Professor Dr Ir Mohd Ali Hashim combines leadership in academia and a central role in the shaping of Malaysia’s research policies in a unique career that has spanned a full four decades. Born in Kedah, in 1950, Professor Ali graduated with a BSc (Hons) in Chemical Engineering from the University of Aston, United Kingdom, in 1975. He continued his studies at the University of Birmingham where he obtained both his MSc in Biological Engineering and, in 1979, his PhD in Chemical Engineering, in the area of solvent extraction. His research in water and wastewater treatment began when he returned to Malaysia and was appointed as a lecturer at the University of Malaya (UM). As he says, “At the time there was very little research funding. Looking around I saw an opportunity to get funding working on the major problem of the time –water pollution.” In addition, he realised that further studies on this issue could prove useful in addressing pollution scenario in the palm oil industry, which was a very relevant problem during those early years.
Professor Ali’s pioneering work during the 1980s and 1990s in the field of colloidal gas aphrons (CGAs) and adsorption resulted in the aggregation of research talents in Malaysia, turning it into a centre of excellence in this field. One remarkable quality of the CGAs, a type of stable microbubbles, is that they can be generated in one place and then transported elsewhere by conventional equipment such as pumps. Owing to their small sizes and surface charges, these bubbles ascend slowly in a flotation cell and facilitate attachment of particles to their surfaces. Thus clarification of suspensions such as palm oil fibres from palm oil mill effluent, emulsified oil from oily wastewater, fine cellulose fibres from paper mill wastewater and fine cells from fermentation broth can be efficiently undertaken. These works involving fundamental and mechanistic studies not only received high accolades but they also generated research publications that are of significance to the scientific community to date.
Professor Ali’s prominence in the research community led to a short but impactful stint in Government where he spearheaded the formulation of the Second National Science Policy. It was also during his time at the Ministry of Science Technology and Environment (MOSTE) that he became “interested in finding new solvents that are friendly to the environment". His interest in finding "a replacement to traditional solvents that can be used in the chemical industry” eventually led to his subsequent work with ionic liquids.
Upon his return to academia, Professor Ali built on his previous work in green technology to address the growing environmental problems resulting from the country’s rapid industrialisation. He galvanised the research efforts in this area by establishing the University of Malaya Centre for Ionic Liquids (UMCiL) – one of only three such centres worldwide. At UMCiL, Professor Ali’s innovative works resulted in several patents. In particular, he and his team comprising multidisciplinary researchers from chemical engineering and chemistry conducts advanced research on synthesis and application of a new generation of green solvents. These are ionic liquids (ILs) and deep eutectic solvents (DESs) which have immense significance in petroleum refining, biodiesel production, palm oil refining and energy applications. His team has also been successful in harnessing the highly reactive nature of the superoxide ions through generating and stabilising them in ILs and subsequently reacting them with crude palm oil to produce a number of speciality chemicals. Aside from cost-saving, the use of ILs and DESs could also reduce safety concerns through using lower operating temperature and pressure. DESs, on the other hand, can also be employed in biodiesel production and purification through processing of acidic crude palm oil, low-grade palm oil and mixed industrial palm oil. Professor Ali and his team are working in close collaboration with the Imperial College London, Delft University of Technology, King Saud University and Monash University. Current research projects include the synthesis and modelling of ILs and DESs, their applications in electrochemistry and catalysis as well as applications in acid gas capture and liquid membrane.
Recently, through international collaborations, he has developed an in-situ groundwater treatment technology for the benefit of the poor population living in underdeveloped rural areas. This sustainable technology is simple, highly reliable, uses eco-friendly components, generates zero waste and is replicable in the developing countries. A 10,000 litres per day water treatment plant has been installed in Kota Bahru in collaboration with Air Kelantan Sdn Bhd. This initiative is being replicated in Vietnam and Cambodia and has attracted the attention of Salcon Engineering Berhad.
As the Chairman of the pre-High Impact Research (HIR) Committee, Professor Ali has also involved himself in guiding the direction of research in UM. The Committee is entrusted with the management of RM590 million in research funding from the Ministry of Higher Education and over the past four years these projects have contributed 78.7 per cent of the high impact research papers from UM. This is crucial to further improve the global ranking of the university. Since the formation of this Committee, UM has seen its ranking jump from 207 in 2010 to 151 in 2014. As Professor Ali has previously been appointed to research and academic positions in renowned centres of learning such as Kyoto University, University of Cambridge, University of Oxford and Harvard University, he has established strong partnerships with talented scientists who have later contributed to Malaysian research in the form of foreign collaborations and the mentoring of Malaysian students.
The senior-most Professor of Chemical Engineering in Malaysia, Prof Ali was appointed a Fellow of the Institute of Chemical Engineers (IChemE UK), the most prestigious professional body internationally in this field in 1996 and was chosen as its first Country Chairman in 2006. He is also a Fellow of Institution of Engineers Malaysia, Professional Engineer of the Board of Engineers Malaysia, Chartered Engineer of Engineering Council UK and Fellow of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia. In 2001, he was awarded the National Science Award, the highest scholastic accolade at that time.
Professor Ali is actively involved in the mentoring and supervision of young scientists at the University. He has also trained a large number of professional engineers, policymakers and researchers through specialised courses on topics such as environmental impact assessment, quantified risk analysis, water treatment, wastewater treatment, water recycling and reuse. Today, he continues to serve in various boards and committees dealing with academic promotions, curriculum reviews, institutional accreditations, chartered memberships, thesis examinations, conferences, reviews of research proposals from within Malaysia and abroad and many more. Professor Ali has published more than 200 research articles in refereed international journals, including 173 ISI publications with an ISI h-index of 28 with a total citation of 2,458 and has filed over 20 patents, putting Malaysia on the map of separation processes and green technology research.
A leading scholar and researcher in Chemical Engineering, Professor Ali’s pursuit of excellence in the research of separation processes, water and wastewater treatment and his instrumental role in setting up the UM Centre for Ionic Liquids, is a reflection of the innovative and pioneering Spirit of Merdeka.