Interview with Dr. Rezal Khairi Ahmad, NanoMa...
Interview with Dr. Rezal Khairi Ahmad, NanoMalaysia

Can nanotechnology be the future trend in textiles?

Dr. Rezal Khairi Ahmad (Source: NanoMalaysia)
Dr. Rezal Khairi Ahmad (Source: NanoMalaysia)

In terms of the textile industry, Malaysia has always been big on textiles. In fact, under the previous economic transformation program, there was a keen interest in revitalizing the textile industry.

Can you briefly explain the uptake of nanotechnology in textiles in Malaysia and its comparison relative to the other countries in the region?
When we first spun off NanoTextile Sdn Bhd (NanoTextile) in 2015, we saw an opportunity to go into technical textiles with nanotechnology to provide new functionality to the textile industry.
When the high-speed rail (HSR) project between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore was proposed, a textile cluster was to be created focusing on value-added textiles. Nanotechnology has an abundant opportunity to provide new functionality, which we pre-identified in terms of anti-microbial, anti-odor, and even hydrophobic. That assisted the government in revitalizing the textile industry. Ever since, even with the change of government and change of direction, the textile industry in Malaysia has continued to grow, and through NanoTextile, we are able to work through in terms of diffusing these relevant solutions into the pre-existing textile market, which we identified on the use of anti-odor, anti-microbial for infant and baby wear, but the most advanced optic would probably be in the female attire sector. Because of the current climate, temperature and humidity, the tudung/hijab/scarf wearers tend to sweat and create an odor over the day.
Our solution here has focused on these 2 primary categories, on preventive and hygienic deployment both for tudung wearers and young children. As for the technical aspect, we are a bit more advanced than other countries, which are more focused on refining the textile into the fashion industry. The value-add or the technical advantage we possess in Malaysia provides us with a unique opportunity to deploy the technology to other countries in Asia. In Bangladesh, for example, where the textile industry is flourishing, they have various forms of materials to be converted into textiles and fabrics. That is a big opportunity for us to leverage. Southeast Asia or the Asian region has always been one of the more significant economies with textile production. For instance, Vietnam and Indonesia produce good sports apparel, so it is an excellent opportunity for us to explore.

The textile segment, as we all know, is broad and you sit in as the Vice President of Asia Nano Forum (ANF). Can you share with us the current advancement and how the industry has accepted the establishment of nanotechnology, especially in the clothing and apparel segment?
The textile segment is expansive because it does not only cover clothing and apparel. It can cover a broader segment like applications in the hospitality and automotive sectors. I think this is where opportunities using exact solutions, such as anti-microbial, anti-odor and water-repellent features, will be advantageous.
As the Vice President of Asia Nano Forum (ANF) and the lead coordinator for the commercialization working group, we organize commercialization workshops yearly, which assemble members of the ANF. We invite numerous start-ups to present their innovative ideas and solutions based on nanotechnology.
This platform will be very useful for us as a launching pad for solutions coming from Malaysia and to penetrate other adjacent markets in Asia. Certification programs such as the NanoVerify Programme in Malaysia would also be another valuable feature for us to provide quality assurance and feature assurance because it not only certifies the presence of nanotechnology elements, it also certifies the advantages of the existence of nanotechnology, such as anti-microbial, strength and even electrical activity where applicable, and we can use that as a “mock-up” quality assurance for it to be accepted by other markets. These are the key aspects that we can leverage for export. Also, the fact that we have a pre-existing mutual recognition with Taiwan's version of the certification program further opens the door for the regional and international deployment of Malaysia-based solutions.

What is your opinion on whether nanotechnology products are economical?
This has been debated for a very long time. People are concerned about the cost of nanotechnology inclusion being passed to the consumer, but rest assured that in the end-product this is minimal at best, because how nanotechnology is incorporated into the product is measured by percentage weight or loading percentage, and often the loading percentage of nanotechnology solution is tiny. Hence the additional cost is incremental or even negligible. For a nanotechnology product to be commercially viable, the end-product must be volumetric, meaning that it has to hit economies of scale to be economically feasible.
The nanotechnology or the nanomaterial itself must be economical to begin with. For every kilogram of nanomaterial, it should cost US$50. When you apply this $50/kg and multiply it with the loading factor maximum of 5%, the additional cost per end-product will be incredibly incremental.
However, due to the value add that we can address, such as the anti-odor properties, anti-microbial, hydrophobic and other features, it will add more strength to the textile or any other solutions. This will allow that same product to serve a specific premium market or niche market, which in turn will also allow for a new price range to be established. If the product is durable, you will change it less. The extra price increase to the previous price is still economical compared to the procurement of another product.

