YME had just successfully organized their first flagship event; YME Pecha Kucha last Sunday, 19th February 2017. The event was held in lecture hall D007 (even I thought my editor-in-chief was kidding when he told me 007), Renolds Building, the University of Manchester. The registration opened at 9 AM and free refreshments were made available during the breaks. The objective of the event was to promote intellectual discussion amongst Malaysian engineering students in the UK by inviting speakers to present on their respective research, thesis or experiences. During the session, 6 speakers were invited to give their presentations; Dr James Winterburn talked about The Past, Present and Future of Biotechnology followed by Miss Prakhrithi Narayanan presenting her group’s brainchild, AlcoPatch and Extracellular ATP and Calcium Signaling in Plants by Miss Amirah Mohammad Sidik. Right after the break, Pecha Kucha then invited Miss Tan Wei Qi who presented her experience doing research at BP on Phase Behavior of Surfactant-Oil-Water Systems. Her presentation was then followed by Miss Tsia Shu Wei on her talk about Modern Energy Trading: Powered by Disruptive Technology. Last but not least, the last speaker, Mr Prabhuraj Balakrishnan presented his current research, “Towards Sustainable Energy using Graphene”. The presentations were in the format of 20 seconds per slide with 20 slides per presenter. Right after each presentation, the chair then announced a Q&A session that enabled the participants to have dialogues with the presenter.
The Past, Present and Future of Biotechnology (Dr James Winterburn)
Dr James began his talk by bringing about one of the earliest biotechnological achievements made by mankind; bread. Using yeast, mankind has been able to produce products out of bioprocesses and even scale the production up to the industrial scale. Hence, bioprocesses are not remote to the industry, they have been there for ages. Dr James even pointed out one of the oldest industrial fermentation processes; acetone-butanol-ethanol fermentation (ABE fermentation) that was patented in 1919 by Chaim Weizmann. Fighter jets used to be fueled by butanol made out from this reaction until petroleum came into play. Petroleum-based products then started to become more popular owing to their lower costs compared to bio-based products. This was demonstrated by Dr James’ research on producing bio-surfactants from food wastes (orange peel and date seeds to be specific). Aside from the low yield, bio-based processes also imposed high costs due to difficulties in separation of the end products and slow production rates which in turn results in higher operating costs. However, bio-based products are in demand due to their environmentally-friendly nature. Most of the wastes resulting from these processes can be turned to either biomass or fertilizer and they decompose easily in nature. Dr James gave an example of the Deep Horizon incident, where surfactant was sprayed over the oil spill as an effort to clean up the oil spill. He pointed out that, although the surfactant was successful in collecting the oil spills, no report on the effect of the surfactant to nature was submitted. If it was a bio-surfactant, we would know for sure that it will decompose in nature and would not impose any harm to the local ecosystem. Wrapping up his presentation, Dr James presented the possibility of a biotechnological future or “true” bioprocesses. One of it is the integration between industrial bio-based processes and agricultural greenhouses where carbon dioxide produced in an industrial process is fed to an agricultural greenhouse to promote the growth of the crops.
AlcoPatch: Rethink Your Drink (Miss Prakhrithi Narayanan)
The presentation started with an image of a Mancunian being held down by a policeman in what is later informed by Miss Prakhrithi as a typical problem happening on New Year’s Eve; being drunk. The image managed to make participants of Pecha Kucha burst into laughter and even though Malaysians do not usually relate themselves with alcoholic beverages, the session also got the attention of the audience with questions that always begin with “I don’t drink, but…”. Miss Prakhrithi stressed in the beginning of her presentation that AlcoPatch was designed to be an awareness tool for those who would like to keep track on their alcohol level in order to avoid incidents such as drunk driving. In this light, AlcoPatch was aimed to be as user-friendly as possible by using colour indicators of alcohol level. Utilizing the correlation of blood alcohol level and sweat alcohol level, AlcoPatch managed to be less intrusive then current alcohol level analyzers such as breathalyzers, blood analysis and urine tests. AlcoPatch works as easily as applying a patch on your arms in order to be in contact with the sweat of the user. In order to produce the colour signal, the team initially employed the usage of a microorganism that is capable to metabolize alcohol to produce chemicals that produce colour. However, this initiative has one big problem; it took 24 hours to produce results. After doing further research, the team discovered that the easier and faster way to produce results was to extract the enzymes beforehand and incorporate them into the patch. This way, the results can be seen in a matter of minutes and also reduces the risk of infection of the microorganisms upon the user. Her team received the Gold Medal award and the Best Model award at the Giant Jamboree held in Boston, USA for their project.
