Health, Science & Technology

Prof Dr Halimaton's Maerogel breakthrough is highly significant as it has the potential to touch the lives of millions of people around the world through its varied uses.
Tan Sri Datuk Dr Augustine Ong Soon Hock
Member of the Nomination Committee,
Health, Science & Technology category


Professor Dr Halimaton Hamdan was born in 1956 as the eldest of six children. A precocious child, Professor Halimaton was a star student throughout her schooling years, excelling not only in her studies, but in the arts, where she played the recorder and was a member of the school choir. As someone who excelled in anything she put her mind to, she soon found what would be her lifelong passion, chemistry, while at school. The teachers at the boarding school she attended made the subject interesting.

Although she had no childhood ambitions tobecome a chemist, the scientific discipline was a perfect fit for her personality. Good with her hands, the challenging, practical and problem-solving aspects of science appealed to Professor Halimaton. Chemistry is fun, she says, and she enjoyed conducting experiments, and observing the outcome of the elements interacting with each other. Chemistry also gave her a creative outlet.

Rice husks proved to be the perfect material for the production of Maerogel.

“Chemistry is a balanced science. I’m quite artistic and creative, and you need to be creative and innovative in order to be a good chemist,” she says. She pursued her bachelor’s and postgraduate degrees in chemistry at Indiana University and Marshall University in the US. She did her PhD in Physical Chemistry at Cambridge University, where she was in the pioneer batch of women and also the first Asian woman to be admitted to Peterhouse, the oldest college at the university. She is now a member of the Peterhouse Alumni Association.

In 1981, Professor Halimaton joined Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) as a lecturer at the Department of Chemistry. In 1997, she became a Professor of Chemistry at the university.

Professor Richard Ernst, Nobel Prize winner for Chemistry in 1991, visited Professor Halimaton at her laboratory in UTM in 2004.

Professor Halimaton holds numerous professional positions and has chaired several task forces and committees including the Technical Committee, National Nanotechnology Initiatives (2006-2008) and the Scientific Advancement Grant Allocation (SAGA) (Chemical Cluster) (2005-2008). She is a Fellow of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia and the American Academy of Sciences, and is a member of the International Zeolite Association. She has been a reviewer of the Journal of Industrial Technology SIRIM (1992-1998) and Journal of Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, University of Texas Austin, USA (1997-present), among others.

She also has a diploma in Translation from Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, and translated the textbook Physical Chemistry in 1990. Professor Dr Halimaton has won numerous local and international acclaim for her work over the years. In 2008 alone, she was recognised in the Marquis Who’s Who in Science & Engineering 10th Anniversary Edition and in 2000 Outstanding Scientists – International Biographical Centre, Cambridge, UK (2008/09). Her strength in research was celebrated by UTM as the university declared her Tokoh Penyelidik UTM 2008.

Professor Halimaton is confident there will be no shortage of rice husks for the sustained production of Maerogel.

Professor Halimaton eschews the notion that scientists need to forsake other interests in order to be successful.

“I have a lot of interests, and I am attracted to the arts. I love to sing and dance, and I like beautiful things. In school, I used to act. That is the other side of a good scientist because a good scientist has to be creative. There is no harm in having other interests, and
there is no reason to be a boring scientist!”

Professor Halimaton also enjoys sewing, and in the early years of her career, she made her own clothes.

Professor Halimaton is married to Associate Professor Mohd Nazlan Mohd Muhid, and has two sons.

Blazing A Trail
Professor Halimaton’s fields of specialisation are Zeolite and nanostructured Materials technology; solid-state chemistry; solid-state NMR spectroscopy; heterogeneous catalysis and surface chemistry. she has over 15 years experience researching silica- based materials.

Aerogel was invented in 1931 by American scientist Samuel Stephens Kistler, but since its invention, the high cost of producing the lightest known solid had limited its commercial use.

Professor Halimaton’s contribution to the field of science is in discovering a costeffective way to turn discarded rice husks into Maerogel (Malaysian aerogel), which can be used for various purposes. The silica in rice husks is extracted to produce Maerogel, and her discovery cuts the cost of producing aerogel by 80 per cent making it affordable for commercial use.

Serendipity played a part in her selection of rice husks, as a chance viewing of a television documentary about the problems of getting rid of rice husks led her to study and experiment on this material.

She resolved to research rice husks after reading an article placing silica aerogel as one of the top 10 materials of the millennium, and that if only the material were cheaper, it could benefit the world. She was determined to take this challenge to make an impact, not just in the scientific community, but on the world. Professor Halimaton and her students took eight months to produce Maerogel which had the same properties as those commercially available. From the laboratory to precommercialisation, she has been working on Maerogel for nine years. The production of Maerogel uses Green technology as it is clean (smokeless) with a minimal use of energy.

To produce 15 tonnes of Maerogel, 30 tonnes of silica is required. Professor Halimaton is confident that she will not face a shortage of raw material, as Malaysia has about 70,000 tonnes of rice husks available currently, and new developments in paddy plantations are expected to sustain the supply of rice husks in the coming years.

Success, however, did not come easy for Professor Halimaton. At the beginning of the new millennium, nanotechnology was fairly new to the country, and Professor Halimaton found it difficult to convince funding institutions and the public of the potential of Maerogel.

Maerogel has all the properties of commercial aerogels.

“There was not much awareness on nanomaterials and people tended to be more appreciative of the end product. For scientists like us who make commodity materials, it was difficult for people to appreciate what Maerogel was as it looks just like a white powder.”

One teaspoon of Maerogel can fill up a football field as it is the lightest solid known today. It is like “frozen smoke” and has a large surface area. It is made up of thousands of nanopores 30nm in size, and the rest of the gel is filled with air, hence the name.

Maerogel’s potential lies in coating walls of homes, which could dramatically reduce the need for heating and air conditioning.

Maerogel is now ready for its commercialisation phase and a plant is being constructed with production scheduled for early 2010. A spin-off company, Gelanggang Kencana Sdn Bhd under UTM has been formed and Professor Halimaton is one of the directors of the company. She will continue with her R&D work on applications and provide consultation to the company making the Maerogel. She is focusing on the expansion of Maerogel beyond Malaysia, but wants to see the maiden factory here up and running first.

Professor Halimaton is optimistic about the future of science in Malaysia as the government supports and recognises the value of science as important to the development of the nation. Cultivation of interest in science among the young needs to be on going. Winning the Merdeka Award means a lot to Professor Halimaton as it recognises the contribution of scientists to the nation.

“After working in the lab for 20 years or so, I feel that the country has matured to the point that it is aware and appreciates science as important to the development of Malaysia, and I am happy and grateful to be a part of it. I hope I can inspire the young generation to take up science. If we don’t do research, we will not come up with anything, and we will always be playing catch up,” she says.

It has taken nine years to make Maerogel a reality.
Concluding Remarks

Professor Halimaton’s Maerogel breakthrough is highly significant as it has the potential to touch the lives of millions of people around the world through its varied uses. Maerogel has been hailed as an exciting breakthrough by experts and Professor Halimaton has been recognised worldwide for her research. From construction to pharmaceuticals, this discovery which is soon to be commercialised, has been hailed as true innovation, and one which will make Malaysia justifiably proud.

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