The many dimensions of data

Do you feel safe walking around after dark? Does the size of the city affect how you feel? How do these feelings compare between men and women? For data analysts, these questions come with unwieldy amounts of data. Luckily, Dr Gianmarco Alberti from the Department of Criminology (Faculty of Social Wellbeing, University of Malta) has authored a free software that visually portrays data patterns in a practical way.

So how does the software work? Going back to our safety in the dark example, the data is plugged into the software. The programme then explores how the feeling of safety relates to the size of the city. In this example, we’ll split the variable ‘feeling safe after dark’ by gender and see if it’s influenced by the number of people living in the city  (‘town size’, represented at the top of the first image). The table below is small yet highly complex (see figure 1), finding any obvious pattern of association between categories is hardly an easy task.  

Table 1: presents how safe male and female participants feel after dark (column 1) compared to the population size of the city (row 1) 

Plugging this data into Alberti’s software, named ‘CAinterprTools’, provides a body of facilities that allow users to get the most of those results (see figure 2). With this image, it’s easier to understand that the bigger the town (right side along the horizontal axis), the less safe interviewees felt. Both male (identified with a M) and female (identified with a F) have the same perception of their safety in a smaller town (points in the left-hand side of the chart). However, as the size of the town increases, females start to feel less secure than men (points to the right-hand side of the chart). It is clear that this approach can provide insights into data structure and help reveal hidden patterns. 

Figure 2: shows a visual representation of the data presented in Table 1. The size of the city is marked with black points, while how safe participants felt is symbolised by the red triangles. 

The beauty of Alberti’s program is that it increases data analysis efficiency, not only to researchers (e.g criminologists, political scientists, or biologists) but also to citizens and several entities that work with data (e.g. banks, customers, or companies).  The fact that this software was developed under the free R statistical programming language means it is a free resource which can allow for an easier way to interpret data — especially for those who aren’t math oriented! Let’s hope this leads to safer streets for all!

The programme can be found on https://cran.r-project.org/package=CAinterprTools.

The data used in the table was taken from the International Crime Victim Survey – https://wp.unil.ch/icvs/

Playing with AI

Konstantinos Sfikas, student

By 2017, AI had advanced far enough for AlphaGo, a specialised AI that can play the highly complex board game Go, to beat the major Go players in the world and be awarded professional 9-dan by the Chinese Weiqi Association. Go, however, is a fully deterministic game like Chess, with no random elements. Probabilistic games like Pandemic, on the other hand, are even trickier for AI to play efficiently, as the randomness of dice rolls or shuffled cards makes it much harder for computers to crack them. This problem inspired me (Konstantinos Sfikas) to attempt to create an AI that can play the Pandemic board game.

In the summer of 2018, I started working on this problem as part of my Thesis for the MSc in Digital Games (Institute of Digital Games, University of Malta), under the supervision of Dr Antonios Liapis.

At the core of our methodology lies Rolling Horizon Evolution (RHE), a planning algorithm that makes decisions by optimising action sequences through artificial evolution (introduced by University of Essex researchers in 2013). In order to make a single decision, RHE initially composes a population of random action sequences and evaluates them by simulating their potential result. Then an iterative process of optimisation takes place: the action sequences are randomly mutated, generating a set of offspring. The offspring will either replace their parents or be discarded, based on a quality comparison. While this process repeats, the overall quality of the population tends to increase. After a predefined number of iterations, the agent simply selects the first action of the best-found sequence and applies it to the actual game. 

Based on RHE, we designed the Policy-Based Rolling Horizon Evolution Agent (PB-RHEA), which operates on a higher level of abstraction, using a set of “policies” (artificial behaviours) as an indirect encoding of action sequences. When composing or mutating sequences, PB-RHEA does not consider the full amount of potential single actions (as RHE does), but rather selects among a much smaller set of possible behaviours that translate into specific actions and approximates their probable outcome through repeated randomised simulations. Through this technique, the agent’s operation was greatly enhanced in terms of computational efficiency and overall performance.

During my thesis and the two publications that followed (both co-authored with my supervisor Dr Antonios Liapis), we performed a large number of computational experiments, analysing the agent’s behaviour and optimising its performance. One of the most challenging aspects of our research was to design a set of heuristics that approximate the quality of any given game-state, thus allowing the agent to evaluate the outcome of an action-sequence. Another challenge was to define the set of policies that the agent would use as building blocks in such a way that they are both efficient and expressive. Finally, fine-tuning the algorithm’s parameters through trial and error was another critical aspect of the agent’s degree of success. The results overall showcase that our proposed methodology exhibits a good performance against a hard problem and leaves clear avenues for further improvement.

