Thirty years of research impact
Over the past three decades, NTU has driven innovation across many domains, from health and sustainability to Industry 4.0 technologies and the arts.
Throughout its history, NTU has been pioneering innovations. Today, the University is one of the world’s top young universities, with a reputation for excellence in many fields.
The formula to its excellence? Its people. NTU has channelled the collective efforts of its students, faculty and staff, who work with others beyond the University to tackle the world’s most pressing challenges.
From the climate crisis to infectious diseases, NTU’s research accomplishments highlight how a university located in the “Little Red Dot” can have an outsized impact worldwide.
Clearing the air
Researchers from SCELSE used air sample collectors to obtain samples of indoor air and analysed the genetic material in them to detect the virus that causes COVID-19. Credit: SCELSE, NTU.
Leveraging its expertise in characterising microorganisms in the air, NTU’s Singapore Centre for Life Sciences Engineering (SCELSE) has been involved in developing a sensitive method to detect airborne SARS-CoV-2 RNA—genetic material from the virus that causes COVID-19—in indoor air. In a trial, the method detected SARS-CoV-2 RNA at a higher rate in two hospital wards that care for COVID-19 patients compared to surface swab samples collected in the same area. Such an air surveillance capability could make a valuable contribution towards keeping frontline medical staff safe during pandemics.
Modelling the ripple effects of COVID-19
Non-essential medical procedures have largely taken a backseat during the pandemic. However, for some patients with liver failure, liver transplantation (LT) may be their best option for long-term survival. Using a mathematical model, NTU researchers from the School of Humanities and School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, in collaboration with Singapore’s National University Hospital, the Singapore General Hospital and Queen Mary Hospital in Hong Kong, analysed the impact of pandemic-influenced LT restrictions on the healthcare outcomes of patients. They found that a short and wide-ranging disruption to LT results in better healthcare outcomes than a drawn-out, partial restriction on LT.
A helping hand for home therapy
Physical therapy appointments have also seen unfortunate delays due to COVID-19. However, a new portable arm rehabilitation robot called H-Man, developed at the NTU Robotics Research Centre with rehabilitation physicians and occupational therapists from Tan Tock Seng Hospital, could help patients carry out robot-aided therapy at home, which may reduce the risk of exposure to infectious diseases. Patients play various engaging games with the robot’s screen and robotic handles, after which it evaluates patient progress and wirelessly sends feedback to therapists. H-Man has been commercialised and spun off into ARTICARES by NTUitive, NTU’s enterprise and innovation company.
X-terminating germs with XDBOT
Cleanliness is a virtue, but in today’s pandemic, it is a necessity. To disinfect hard-to-reach surfaces, researchers at the NTU Robotics Research Centre developed the eXtreme Disinfection robot (XDBOT). Its nozzle discharges positively charged chemicals that adhere to negatively charged surfaces, enabling the robot to disinfect large areas quickly. To reduce contact with contaminated surfaces, the remotely controlled XDBOT is equipped with LiDAR sensors and high definition cameras that help the semi-autonomous robot to navigate routes.
Breezy COVID-19 test
While PCR testing is currently considered the gold standard for detecting COVID-19 in infected individuals, it takes a few hours for the test to be completed. To facilitate safe travel arrangements and screenings at large-scale events, Silver Factory Technology, a nanotechnology startup from NTU, came up with a breathalyser test that detects COVID-19 within two minutes with a 95% success rate. Using a sensor chip, the breathalyser called TracieX traps key molecules in the user’s breath. By analysing those captured molecules, the device can tell whether a person is infected with COVID-19. TracieX has received provisional authorisation from Singapore’s Health Sciences Authority and trials have started at Singapore’s main airport.
Digitalisation has reshaped almost every sector and disruptive technologies, such as telemedicine, have similarly transformed the delivery of healthcare. The World Health Organisation (WHO) Collaborating Centre for Digital Health & Health Education at NTU’s Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine was established in 2019 to support WHO’s vision to improve the health workforce’s digital competencies. The Centre’s activities include reviewing the use of digital health education across various educational levels in all health professions.
Surgery without scars
The robotic arms of the EndoMaster endoscopy system allow surgeons to perform precise and delicate operations on the body with minimal scarring. Credit: NTU.
