In brief

Researchers at A*STAR are forming multidisciplinary teams to meet key sustainability targets in support of the Singapore Green Plan 2030.

© A*STAR Research

Shaping a sustainable Singapore

6 Sep 2022

Researchers at A*STAR are forming multidisciplinary teams to meet key sustainability targets in support of the Singapore Green Plan 2030.

If all goes well, in just eight years from now, Singapore will be a global city of sustainability. Specifically, sustainable development, as defined in the seminal 1987 Brundtland report, must “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This lofty goal is a part of the country’s Green Plan 2030, Singapore’s commitment to the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, and not an easy ask.

To ensure it grows sustainably, Singapore has put into place goals to guide the nation's growth without straining its environmental as well as human, social and economic resources. The five-year Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) 2025 plan, for instance, dedicates two of its four domains to developing a sustainable nation. Similarly, other national initiatives like the aforementioned Singapore Green Plan and inaugural Zero Waste Masterplan provide clear targets to be met by 2030, such as reducing carbon emissions by 36 percent and waste by 30 percent.

“While innovations in research and development (R&D) are crucial to meeting these targets, the best approach is to tackle this collaboratively,” said Lean Weng Yeoh, Chief Sustainability Officer of A*STAR. “The nature of sustainability is complex and cannot be resolved with individual scientific disciplines,” he shared. “Such ambitious sustainability goals require different disciplines working closely together to deliver integrated solutions.”

This is where A*STAR, as Singapore’s lead public sector R&D agency, plays a key role. It functions as a convener of the entire ecosystem, creating private-public partnerships with academia and industry R&D centres to deploy sustainable technologies. A*STAR’s efforts encompass research and innovation to tackle sustainability challenges, from developing new materials to taking cutting-edge synthetic-biology approaches to food production.

A new institute for sustainable chemicals, energy and environment

Perhaps most telling of A*STAR’s dedication to Singapore’s sustainability vision is the reorganisation of its former Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences (ICES) into the new Institute of Sustainability for Chemicals, Energy and Environment (ISCE2). Launched in 2022, ISCE2 aims to support Singapore’s sustainability goals and initiatives by leveraging existing strong partnerships with the energy, chemical and pharmaceutical industries to deliver and deploy sustainable solutions.

“We have repositioned existing core competences and capabilities to address national imperatives and to advance R&D in low-carbon technologies, green processes, digitalisation and automation as well as sustainable materials,” explained Yeoh. “This [new research institute] is timely given an increased global focus on climate change and sustainability.”

Singapore, with its limited human and natural resources, faces serious threats posed by climate change. This small urban island state, like the rest of the world, is getting hotter. Between 1980 and 2020, the average temperature rose from 26.9 to 28.0°C. This seemingly minute difference of just over 1°C has much larger consequences—for Yeoh, climate change represents one of the greatest existential challenges in Singapore.

“Climate change will have an adverse impact on water supply stability, biodiversity and greenery, public health, urban heat island effects and food security,” said Yeoh. “Because the impact of climate change is closely linked to greenhouse gas emissions, innovations in decarbonisation and energy transition will be crucial in mitigating the effects of greenhouse gases.”

The new green materials

Just like carbon emissions and rising temperatures, plastic waste is another troubling by-product of modern human life. Despite the prevalence of recycling bins and public awareness campaigns, recycling plastic isn’t as easy as one might think. Only an estimated four percent of the plastic waste in Singapore is actually recycled, with the rest ending up in landfills or incinerators.

To address the plastic waste problem, research at ISCE2 focuses on developing green materials as plastic substitutes that can be easily recycled or biodegraded. The Sustainable Polymers (SP) Division at ISCE2 spans a wide range of materials research areas that aim to reconfigure and reorient the plastic value chain towards a more sustainable state. One solution is to develop green materials and sustainable packaging technologies for use in the fast-moving consumer goods industry, such as in food packaging and other commercial items.

