“We need to spread our knowledge”

Photo: Berit Viuf

Dr. Firdaus Yusoff came to Denmark to study the biofuel process. He left with much more than just academic achievements. The stay in a foreign country sparked his scientific curiosity and convinced him to emphasize that scientists need to serve  the public by sharing results and knowledge. 

 “When I went to Denmark, it was already autumn, so the first thing I had to face was the bad weather. It was so cold. But I enjoyed the scenery of falling leaves, and now autumn is my favorite season in Denmark,” he recalls.

From 2012 to 2015 he did his Ph.D. project on biofuel processing at Aarhus University at the department of Molecular Biology and Genetics. Despite the challenges of arriving to a physical cold and dark country, he found his way to enjoy the surrounding as much as the academic work.

“At the National University in Malaysia I did research on oil and fat. And one of the niches in oil chemistry is biofuel. At that time, biofuel was a very hot topic,” Dr. Yusoff explains.

Since Aarhus University had funding for several research projects in biofuel at that time, a spot was opened for the Malaysian chemist, who was supervised by professor Zheng Guo (chemical engineering) and professor Sergey Fedosov (enzymes).

Enzymes – a new hope for biofuel

When chemically transforming plant oil into biodiesel the fatty acids in the oil must be converted into esters (chemical compounds). To start and/or to speed up the chemical process, catalysts are needed. In the case of biofuel, it will normally be a well-known chemical catalyst such as H2SO4 or NaOH that is used.

Studies have shown that using enzymes (proteins) as catalysts can secure higher yields and rates. Therefore, the industry could potentially benefit if using enzymes instead of chemicals.

However, enzyme catalysts are expensive and sensitive when compared to chemical catalysts which are very robust and can be produced cheaply and in large quantities. So the Ph.D study done by Dr. Yusoff was aimed to develop a mathematical model for biodiesel production when using an enzyme called Callera Trans L (CTL).

“The first part was to investigate a kinetic model for the enzyme. We had the enzyme provided from Novozymes, and then we studied the characteristics of that enzyme. We found out the parameters, the limiting parameters for the action and so on. And then finally I combined all these characteristics, and I came out with the kinetic model.” Dr. Yusoff explains.

Enzyme kinetics addresses the chemical reactions that happen when an enzyme is interacting with a compound (it is not to be confused with thermodynamic kinetics). The rate and reaction time are important factors in order to plan a production, so a mathematical model of how fast the enzyme will react in different concentrations is very much needed.

More than one project

Normally a Ph.D. is assigned for three years of study. But already after two years, Dr. Yusoff could conclude, that the reaction rate of CTL indicated that a reasonable reaction could be obtained with very small amounts. The enzyme had potential to replace the cheaper chemical catalysts.

Completing and defending his thesis early, meant that Dr. Yusoff had more than a year left in Denmark before it would be time to return to Malaysia, so he started up on a new project at a the Department of Engineering, developing a new heterogenous chemical catalyst – a type of catalyst that can be reused, as it does not dissolve in the process.

However, he didn’t have time left to accomplish all the work on the project, so a colleague in his group at Aarhus University completed the final tests.

Getting out of the comfort zone

Any person coming to a new country will need time to adjust. Finding proper housing, adjusting to the diet and figuring out how to get around. It is exhausting but cannot be avoided. However, this is the case for all foreign students, and Dr. Yusoff found himself in a very international group of Ph.D. students from Italy, China, India and African countries.

“The journey in Denmark changed me to a better person. Before this I was surrounded with comfort. In my own country I was only among my own people, and suddenly this changed. I was meeting people and was outside my comfort zone. At first it was very challenging, but it was worth it. It made me a better speaker. I got more outspoken, better to express feelings and to express opinions, because I believe in Denmark there is free thinking. So, you are free to speak about your opinion and beliefs. So did it change me? Yes, definitely. I got more curious. I want to discover more,” Dr. Yusoff tells.

New teaching methods

Before going to Denmark, Dr. Yusoff taught five years at UKM. In Denmark he also had obligations to teach, and this changed his teaching method.

“I love to teach the students. I also love to supervise them and guide them and let them learn more about science. I try to incorporate what I learned in Denmark, into my teaching here in Malaysia. But of course, students in Denmark are different than students in Malaysia. I try to assimilate both kinds of teaching and come out with a new kind of teaching.”

This involves more interactive teaching using videos instead of books. The students must present and retell the rest of the class about their understandings and results and this encourages them to understand the course much better than when just reading and writing assignments.

“By doing this, they have actually interacted. This is what I learned in Denmark, so I’m trying to integrate it in Malaysia,” Dr. Yusoff explains.

Malaysian palm oil industry

“Our palm oil production in Malaysia has become a very huge commodity for this country. So, we try to find alternative, to use the source of palm oil to become valuated products. And not just normal palm oil, because palm oil is used for food consumption. So, we want do something on the waste of palm oil. Specifically, from this waste product called palm fatty acid distillate (PFAD),” …

This involves development of new catalysts that will work on this kind of compound, so while in Denmark Dr. Yusoff did his first testing of catalysts on PFAD.

This work has continued since he returned to UKM.

“Right now, I’m doing a modification of oils and fats, still on palm production distillate. And I’m also doing some work with starch from some kind of rhizome, like potatoes and cassava,” he explains.

We need to spread knowledge

Also, he wants to build a pilot plant to upscale from lab to industry.

“At UKM we have the attention build do our own pilot plant, because I have seen this pilot plant in Denmark, and I think it is possible for us to do it. We have a place; we just need to find money for it. A pilot plant is still based on research, so we can try to change the crude oil, the dirty oil, into something pure in big quantities,” Dr. Yusoff states.

This probably require some foreign partners in the industry, so it is a long-term goal.

The cut between research and industry is something that motivates the Malaysian scientist.

“I like meeting other people from companies that are trying to find solutions to their problems. That is something that excites me. They are seeking for someone that have specialties to solve their problems. And we are here. I’m here. They can always come and see me and ask me about how to solve their problem.”

He is currently working on a project on a better solution for a company that sells multipurpose cleaners and needs better surfactants, which involves research in fatty acids.

“In this way we are making an agreement with the company, so that both parties will benefit from this. We are really excited to see for more this kind of relationship with the industrial part. Because there’s no point in just learning and keep the knowledge too our self. We need to spread it to people, to consumers, so that the consumers can have a benefit. That is actually the main goal of learning something.”

Berit Viuf is a Danish science journalist; the interview was conducted during a reporting trip to Malaysia and Thailand