From an academic perspective, the main contribution of our research is that it clearly expanded the knowledge on planning algorithms like RHE and, more precisely, their applicability on complex problems like Pandemic. Agents like the PB-RHEA can be used to play alongside human players in the digital versions of board games or even be used in the context of automated play-testing during the development phase of board games. Although gamers have been playing alongside AI for a long time, will game developers also adopt AI as a partner when designing their games?

This research was carried out as part of an MSc in Digital Games at the Institute of Digital Games, University of Malta, under the supervision of Dr Antonios Liapis.

Further Reading

Sfikas, K., Liapis, A., & International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games. (2020). Collaborative Agent Gameplay in the Pandemic Board Game.

Sfikas, K., & Liapis, A. (2021). Playing against the Board : Rolling Horizon Evolutionary Algorithms against Pandemic.

Bridging the Gap: Bone grafts of the future

Better recovery for patients, reduced need for revision surgeries, and many hundreds of thousands of euros saved for public health and industry. That could be the outcome of four years’ intense work by engineers and medical professionals at the University of Malta and Mater Dei Hospital in developing biodegradable metal-based tailor-made bone scaffolds. Cassi Camilleri writes.

Healthy bones matter. They carry us through life, literally. 

But we all know that journey can be fraught with difficulties. Cancer, a bad fall, even the simple passage of time, all of it impacts our bones. And not in a good way. 

As a result, more and more people are visiting their orthopedic department at hospital, and more and more people are needing corrective procedures that involve bone implants or grafts. According to research published in 2017 by Wang and Yeung , that number lies at around 2.2 million procedures worldwide. 

The status quo, its flaws, and the need it harbours 

‘If we need to repair bone, the first option is an autologous bone graft,’ explains orthopedic surgeon Ray Gatt. With these autografts, surgeons fix the damaged area by harvesting bone from another part of the patient’s own body. While this method has obvious pros in biocompatibility, it also has cons. 

‘For the patient, it means you’re giving them one incision where the primary operation is and then another incision where you’re taking bone from. So they’re effectively having two surgeries. Occasionally, that second incision is much more painful than the first.’ 

The extent of the damage in question is another limitation to the autograft. ‘You can only harvest so much bone from a patient’s own body. It’s a finite resource,’ explains Gatt. If a bone has multiple fractures from a car accident, for example, surgeons would then turn to a combination of bone graft substitutes and permanent implants. 

These require weeks of downtime from the patient until the grafts consolidate and can bear weight on them. However, there are other issues that Gatt’s colleague Ryan Giordmaina highlights: ‘In big defects, you want to give the bone strength and support; however, when you’re doing this, you’re also taking away the bone’s ability to regrow and reform.’

Bone has a funny way of regenerating. Researcher Prof. Pierre Schembri-Wismayer explains it this way, ‘When you break a leg, surgeons put a cast on and ask you to rest for a while, then when the bone has formed a bit, you progress to weight bearing, and it’s time to start walking. The reason is that bones can feel stress passing through them and rebuild themselves according to that stress. It’s an amazing capability.’

Plates and other hardware that are implanted pose the same issue. ‘Plates carry a lot of their weight themselves,’ continues Giordmaina. ‘So the force isn’t passing through the bone, and to some extent, there can be some loss of function. This is why the current drive in revision surgery is to have more bone biology. You want the bone to grow back as much as possible.’ 

To make this happen, the medical world needs an implant that ticks a number of boxes. It has to be strong and mechanically sound. But it also needs to be porous to allow for vascularisation and nutrients to pass through. It needs to be biodegradable so the patient’s own bone could grow back, but the implant and the degradation material both need to be biocompatible and non-toxic to the patient. 

It’s a tall order, with a lot of conflicting needs at the outset. But that was the brief. And that was what the engineers needed. 

With that, and continued support from Schembri-Wismayer, Gatt, Giordmaina, and many others at the University of Malta, Knowledge Transfer Office, Project Support Office, and Mater Dei Hospital, as well as the Malta Council for Science and Technology, Prof. Joseph Buhagiar kicked off the BioSA project. 

Early days and leaving the known behind 

This particularly complicated problem-solving process started with Buhagiar and his then-student, now collaborator Christabelle Tonna experimenting with powdered metals. They wanted to replicate the net-like structure of spongy bone, and this is why they use actual, off-the-shelf washing up sponges as a way to create metal templates. 

