Research Collaborations


Collaborations with Overseas Institutions

Functioning of Terrestrial Ecosystems in Southeast Asia


Ecology is being recognized globally as an increasingly important discipline, as human pressure on the environment continues to grow and as the consequences of human-induced global change phenomena become increasingly apparent. This is of direct relevance to Singapore. For example, large fires caused by burning of peat ecosystems in the region impact significantly on air quality and human wellbeing in Singapore. Further, human activity influences food security, and environmental change caused by humans has various geopolitical consequences. In addition, Singapore is part of a biodiversity hotspot characterized by a unique and rich community of plants, animals and microbes, but which is under continual threat.


The linkage between the Asian School of the Environment (ASE) and the Smithsonian Tropical research Institute was recently formalized by a MoU signed between the two organizations. It is aimed at developing a world-class capacity in forest and ecosystem ecology in the Southeast Asian region in order to address environmental issues that are expected to become increasingly pressing in the region over the 21st Century. As an initial step, in January 2017 Professor David Wardle started a new position at the ASE as the Smithsonian Professor of Forest Ecology. He is, together with other researchers at the ASE and at the Smithsonian Institute, planning new projects to understand the drivers of biodiversity and ecosystem processes in forests in Southeast Asia (including in Singapore), ecology of managed and natural peat ecosystems in the region whose burning impairs air quality in Singapore, and the functioning of urban green areas in Singapore. The expectation is that as these projects develop, the team will have an enhanced mechanistic understanding of the environmental problems that confront the ecosystems in and around Singapore, which will in turn contribute to attempts at their remediation.




Water content and mechanical properties of the asthenosphere

Water, the most abundant volatile in Earth’s interior, preserves the young surface of our planet by catalysing mantle convection, lubricating plate tectonics and feeding arc volcanism. Since planetary accretion, water has been exchanged between the hydrosphere and the geosphere, but its depth distribution in the mantle remains elusive. In collaboration with Professor Shun Karato from Yale University, Nanyang Assistant Professor Sylvain Barbot from Asian School of the Environment and his team have derived a new way to constrain water contant in the upper mantle. Water drastically reduces the strength of olivine, the weakest and most abundant mineral in the Earth's upper mantle, and this effect can be exploited to estimate the water content of olivine from the mechanical response of the asthenosphere to stress perturbations such as the ones following large earthquakes. They exploited the sensitivity to water of the strength of olivine and observations of the exceptionally large (moment magnitude 8.6) 2012 Indian Ocean earthquake3 to constrain the stratification of water content in the upper mantle. Taking into account a wide range of temperature conditions and the transient creep of olivine, they explained the transient deformation in the aftermath of the earthquake that was recorded by continuous geodetic stations along Sumatra as the result of water- and stress-activated creep of olivine. This implies a minimum water content of about 0.01 per cent by weight—or 1,600 H atoms per million Si atoms—in the asthenosphere (the part of the upper mantle below the lithosphere). The earthquake ruptured conjugate faults down to great depths, compatible with dry olivine in the oceanic lithosphere. They attributed the steep rheological contrast to dehydration across the lithosphere–asthenosphere boundary, presumably by buoyant melt migration to form the oceanic crust.


Figure 1 – The team exploits GPS measurements of rapid deformation following the 2012 Indian Ocean earthquake to infer the water content in the oceanic asthenosphere. The oceanic brittle lithosphere is dry (0.001–0.005 wt%) and the oceanic asthenosphere is wet (about 0.013 wt%), with a water content given by the probability density (inset) assuming the mantle temperature Tm = 1,380 °C.

On-line Flowing Colloidosomes for Sequential Multi-Analyte and High Throughput SERS Analysis

3D plasmonic colloidosomes are superior SERS sensors due to their high sensitivity and excellent laser misalignment tolerance. However, the current sensing applications of plasmonic colloidosomes are performed with static state measurements that under-utilize their advantages as a dynamic substrate-less sensing platform, and limiting the detection throughput while generally require accurate laser alignment prior to every measurement. This project incorporates plasmonic colloidosomes in a microfluidic channel for on-line SERS detection (Figure 1).1

The original idea of using plasmonic colloidosomes in a flow system was conceived and developed by Professor Ramón A. Alvarez-Puebla from Universitat  Rovira i Virgili, Tarragona, Spain and Associate Professor Ling Xing Yi’s research lab from School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences. This method resolves the poor signal reproducibility and inter-sample contamination in the existing on-line SERS platforms. The flow system offers rapid and continuous on-line detection of 20 samples in < 5 minutes with excellent signal reproducibility, while preventing cross-sample and channel contamination and allowing accurate quantification of samples with six orders of magnitude concentration range. The system demonstrates high resolution multiplex detection with fully preserved signal and Raman features of individual analytes in a mixture.