Conventional surgery is invasive and requires a lengthy recovery time. To improve things, an NTU spinoff, medical robotics company EndoMaster, developed the world’s first robotic flexible endoscopy system for minimally invasive surgery. To operate the system, the surgeon controls two robotic arms at the end of a flexible endoscope to precisely perform complex techniques such as removing tumours in the gastrointestinal tract—resulting in less trauma and scarring as well as shortening procedure and healing time.
To relieve blockages in arteries, stents—small tubes that help keep blood vessels open—are implanted into weak or narrow arteries. However, stents are often permanent and may cause complications such as blood clots. Consequently, NTU materials scientists have developed biodegradable, drug-releasing stents made of polymer. Named “Fortitude”, this type of stent prevents blockages and clotting and is as durable as conventional stents.
Supporting distressed parent caregivers
Parents of children with chronic, life-threatening illnesses face many stressors, including the financial and emotional impact of caregiving. This puts them at an increased risk of experiencing depressive symptoms and a poorer quality of life. The Narrative e-Writing Intervention (NeW-I) developed by NTU’s School of Social Sciences is a platform designed to provide support to such parents through web-based counselling. In a pilot study of NeW-I, parents reported a significantly enhanced quality of life and improved mental health, as well as a significant decline in caregiver burden after they had completed the programme, with the positive feelings continuing well after the study ended.
Shining a light on life
With more people suffering from diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease in Singapore, researchers at NTU’s Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine along with the National Healthcare Group and Imperial College London joined forces for the Health for Life in Singapore (HELIOS) study. HELIOS aims to identify the genetic and environmental factors underpinning these complex chronic diseases to innovate new approaches for their prediction, prevention, early detection and treatment. Since its launch in 2018, the prospective cohort study has recruited 10,000 Singaporean participants and is now geared up for its next phase targeting another 100,000 Singaporeans.
The right drug for the right patient
In Singapore, around 12% of emergency admissions are caused by adverse drug reactions. Accordingly, the Family Medicine and Primary Care Research Group at NTU’s Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine is working to tailor prescriptions based on patients’ genetic make-up. The team has introduced pharmacogenomic testing within the local healthcare system to prescribe the right amount of the correct drug to patients, minimising adverse reactions.
Lending a listening ear
In noisy environments, older adults typically have a hard time understanding speech. This impairs their social interactions, mental health and quality of life. Linguists from NTU’s School of Humanities and physicians from Tan Tock Seng Hospital teamed up to better understand age-related speech perception disorders in hopes of developing a speech and language rehabilitation programme for Singapore’s elderly population, and will soon embark on the project in collaboration with the hospital’s ear-nose-throat clinic.
Ageing with grace and dignity
The world’s population is ageing and societies need to prepare themselves for the aptly termed “silver tsunami”. To enable the elderly to lead independent and dignified lives, researchers at the Joint NTU-University of British Columbia Research Centre of Excellence in Active Living for the Elderly have developed the “Ageing-in-Place” smart home care platform that allows the elderly to live safely in their own homes. Using unobtrusive Internet of Things-powered smart sensors instead of cameras, the platform monitors the elderly and provides a holistic picture of their health in real-time.
Safely regrowing broken bones
To repair broken bones, surgeons sometimes use metal implants such as plates and screws to hold them together. However, these permanent implants may cause the weakening of bone structures. Osteopore, a spinoff from NTU and other local universities, leverages 3D printing to manufacture implants that can be absorbed by the body to facilitate natural bone regeneration. Made of a nontoxic polymer, these implants prevent complications associated with permanent implants. Recently, the company created the world’s first 3D-printed implant for regrowing shinbones.
ARTS AND EDUCATION
A modern take on traditional art
Casting a fresh light on Singapore’s cultural heritage, the Designing Cultures project combines traditional crafts and design with new technologies. Credit: NTU.
Multicultural Singapore has a buzzing art scene that is a veritable mashup of old and new styles. To ensure that these traditions persist, the Designing Cultures project at NTU’s School of Art, Design and Media captures traditional crafts and art forms for future designers to explore and to spread awareness of locally and globally. By integrating traditional design with frontier technologies, the project pushes the boundaries of product and graphic design.
