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SIRIM's BioNG, the world’s first natural gas derived from palm oil mill effluent (POME)

 HOT GAS IN TOWN. SIRIM’s BioNG is the world’s first natural gas derived from palm oil mill effluent (POME)

HOT GAS IN TOWN. 

After eight years of research, SIRIM’s palm oil mill effluent (POME) BioNG project is now ready for commercialisation. There are two important reasons why natural gas became such an important energy source for Malaysia. Firstly, natural gas has about 30 per cent more energy per kilogramme than oil, which was the most widely used fuel for electricity generation back in the 80’s. Secondly, although methane itself is very polluting, a highly efficient gas-fired power station can be up to 70% less damaging to the environment than other hydrocarbon-fired power plants.

Malaysia’s palm oil industry generates some 140 million tonnes of biomass every year. Much of this waste is effluent generated by palm oil mills, which is generally left to decompose in open ponds where it releases some 67 million cubic metres of methane into the atmosphere annually. Eight years ago, SIRIM decided to find a way to capture, store and refine all this methane so that it could be used as an alternative to natural gas in gas-fired power stations and NGV vehicles. The project culminated with a pilot plant on Carey Island, Selangor that was established in cooperation with Sime Darby Research. 

It might seem counter-intuitive given its origins, but BioNG is actually as versatile and efficient as petroleum natural gas. It burns a clean, blue flame that is at least 95 per cent CH 4 methane, with carbon dioxide, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen sulphide making up the rest. In comparison, hydrocarbon natural gas is typically only 93 per cent methane, with the rest comprising carbon dioxide, nitrogen and other hydrocarbon gases. Indeed, nearly five per cent of petroleum natural gas is actually made up of other alkanes, which makes it even more polluting.
 
What is really attractive about BioNG is the way it could not only reduce the amount of greenhouse gases released by Malaysia’s palm oil industry overnight, but also reduce the use of hydrocarbonbased liquified natural gas (LNG) in Malaysia’s energy and transportation sectors. For all intents and purposes, BioNG
and LNG are almost identical in chemical composition and energy density. The only real difference between them is that BioNG is carbon neutral and environmentally harmless, and LNG is not.
 
But that is a BIG difference.
 
BioNG could have a green impact on not just one, but three of the country’s most polluting industries. That’s why SIRIM has recommended that BioNG be included as a bioeconomy entry point project under the Economic Transformation Plan (ETP). The process for turning POME into BioNG is fairly simple: effluent
is channelled into a covered anaerobic pond equipped with a  pump that sucks the gas released from the pond’s surface and blows it through a series of purification chambers. These chambers filter out impurities like hydrogen sulphide, carbon dioxide and moisture. At the end of the process, the purified gas is compressed into a high-pressure storage tank with an attached dispenser.
 
Unlike wind and solar energy sources, BioNG can be efficiently stored and transported in CNG cylinders. A typical CNG tube trailer can move about 2,000 cubic metres of BioNG, which is equivalent to about 1.5 tons of LNG . Also, unlike hydrocarbon natural gas tapped from underground or undersea wells, BioNG does not need costly pipelines and engineering heroics to bring the gas to the surface. Everything is processed in situ.
 

Energy security

As energy projects go, it does not really get much easier than BioNG. However, product pricing remains a challenge because the local market for natural gas is distorted by subsidies. 
 
In any case, Malaysia is going to need all the gas it can get over the next decade: by 2020, the government expects the country to need at least six gigawatts of new generation capacity, 25 per cent more than in 2009. And there won’t be enough gas to generate it.
 
Currently, nearly 50 per cent of the country’s electricity comes from gas-fired power plants. But with gas production rapidly declining at 12 per cent per year , the country has become increasingly reliant on imported coal. Should a geopolitical crisis destabilise world coal markets, the price for coal would skyrocket
and Malaysia would find itself in a very unpleasant position. This risky outlook has led to flagging investments in industries such as glass, plastics and semi-conductor manufacturing.
 
For investors, it is vital that Malaysia be able to turn to other imported fuel sources at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, this can only work if those alternatives were to be sold at unsubsidised prices. This is one of the reasons why subsidies are being gradually eliminated. Admittedly, Malaysia’s BioNG capacity will never be able to meet the natural gas needs of the whole country. However, BioNG will give the country some measure of energy security and reduce its
reliance on coal and gas imports. 
 
As a complementary source of feedstock for gas-fired power plants, BioNG is perfect. Plantation owners stand to gain a lot from producing BioNG. Besides reducing their carbon footprint overnight, BioNG can also be sold to energy producers and vehicle refilling stations.
 

