Cutting-edge research at Curtin Sarawak

by Professor Michael K. Danquah

Research at Curtin Sarawak has advanced significantly over the last few years. Curtin Sarawak has received substantial financial support for its research activities from the federal government, the Ministry of Higher Education, the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Sarawak state government and the private sector, including Sarawak Shell, Agilent Technology and Sarawak Energy.

Curtin Sarawak’s research projects are spearheaded by experienced research academics engaged in the creation and development of novel ideas and training of research students. Its Faculty of Engineering and Science actively engages in multidisciplinary and applied research in the areas of energy, environment, healthcare and manufacturing.

Researchers of the Bioprocess Technologies group led by Professor Michael K. Danquah of the Department of Chemical Engineering are developing a smart biosensing technology to rapidly detect pathogens existing in Malaysia.

The project, funded by the Ministry of Higher Education and the Curtin Sarawak Research Institute (CSRI), will utilises a high throughput real-time detection technology to facilitate mass screening exercises in the event of a pandemic outbreak.

Over the years, many techniques have been developed and used for the detection of pathogens. The various techniques can be classified as cell counting or biomolecular recognition,  and the standard Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved method for pathogen detection is by cell culturing and counting.

Although this approach can be accurate, it takes a very long time to yield results and it also requires intensive cell culturing and sub-culturing steps. For instance, in the suspected case of Ebola infection in September 2014 reported in Sarawak, it took several days for the results to be confirmed. This affirms the urgent need of a rapid real-time biosensor.

At Curtin Sarawak, the researchers are using molecular probes called ‘aptamers’ with tuneable binding affinities to detect targeted pathogens. Aptamers are synthetic, small in size, cheap to produce and have specific interactions with pathogens. They can be generated for various pathogenic targets.

They host the aptamers on macroporous polymeric sieves called ‘monoliths’ to enable rapid detection, and screening of pathogenic targets and results can be obtained within minutes.

This affordable technology is envisaged to revolutionise biosensing modalities not only in Malaysia but also globally, and specially for rural communities where most infectious diseases are endemic. This project is being carried out in collaboration with the Biotechnology Research Institute of Universiti Malaysia Sabah.

Other research areas covered by the Bioprocess Technologies group include the development of novel techniques for microbial and enzymatic bioremediation, biomass to biofuel conversion; and production and delivery of biopharmaceuticals.

Meanwhile, Associate Professor Sujan Debnath of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and his Materials and Structures research team are actively engaged in a number of projects involving composite polymers, advanced materials and machining, as well as geomechanics.

An ongoing composite polymer research is the development of novel hybrid polymer bio-composite materials covering thermo-mechanical stress analysis in electronic packaging and functional composite materials.

Research in the area of advanced structures include studies into lightweight structures, cold-formed steel structures, screw connections, roof trusses, sandwich wall panels, composite slabs, corrosion and structural performance, sustainable construction materials, structural optimisation and vibration isolation systems.
In the area of geotechnical and geomachanics, research is focused on electro-osmostic treatment of peat, enhancing peat shear strength and peat storage in concrete.

Under the Intelligent System, Design and Control (ISDCON) group led by Associate Professor Jobrun Nandong of the Department of Chemical Engineering, research encompasses a broad range of scientific areas. These include, but are not limited to, control theories and applications, modelling and identification, intelligent system design, signal processing and mobile communications.

This group focuses on the creation of innovative solutions to a variety of complex problems by adopting the principles of modelling, optimisation and control. Current research projects being conducted are the development of multi-scale control theory and applications; process design and control of hydrogen production via sulfur-iodine thermal cycle technique and water-gas shift reaction (WGSR); development of soft-sensors and predictive tools; development of improved wireless and mobile communication techniques; and design of a robust fault-tolerant control system for manufacturing plants.

The group has made some notable achievements. One of them is the novel multi-scale control theory, which provides a paradigm shift in control system design. The theory has a big potential in solving several design challenges relevant to complex plants and enables a deeper understanding of design problems, allowing engineers to design improved control systems for better plant economic performance and reliability.

In addition, some of the researchers in the group have contributed substantially to mobile communications through the introduction of new and improved techniques, and in the control of complex systems via the development of effective predictive tools.

Professor Michael K. Danquah is the Associate Dean of Research and Development at the Faculty of Engineering and Science of Curtin Sarawak. He can be contacted at 085-443 821 or via email to mkdanquah@curtin.edu.my.

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