Learning from the lens of a child
A child’s early years lay the foundation for lifelong learning and discovery. From 2015 to 2017, the National Institute of Education (NIE) at NTU embarked on the Singapore Kindergarten Impact Project (SKIP), the country’s first large-scale longitudinal study focusing on early childhood education. A total of 1,537 children between the ages of 5 and 7 were tracked from Kindergarten 1 to Primary 1, and their developmental outcomes as well as learning and home environments evaluated. From the findings, SKIP assessed how preschool influences the performance and readiness of children in later life.
A deep dive into education
NIE is also investigating the interactions between students, teachers and content in Singapore’s primary and secondary classrooms through the Core Research Programme (CORE). Started in 2004 as NIE’s flagship education research programme, CORE seeks to examine daily teaching pedagogies. Driven by the latest national initiatives, CORE has shaped Singapore’s education policies and programmes through the years.
Sowing the seeds of success
Medicinal herbs are the source of many drugs used in traditional and modern medicines. To provide practical knowledge to students of NTU’s double degree programme in Biomedical Sciences and Traditional Chinese Medicine, the community herb garden at NTU was started in 2006. The garden is now home to over 200 species of tropical herbs and NTU researchers have identified many useful enzymes and medicinal compounds from them, including the first plant derived compounds resembling growth factors that show potential in healing diabetic wounds.
Singapore’s first autonomous vehicle test centre
Taking Singapore one step closer to driverless cars is the Centre of Excellence for Testing & Research of Autonomous Vehicles-NTU (CETRAN). Established in 2017 with the Land Transport Authority and JTC, the public agency in charge of Singapore’s industrial progress, CETRAN is the city-state’s first autonomous vehicle testbed facility, complete with mock skyscrapers, a rain simulator and a flood zone. In 2019, after rigorous testing there, NTU and Volvo Buses launched the world’s first full-sized autonomous electric bus. Ultimately, CETRAN aims to enable safe and effective rollout of autonomous vehicles by understanding how they operate, and developing testing requirements and establishing international standards.
Social robots Nadine and Edgar
Ushering in the human-robot interactions of tomorrow, NTU scientists have created humanoid social robots. Made in the likeness of her creator, retired NTU professor Nadia Thalmann, Nadine can make eye contact, respond to questions and recall conversations. Meanwhile, the life-sized Expression Display & Gesturing Avatar Robot (EDGAR) can come up with its own responses to questions posed to it, paving the way for futuristic human-robot interactions. EDGAR was the first robot to host Singapore’s National Day Parade in 2017.
Pioneering space pursuits
Using advanced space technology, the Satellite Research Centre at NTU has opened new frontiers in space. Credit: SaRC, NTU.
NTU’s Satellite Research Centre (SaRC) is the birthplace of Singapore’s satellite and space programmes. Space research started at NTU in 1999, when the University built Merlion, the first Singapore-designed satellite payload, which marked NTU’s first foray into space when it was launched. The success of this project paved the way for the launch of X-SAT, a microsatellite capable of performing remote sensing—resulting in the Republic’s first earth observation satellite in 2011. Subsequently, NTU launched and operated several nano and microsatellites. The latest efforts involve building a microsatellite that will fly at very low earth orbit to trial new technologies such as a fuel-efficient propulsion engine built by NTU spinoff company Aliena.
Nanotechnology solutions for the world
In October 2020, NTU spinoff Nanofilm Technologies became the first local deep technology unicorn to be listed on the Singapore Exchange. Founded at the turn of the millennium by former NTU faculty member Dr Shi Xu, the company manufactures a wear-resistant carbon coating used in products such as automotive parts, optical lenses and smartphones.
Keeping cyber risks at bay
To help insurers and risk managers accurately assess and mitigate risks in today’s digital world, the Cyber Risk Management project led by the Insurance Risk and Finance Research Centre at NTU’s Nanyang Business School, engages industry and academic experts to embark on government and policy-level research. The project has since extended its working model to the new Global-Asia Insurance Partnership, a platform that brings together resources and expertise from industry, regulators and academia to tackle strategic risks and industry-wide issues.
Novel membranes for sustainable water purification
While reusing wastewater and obtaining drinkable water from seawater sound like good ideas, these processes require significant amounts of energy. To enhance the energy efficiency of water purification, researchers at the Nanyang Environment & Water Research Institute at NTU are developing membranes that reduce the energy required to obtain clean water. The scientists were the first in the world to develop a thin-film composite hollow fibre membrane for a type of water separation process known as forward osmosis. Taking inspiration from nature, NTU researchers have also developed a new type of membrane that uses the building blocks of cell membranes for brackish water and seawater desalination, halving energy used in the process.
