Devastating floods inspire invention

Effecting positive change: Lam’s experience as a flood victim spurred him on to devise a water production system with his teammates.

A PHD candidate’s experience of coping with floods and the resulting effects on daily life led him to come up with a solution to Malaysia’s clean water problem.

Together with two other researchers, Lam Jia Yong from Universiti Putra Malaysia, Norfazliana Abdullah from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, and Mohamad Fakhrul Ridhwan Samsudin from Universiti Teknologi Petronas designed an automated self-powered water treatment and monitoring system for drinkable water production.

The team worked together on this project during the 2020 Young Scientists Network-Academy of Sciences Malaysia (YSN-ASM) Chrysalis programme, and subsequently won the Best Team Award for the Chrysalis Award.

Lam said water-related issues are close to his heart as at the age of 15, he experienced the effects of the devastating floods that hit Pahang and other states on the east coast in December 2007.

“I was aware that electricity was the first thing to be cut off to prevent electrocution, but I was completely baffled when the water supply was next, ” he said, adding that he was terrified throughout the experience.

It was only weeks later that he learnt contaminants from floodwaters posed a threat to the drinking water systems which could make the population sick.

“That near one-week experience with limited access to clean water was dreadful and has been a reminder to myself to not take clean water for granted, ” said Lam, who was also the first prize winner of the award.

The system the team came up with involved three main steps that begin with detecting the microbes.

“Then, a low-cost and self-cleaning membrane will efficiently remove most contaminants that are present in the water.

“Photocatalysis technology subsequently allows for the elimination of residual microbes in the water while generating clean energy to power the whole system, ” the final year PhD candidate shared.

Lam said that he and his teammates had unanimously decided on the same topic after going through the 14 topics given by YSN-ASM.

“We were able to picture how our respective areas of expertise would fit in the puzzle. After deciding on the topic, things just clicked right away – the ideas flowed, each dot connected and voilà, we had our proposed project.

“We were able to perfect our proposal based on our expertise – mine on biosensor development, Norfazliana’s on membrane technology and Mohamad Fakhrul’s on photocatalyst.

“That is how we came up with an integrated holistic approach to produce safe drinking water for consumption, ” he added.

Lam said it is sad that even in today’s world, the lack of clean water supply is still a problem, resulting in the loss of millions of lives and dollars.

The control of water-related sickness depends on the access to safe drinking water, properly managed sanitation and good hygiene practices, he added.

“It was a proud moment for us when we were named the best team.

“Our journey was an inspired one because we were surrounded by peers who were driven to make a change in our respective areas, ” he said.

The team won RM3,000 in cash and certificates of achievements.

As first prize winner, Lam won RM2,000 in cash, RM3,000 in reagent sponsorship from Merck, RM3,400 in career development funds from ASM, and a certificate of achievement.

Muhammad Fakhrul, the second prize winner, took home RM2,000 in cash, RM3,000 in reagent sponsorship from Merck, RM3,300 in career development funds from ASM, and a certificate of achievement.

The third prize went to Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia PhD candidate Khoo Tze Sean, who received the same prizes as Muhammad Fakhrul.

Lam said he was glad he joined the Chrysalis programme as he had gained new knowledge through the workshops and through listening to the pitches from the other finalists.

Chrysalis is a seven-month flagship leadership programme organised by YSN-ASM.

The aim of the programme is to identify, develop, recognise and empower young future leading researchers (postgraduate students) within the science, technology and innovation ecosystem of our nation, and to inspire them to contribute to society.

During the grand finals on Jan 9, ASM president Prof Datuk Dr Asma Ismail said she hoped the 15 finalists would carry forward the knowledge they had learnt over the course of the programme.

The future of research lies in projects that benefit the country, be it in the community or industry, she said.

Science, Technology and Innovation secretary-general Datuk Dr Siti Hamisah Tapsir said it was inspiring to hear and see more ideas from all the scientists, whether it was personalised medicine for coronary artery disease or palm-based solar cells.

“I hope these ideas will materialise into real solutions that positively impact the community and the nation in the future, ” she added.

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