Greener cars

While there are several ways to reduce CO 2 emissions from electricity generation (say, by encouraging the use of renewable energy), reducing CO2 emissions from transportation is not so easy. Sure, there have been some modest innovations intransportation over the past two decades, but let’s face it: hybrids still need petrol, biodiesels still need to be mixed with diesel and electric vehicles still need to be charged off the grid with electricity generated from hydrocarbon fuels.
 
Admirable as these innovations are, they are still based on nonrenewable energy sources. Unless you drive a natural gas vehicle (NGV) that runs on 
BioNG, that is, which is the perfect substitute for regular natural gas in NGVs, and it is carbon neutral. Once it is properly refined, BioNG has an energy content that is similar to petrol or diesel – minus the environmental damage.
 
With about 50,000 natural gas vehicles (NGVs) on the road, Malaysia currently ranks 22nd in the world for the number of natural gas vehicles (NGV) it has
on its roads. NGVs on Malaysian roads comprise a mere 0.5 per cent of the total number of vehicles in Malaysia, which is better than neighbouring Singapore (0.05 per cent) but less than world NGV policy leaders such as Iran (30.1 per cent), Argentina (14.6 per cent) and Thailand (3.8 per cent).
 
Nonetheless, NGVs are gaining popularity in Malaysia, and for good reason: based on current fuel prices, the typical petrol car costs about 23 sen per kilometre to run. An NGV is estimated to cost less than half that amount to operate, even at subsidised prices. Throwing the government’s 25 per cent road tax rebate for NGVs plus the availability of a carbon-neutral fuel like BioNG and consumers will be scrambling to own one.
 
Once the subsidies go, NGV will make even more sense to consumers and commercial users. The future seems bright for BioNG.
 
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SIRIM’s new Tool & Cutter Grinder (TCG 8) machining workstation can now produce precision cutting and milling tools that are more complex and precise than ever before

 

 

HARD STEEL. PERFECT FINISH.

To understand just how challenging it is to make such a tool, imagine a surface so fine and so smooth that a single strand of hair lying flat on it would seem like a four-storey building in the middle of an open field. Now, imagine trying to fashion that surface out one of the hardest metals known to man. That is the kind of challenge the TCG 8 was built for. 

The most challenging precision manufacturing work today happens at a level of detail that is practically invisible to the human eye. The phenomenon of miniaturisation is making products smaller, and the components and electronic circuits within them even more so. Drilling, milling and manipulating these tiny parts requires tools and endmills with micrometre points and perfectly smooth finishes that are nonetheless capable of cutting and poking through very hard, very durable materials. 

When it comes to precision machining cutting tools, the material of choice is tungsten carbide: a very tough metal that can be cut and formed into bits of various shapes and sizes but is nonetheless able to withstand exceptionally high temperatures. Luckily, tungsten carbide is only the second hardest material known to man, else there would be no way to shape it into the cutting instruments the material is so useful for. The hardest material in the world is diamond, and that is what the TCGB 8 uses to saw, shape and grind its tungsten carbide workpiecesTCG 8's specialty is that its diamond blades are made from high quality crystals and are designed specifically for cutting tungsten carbide in twelve different ways!

 
TCG8
(LEFT) SMOOTH FINISH: The TCG 8 can produce tungsten carbine tools with a surface roughness of less than Ra 0.1 μm – smoother than the surface of a hypodermic needle.
 

Making the tools and endmills that are used in these manufacturing processes is a delicate business. Firstly, the tools have to be made of very tough material in order to be able to penetrate metal, steel and silicon. Secondly, they have to comply with extremely precise specifications and have micron-perfect finishes. Even under the best conditions, an error of a single micrometre can render a tool useless. 

Indeed, the engineering tolerances of the TCG 8 are so fine that SIRIM decided to equip the workstation with a microscope and a quality control imaging system that allows technicians to see the tiniest detail up close. The tiniest groove, ridge or taper can be plotted out on screen via a digital software interface before the actual cutting begins, thus significantly reducing the number of defects.
 
By using high-quality diamond compound wheels, the TCG 8 also offers an exceptionally high operating temperature. Having a high operating temperature is important as it allows workstations to be more productive. Cutting wheels last longer and are able to produce more tools per workcycle.
 

MONEY MACHINE.

Given the TCG 8’s portability and ease-of-use, the machine could open up a whole new world of opportunities within Malaysia’s rural population. Just like the cottage industry in Switzerland for example, which supplies the country’s famous watch industry with many of the high-precision components and tools they use to make the world’s finest timepieces. The TCG 8 is designed to be portable and small enough to fit into a van, and it only needs singlephase electric power. With some training and a little practice, anyone can take it back home, plug it in and start making high-precision tungsten carbide tools for Malaysia’s burgeoning E&E sector.
 