Extracellular ATP and Calcium Signaling in Plants (Miss Amirah Mohammad Sidik)
Miss Amirah conducted her research using a beautiful white-flowering plant that she included in her first slide. The aim of the research was to investigate the signaling system in plants in order to be able to diagnose plants as much as the current technology is able to diagnose animals from their responses to stress. Miss Amirah utilized a fancy gene obtained from jellyfish that was able to generate blue light in the presence of calcium ions to do so. After incorporating the gene into the plant, she then tested the plant with extracellular ATP (read: adenosine triphosphate, a chemical usually used to store and transport energy in cells) and later observed the blue light emitted by the plants corresponding to the calcium signals in the plant cells. This was compared to cases where the plant was exposed to stress in terms of temperature, salinity and sorbitol levels. However, the plant did not glow in the dark (sorry to ruin your imagination), the blue light emitted was at a very low intensity and could only be detected using a special laboratory apparatus called a luminometer that measures the intensity of the blue light emitted by the plant after being abused (again, read: exposed to stress). Her current results managed to show that plants use calcium as a signal in response to stress and she is now trying to investigate the origins of the calcium ions; either obtained extracellularly or stored in an intercellular storage. She hopes that her research will enable mankind to further understand plants to be able to produce more yield in crops and also to investigate further into the ecosystem in plants, enabling more efficient integration of humanity into nature. She ended her presentation by stating her amazement on the species in the plant kingdom that is able to survive without the need of relocating or even having a brain.
Phase Behavior of Surfactant-Oil-Water System (Miss Tan Wei Qi)
Following her achievement in an essay competition held by BP in her first year, Miss Wei Qi was presented with the opportunity to do research at BP labs. Her research was centered around microemulsions that are used in enhanced oil recovery system. Microemulsions are used by oil companies in their petroleum recovery from oil reservoirs. Traditionally, the recovery was done by increasing the pressure in the oil reservoir to force the oil out either by pumping gas or water into the reservoir. The problem with the method was that it results in the mixing of the pumped materials with the recovered oil and also only about 20 percent of oil recovery. Microemulsions solved this problem by employing surfactants in order to create a boundary between the pumped material, specifically water, and the oil. Narrating her experience, Miss Wei Qi was given two tasks as soon as she first met her supervisor at BP; 1) Create stable microemulsion systems and 2) Show that the system can be simulated in a computer software. At first, as inexperienced as she was, she told the audience that she accidentally wasted her first batch of surfactant which turned out to be really expensive. She managed to get around that with a letter sent to BP afterwards so she was fine. She also tried to use bio-surfactants as an alternative but the bio-surfactants were still ill-defined so she decided not to continue her research using them. Concluding her presentation, Miss Wei Qi informed the audience that her experience of working under stress really promoted the creative thinking aspect of her skill set as is evident in her current engagement on her course’s design project.
