Asia’s Rising Scientists: Sharifah Rafidah Wan Alwi

It’s all about using minimum resources for maximum impact, according to leading process engineer Professor Sharifah Rafidah Wan Alwi.

Sharifah Rafidah Wan Alwi
University of Technology, Malaysia


AsianScientist (Apr. 12, 2020) – Here’s the tricky thing about climate change: generating energy from conventional sources increases emissions of greenhouse gases. And yet, as these gases warm the world, even more energy is needed to provide cooling. So unless we consciously decide to consume less energy or switch to greener energy sources, we soon risk reaching the point of no return.

Meet one researcher determined to crack this conundrum—Professor Sharifah Rafidah Wan Alwi of the University of Technology, Malaysia (UTM). Her weapon of choice? Process engineering, an emerging field that focuses on optimizing processes to achieve minimal waste at maximum profit. By helping industries find ways to utilize energy and other resources more efficiently, they could ultimately use less of it.

Wan Alwi leads UTM’s Process System Engineering Centre (PROSPECT), which specializes in the planning, designing and implementation of more efficient processes, with a focus on conserving resources like energy and water. Her research encompasses the retrofitting of mosques to save water, developing novel green fuels and creating software tools to monitor resource usage, among many others.

For her widespread contributions to energy efficiency and sustainability, Wan Alwi was recognized as the runner-up of the ASEAN-US Science Prize in 2016. Speaking to Asian Scientist Magazine, Wan Alwi gives us an inside look into her life as a process engineer, and shares with us the implications of her research along the way.

  1. How would you summarize your research in a tweet?

    Process (and systems) integration to achieve minimal resource usage and reduced waste at an optimal cost.

  2. Describe a completed research project that you are proudest of.

    I spearheaded an initiative to invent a trans-disciplinary process integration methodology that unifies electrical and chemical engineering concepts into power integration and planning. The work resulted in a suite of new methodologies that has been highly cited in prestigious journals since its 2012 introduction.

  3. What do you hope to accomplish with your research in the next decade?

    Industries and stakeholders are becoming more aware of our work’s benefits. I hope that the tools and methodologies we developed will be extensively implemented by industries in Malaysia and beyond to minimize the use of resources and reduce emissions and waste.

  4. Professor Sharifah Rafidah Wan Alwi holding her heat recovery model for a palm oil refinery. Photo Credit: Sharifah Rafidah Wan Alwi

  5. Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?

    I was introduced to the concept of process integration during my Bachelor’s degree at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. I was inspired by how such a simple and practical concept could have a significant impact by reducing energy and emissions in industries.

    When I joined the University of Technology, Malaysia, my interest in solving problems motivated me to pursue postgraduate studies and make my own contributions to the development of process integration techniques. Our group has gone on to package these techniques into commercial software solutions for industries and academia.

  6. What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research?

    I regard my research to be complete only when it is packaged into software and online solutions that could benefit stakeholders, particularly those in industry. During the early years of commercializing our research, hiring the right programmer to convert our research into commercial software solutions was our biggest adversity.

    After working and investing with five different university programmers—having to practically start from scratch every time, we learned the hard way. Nowadays, we only hire external programmers with credible references and pay based on their achieved milestones.

    We also rigorously guide our programmers to ensure the product’s smooth delivery and to guarantee that an accessible coding framework is used so that any work in progress can be readily transferred to others if necessary.

  7. What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today, and how can we fix them?

    I would say the biggest challenges are securing research funding and getting good students. Universities in Malaysia typically have limited government funding and receive much less from the private sector. There is also not much competitive advantage for postgraduate degrees, making pursuing higher degrees increasingly unattractive. Hence, getting quality postgraduate students is challenging too.

  8. If you had not become a scientist, what would you have become instead?

    I would have become a chemical engineer. That was what I aspired to be in my undergraduate years. After pursuing postgraduate studies and becoming an academician, I found that academia can be very exciting as I can pursue my passion in research and commercialisation, work closely with industries and policymakers to solve real-world problems and engage with stakeholders in knowledge and technology transfer.

  9. Professor Sharifah Rafidah Wan Alwi attending a pitching session at the Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre. Photo Credit: Sharifah Rafidah Wan Alwi

  10. What do you do outside of work to relax? Do you have any interests and hobbies?

    I spend my leisure time with my kids and family. I enjoy doing simple things with them like having family outings, watching movies, playing games and even cooking, baking or relaxing at home.

  11. If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?

    Through smart manufacturing that combines innovative reuse and recycling of generated waste, I dream of providing access to free or cheap energy and water resources and creating a pollution-free environment.

  12. What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?

    Beyond producing academic output and publishing journal papers, researchers should strive to make their work accessible and beneficial to the society at large.

This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Sharifah Rafidah Wan Alwi.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

A molecular biologist by training, Kami Navarro left the sterile walls of the laboratory to pursue a Master of Science Communication from the Australian National University. Kami is the former science editor at Asian Scientist Magazine.

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