3D-printed water treatment membranes
Through 3D printing, NTU startup Nanosun is bringing membrane production into the future. Specifically, Nanosun uses 3D printing to create millions of layered nanofibres that are then compressed into a thin membrane. This process creates a stronger membrane with a faster water flow rate and also allows for the construction of smaller wastewater treatment plants, lowering land, infrastructure and labour costs.
Making energy management easy
In light of climate change, more organisations are looking to reduce their carbon footprint. Energy startup and NTU spinoff Evercomm is doing just that, by helping manufacturing enterprises, data centres and commercial buildings simplify energy management and identify ways to achieve energy efficiency. The company does this by combining Internet of Things and machine learning technologies to identify ways to save costs and energy.
A new lease of life for food waste
Gel bandages and plasters made from discarded durian husks protect wounds and reduce food waste at the same time. Credit: NTU.
Despite Singapore’s love for food, the city-state generated around 665,000 tonnes of food waste in 2020. With the growing spotlight on sustainability, scientists from NTU’s Food Science and Technology programme are leading the charge to achieve zero-waste food processing. The programme has since transformed durian husks into antibacterial bandages, repurposed soybean waste into biodegradable packaging and upcycled spent barley grains into plant-based mayonnaise.
Asia is the most disaster-prone region in the world, with almost half of the world’s natural disasters occurring in the Asia Pacific. Launched in 2021, the remote sensing laboratory at NTU’s Earth Observatory of Singapore maps, monitors and studies natural hazards, climate change and environmental crises to support governments in and around Southeast Asia. The laboratory combines satellite imagery with cloud computing and innovative new algorithms to generate maps that show the damage caused by disasters, even under adverse atmospheric conditions such as thick cloud cover or heavy rain, assisting the responses of disaster management organisations.
In land-scarce countries like Singapore, the idea of using underground space has grown increasingly appealing. Working with JTC, NTU has participated in the development of the Jurong Rock Cavern project—the first commercial underground rock cavern facility for storing oil in Southeast Asia. Located 150 metres below ground level and equipped with 1.47 million cubic metres of storage capacity, the caverns strengthen Singapore’s position as a leading global energy and chemical hub and lay the foundation for the development of underground spaces to meet the needs of urban environments.
Fuelling the future
The burning of fossil fuels for electricity generation has fuelled the rapid increase in greenhouse gas emissions in recent decades. To fulfil growing energy demands while decreasing carbon emissions, NTU set up the Fuel Cell Programme in 2001 to develop core capabilities in environmentally friendly hydrogen and fuel cell technology. Through collaborative research and development, the programme provides technical leadership to the clean and renewable energy sectors.
THIRTY YEARS OF INNOVATING
Among NTU’s many research institutes and corporate laboratories are these 30 spotlighted here.
Emerging Nanoscience Research Institute (EnRI): From a research programme in 2001 to the Energetic Materials Research Centre in 2005 and finally EnRI in 2020, the centre explores the applications of advanced materials in national defence.
Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS): EOS studies climate change, earthquakes, volcanic activity and tsunamis to guide risk mitigation and disaster resilience efforts in Southeast Asia.
CNRS-International-NTU-Thales Research Alliance (CINTRA): A French-Singaporean international joint laboratory, CINTRA develops nanomaterials for novel applications, including quantum sensing, energy harvesting and nanopackaging.
Nanyang Environment & Water Research Institute (NEWRI): Through an interdisciplinary ecosystem of five research centres and an education arm, NEWRI deploys robust engineering solutions for waste management, environmental treatment and resource recovery.
Energy Research Institute at NTU ([email protected]): Research projects at [email protected] aim to build smart and sustainable cities with renewable energy, smart grid architecture and low-carbon technologies.
Singapore Centre for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering (SCELSE): Scientists at SCELSE discover, control and direct the behaviour of microbial communities, or biofilms, to find healthcare and sustainability solutions.
Joint NTU-UBC Research Centre of Excellence in Active LIving for the ElderLY (LILY): Collaborating with partners such as the University of British Columbia, LILY designs computing technologies that empower the elderly to remain active and independent.
Air Traffic Management Research Institute (ATMRI): Set up with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, ATMRI leads efforts to modernise Asia’s airspace operations and harmonise regional air traffic management.
