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Science, Technology
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On Hydrogen, COVID-19 and Climate Change – An Interview with Prof Chan Siew Hwa

think-07-05-On Hydrogen, COVID19 and Climate Change-Featured Image

You have been focusing your research on renewable energy for many years. Could you tell us about your efforts and achievements in this area?

My Ph.D and postdoctoral research at Imperial College London was on heavy-duty internal combustion engines and I was very passionate about it. However, since my research was for military application, I could not publish my work within five years of obtaining my Ph.D. When I started to look for a new research focus after joining the faculty of NTU, I chose the fuel cell as it is an energy conversion device similar to the internal combustion engine in that they both convert the chemical energy in a fuel into another form of energy. Besides being more efficient than the internal combustion engine, the fuel cell is environmentally friendly as it uses hydrogen derived from renewable energy sources.

 

Moreover, the energy conversion process of fuel cells involves a lot of fundamental science that was familiar to me because of my knowledge in reaction thermodynamics. That was why I have refocused my research on fuel cell design since 1997, with a dream of making fuel cells commercially viable.

 

You are also known as one of the leading advocates for the Hydrogen Economy in Singapore. Please tell our readers more about what this advocacy is about.

I believe hydrogen and fuel cell technology can one day enable an energy revolution that will help to decarbonise our economy and slow down climate change. However, with hydrogen being the key energy source of fuel cells, we must first build the infrastructure to extract, store and transport hydrogen safely and economically. With that, hydrogen will become our main source of energy, replacing our current Hydrocarbon Economy with a Hydrogen Economy.

 

As a professor in a research-intensive university, I must do my part to advocate what I believe in. And before I advocate for something, I must first believe in the relevant technology, then convince my colleagues, students and everyone else to believe in the same technology as well. The best way to do this is to organise conferences to share knowledge. So in 2005, I organised the first World Hydrogen Technologies Convention (WHTC) in Singapore.

 

I also ran the 13th Hydrogen Power Theoretical & Engineering Solutions International Symposium (HYPOTHESIS XIII), the first European hydrogen fuel cell conference that was brought to Asia, in 2018. In the same year, I represented NTU to sign an agreement with the China, Japan and Korea Hydrogen Associations to promote the Hydrogen Economy. I find it meaningful to be doing all this because we are essentially educating people on why we have to decarbonise our economy, and on the best way of doing it.

Prof Chan Siew Hwa

Prof Chan delivers his lectures in Thermodynamics online from his office during Phase 2 of “Reopening”. After 30 years of teaching and conducting research in NTU, this is his fifth office in the university, which he has been using since 2006.

You have been spending much of your time working with Chinese partners. What is the nature of your work in China?

NTU is one of the founding partners of the Sino-Singapore International Joint Research Institute (SSIJRI) located in Guangzhou. I represent NTU and serve as the Vice Director of the Institute. At SSIJRI, we cover many aspects of research. Besides New Energy, there are Digital Technologies, Biomedical, and so on. All the work done at the Institute is translational research with a high technology readiness level (TRL), which means that when a project is brought to SSIJRI, it is intended for incubation and commercialisation.

 

Singapore invests significantly in research and innovation. However, due to the small market in Singapore, commercialisation of research outcomes is not always easy. For example, in the early years, it was very difficult to find someone who was keen to invest in the hydrogen and fuel cell technology I was working on. But when we brought this technology to China through the Institute, we had an opportunity to commercialise it and reach out to a much larger market in China. This is essentially what SSIJRI does. I was happy to take up my role there because I think it is a very meaningful one. It has been almost five years now, and the Institute will soon enter its second phase of development in a new facility. It is becoming more established compared to where it was five years ago.

If we’re unable to overcome the pandemic, how are we going to address climate change, which is politically and scientifically much more complex?”

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your various research and product development projects?

At an individual level, there have been some inconveniences, of course. Some product development plans have been delayed because of market conditions, and certain international collaborations put on hold because of travel restrictions. For example, Xin Xiang (Guangzhou) Hydrogen Technologies 新向(广州)氢能科技, a start-up which I co-founded as a spin-off from SSIJRI, is still unable to operate after setting up its manufacturing facility. However, if you look at it from a long-term perspective, the timeframe of climate change and that of the pandemic are very different. Climate change is bound to affect us in the long run, whereas the impact of the pandemic is relatively short-term but more traumatising. If we’re unable to overcome the pandemic, how are we going to address climate change, which is politically and scientifically much more complex? If we look beyond the short-term disruptions, we may realise that the pandemic has given us a rare opportunity to slow down and reflect, and reassess our situation, both at the individual and societal levels. What have we done wrong that caused the crisis to happen? How can we do better in order to survive future crises?