Given that a typical tungsten carbide micro tool bit can cost between US D10 and US D30 a piece, the TCG 8 also makes an attractive case to start up a new
machine shop cooperative (or koperasi, as they are more popularly known). The National Cooperative Policy 2011-2020 would like to see koperasis more involved in high-value, high-skilled economic activities to protect their members from the competitive pressures of the private sector.
 
Nonetheless, semi-automated tool and cutter grinders are new to Malaysian industry, and thus will take some time to develop and educate the market as well as the talent pool. Vocational schools, engineering colleges and training and reskilling centres can fill this human capital gap by offering short TCG 8 courses to its students. SIRIM is currently focused on building the TCG 8 talent pool by promoting TCG 8 training programmes to educational institutions around the country. A practical, two-week module on precision grinding technology would fit nicely into any machining course and will prepare students for the rigours of high-precision fabrication and assembly.
 
Students trained with the TCG 8 will have very good prospects in Malaysia’s high-value economic future. The TCG 8 is expected to be widely deployed
and used to supply components to the automotive, electronics, oil and gas and aerospace industries, all of which rely on micronperfect tungsten carbide tools
and endmills. It will be easy to arrange industry attachments with component vendors within these high-growth industries in Malaysia, and the government is sparing no effort in attracting investments within these sectors as high precision tools are going to be in very high demand. 
 
 

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With Malaysia aiming to double its exports of aquaculture products by 2017, SIRIM’s solar hatchery and aquaculture solutions could not have entered commercial readiness at a better time

 

 

A CULTURED SOLUTION. 

The aquaculture industry is fairly new in Malaysia. But, with an annual growth rate of 15 per cent, it is expanding rapidly. Indeed, the country is already the fifth-largest producer of fish and seafood through aquaculture in ASE AN, producing around 380,000 tonnes of aquaculture products annually. Almost 80 per cent (300,000 tonnes) of this output is exported to lucrative overseas markets like Europe, the United States, China, Japan and Singapore. The sector hopes to raise production to 800,000 tonnes per year and to double annual exports to 600,000 tonnes.

The impetus behind all this rapid growth has been Malaysia’s National Agricultural Policy, which allows aquaculture farmers to breed freshwater aquatic species such as fish and prawns in relatively small bodies of water. But concentrating so many aquatic animals in one pond at one time can be very risky: keeping these watery habitats stable is a constant challenge, and farmers have to be ever-vigilant or risk losing everything due to fish kill.

A fish kill can wipe out your whole harvest overnight, often without warning. One day you have 10,000 fish in your pond worth RM200,000; the next day, you have nothing.

The hatchery industry faces similar production challenges. Tasked with supplying the local aquaculture industry with the fish and shrimp larvae it needs to breed aquaculture produce, the industry is highly susceptible to disease outbreaks.

SIRIM has spent the past few years working on self-sustaining solar solutions to help hatcheries and aquaculture farmers prevent fish kill and increase the productivity of their ponds. The two products that have resulted from these efforts – the Solaerator™ and the Green Aquaculture System – form a complete aeration and water condition monitoring system that can be installed anywhere.

 

How to kill a fish

Fish kills can occur for many reasons, the most common of which is low dissolved oxygen (DO) levels. Fish populations rely on the photosynthesis process of aquatic vegetation to turn dissolved carbon dioxide into oxygen, but this process only happens during the day when there is sunlight. At night, these same plants respire and start consuming oxygen instead. DO levels can drop drastically when this happens, especially between the hours of 4 am and 7 am. If the amount of DO produced the previous day is not enough to sustain the pond habitat through the night, panic ensues.

When you see your harvest struggling near the water’s surface, you know you have a fish kill on your hands. Anything that can swim will head towards the top of the pond, where DO levels sustain the longest. And when DO levels drop there, they will start to ‘gasp’ at the surface. This poses a problem for fish farmers. In order to make a farm economically viable, it is necessary to cram as many fish as one can into a single pond.

However, the more fish you have, the more fish waste there is to manage, most of which tends to sink to the bottom of the pond where it blocks out the sunlight and limits the ability of plant life to photosynthesise during the day. The decomposition of fish waste also consumes dissolved oxygen, further starving the pond’s aquatic life of this precious gas.

The end result is a pond that is no longer able to sustain dissolved oxygen levels for its entire habitat. 