Using different powdered metals and a slurry liquid to bind it together, they covered the sponges and then applied heat. This fuses the powdered metals together in a process called sintering, while burning the sponge off at the same time. This is what’s called the replication method, and it worked. ‘In the end, we were left with a scaffold of sorts,’ Buhagiar confirms. 

As expected from first drafts, it wasn’t perfect. ‘Among other things, the scaffold wasn’t reticulated like real bone is,’ Buhagiar explains. ‘There was a network, sure, but there were too many dead ends. Real bone isn’t like that, so we needed to find another way. But it was a start. A proof of concept we would continue to build upon.’

And build they did. 

In fact, the first few months of the project were dedicated to making leaps. The team wanted the scaffolds to be tailor-made to the patient, so the ready-made sponges had to be left behind. With Dr Arif Rochman’s help, the team looked into 3D printing solutions. 

Together, they decided to use a stereolithography 3D printer. Unlike standard filament printers, its advanced resolution would allow them to print a plastic scaffold template with small enough gaps to allow the patient’s blood supply to flow through the implant. It would even allow them to create a gyroid structure for the template instead of the straight lines we usually see in scaffolds.

The stage of scaffold preparation-3D printed polymer template, metal coating the template and sintered scaffold (from left to right)

Photos by Elisa von Brockdorff

In another part of the engineering lab, collaborator Prof. Ing. Maurice Grech was helping Buhagiar run a project in parallel to find the right powdered metal recipe for the scaffolds. Yes, metals are the best for giving the scaffold the strength it needs to bear the body’s weight, but iron can also be toxic. 

‘Iron is present in the body, but iron isn’t easily got rid of by the body,’ explains Schembri-Wismayer. ‘It stays stored, but the body can get overwhelmed. And if it does, iron damages the kidneys, heart, and liver and causes them to stop functioning. So we had to find a balance.’ 

This balance is the key to the whole project. 

‘In engineering, we’re usually working on corrosion resistance, coatings for resistance. In real life, you want to protect the item from corrosion. All our knowledge is built around that. But with BioSA, it was about increasing the rate of corrosion. The work needed us to flip all our knowledge as engineers on its head,’ Tonna explains. ‘It was a massive paradigm shift,’ nods Buhagiar. 

This mindset saw the team making more jumps as they went. Though the initial process included a binder to glue the powdered metal together, experimenting further with the polymer they were using for 3D printing brought about another option. 

‘We noted a tackiness developing in the material depending on the curing we did,’ Buhagiar says, ‘So we used this tackiness on the printed template surface to adhere the metal powder directly.’  

From there, they went on to develop a two-step heat treatment that would later be streamlined to one. It involves placing the plastic template covered in metal powder into a furnace. At 450°C, the polymer template burns away, and at 1120°C, sintering happens, and the powders join to form a solid implant.   

Trials, tests, and some road ahead 

The team is now in the process of running various tests on their new implants. Their first ‘patients’ were various pork bones bought from a butcher. The orthopaedic surgery trainees conducting the procedure, Luke Saliba and Keith Sammut, report that ‘the scaffolds were easy to handle and adjust as needed.’ 

Saliba is also working on cytotoxicity testing, which tells the team how the corroding metal in the implant is affecting live cells grown in a petri dish. The results of this work continue to help the team tweak and perfect the implant’s powder recipe.  

Meanwhile, Sammut is conducting bacterial testing. ‘Whenever you’re implanting metal work in the body, there is a risk of infection,’ Sammut explains. ‘The problem is whenever you have an indwelling device like a metal rod or plate, bacteria tend to form a biofilm. Biofilm acts like a shield for bacteria.’ Worryingly, it makes bacteria resistant to antibiotics. 

‘Antibiotics alone are not enough to tackle this problem when and if it happens, and it often necessitates the removal of the implant. An infection from a prosthetic device is devastating’. 

To solve this problem, the team has added silver to their alloy. With it, ‘there was a reduction of 92 to 98% in the biofilms when we added silver,’ Sammut reports. 

So what are the next steps for this project, you ask? 

At this point, more and more energy is shifting into solidifying the business plan and giving the team the information they need to make informed decisions on the way forward. Crucial to this is the Knowledge Transfer Office (KTO) and Nicola Camilleri. 

‘Our role as KTO is to complement the scientific team by bringing in the business mind to the development at a relatively early stage. Just like BioSA, every new invention has the potential of having a great business opportunity ingrained. However, this promising business case has to be validated and a business plan formulated, essentially alongside the technology development. So we have been working hand in hand. While the research team has been advancing the technology’s readiness, we have been advancing the market readiness of the future product. In this project, though we are still at the beginning, we just completed the filing of a patent application, which is one of the earliest possible steps on the business side.’

