A three-year effort came to fruition for Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) researcher Dr Abdul Rahman Mohmad, 35, when he recently became up the first among local academia to have an article published in Nature Materials, a top global journal featuring cutting-edge research in materials science and engineering.
A research fellow and senior lecturer at UKM’s Institute of Microengineering and Nanoelectronics (IMENs), he also made history as the first Malaysian to be listed as a lead editor of a paper in the journal.
Titled “Ultrahigh-current-density niobium disulfide catalysts for hydrogen evolution”, the research finding is expected to have a major impact on the green energy industry — both locally and abroad — as it provides a solution that can reduce the cost of producing hydrogen for industry usage.
The research, which was part of his postdoctoral studies at Rutgers University — a public research university in New Jersey, and IMENs, saw the collaboration of scientists from top universities worldwide, including Princeton in the United States, Cambridge and Queen’s University Belfast in the United Kingdom, France’s University of Montpellier, China’s Shenzhen University and South Korea’s Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology.
Rahman said: “Hydrogen is a key agent in industrial processes, such as the refining and chemical industries, food processing and electronic sector, as well as a driver for the automotive industry. In 2017, the global market size for hydrogen production was US$115 billion and is expected to grow to US$155 billion by next year. So, it is lucrative to tap into it.”
He said most of the hydrogen for industrial use is made from natural gas, a limited resource that will soon be depleted. A sustainable method is electrolysis, where water is split into hydrogen and oxygen molecules.
“Platinum is usually used as electrodes in electrolysis, making the production of hydrogen costly.
“This study looks at the use of niobium disulfide as a substitute. The ingredients of niobium disulfide — niobium and sulphur at RM10 per gramme and 50 cent per gramme, respectively — are cheaper than platinum, which costs RM1,000 per gramme.”
The two materials were put through a process called chemical vapour deposition, where a nanomaterial was produced.
Its characteristics are comparable to that of platinum and it exhibits high current conductivity and exceptional stability.
“The results of this study have the potential to reduce the cost of hydrogen-based green technology to be more competitive and accessible not only to developed countries, but also developing nations.
“This study contributes to achieving the objectives of the Sustainable Development Goals outlined by the United Nations.”
On his role in the research, Rahman said he brought to the table his knowledge and skills in material synthesis.
“Even though I have experience in material synthesis and detailing, we still lacked skills in other areas.
“So, I decided to do a postdoctoral study in the US in 2016 with sponsorship from the Education Ministry and UKM. I chose niobium disulfide as the subject of my research.
“I came back to Malaysia in January last year and continued the research in UKM, which is a form of technology transfer with the setting up of the lab at IMENs. We wrote the manuscript and submitted it to Nature Materials.
“I hope to continue with the research with Professor Manish Chhowala, who led the group at Rutgers University. He has since moved to Cambridge University.”
Hailing from Batu Pahat, Johor, Rahman studied at Kluang High School until Form 3. He then studied at SM Sains Johor after getting straight As in his Penilaian Menengah Rendah. He obtained 10As in his Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia and was one of his school’s best students.
After his pre-university studies at Mara College in Banting, Rahman went on to do a degree in microelectronics at University of Sheffield in 2004, where he won the Hector Aitken Wainwright Prize from the university for academic excellence.
He came back to Malaysia and got offers from companies like Motorola, but he chose to join UKM as a research fellow and tutor. In April 2009, he returned to University of Sheffield to pursue his PhD in semiconductor materials to be used in laser and light-emitting diodes.
UKM vice-chancellor Professor Dr Mohd Hamdi Abd Shukor said there is a huge economic value to Rahman’s achievement in his research on niobium disulfide.
“We are formulating a patent for his techniques. Hopefully, we will have the property rights to the techniques. The close collaboration with experts and universities on the project should be an example to researchers in Malaysian public universities to move towards being world-class players.”
Hamdi called on the research community in Malaysia to work on the frontier research and show that “we are capable and can work with best people”.
“When best brains work together, we get the best results. There is a high economic income to be gained and jobs can be created. We believe more success will be produced.”