[email protected] Corporate Laboratory: As the inaugural laboratory under the government’s Corp Lab @ University scheme, this partnership with Rolls-Royce focuses on power generation, efficient energy delivery and data analytics for operational decision-making.
Singapore Centre for 3D Printing (SC3DP): The region's largest research and development facility for 3D printing in terms of faculty and equipment, SC3DP leads development and industry adoption of 3D printing for manufacturing applications ranging from aerospace materials to tissue engineering.
The Photonics Institute (TPI): A world-leading centre in photonics technology, TPI translates fundamental science into light-enabled innovations such as high-speed optical fibre technology and super-resolution imaging.
Centre for Research and Development in Learning (CRADLE): CRADLE is transforming learning in higher education through multidisciplinary research across NTU that seeks to understand all forms of learning.
Ageing Research Institute for Society and Education (ARISE): This pan-university institute is dedicated to improving the lives of the elderly.
Centre for Smart Platform Infrastructure Research on Integrative Technology (SPIRIT): This interdisciplinary centre is a testbed for prototyping smart nation applications involving artificial intelligence (AI), data science and cybersecurity to improve delivery of public services.
Rehabilitation Research Institute of Singapore (RRIS): Here, clinical and technical experts develop innovative assistive technologies to deliver holistic care that accelerates recovery and rehabilitation.
SMRT-NTU Smart Urban Rail Corporate Laboratory: Using prediction analytics technology, this joint laboratory optimises Singapore’s railway operations, maintenance and repair.
Fraunhofer Singapore: The only affiliate of the European Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft (Fraunhofer) in Asia, this research centre develops technologies, from cybersecurity solutions to algorithms for analysing brain states, that enable companies’ digital transformation.
Schaeffler Hub for Advanced REsearch ([email protected]): Connecting NTU with Schaeffler’s Global Technology Network, [email protected] develops smart mobility devices and advances the transition to cleaner energy sources and Industry 4.0.
Singtel Cognitive and Artificial Intelligence Lab ([email protected]): Jointly established with Singtel and the National Research Foundation, Singapore, [email protected] applies edge intelligence and machine learning to build smart urban infrastructure and realise Singapore’s vision for a digital economy.
Alibaba-NTU Singapore Joint Research Institute: Alibaba’s first AI research centre outside China addresses societal needs through human-centric AI and cloud technologies.
HP-NTU Digital Manufacturing Corporate Laboratory: This is HP’s first university laboratory collaboration in Asia and largest university partnership globally, with a focus on digital manufacturing and intelligent design.
Singapore-CEA Alliance for Research in Circular Economy (SCARCE): SCARCE deploys novel waste management and recycling techniques, including the efficient recovery of materials from electronic waste, for a cleaner economy.
Surbana Jurong-NTU Corporate Laboratory (SJ-NTU): Leveraging NTU’s strengths and Surbana Jurong’s track record, this laboratory designs intelligent urban solutions to scale up productivity in the built environment and create more liveable cities.
Strategic Centre for Research in Privacy Preserving Technologies & Systems (SCRiPTS): Researchers at SCRiPTS develop privacy-preserving technologies that can generate meaningful insights from data without compromising security and sensitive information.
NTU Institute of Science and Technology for Humanity (NISTH): Rooted in understanding the social context of science and technological innovation, interdisciplinary teams at NISTH are devoted to enacting positive change in the world.
Joint NTU-WeBank Research Centre on Fintech: By integrating analytics, Internet of Things and blockchain, Singapore’s first joint research centre for fintech is bolstering the banking experience with enhanced security and personalised financial advice.
Centre for Lifelong Learning and Individualised Cognition (CLIC): This collaboration with the University of Cambridge harnesses advances in neuroscience to improve flexible learning across the lifespan.
Continental-NTU Corporate Lab: Applying expertise in robotics, navigation and smart sensors, researchers at this lab are engineering urban mobility solutions such as autonomous electric vehicles.
Future Ready Food Safety Hub ([email protected]): Involving the Singapore Food Agency, FRESH aims to strengthen the national food safety ecosystem while facilitating the introduction of novel foods to the market.
Singapore Agri-food Innovation Lab (SAIL): Jointly launched with Enterprise Singapore, SAIL works with businesses to drive innovations in the agri-food sector.