“If you look at the amount of plastic waste globally, close to half comes from the packaging industry, and most of them are single-use plastics,” said Zibiao Li, Director of the Sustainable Polymer Division.

A key reason why plastic packaging is so hard to recycle has to do with how it is constructed: it isn’t always just pure plastic. Current flexible plastic packaging is dominated by multilayer packaging materials, explained Li.

A single piece of flexible plastic packaging often includes layers of different materials, such as structural layer materials, aluminium and adhesives, to improve properties that could include barrier performance, resistance to mechanical stress, sealability and printability. But while this complex composition makes these plastics good for use as packaging, they pose a challenge to recycle.

To alleviate the plastic problem in the short term, the team at ISCE2 is improving the properties of recyclable polyolefin materials, called mono-material packaging, for use as packaging that performs just as well as conventional multilayer plastic. The team has already partnered with local enterprise Aegis Packaging to commercialise the recyclable plastic material.

In the long term, however, Li advocates for more sustainable alternatives that do not rely purely on recyclability. "We are looking at advanced packaging materials that can be degraded into small molecules, water or carbon dioxide,” Li suggested.

Modelling a more liveable city

A*STAR’s success in the development of integrated, multidisciplinary solutions can be attributed in part to its seven Horizontal Technology Coordination Offices (HTCOs). HTCOs act as conveners and sit at the intersection of disciplines to coordinate research outcomes from A*STAR’s many research institutes and programmes.

One successful example is the solution produced by the Urban and Green Technology HTCO in collaboration with the Housing and Development Board (HDB), Singapore to identify and tackle the challenges unique to densely populated urban residential areas.

Singapore is home to over five million people, and this high population density may result in the city not being the most comfortable place to live in. Studies have shown that urban areas are hotter as more concrete surfaces trap heat while increased urban and industrial activity results in increased noise levels.

While solutions for urban heat and noise exist, for a city to be truly sustainable as well as comfortable, these urban discomforts should be addressed in a way that does not tax the environment. One such solution is to cool cities naturally without relying on energy-intensive air conditioning systems.

In response, a team led by built environment specialist Hee Joo Poh, a Senior Scientist at A*STAR’s Institute of High Performance Computing (IHPC), developed the Integrated Environmental Modeller (IEM), an award-winning digital modelling tool, in collaboration with A*STAR’s Urban and Green Technology HTCO and HDB, and supported by the Ministry of National Development (MND) and National Research Foundation Singapore (NRF).

The IEM’s simulation software draws upon multiple data sources to recreate and simulate microclimate scenarios in Singapore, thus allowing urban planners and architects to accurately model different design plans for comfortable and sustainable residential towns.

Through these in-depth simulations and models, the IEM helps to optimise land use and building layouts to promote natural ventilation and reduce heat, glare and noise levels. For example, it has demonstrated how the strategic placement of greenery in areas exposed to the sun can mitigate high ambient temperature.

“Conducting large scale urban microclimatic modelling during the town planning and urban design stage is important to establish feasible mitigation strategies and translate them into planning and urban design guidelines,” said Poh, who worked on the IEM tool alongside Wee Shing Koh, a Senior Scientist at IHPC, and Fachmin Folianto, a Principal Research Engineer at A*STAR’s Institute for Infocomm Research (I2R).

“In the past, there was a lack of scientific modelling tools for urban planners to solve inter-linked multi-physics problems like wind, temperature and solar irradiance,” Folianto said. “The team developed the IEM tool to unify and integrate these environmental factors.”

Thanks to developments in high performance computing, IEM’s simulations have also been scaled up for the whole of Singapore. The tool has also been adopted by HDB in the planning of the new residential Tengah Forest Town, the first time such an integrated technology has been used on a town-wide level.

Lending a robotic hand

On the other end of Singapore’s population challenge, A*STAR’s Robotics HTCO hopes to tackle the problem of a limited and ageing workforce through smart robotic technologies, systems and solutions.