 

In your view, are global warming and climate change as serious a threat as some climate action advocates want us to believe?

Well, let me tell you how we can look at the global warming problem from a different perspective – a perspective that is related to how we harness and consume energy. In theory, the earth has a virtually unlimited supply of energy. For example, if we can harness all of the energy from 50 minutes of the sunlight we receive on earth, it is sufficient to power all human activities for an entire year!

 

We also have lots of wind energy and geothermal energy. So the problem lies in the collection, storage and distribution of energy, not with the supply at source. It also lies with the fact that our technology today requires us to derive most of the energy we need from fossil fuels, through processes that pollute our environment. If we do not come up with cleaner and more effective technologies to collect, store and transmit energy, the threat of global warming will only become more serious with time. And that is exactly why developing solutions like fuel cell and the hydrogen economy is so compelling and important.

 

From the point of view of environmental protection, what lessons have we learned from the impact of the pandemic? In your opinion, has the pandemic affected our chances of meeting the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement?

I don’t think the pandemic itself will have a lasting effect on our energy consumption and greenhouse gas emission. Human beings are quick to forget. Whatever changes and hardship we are experiencing now will only affect us temporarily. In fact, there are reports showing that COVID-19 has not slowed down greenhouse gas effects in any significant way. When vaccines become available, everything will again be driven by commercial forces and short term benefits.

The deadly Typhoon Vamco

A recent research, produced by Climate Central and published in the open-access journal Nature Communications, reported that in about three decades, the Philippines could find many of its coastal areas underwater due to the effects of climate change. Photo: Hrlumanog / Dreamstime

“Many countries treat hydrogen as a new energy vector as it fits well into the renewable energy era, serving not just as an energy storage medium but as an energy carrier as well.”

I believe painful lessons and policy changes are not good enough to help us reach our climate goals. Look at the liberalisation of our energy sector for example.

 

There was initially a rush to offer competitive pricing by electricity providers. But when electricity became cheaper, human nature kicked in and people started to consume more energy, especially by leaving their air-conditioners on for longer hours. A well-intentioned policy resulted in the undesirable outcome of higher energy consumption.

 

Ultimately, what will truly drive positive change in human societies is education. We need to keep looking for creative ways to educate people on the importance of energy conservation and remind people of the dire consequences of climate change.

Otherwise, it is almost certain that we will reach a point where it is too late for us to do anything to save our planet. Only when people are truly aware of the importance of conserving energy and the environment can we say that we have become more mature as a society, capable of tackling our own existential issues.

Decarbonising the planet

Green hydrogen, which uses renewable energy like offshore wind to produce hydrogen from water, is taking off around the globe. Potentially, the fuel could play an important role in decarbonising hard-to-electrify sectors of the economy, such as long-haul trucking, aviation and heavy manufacturing.

A sustainable pathway for the circulation of a hydrogen economy by combining renewable energy and electrochemical water splitting.

Source: Adapted from Zhang et al. (2020) – Bifunctional Heterostructured Transition Metal Phosphides for Efficient Electrochemical Water Splitting

Of all the renewable energy sources that are currently known to us, which one among them do you think will have the best chance of saving our planet from the threat of climate change?

No one energy source will dominate the world in future. If you look at the discourse on energy transition, everyone is talking about energy mix. For example, if you live in a country that is dark or cloudy most of the time, solar power is out of the question. If you are in a country with a lot of wind, like certain parts of Vietnam, you would consider converting wind power into something that can be stored efficiently.

 

While we optimise the use of renewable energy based on local conditions, everything can ultimately be tied to hydrogen because we can store excess energy by converting it to hydrogen which can be used as fuel for gas turbine engines and fuel cells later. We use hydrogen because, unlike batteries, it can be stored in bulk for weeks, months, or even seasons without self-discharging. Many countries treat hydrogen as a new energy vector as it fits well into the renewable energy era, serving not just as an energy storage medium but as an energy carrier as well. Japan is the first country that declared its hydrogen economy plan. After the catastrophic Fukushima incident, the Japanese government considered its energy strategy very cautiously from both the environmental sustainability and the energy security perspectives.

