UM algae project wins Newton Prize

Winning combination: The Malaysian team of (from left) Associate Professor Dr Vengadesh Periasamy, Muhammad Musoddiq Jaafar, Professor Phang and Dr Ng Fong Lee at the Newton Prize 2017 presentation ceremony.

KUALA LUMPUR: Loving nature rarely constitutes loving algae, but it was a love for these organisms that led to Professor Dr Phang Siew Moi and her team from Universiti Malaya (UM) clinching the Newton Prize 2017 worth RM635,000.

Their winning submission, Integrating Algal Biophotovoltaics for Bioelectricity Production with Agro-Industrial Wastewater Remediation using Tropical Algae, is a project under the Newton-Ungku Omar Fund programme, with co-funding provided by Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology and the British Council.

The project, spearheaded by lead researchers from Malaysia and Britain, successfully developed an integrated microbial fuel cell prototype using tropical algae from wastewater.

Prof Phang, 64, admitted that she did not expect her team to win, given the stiff competition from the other four finalists.

“Based on what I knew of the competitors, I felt our idea was novel.

“It’s never easy to turn an idea into a working prototype, but we managed to do it,” said Prof Phang, who has headed the Institute of Ocean and Earth Sciences at UM for the last 17 years.

The concept’s benefits are three-pronged – producing enough electricity to power a small electronic device, lowering carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, and treating wastewater.

The electricity generation can be upscaled and should see a rural house being powered in the next five years.

The scientist credits her late headmaster father for nurturing her interest in biology, with trips to streams and family picnics by the beach all contributing to her love for plants and animals.

She insists that everything in life comes from hard work, and the effort put in should be steadfast.

“Either do it 100%, or don’t do it at all,” she said.


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