“Manpower and resources are finite, and so the optimised allocation of such resources is crucial for sustainable development,” said Wei Wang, Lead of the Robotics HTCO.

Interestingly, Singapore’s manufacturing sector has been able to maintain its contribution to the country’s annual GDP at between 20 and 25 percent despite its limited manpower.

“One of the key enablers to this is robotics,” said Wang, adding that robots increase productivity by performing repetitive and manual tasks, thus enabling staff to carry out higher value work. In fact, the International Federation of Robotics estimated in 2021 that Singapore has one of the highest densities of manufacturing robots in the world, with 605 robots per 10,000 human workers.

Wang points out that robots also can be deployed to tackle manpower challenges in sectors beyond manufacturing, leveraging on similar operation tasks like sanitation and material transportation in newer sectors such as healthcare and built environment.

In this landscape, A*STAR’s Robotics HTCO has seed-funded 10 projects since November 2021, which include developing robotics technology for a myriad of purposes ranging from healthcare to precision agriculture and aquaculture solutions for sustainable food production. One project the HTCO is currently funding is an automation system to count and sort prawn larvae by size in vertical prawn farms, with the aim of optimising growth yield to resource.

Food for the future

This issue of sustainable food security is particularly pertinent in the face of economic development and urbanisation. The United Nations projects approximately 68 percent of the global population will live in urbanised settlements by 2050, but this is nothing new for Singapore: the island nation has been a highly urbanised country since the 1950s, with a fully urban resident population. This shift away from agricultural settlements and towards urbanised residential and financial areas has led to decreased land availability for food production.

As a result, Singapore is currently highly reliant on food imports, with less than 10 percent of local food production contributing to the nation’s total food supply. Besides limited land, there is also mounting pressure from supply chain disruptions and climate change to maintain access to food that meets the nutritional needs of Singapore’s residents.

To mitigate the risks associated with the nation’s future food supply, the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) aims to increase local agrifood capacity to produce 30 percent of Singapore’s nutritional needs by 2030- dubbed 30 by 30.

But increasing food production with limited arable land for agriculture poses a unique challenge. In countries such as the US, urban farming—the practice of growing crops using smaller plots of available land in an urban setting—is used not only to promote a greener environment but also to address food deserts in urban areas, where lower income families may not be able to easily access fresh fruits and vegetables.

Here, A*STAR is taking a cutting-edge approach to tackle sustainable food production: synthetic biology. Synthetic biology (Syn Bio) focuses on redesigning or reengineering existing organisms, usually microbes such as bacteria, yeast, fungi and microalgae, to design new, powerful ones for further use. A*STAR’s Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI) is already harnessing the power of bacteria, yeast and fungi while planning to engineer microalgae to produce protein-rich foods for the nation.

“Compared to conventional sources of protein from meat and seafood, as well as plant-based alternatives like soy or wheat, our Syn Bio engineered microbe production will aim at having a much lower environmental footprint,” said Melanie Weingarten, Director at Biotransformation, SIFBI.

As Weingarten explains, metabolic engineering of microbial strains requires significantly lower land usage as they are grown in bioreactors with higher productivity. More protein and nutrients can be grown in a shorter period of time which gives a higher space-time-yield.

Once grown via fermentation and harvested via downstream processing, the engineered microbes are usually obtained as a nutrient-rich powder containing as high as 70 percent protein by dry weight, starch, valuable lipids and high value bioactives. “We are working with various partners such as TemasekAsia Sustainable Foods Platform and ADM, for support on upscaling fermentation and downstream processing. There, for example, we obtain protein-rich powder which is further formulated and processed, and finally put through a 3D printer to create food products,” added Weingarten.

Changing hearts and minds

Solving the production and supply of locally made foods may help to bring Singapore closer to its 30 by 30 goal. But while alternative proteins are a promising feature of a sustainable culture, not everyone may be willing to consume them. Some may view alternative protein sources with suspicion due to how they are produced, while others may believe that they cannot be as tasty or healthy as live-caught seafood or fresh meat.