Diagram of single solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC). In this schematic, pure hydrogen gas is used as the feedstock.

Source: Adapted from Diakite et al. (2014) – Improving a Fuel Cell Assembly Process

You have been teaching while remaining active in R&D for the last 30 years. If given a choice, would you prefer to teach more or to do more research?

I like both, to be honest. I truly believe teaching and research are equally important. By teaching and training students, I constantly get to revisit the fundamentals, and this is very helpful in triggering new research ideas. Also, if you teach well, you will attract good students to pursue their Ph.D degree under your supervision. It is always a privilege to be able to nurture talented young scholars and bring them to the next level of their academic and professional development.

 

In your view, what are the most significant changes in education, especially engineering and STEM education, in the last 30 years?

A STEM curriculum educates students in four specific disciplines, namely Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, in an interdisciplinary and applied approach instead of teaching them as separate and discrete subjects. However, things have definitely changed a great deal. Generally speaking, our curriculum has transitioned from a specialised model to become more broad-based now. In other words, we have increasingly been training our students to become ‘generalists’ rather than ‘specialists’, so much so that if someone who is trained in mechanical engineering is unable to find a job as a mechanical engineer, he or she can quite easily switch to a career in another discipline. However, this has made it difficult for us to hire researchers because research requires in-depth knowledge.

 

Generalists who know a little bit of everything are not able to generate research output immediately and are therefore not as productive as specialists. As for the students themselves, I think students today are more pragmatic than those in the past. Years ago, students often talked about their passions – to become a great scientist, an innovative engineer and so on. It’s interesting that when opportunities were rare, students tended to be more idealistic.

 

Whereas students today seem to worry more about when to get married and making enough to buy their first property. As a result, many wouldn’t consider pursuing a Ph.D degree at all if they could get a good enough job with their undergraduate degree. Of course, there is no right or wrong to this – these are just the key changes I have witnessed in the last 30 years of my teaching life.

 

Given all the uncertainties and pessimism we are facing today, are you optimistic about the future of humanity?

I believe every human accomplishment depends on both hard work and a bit of good fortune, whether at the individual level or the civilisation level. Some of us are lucky because we were born in a peaceful country, received good education, and we have the opportunity to do some meaningful work to earn a living. Like energy, good fortunes and opportunities are not evenly distributed. We should help those who are not as lucky as we are so that we can prosper together as a human race. We should continue to work hard, believe in science, and educate ourselves and our young people well. All of us will get luckier when more people work harder and become more knowledgeable. As an educator, a researcher and a parent, I only wish to remain optimistic and do my best to contribute based on what I know.

 

You have been teaching and researching in NTU for almost 30 years. What advice would you give to a young Prof Chan Siew Hwa if you were able to travel back in time to 1991?

I was a young Malaysian in London in 1991, trying to decide what to do with my future. I went to a Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) information session in the city and chatted with someone, without knowing that was actually a job interview. Soon after that, I started teaching in NTU as one of its inaugural faculty members. I am very happy with my 30 years of teaching and my research.

Prof Chan (middle) during an internship as an undergraduate at another NTU – National Taiwan University.

PROF CHAN SIEW HWA

Prof Chan Siew Hwa is a Fellow of the Academy of Engineering, Singapore. He is also a Professor at the School of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering and the President’s Chair in Energy at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). As a leader in hydrogen and fuel cell research at NTU since 1997, Prof Chan is a Co-Director and a founding member of the Energy Research Institute at NTU, and serves as Vice-Director of the Sino-Singapore International Joint Research Institute in the China-Singapore Guangzhou Knowledge City.

Prof Chan’s research has earned him significant recognition, including the George Stephenson Medal from the UK, Outstanding Scientific Achievement Award from the International Association of Hydrogen Energy, USA, “World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds” Award from Thomson Reuters, Nanyang Award (Research Excellence), Nanyang Award (Innovation and Entrepreneurship), and the “Star of Innovation Talent” award from the Guangzhou Government.

Prof Chan has published 267 refereed journal papers with more than 13,000 citation counts and an h-index of 58. A passionate teacher, Prof Chan has been teaching Thermodynamics since 1991 and was awarded “Teacher of the Year” in 2000.

DECEMBER 2020 | ISSUE 7

Future-Proofing Our Recovery

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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

About

Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

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