 

An intelligent system

The only way to ensure an aquaculture harvest does not go belly up is to ensure that the pond is properly aerated, especially at night. The best aeration systems use paddle wheels to stir the water’s surface as well as diffusers to pump air directly into the bottom of the pond. You also need a highly efficient system for measuring and monitoring the environmental conditions of each fish pond so that you can ensure that the water’s acidity and ammonia levels do not get out of hand.

Unfortunately, all these things require electricity. If the power outage happens during the day when the aquatic vegetation is still producing oxygen, a pond can go without paddle wheels and diffusers for a few hours. But if it happens at night, it only takes a few minutes before the crop starts dying.

This is where SIRIM has innovated a self-sustaining hatchery and aquaculture solutions that do not need to be ‘plugged in’. The Green Aquaculture System is a floating, solar-powered device that monitors all the factors that can impact a pond’s health: temperature, ammonia, pH and salinity, and, of course, dissolved oxygen. When any of these readings hit dangerously high or low levels, the controller sends out a text message alert to a predetermined mobile phone number.

By running on solar power, the Green Aquaculture System is also independent from any external power source or failure. When paired with the Solaerator, this solution can save fish farms thousands of ringgit in electricity bills.

The Solaerator pumps compressed air into the bottom of a pond using a non-clogging diffuser, increasing oxygen levels and reducing water stratification, which is a major cause of poor water quality. During the day, it runs on solar power; during the night, it runs on batteries. Fully charged, the battery can keep the system pumping for up to two days.

If used with the Green Aquaculture System, however, the Solaerator system can be configured to only turn on when it is told to do so. Both systems can also be applied to small and medium-sized hatcheries. 

The Solaerator therefore should not be considered a substitute for conventional aeration systems, especially for large farms but is best applied when used to complement conventional aeration systems.

 

Big savings

The Solaerator can save the average aquaculture farm about two-thirds in aeration electricity bills, while the Green Aquaculture System all but eliminates the need for foreign labour to manually monitor water conditions around the clock. Together, the aquaculture solutions significantly reduce the manpower and energy costs of aquaculture farming while reducing the risk of human error.

The Solaerator is currently available in two versions: one with two diffusers, and one with four. The smaller, two-diffuser version is ideal for smallholders and independent aquaculture farmers, while the bigger version is best suited to larger enterprises with multiple ponds or large lakes.

SIRIM’s test site is at the Fisheries Research Institute (FRI) in Gelang Patah is a 2,500 m3 lake that survives quite comfortably on two large Solaerators.

A rural farmer’s best friend

SIRIM first installed its first Solaerator for a rural fish farming community in Simunjan, Sarawak. The Solaerator is especially suited to rural aquaculture farms with no access to electricity at all. Here, commercial aquaculture is a touch-and-go affair at best, with farmers depending entirely on Mother Nature to see their harvest through. The result is an extremely low survival rate.

Conventional paddle wheels and monitoring systems are useless if the farms don’t have a power source. A self-sufficient aeration system would significantly improve their yield and income. Hatcheries also do best under strong aeration conditions.

SIRIM’s hatchery and aquaculture solutions are designed to be self-sufficient and that’s what makes them special.

Both the Green Aquaculture System and the Solaerator are practically maintenance-free, with the batteries needing replacement only once every three years and the solar panels lasting up to 20 years. All farmers need to do is give the panels a wipe every few months to ensure that accumulated dust does not block the photovoltaic cells from receiving the sun’s radiation.

Its ease of maintenance and relatively pain-free installation also makes the Solaerator an attractive proposition to golf courses, whose water hazards and recreational ponds frequently become polluted – and quite smelly – with fertiliser run-off from the greenway.

Aeration not only helps fish live longer and grow healthier, but it also reduces the accumulation of sludge and the stink of stagnant water. The Solaerator can also be used in golf courses. 

 

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Craniofacial deformities can occur due to physiological conditions (e.g. cancer or abnormal bone growth) or – far more common – nasty accidents. SIRIM’s craniofacial biomodeling service helps surgeons fix broken skulls by designing bespoke titanium plates for every patient. 

 

THE SKULLERY. 

Titanium plates have been used to patch up broken skulls for decades. Yet there is no one-size fits-all when it comes to these bone plates – like our eyes and fingerprints, our skulls are almost completely unique in shape, as are the shape and size of the holes caused by accidents. Every titanium plate must therefore be individually bent, cut and mangled to fit each wound – a painstaking process usually undertaken by the surgeon himself during surgery and with predictably mixed results.
 
Fortunately, three-dimensional imaging and rapid prototyping technologies now allow man to ‘print’ 3D models of patients’  skulls from CT and MRI cans, so that surgeons can test titanium implants and make the most detailed revisions and corrections to them before the actual surgery takes place.
 