Even beyond encouraging novel food sources, hesitation and lack of trust can prove to be a major problem in implementing and sustaining new behaviours and habits. In this vein, A*STAR’s Social Science and Technology Horizontal Technology Coordinating Office (SST HTCO) aims to understand the role of behavioural change in implementing and supporting a sustainable culture.

“Ensuring greater sustainability is not always just about providing greener and more environmentally friendly options,” said Joe Simons, Lead of the SST HTCO. “It also entails understanding the factors driving people to make unsustainable choices and finding effective ways to support more sustainable lifestyles.”

“A person’s current behaviour is often locked in place by multiple factors which they may be unaware of,” Simons shared. Some of these factors include preconceived generational beliefs, previously established habits, and personal or cultural biases when encountering something new.

Beyond understanding public perception of social issues and the challenges facing their adoption, the SST HTCO also develops solutions that combine these insights with technological innovations. One such project, led by Aimee Pink, a researcher at IHPC, is the development of a virtual interactive intervention to provide better information surrounding the manufacturing of alternative proteins.

Healthcare in an ageing city

Sustainable food and eating habits are one part of the picture: personal health is just as important in Singapore’s goal of becoming a green and sustainable nation. This is particularly relevant given that Singapore is an ageing nation, with 17.6 percent of its residents aged 65 years and older in June 2021. As the cost of medical care increases and as the ageing population requires more medical care, there is an urgent need for more efficient and cost-effective measures.

The Health and Medical Technology Horizontal Technology Coordinating Office (HMT HTCO), led by Executive Director Malini Olivo and Deputy Director Maple Ye, is developing faster and more efficient point-of-care diagnostic devices and technologies that can assist clinicians in conducting diagnostic work on patients.

“Medical devices can be made more sustainable in many ways,” Olivo noted. “The choice of materials, for example, has a big impact.” However, Olivo added that sustainable alternatives must meet the same performance criteria as their original counterparts. They must also be tested for factors like biocompatibility, stability and ease of sterilisation, all of which involves time and costs.

Here, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to assist doctors in clinical practice may speed things up and save on labour. For example, a tool created by A*STAR spin-off US2.ai can analyse and generate an echocardiogram report from patient scans in just two minutes, which saves up to 20 minutes of a clinician’s time in making diagnoses.

By allowing technology to handle some of the more strenuous tasks of diagnostic work, healthcare workers are given the time and resources to provide better care to patients. “Reducing cost, enhancing efficiency and improving accessibility to care are three key issues to tackle in the healthcare industry to achieve a more sustainable system,” Ye said.

Powering a brighter future

From the approximately 110,000 streetlights that line the roads to the air-conditioning keeping Singapore’s many malls cool, our little red dot consumes a massive amount of energy. Over the years, Singapore has made great strides to implement alternative energy options—even going so far as to construct one of the world’s largest floating solar farms across 45 hectares of open sea. However, the bulk of Singapore’s energy generation, roughly 95 percent in 2021, continues to come from natural gas.

Despite being considered the ‘cleanest’ form of fossil fuel, natural gas still contributes heavily to air pollution, water pollution and ultimately, climate change. To fuel the switch to more sustainable energy generation, ISCE2 is turning to green chemistry and renewable carbon research to support Singapore’s sustainability goals.

In line with their goal to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, ISCE2 Team Leader Jie Bu explores the potential of carbon dioxide (CO2) mineralisation. CO2 mineralisation, which mimics the natural processes of the planet at a far quicker pace, is a promising candidate for secure and permanent carbon storage. Here, CO2 is broken down and converted into a stable mineral product that can then be stored underground or even used in construction materials instead of being released back into the atmosphere.

Bu and his team at ISCE2 are refining efficient CO2 mineralisation methods that can be scaled up right here in Singapore. In one study, the team evaluated their patented method that utilises industrial wastes from Incinerator Bottom Ash (IBA) and Recycled Concrete Aggregate (RCA), by combining them with CO2 to make solid carbonate or Alternative Sand for land reclamation. They found that while the method is effective, it can be made ‘greener’ by recycling industrial wastes to create sustainable materials for the built environment and help close the carbon loop by permanently converting and storing CO2 as concrete.

