Lifeline for offshore marine research unit

Audrey Tan, The Straits Times AsiaOne 16 Dec 14;

Singapore's only marine academic research station has overcome its money woes and found a way to prevent its centre from being shut down.
Its lifeline is a set of cables and water pipes that, when up and running, will provide potable water and electricity from a nearby grid to its offshore facility on St John's Island.

This means that by 2016, the National University of Singapore's Tropical Marine Science Institute (TMSI) will no longer have to pay through its nose for generator maintenance, diesel fuel and fresh water.

"Diesel is expensive, and as seawater is corrosive, it is a nightmare to maintain the generator," said Professor Peter Ng, who stepped down from TMSI's helm in September, after six years as director.

The St John's facility was established in 2002 to study aspects of marine biology such as aquaculture, giant clams, corals and ecotoxicology. TMSI's other centre in the NUS Kent Ridge campus focuses on environmental modelling, climate change and underwater communications, among other things.

But since 2010, the offshore research facility has been beset by rising operating costs, such as running boats to and from the island, security and, most notably, diesel for the lab's generator.

This year, for instance - out of a total institute budget of $1.9 million, operating costs amounted to more than $1.7 million. About half of this was spent on diesel alone. In addition, fresh water had to be trucked in from the mainland by boat, adding to costs.

In January, the St John's laboratory looked set to close its doors for good, as it was unable to cover its operating costs.

Back then, lead researchers had been told by the university not to accept new projects involving the lab, as it was "no longer financially possible or justifiable to continue operations on (St John's Island)".

But there has been a last-minute reprieve.

Professor Ng suggested tapping the output from nearby Kias Island, a reclaimed shoal that could supply power to St John's, Pulau Seringat and Lazarus Island, three linked islands.

Cables had been installed there in 2006 as part of plans to develop the area for high-end resorts or housing, although those plans are now on hold.

The cost of building a sub-station and laying additional cables about 1.5km to 2km in length is high, at $6 million to $8 million.

But in May this year, TMSI was given a lifeline. The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), which has a marine aquaculture centre adjacent to TMSI's premises on the island, came on board to help pay for the extension of the cables.

Responding to queries, the AVA confirmed that it will be co-funding the project, and that a tender will be called next year.

Said its spokesman: "The project will help to reduce the utility cost for the facility, which is currently running on generators."

Professor Wong Sek Man, TMSI's new director, stressed why the centre is so important.

"Singapore is a maritime nation, surrounded by water," he said. "It is important to study how factors such as climate change, our intense shipping industry and invasive species could affect our waters."

A coastal facility would aid in this research, as it provides researchers with easy access to oceanic samples, he added.

Prof Wong is a virologist by training and the director of alumni relations and special duties at the NUS Faculty of Science.

One research focus will be the effect of climate change on sea levels and marine organisms.

"With climate change and global warming, ice melting could lead to a rise in water levels," said Prof Wong.

"As ice melting will dilute the salinity of the ocean, there could be changes in the marine ecosystem."

Another key area is green engineering techniques that would allow development and conservation to co-exist.

This includes, for instance, using design or materials to promote biodiversity or coral colonisation when building seawalls, or devising structures to manage the impact of sedimentation during dredging and building works.

Prof Wong added that his background in virology could also help advance Singapore's maritime research.

"Viruses are thought of as something that affects only humans. But in fish farming, for instance, it is easy for such viruses to spread," he noted, adding that this would be a concern for Singapore and local fisheries.

About his successor, Prof Ng said: "Viruses may not be sexy, but it doesn't mean they are not important. Prof Wong is able to bring his expertise to this area of marine research and grow it."