention doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but it holds great promise in the manufacture of medical devices.

Currently, many types of medical devices are sterilised using ethylene oxide (ETO) gas, a toxic compound known to have some nasty side effects.

A potential environmental contaminant associated with a range of health hazards, ETO is also listed as a probable carcinogen.

So the world has been exploring radiation as an alternative sterilising agent.

The problem is, irradiated plastic medical devices tend to go yellow and deteriorate faster.

Chantara’s special PVC compound doesn’t.

She says it could be used to manufacture blood transfusion tubing, intravenous tubes and kidney dialysis equipment.

Currently, Chantara’s team is applying for funds to conduct pre-clinical trials and toxicity studies.

Once that’s done, the intention is to partner up with industry players who will use the compound to manufacture medical devices, which will then be tested on patients in hospitals.

It sounds like a small innovation, but in the greater scheme of things – particularly Malaysia’s ambitions to become a competitive hub for the biomedical industry – it’s a worthy contribution.

Rubbery reincarnation

Chantara’s other notable innovation involves scrap rubber.

Malaysia exported RM14.62bil worth of rubber products last year – just think of the piles of rejects and waste.

And then there are tyres. It’s estimated Malaysia will generate 311,337 tonnes of scrap tyres on the peninsula alone next year.

Most of this scrap is disposed of via unknown routes, with many ending up as water collection points for disease-carrying mosquitoes to breed.

The puzzle Chantara has been trying to solve is: how can we give scrap rubber a new lease of life?

Usually, low-value waste rubber is pooled, melted, and chemically treated for re-use. The recycled rubber is of a much lower quality, with reduced tensile strength, so it tends to be used for lower-grade products such as slipper soles.

It took Chantara six years to develop a patented formula which can be mixed in during the “compounding” stage of rubber processing.

*Compounding is the stage at which rubber scraps are melted and chemicals added to facilitate the breakdown of the molecular bonds, before products are reformed through processes like extrusion and injection moulding,” she explained.

The entire process is free of hazardous emissions and chemicals, according to Chantara. The quality and tensile strength of the treated rubber makes it suitable for products like O-rings, gaskets, hoses, bumpers and diaphragms.

The agency is working with local industry partners on the pre-commercialisation phase of the technology. It has applied for government funding to scale up production of the patented chemical compound, for pilot production on an industrial scale.

Eventually, Chantara hopes, the technology will become available in the market via licensing of Nuclear Malaysia’s patented formulation.

The only potential snag might be the logistics of commercialisation; which is why industrial partnerships and government are such important parts of the equation.

Scientists constantly innovate, but an entire ecosystem is needed to translate their work into applications that benefit the general public.

Dr Chantara Thevy Ratnam

Current job title: Senior Research Officer/Manager, Polymer Blends and Composites Group, Radiation Processing Technology Division, Malaysian Nuclear Agency (Nuclear Malaysia,) Bangi

Likes: Hard-working people

Dislikes: Jealousy

Favourite song: Daddy Cool (Boney M)

Childhood ambition: Medical Doctor

Grew up in: Bahau, Negri Sembilan

Favourite food: Banana leaf rice (vegetarian)

If you were a plastic, what type would you be and why? Cheap, strong, durable, transparent, versatile, biodegradable, non-toxic. Because it will be very useful in the healthcare industry, cost-effective and environment friendly.

You are transported to a desert island and only get to take three items with you, what are they? Fire (matches/lighter), KA-BAR knife, water.

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