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Lehigh alumnus recognized by Saudi government for water science ingenuity

Abdul Wahab Mohammad, Ph.D., a 1989 graduate of Lehigh’s chemical engineering program, has been named as recipient of the 2008 Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz International Prize for Water.



Abdul Wahab Mohammad

The award is given every two years and is divided into four branches: Surface Water, Ground Water, Water Resources Management & Protection, and Alternative (Non-traditional) Water Resources—the category in which Mohammad received the prize.

In October of 2002, His Royal Highness Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia created an international prize dedicated to researching solutions to global water problems. One of the main reasons for the development of the prize was to encourage research for countries, like hot and dry Saudi Arabia, that have the most urgent water needs.

Mohammad won the 2008 alternative water prize with partner Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC) for research related to the nanofiltration membrane process for desalination, or the removal of salt and minerals from water. SWCC has developed a cost and energy efficient way of using nanofiltration to pre-treat water that must be desalinated, and Mohammad focuses on modeling and optimizing the flow of this process.

"My contribution has been on the development of predictive modeling for nanofiltration membrane processes. The model has proved useful for membrane characterization, process prediction and optimization, and economic assessment," says Mohammad. He has become a recognized authority on the subject, with a growing list of citations and publications in the area of nanofiltration.

Competition for the prize was extremely strong, as the council received more than 200 nominations for this year’s award. "When the news came in late October that I had won, it took me by surprise," says Mohammad. "I had only two weeks to prepare to go to Riyadh [the capital of Saudi Arabia]. The whole period from the moment I received the news until I accepted the award from the Crown Prince was almost like a dream."

Dr. Mohammad is now working to apply his research to additional problems within industry. "Right now I am working in collaboration with two companies—one in oleochemicals, the other in food ingredient production—trying to incorporate better separations processes," he says. The membranes can replace potentially harmful chemical separations in addition to making the processes less expensive, by reducing the use of energy and water.

A career in academia

"I always wanted to become a university professor," says Mohammad who is now the Deputy Dean of Undergraduate, Alumni, and Community Relations and a professor of membrane and separations technology at the National University of Malaysia (UKM). The university, which was established in 1970, comprises nine different engineering curricula in addition to a host of other science and technology programs and degrees in law, pharmacy, medicine, business, and education.

"Lehigh provided me with a solid engineering education and academic opportunities that became the foundation for my pursuit of higher degrees," Mohammad says. "It was the experience of working with Professor Arup SenGupta that opened my eyes to doing research. From there I decided to work towards my M.Sc. and eventually my Ph.D. in chemical engineering."

"Abdul was hardworking and a team player in the lab," recalls SenGupta, P.C. Rossin Professor of civil and environmental engineering and chemical engineering. "The research he performed here as an undergraduate inspired him to pursue advanced studies."

In the summer of 1988, Mohammad worked as an undergraduate environmental engineering researcher with SenGupta. It was in that lab that Mohammad developed a keen interest in water treatment. "With Professor SenGupta," he recalls, "I worked on the use of ion-exchange for the removal of heavy metals from water and took a few courses on water chemistry and treatment. My focus now is not so much on water treatment itself, but rather on membrane filtration that is highly applicable in water and wastewater treatment."

Mohammad graduated cum laude from Lehigh, held membership in Tau Beta Pi, and earned his place on the Dean’s List. "I recall a particularly memorable moment from my senior year," says Mohammad of his time at Lehigh. "It was the senior chemical engineering dinner of 1989, and the students gave away prizes for being the worst at something—most boring lecturer, for example. Coming from an Asian culture, this sort of thing was really new to me, but the professors actually had fun when their names were announced."

He earned his M.Sc. in chemical engineering from Purdue University in 1991, and his Ph.D. from Swansea University (formerly the University of Wales, Swansea) in 1998. It was his graduate work under the title Predictive Models for Nanofiltration Membrane Processes that sparked Mohammad’s interest in his current research.

Before rising to his current position, Mohammad began his career at UKM as a tutor in the chemical engineering department. Over the next fifteen years, he rose to become associate professor, head of the department, and eventually obtained his current status as a full professor and deputy dean of the college. Along the way he has acted as a consultant for more than 30 projects outside of the university, written numerous published papers, and taught a series of full courses including separation processes, engineering economics, and risk and hazard assessment.

Mohammad is a member of the Engineering Accreditation Council of the Board of Engineers in Malaysia, a corporate member of the Institution of Engineers in Malaysia, a fellow of the Institution of Chemical Engineers in the UK, a chartered engineering with the UK Engineering Council, and is on the Board of Studies for Chemical/Bioprocess Engineering Faculty at the University of Malaysia, Pahang, and the University of Malaysia, Perlis. He is also the recipient of a number of other awards including a Research Fellowship from the Middle East Desalination Research Center in 2003 and 2005, both a Silver and Bronze Medal at the International Invention, Innovation, Industrial Design and Technology Exhibition in 2005 and 2002, respectively, and a place in the 2003 edition of Marquis Who’s Who in Science and Engineering.

—Christine Rapp


Posted on Thursday, January 08, 2009

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