Figure 1. (A) 3D scheme of the sequential on-line SERS detection of analyte samples encapsulated within plasmonic colloidosomes. (B) Time-lapsed SERS spectra obtained within 2 minutes exhibiting specific SERS fingerprints of each analyte, with respective concentrations obtained from tallying the peak intensities with calibration curves.



Gia Chuong Phan-Quang, Elizabeth Hui Zi Wee, Fengling Yang, Hiang Kwee Lee, In Yee Phang, Xiaotong Feng, Ramón A. Alvarez-Puebla, Xing Yi Ling, Angew. Chem. Int. Ed., 2017, 56, 5565 – 5569.


Reducing CO2 footprint via Electrochemistry: Cambridge & NTU Efforts

Rising levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) are of significant concern in modern society, as they lead to global warming and consequential environmental and societal changes. It is of importance to develop
industries with a zero or negative CO2 footprint. Electrochemistry, where one of the reagents is
electrons, is an environmentally clean technology that is capable of addressing the conversion of CO2 to value-added products. The key factor in the process is the use of catalytic electrode materials that lead to the desired reaction and product. Significant progress in this field has been achieved in past few years by collaborative efforts of leading electrochemistry and materials science & engineering groups, Associate Professor Martin Pumera from School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences and Prof. Adrian Fisher from Cambridge University


Integrated porous systems for efficient CO2 capture and conversion:

Intensive CO2 emission results in serious enviromental issues globally. Adsorptive separation of CO2 from gas mixtures utilizing porous materials provides an alternative, energy-efficient, and low-cost separation technique. In order to address the CO2 issue from fundamental and practical perspectives, a research team led by Associate Professor Zhao Yanli from School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences in collaboration with Professor Zou Ruqiang from Peking University China has developed novel porous materials to achieve selective capture and conversion of CO2. Specifically, they have innovatively prepared nitrogen-rich porous materials for selective CO2 capture, since the incorporation of accessible nitrogen-donor groups onto the internal walls of porous materials can dramatically improve CO2 uptake capacity and selectivity (J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2016, 138, 2142–2145; Adv. Mater. 2016, 28, 2855–2873; Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2015, 54, 12748–12752; J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2015, 137, 1020–1023). One of the nitrogen-rich porous materials shows a significant enhancement in the CO2 adsorption (over 37 wt% at 1 atm), along with a high selectivity of CO2 over N2. Some developed porous materials could also be employed as highly effective and substrate size-dependent catalysts for the CO2 conversion into value-added chemicals and materials. A laboratory-scale prototype facility using the developed nitrogen-rich porous materials has been set up by them for high-performance CO2 capture and conversion.




The Skinny family of tweakable block ciphers

Block ciphers are among the most important primitives in cryptography, backbones of the security applications in various industries. Block ciphers are used in places where privacy of the data is required, for example in satellite or military communications, Internet and networks data flow, banking and money transfers, etc. Whenever one needs to hide the contents of the communication with another user, block ciphers are very likely to be used. They can also be utilized to cipher data at rest, such as sensitive databases or computer hard-drives, in order to protect its privacy in case physical compromise. Even though very efficient and strong block ciphers are already available (such as the worldwide standard AES), these primitives might be unusable when placed in a very constrained environments, such as passive RFID tags, or many tiny devices that will soon become the backbone of the Internet of Things (IoT). Securing these devices is of utmost importance as they might mange sensitive data and moreover the security chain of an information system is only as strong as its weakest link.

Nanyang Asistant Professor Thomas Peyrin from School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences and his student Siang Meng Sim and postdoc Jeremy Jean, in collaboration with researchers from NTT (Japan), Ruhr-Universität Bochum (Germany) and Technical University of Denmark (Denmark), have designed a new block cipher, named Skinny, specially crafted to fit in the most constrained environments. Skinny is currently the most efficient block cipher primitive for so-called lightweight cryptography applications (it even compares favourably with NSA cipher SIMON, see Table below). Not only our cipher is very efficient, but it also provides strong security guarantees with regards to all state-of-the-art attacks.




The main novelty of Skinny is a new method to build the internal round function that performs the encryption. Very specific cryptopgrahic components have been carefully chosen, but also placed, to ensure a maximisation of the security while keeping the cost as low as possible.