What collaborations can we expect in coming 5 years, under your leadership, in commercializing nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology addresses all existing sectors, but for Malaysia, we have decided to focus on 4 sectors, aligning with the National Nanotechnology Policy and Strategy. Even before the policy was launched, we adopted 4 focus areas: electronic devices and systems, food and agriculture, energy and environment, healthcare and wellness, and medicines. This translates into the scope that we are focusing on right now. We have evolved over the past 5-7 years to create verticals. That new focus area has translated into potential collaborations with entities not just in Malaysia but worldwide. Right now, we are putting more effort into addressing climate change by having some level of climate resilience. We are putting a lot of emphasis on creating a vertical focus on energy and the environment as well as focusing on the food and agriculture area. Still, these form the energy, food and water security nexuses. We have yet to explore the water space, but energy and food security is something that we have approached, and we're expanding that focus.

The war in Ukraine has created some level of disruption in the global food supply chain and, to some extent, energy as well, such as the gas supply from Russia and the global supply chain of wheat. We are also looking into expanding our network of collaborations within the energy space, especially in hydrogen and other energy storage systems such as battery ultracapacitors, because we are going deep into clean mobility or low carbon mobility to assist Malaysia in achieving the reduction of carbon intensity by 45% by 2030.
Achieving the total industrial volume for an electric vehicle (EV) of 15% by 2030 and 30% by 2040 will contribute to the overall game plan for Malaysia to be carbon neutral by 2050. All of these are solutions developed in Malaysia through our program called Hydrogen EcoNanoMY, the Nanotechnology Remote Energy System (NREgS), Enabling Mobility Electrification for Green Economy (EMERGE), and we'll further assist in coming up with locally developed nanotechnology-based solutions for EVs such as battery technology, battery management systems, hydrogen solutions, etc.
We are looking to transform NanoMalaysia into a global player. The focus areas will translate into attracting partnerships in terms of joint developments and looking into sourcing investment from other countries. Because our focus area now is also aligned to the megatrends where most countries in the world are migrating towards a hydrogen economy, i.e. developing new battery technologies and producing EVs, we do see synergy being established or created with like-minded companies from Turkey, Japan, South Korea, America and neighboring countries like Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore, with similar ambitions.

Consumers are always concerned about their health, especially when it comes to cancer or other silent killer diseases. Is it possible that your nanotechnology will have an impact on people's lives when they use it?
Regarding safety concerns and health, as a part of the nanotechnology ecosystem in Malaysia, the first thing we are addressing is the safety aspect of nanomaterials or nanotechnology, especially when it intersects with biological systems, mainly humans and the food that we consume. A specific safety framework is being established to ensure that any interaction between nanomaterials or nanotechnology systems with the biological system is safe.
Europe and Asia are 2 big territories that are tackling sustainability in clothing. Do you foresee any challenges in implementing nanotechnology in current trends such as fast fashion?
When discussing fast fashion, you're looking into something defined as ready-to-wear. At one particular fashion show (Paris Fashion Show) a spray-on solution was applied on the model (Bella Hadid) which created a dress on her. This is where nanotechnology has a great part to play, where you can functionalize the material. You're able to innovate fast-drying and smart fabric where it will be able to solidify in a very short amount of time upon exposure to air. The solidification of aerosol or material after spraying, will transform into something wearable.
Regarding the sustainability aspect, people are looking into SDG and ESG goals and making sure that the source of the nanomaterial, even in the other adjacent chemicals used to come up with textile solutions, is sustainably sourced or from sustainable sources. In Malaysia, we have already prepared ourselves for the long term with programs underpinned by a circular economy. Waste biomass can be recycled into materials used in textile industries.
Under our Biomass Innovation for Circular Economy program (BICEP), we have prepared well in advance to position some of the waste biomass available in Malaysia from the palm, bamboo, and paddy industries, for them to be upcycled. This is different from recycling because to upcycle means that you're able to take a certain material and use it for higher-value applications. In this case, raw materials from these commodities industries can be converted and upcycled into high-value utilization; technical textiles, sustainable clothing, and even fast fashion. There is a growing market in Europe and America, and they have put this sustainability requirement or requisites in place before it can be deployed in their respective markets.