Similarly, CO2 conversion can turn carbon emissions into fuels and valuable chemicals with the help of a catalyst. Synthetic natural gas can be produced as a source of renewable energy through methods like methanation and hydrogenation. In a recent publication, Luwei Chen, Deputy Director of the Catalysis and Reaction Engineering division at ISCE2, worked with international partners to assess the potential of non-thermal plasma (NTP) technology for CO2 conversion.

Typically, this conversion requires high temperatures, resulting in high energy consumption and low efficiency. The team found that with the right catalyst, however, NTP technology can power the process without needing to heat the entire reactor, making the conversion more efficient.

Tapping into the sun’s rays

While industrial processes contribute to the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions, essentially any product or service we use leaves behind an environmental footprint. To ensure sustainability in the long term, it is important to understand the long-term impacts of the products, processes and services we utilise.

At the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech), Coordinating Director of Research Jonathan Low assesses a variety of processes, from water supply to Industry 4.0 applications. When it comes to energy, a robust life-cycle assessment (LCA) that quantifies environmental impacts in a standardised manner can inform both public and industrial energy decisions, such as the implementation of new technologies or policies.

To this end, in 2018, Low and his team evaluated the life-cycle of photovoltaic electricity generation in Singapore, work that could inform the nation’s solar cell choices. Such evaluations are especially important given the great potential of solar power as a source of clean energy.

“Global energy demand is huge and is likely to increase in 2050,” explained Kuo-Wei Huang, Director of Catalysis and Reaction Engineering at ISCE2. “While we should utilise all resources, it is important to recognise that solar energy has the greatest potential to meet the scale of global demand.”

Huang’s own team is interested in hydrogen carriers and sustainable fuels and has pioneered the development of electricity generating devices capable of converting formic acid into released hydrogen, removing the need for a hydrogen tank for fuel cell power.

Looking ahead, Huang hopes to establish A*STAR as a global hub for catalysis and energy research, one that is capable of driving decision-making and industrial change with robust discoveries.

“It is important to conduct wide-ranging discussions, science-based techno-economic analysis and energy accounting to identify realistic solutions,” Huang explained. “Climate policies can then be developed and executed accordingly.”

A fusion of ideas

As A*STAR researchers move the needle closer to a sustainable future for Singapore, researchers must also consider frontier solutions that push the envelope.

Though it seems like something out of a science fiction novel, Singapore has entered the realm of fusion energy thanks to funding at the Nanyang Technological University, new national roadmaps to net zero emissions, and the contributions of A*STAR researchers.

Here, one young theoretical physicist hopes to play his part developing the field. A*STAR scholar Valerian Hall-Chen’s work involves developing methods to measure the information released from fusion plasmas so that researchers can then better design ways to harness the energy for practical use.

Given that the core of fusion experiments regularly reaches temperatures several times hotter than the centre of the sun, indirect methods have to be used—like launching microwaves into the plasma and measuring what comes out. This is where Hall-Chen steps in: he interprets the complex data and physical phenomena observed with the help of the theoretical tools he developed.

“I find this research exciting because it bridges experiment, simulation and theory—paving the way for advancements that each alone would not have been able to achieve,” Hall-Chen said.

With its new chemical and renewable energy arm, as well as continued research into sustainable living, alternative proteins and accessible healthcare, A*STAR is dedicated to charting a course towards Singapore’s sustainability goals.

“We will focus on developing research capabilities at ISCE2 and A*STAR, and translating technologies with industry partners for large-scale deployment. This will help Singapore become a global scientific leader, establish sustainability as an economic driver, and create a more sustainable future for its people,” shared Yeoh, Chief Sustainability Officer at A*STAR.

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This article was made for A*STAR Research by Wildtype Media Group