Please tell us about yourself

The Green Talents Awards recognise young talented researchers and provide them a platform to share their innovative ideas which aim at answering pressing sustainability and environmental protection questions.

The eighth edition of the awards was recently held under the patronage of the German Research Minister Professor Johanna Wanka. A high-ranking jury of experts selected 25 upcoming scientists out of 757 applications from over 104 countries. From India, Shamik Chowdhury, a PhD student in Environmental Engineering from the National University of Singapore (NUS) talks about his award-winning project and its benefits.

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I  don’t think everyone realises how little time we have on Earth, says Shamik Chowdhury, 29-year-old PhD student of environmental engineering at the National University of Singapore (NUS). “It’s no longer an individual choice whether we should practice green initiatives or not; we are way past that. Sustainable development is the answer we are all searching for to tackle climate change.

I firmly believe that as our Earth becomes increasingly urban, cities — their inhabitants and governments — must take the lead in fostering a more sustainable stewardship of the planet’s natural resources. To realise this vision, I chose to pursue a Ph.D. in Environmental engineering.

I want my children to live in a world where economic progress isn’t the only thing people run after. We need progressive solutions to limit man-made environmental damage. That’s what pushed me into my research,” he adds. He was recently bestowed the Green Talents 2016 award, which is under the patronage of German Research Minister Professor Johanna Wanka. The award focuses on recognising talented environmental researchers across the world. His research on green synthesis of 2D graphene nano-sheets and their self-assembly into advanced 3D macrostructures for sustainable urban development won him the honour.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

In 2010, while pursuing his master’s in Biotechnology at National Institute of Technology, Durgapur, he was working on his thesis. That’s when he felt he should focus on sustainable products that improve urban life. Later, he was granted the President’s Graduate Fellowship to pursue his doctoral study and research at NUS and now his doctoral thesis is in development of functional nano-materials for environmental remediation that is effective in developing cost-effective batteries, ultra-fast rechargeable electric vehicles, energy-efficient desalination, sensors for detection of pollutants, and remediation of contaminated air and water. He believes it will bring a shift towards minimising our carbon footprint.

“It’s not just the industries that should do their part for energy conservation, we should too. I make it a point to walk or use public transport. We can’t expect a drastic change unless we all do something.” He urges people to take climate change and its effect more seriously. In the future, he plans to teach.

Tell us about your work

As a novel 2D nanomaterial with a plethora of intriguing characteristics, graphene — a new carbon allotrope, is playing an increasingly important role in renewable energy conversion technologies, water filtration and desalination, gas separation and storage, sensors for detection of pollutants, and remediation of contaminated air and water. Graphene must be manufactured through industrially appealing, cost-effective processes based on renewable and sufficiently abundant resources. To this end, I have successfully devised a simple, safe, robust, environment conducive, and cost-effective thermal graphitisation technique. The key motive of this effort was to make high quality graphene (comparable with those from the synthetic routes) in potentially large quantities from a sustainable precursor — empty fruit bunch (EFB) of the oil palm.

How does your project help in advancing sustainability?

EFB biomass is a low-cost agricultural residue largely available in several tropical regions of the world (West and Central Africa, Central America and South East Asia) and is seldom converted to value-added products. Much of the waste is either illegally burnt, thereby contributing to air pollution and smoke haze, or simply left to decay in dedicated landfills emitting methane (CH4), a more potent greenhouse gas (GHG) than carbon dioxide (CO2). Utilising EFB biomass as a base feedstock to mass-produce graphene would not only solve the waste disposal crisis in oil palm growing countries (with a possible revenue benefit), but would also curb the unsustainable handling of this waste by-product. Most importantly, it may change the economics of graphene, allowing for widespread commercialisation of graphene-based technologies for sustainable living.

Further, the EFB-derived graphene features an impressive CO2 capture profile for effective deployment in power plants fueled with either coal or natural gas, as inferred from preliminary measurements.

How was your experience of the tour?

Touring across Germany during the two-week ‘Science Forum’ gave me the rare opportunity to meet and interact with stakeholders of the German sustainability framework, including experts from academia, research and industry; engage in dialogue, exchange knowledge, and showcase a myriad diverse ideas transcending an array of highly topical domains. Germany, in general, offers productive and diverse research. The forum is a commendable initiative to extend insights into this landscape which also double up as a networking platform to initiate appropriate collaborative ventures.

How do you plan to use the ‘Research Stay’ period of the programme for your project?

My current doctoral dissertation, which integrates concepts across multiple disciplines, has equipped me with certain original and exciting skills, transcending from novel research techniques to transferable skills involving critical thinking and problem-solving — prerequisites for disruptive and relatively independent research. However, I want to build on this by getting involved in a wider interdisciplinary research project. This will allow me to assimilate new scientific techniques while refining my pre-existing research skills and creative talents.