For nanotechnology, biomass can be converted into nanomaterial and eventually into functional or technical textiles. In the clothing or apparel sector, this is an where Malaysia has a very bright future, provided we can source the right investment that allows us to scale up our capabilities to capture these growing markets in Europe, Asia and America. We do not see any challenges because this is a statement of needs already being put out by the bigger economies. We need to make sure that we move fast.

Do you think the advancement of current nanotechnology in textiles would slow down or promote fast fashion? In another words, can nanotechnology shift fast fashion to sustainable fashion?
As explained earlier, nanotechnology can bridge fast fashion when the material is sourced from sustainable sources with biomass when we can upcycle it. It goes hand in hand when you can bridge renewable sources of nanomaterial and use nanotechnology to convert waste material to advanced nanomaterial to advance textiles. Eventually, it could be useful for fast fashion. Then you will have a strong alignment between sustainability and fast fashion.

Do you think textile innovations such as smart fiber or smart textiles are useful in the future?
The future has always been about smart fiber and smart textiles. It all started with the 4.0 IR, which has been around for many years. People talked about wearable electronics, both passive and active. Passive means that you are able to weave a certain material into the fabrics that enable it to respond based on certain stimuli (your sweat, your movement), and then the signal is converted to the smartness or the fiber and translated into a particular electrical signal. Then you have that processor that you wear, or it can be transmitted into your smartphone or smartwatch before it can be processed into something useful. That would be passive.
Whereas active is powered a flexible battery, which can also be interwoven into the textile fabrics. This lands us in the new era of the Internet of Things (IoT). We also have our version of the Internet of Nano Things (IoNT) aligning to the industry 4.0 Industrial Revolution, which people have endeavored for at least a decade. Therefore, to further advance this innovation is to miniaturize further and make it less destructive or obtrusive.
Clothing does not have to be bulky. Wearables should be seamlessly integrated and invisible as part of the textile solution. That would probably be one of the greatest challenges for textile innovation. The fact that nanotechnology is able to manipulate molecules and atoms at that scale will be our space; an opportunity for us to fully exploit going into the smart textile.

From your point of view, can nanotechnology in Malaysia be as competitive as nanotechnology abroad like in Taiwan and South Korea?
To blow our own trumpet, we only started to have a consolidated approach towards nanotechnology in 2011. But the actual program began in 2016, and the fact is that we have produced a large number of intellectual properties for the past 6 years and have been able to catch up with more major countries, such as South Korea, both economically and technologically.
In Taiwan, it's a commendable effort made by the team at NanoMalaysia to work with industry partners and universities. Over the next 6-7 years, we can close the gap. We are not there yet, but we are closing the gap so we can see both Taiwan and South Korea not too far ahead of us, and the fact that Taiwan recognizes our Nano Certification program (NanoVerify) is a testimony in itself as they recognize the growing national capability of what we can produce.
South Korea is an advanced economy with a different economic game plan. They are well ahead of us in using nanotech in all applications. But for Malaysia to become a direct competitor is probably not a good idea. We have to play a different game. We will likely have to look into smart partnerships and international alliances.
Smart partnerships mean we can transfer our IPs, which can be converted into end products through our partners. That's probably the best way for Malaysia to become a major player in nanotechnology globally through smart partnerships. If we were to produce in Malaysia or use Malaysia, our domestic market would be too small. Through this smart global partnership, we would be regional, and the likes of Taiwan and South Korea, which are supposed to be competitors, can also be our collaborators. That will probably be the more intelligent move for us to grow big in a very short period.

In the future, what are other nanotechnology(ies) that you wish to be actively developed in the textile segment?
Wearables will definitely be the thing to watch – wearables and the technology which aligns with the IoT or IoNT sector. Where the thing you wear to monitor your health and surroundings, can process data in real-time and process further to come up with structured information. That information can be used for AI or humans to process and respond in real-time.
That would probably be something that many people are focusing on – smart wearable textiles. There are various applications, even for the military, for critical emergency applications, but something not so distant in the future will be smart assembly textiles. This is where you have nanomaterials or nanobots, not nanobots per se. Still, they have some level of smartness or affinity for always trying to bind together or self-glomeration.
Similarly, the bleeding armor the Iron Man suit (as seen in films) is based on nanotech in that fantasy world. But the concept of self-assembly in the simpler application where you allow for this material to self-assemble and form those fabrics that will create its textile material. I think that would be an exciting feature that a lot of research is putting their money into. For example, if there is a tear in your clothes, it can reassemble smartly. Those are probably the 2 areas where we should be driving textile technology forward.
Dr. Rezal Khairi Ahmad
NanoMalaysia Ltd.
Kuala Lumpur/Malaysia

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