Modern Energy Trading: Powered by Disruptive Technology (Miss Tsia Shu Wei)
Going back into history, the energy generation started with the invention of James Watt’s steam engine. Back then, mankind has yet to recognize the effect of the energy generated from burning coals on nature. When petroleum came into play, our reliance towards fossil fuels increased even further. When humankind finally realized that the fossil fuel burning accelerated global warming, various energy alternatives were researched and employed. Nowadays, the current scientific achievement has brought the alternative energy technologies to a viable scale.). In this light, Miss Tsia Shu Wei presented two suggestions on how greener alternative energies can be employed and be economically viable. The first suggestion is to decentralize the national energy generation. The main reason why fossil fuel is very alluring compared to the alternative renewable energies was due to its energy density. The energy density in fossil fuel is very high such that one energy generation plant can cover the need of a very widely populated area. In order to replace fossil fuel energy plants, Miss Tsia Shu Wei suggested that the energy generation can be done in multiple places but on a smaller scale instead. For example, combining wind, wave, tidal and hydroelectric energies into the national grid in Malaysia instead of having centralized power plants. The scale can be even elevated to neighborhoods, employing citizens as the micro power plants that contribute to the system. This brings us to the second suggestion; the creation of microgrids. Since power in is generated within the neighborhood itself, the energy generation duty can be shared within the community instead of relying on the National Grid. These two suggestions may seem to be negative for producers who are making a living out of energy generation. However, Miss Shu Wei stressed that her suggestions were made on a “Prosumer” (producer and consumer) basis. Having microgrids presents the producers with the economic opportunity in the energy regulation. Say for example a neighborhood where all of the houses are fitted with solar panels. Their energy generation will vary throughout the day. Night time will be very dark if the microgrid uses the energy as soon as it is produced. Hence, some energy regulations must be implemented to divide the task of generating, storing and distributing energy between the members of the neighborhood. This is where the producers can come into play; they can seize the management opportunity and charge reasonable price for their service. Since there will be lots of microgrids to replace macrogrids, this step actually produces more employment opportunities, in contrast of risking unemployment due to the current energy generation industry. Miss Shu Wei then ended her presentation with a quote ‘Advances of the civilization correlates with its advances of energy’.
Towards Sustainable Energy using Graphene (Mr PrabhurajBalakrishnan)
Remember redox reactions? The famous U-tube or salt bridge experiment? In the experiment, the reactants were reduced and oxidized at the same time, owing to the transportation of the electrons and protons (hydrogen positive ions) between the reactants. Simply said, if you provide a drive (namely potential difference) to cause the flow of electrons, you have created electricity. This was the main principle behind Mr Prabhuraj’s research, employing redox reactions without contacting the reactants. Instead, the reactants were connected by a membrane that only allows protons to pass through and an electron pathway where we can harness electricity from. The advantage of this method over internal combustion engines and existing renewable energy sources is the ability to produce energy without producing noise and also a simpler structure. In his research, Mr Prabhuraj uses methanol as a reducing agent and oxygen from air as the oxidizer. He also focuses on the material selection of the membrane so as to produce electricity in the most efficient manner as possible. He found out that graphene served serves as a good pathway medium for both electron and proton exchange. This has proven that graphene is really the wonder material of the century. However, the challenge still lies in producing the graphene itself. Graphene was just recently discovered and the method of producing it in a large and economical scale is still in the research phase but, research such as Mr Prabhuraj’s is actively made; proving yet another benefit of graphene.
All in all, the event was a great success. The event was not only informative but also sparked a sense of wonder and awe in the hearts and minds of the young Malaysian engineering students who took their Sunday morning off for the event. Apart from the opportunity to learn about new advances in the science and technology field, the participants also went home with a sense of inspiration after listening to the experiences of the presenters. Personally, I hope more events like this one will be held in the future (preferably not on a Sunday morning) in order to promote a knowledge-exchanging culture among Malaysians, especially the youths. I hope events like this will not be branded as events for nerds but a normal culture among Malaysian youths, viewed as a chance to gain knowledge and insight into the world of science. From the wise words of Miss Prakhrithi Narayanan, “Carpe Diem, and make the best of every single moment that you have. Don’t stop dreaming because you will never know what opportunity you have ahead of you!’