For nearly five years, SIRIM has provided surgeons with such 3D biomodelling services. Every titanium plate produced at the biomodelling centre in Bukit Jalil is delicately knocked, bent and sculpted into shape by hand, allowing surgeons to plan their surgeries with greater precision than ever before. Which is why the patient’s X-ray computed tomography (CT) scans are so important: it gives SIRIM’s biomodelling technicians a geometrical map of the trauma site and helps them build a model of what the skull should look like, although it takes quite a bit of work to go from x-ray to actual biomodel. 
 

Delicate work

Unfortunately, data furnished by a CT scan of a patient with a hole in his head for example will only produce a biomodel of a skull with an identical hole in its head. This is where SIRIM's craniofacial project team essentially has to make educated guesses about what the damaged area to the skull must have looked like before it got smashed. 
 
There are a few of ways of doing this, but the usual approach is to mirror the shape and size of the opposite side of the skull. This is accomplished in a virtual 3D environment by creating a mirror image of the good side of the skull and then positioning it into its corresponding position on the opposite side of the skull. Getting an accurate biomodel depends very much on the skill and experience of the technician that is assigned the task of modelling the patient a new forehead or parietal section. Working on a computer with advanced 3D biomodelling tools, SIRIM technicians use the mirroring technique, craniofacial data and other information to patch up the damaged section of the skull. Once the 3D model is complete, it will be ‘printed’ on SIRIM’s stereolithographic facilities.
 
The team will then have two skulls: a ‘bad’ one showing the damage after the accident, and a ‘good’ one showing the skull as it might have been before the accident. The team will use the good skull as a positive mould to shape the titanium plate. The damaged area is marked out, and a new titanium plate is placed over it and then pushed, cut and banged until it conforms to the shape of the model below. The surgeon in charge of the patient will study the plate and may make some additional  tweaks. When the plate is ready, it is thoroughly cleaned and sanitised at the hospital before it is sent to the operating theatre.
 
Crude as it sounds, there is no other way for doing it. True, some companies in Europe can already make fully-formed bioimplants from digitised craniofacial data with no manual sculpting, but the technology is prohibitively expensive and there is still no guarantee of a perfect fit – CT scan data of broken skulls still has to be extrapolated and technicians still have to extemporise the gaps. In other words, the guesswork is the same. Only the tools are different.
 
Making titanium metal plates is part science, part art, no matter what tools you use to make them. What matters most is the team’s experience and track record. SIRIM has lots of both.
 
 
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GOING GLOBAL.

A made-in-Malaysia medical innovation is set to spread its wings across the globe. 

 

GranuMaS® hit the Malaysian marketplace in 2010 under GranuLab (M) Sdn Bhd, the sole licensee of the innovation. Today, a little over three years down the road, the product has been well received in the local market and is geared for widespread commercialisation. 

In 2000, SIRIM’s Advanced Materials Research Centre (AMREC) pioneered research & development for the making of synthetic bone or bone graft substitutes for surgical applications called GranuMaS®. A granular synthetic bone graft material made from Hydroxyapatite, it has a similar chemical composition to human bone mineral, making it an excellent option for bone defect repairs.

GranuMaS® uses pure chemicals and local limestone for calcium and phosphate sources, thus reducing its overall cost. The benefits of this synthetic bone include:

  • ample availability
  • no risk of transmission of diseases from other donor human bone
  • no immune rejection problems
  • no religious (Halal) or other ethical issues

It is certainly making headway in the Malaysian medical field with GranuLab successfully securing the government central contract recently, a commendable feat that will see the company supplying to hospitals in the country for two years.

Nevertheless, the company has its sights set farther than just our own shores. Its main target is to go international, especially in the ASEAN region. The company is confident that being a wholly Malaysian brand is a selling point as Malaysia has established a good reputation especially in regions like the Middle East and ASEAN.

The product is also reasonably priced. Imported synthetic bone typically used in hospitals can cost about RM1,500 per cm3. GranuMaS® is able to keep its cost relatively low, using locally sourced materials such as limestone that can be found in abundance here. A modulated system is used in its production which can be added on according to market requirements and demands.

Mark of Approval

GranuLab, together with SIRIM, has also managed to attain the CE marking for GranuMaS® recently, a necessary development that will pave a smoother path for the company to expand the product’s market reach across international waters. Next, the company is preparing to get certification from the US FDA (Food and Drug Administration).

About

GRANULAB (M) SDN BHD

Established in 2005, GranuLab (M) Sdn Bhd is a subsidiary of Sindora Berhad (member of Johor Corporation). It has been granted sole licensing rights to commercialise GranuMaS® by SIRIM, and has since set up a medical grade plant for its production.

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