“Germany is one of the most attractive research locations”

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It sounds so easy: we cannot survive without water, so access to clean drinking water is a basic human right. Nonetheless, there is not enough water for everyone in the world. Jian-Yuan Lee from Malaysia, a PhD candidate in chemistry, materials science and engineering, has developed a new desalination process capable of significantly reducing the costs of producing clean water.

Jian-Yuan Lee is one of 25 young researchers who won the Green Talents 2014 – International Forum for High Potentials in Sustainable Development competition run by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). In our interview, Jian-Yuan Lee explains why he could well imagine spending longer pursuing his research in Germany.

Professor Matthias Wessling and Jian-Yuan Lee

Mr Lee, your research is focused on the production of clean water. You have developed a special desalination process. How does it work? What potential does this technology have and why is it so important?

My current research concerns the development of sustainable desalination technology. This is multidisciplinary work spanning different fields such as sustainable chemistry, materials science and clean water technology. More specifically, sustainable desalination technology is known as engineered osmosis or forward osmosis (FO), which is the current state of the art in osmotically-driven membrane technology. FO utilizes the natural phenomenon of osmosis and can potentially be used as a sustainable way to address both the global water shortage and the energy crisis.

In 2010, FO technology was highlighted by National Geographic as one of the three most promising sustainable technologies for desalination and as the one closest to commercialization. Compared to conventional pressure-driven membrane processes such as reverse osmosis and nanofiltration, FO can significantly lower energy consumption by up to thirty percent and thus reduce the costs of producing clean water.

You were one of the winners of the Green Talents Competition 2014, and visited Germany in 2014. What exactly did you see and what is your impression of the German research landscape?

In 2014, I visited RWTH Aachen University during one of the individual meetings of the Green Talents Science Forum. I met Professor Matthias Wessling and talked to him about new ideas for sustainable research at RWTH Aachen University. To give one example, we discussed potential research opportunities in 3D-printed membranes/spacers for the forward osmosis application. In spite of its current limitations in terms of resolution, membrane researchers have begun in recent years to adopt 3D printing technology for producing membranes/spacers.

Professor Wessling and his co-workers are pioneers in this research area, as well as one of the leading groups in developing 3D-printed membranes/spacers for a variety of applications. This gave me a good and lasting impression of the high quality of Germany’s interdisciplinary research in sustainable development. This experience stood me in very good stead during my subsequent three-month research period with Professor Wessling’s group that was made possible by the Green Talents Award I received.

Would you like to continue researching in Germany?

Yes, very much so. I am currently writing a research proposal to apply for the Humboldt Research Fellowship for Postdoctoral Researchers and Professor Wessling has been proposed to host my postdoctoral training at RWTH Aachen University.

In your opinion, why is the German research landscape in the field of sustainability research a good place for young scientists?

First of all, Germany is one of the most attractive research locations not only for me but also for young scientists around the world in sustainable research. Research in the area of sustainable science and technology in Germany is well-known around the world because of its advanced infrastructure, broad range of disciplines, well-established research facilities and highly competent staff. Moreover, the research environment is conducive in Germany, offering various types of research locations such as universities, universities of applied sciences, non-university institutes, industrial research and federal institutions.

Secondly, the German government, large organizations such as the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), as well as numerous prominent foundations such as the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Volkswagen (VW) Foundation, provide a variety of funding options that allow foreign scientists to conduct sustainable research in Germany.

In addition, Germany is an excellent research location for carrying out research projects and getting in touch with the German and international scientific community. Recently, the German government has invested heavily in sustainable research and sustainable development. Consequently, the scientific sustainable research conducted here achieves the highest international standards, and Germany occupies a leading position in sustainable science and technology.

Jian-Yuan Lee, thank you for the interview and good luck with your research proposal. We hope to welcome you soon in Germany.