While this might seem like an anti-climax to some, this is the reality of product development, especially in the medical field. 

‘The way our national health service operates is that it looks at what has been tried and tested all over the world,’ explains Giordmaina, ‘so a product like this will have to go through a period in the market throughout the world and be taken on by surgeons worldwide. Only then will it be considered to be incorporated in our practice. That’s how most implants nowadays are brought into our national health service.’ 

But this is no reason to despair, as Gatt explains. ‘It’s true, I probably won’t use the BioSA scaffolds in my surgical lifetime, but what Ryan described is a necessary process that should fall into place. The reality is that the idea is the most difficult part. Getting the conception of the technology. And I think, with BioSA, that has been done. The hard part has been done. Now, we wait for all of it to pay off.’

The ideal bone scaffold 

Bone scaffolds are 3D structures, usually made of ceramic materials, used for bone reconstruction. The ideal bone scaffold should be:  

  1. Porous to allow for vascularisation and transference of nutrients and waste
  2. Strong and mechanically sound 
  3. Biodegradable  
  4. Biocompatible and non-toxic

Contributing to Malta’s research future 

The funds granted by the Malta Council for Science and Technology (MCST), a total of approximately €240,000, have been essential for the development of the BioSA scaffold as a product. They have also gone towards securing its business potential through market research, various drafts of business plans, and the patenting process. 

Somewhat less obviously, MCST’s funding has also contributed to the development of Malta’s future researchers. ‘Christabelle Tonna’s PhD, as well as Luke Saliba and Keith Sammut’s MSc by Research were made possible through this fund,’ explains Buhagiar. 

Gatt elaborates further: ‘With the research experience they have gained through the BioSA project, [Christabelle, Luke and Keith] have the tools they need to go forward, plan their own projects, and innovate themselves, creating solutions for more of the challenges we are facing in our fields.’

BioSA (R&I-2017-037T) is financed by the Malta Council for Science and Technology through the FUSION: R&I Technology Development Programme.

Further Reading

Wang, W., & Yeung, K. (2017). Bone grafts and biomaterials substitutes for bone defect repair: A review. Bioactive Materials, 2(4), 224-247. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bioactmat.2017.05.007

Contact: 

Prof. Ing. Joseph Buhagiar

t: 2340 2439

e: joseph.p.buhagiar@um.edu.mt

Sloshing of Liquid Cargo

Maritime transportation accounts for around 80% of the worldwide transportation of goods and plays a crucial role in sea borne global trade. It is the most economically efficient means for long-distance, inter-continental transportation, but it also boasts one of the lowest emissions per kilometre and unit transported

Tanker vessels are vital for transporting liquids over large distances, carrying crude oil, fuel oil, liquified natural gas, and potentially liquid hydrogen, among many others.

Tankers are able to transport immense volumes of liquid in their cargo tanks. When subjected to external forces, like the oscillatory motion of the vessel at sea, these motions may give rise to sloshing waves inside the tank that can compromise the safety of the vessel. 

Sloshing

Sloshing is the phenomenon that occurs whenever partially filled tanks are subjected to an oscillatory external force. Prof. Inġ. Claire De Marco and Dr Mitchell Borg (Faculty of Engineering, University of Malta) illustrates this: ‘Imagine you had a glass halfway full. If you move the glass back and forth and suddenly stop, the liquid will continue moving inside the glass even though the container is still.’

Inside tanker vessels, the motion of the sloshing liquid is accentuated, and the liquid is capable of causing a slamming effect which can damage the tank, the vessel, and in extreme cases, even capsize the vessel.

In order to avoid this risk, strict regulations regarding the volume of liquid cargo carried by tankers exist. In fact, Borg explains how tankers ‘are not deemed seaworthy if the volume of the liquid cargo within their tanks is more than 10% and less than 70% of the tank’s volume, meaning that the vessel can’t even leave port’. This regulation creates great logistical difficulties. Borg illustrates that ‘if a tanker is coming from the Strait of Gibraltar and offloads cargo in Ibiza or in Sicily or in Malta and needs to sail to the Greek islands, for example, the cargo volume would have to stay below 10% or above 70% volume.’ This makes transportation much less efficient, especially when it involves spot-trading (a one-off rate for cargo, typically only valid for one shipment) and offloading in multiple ports. The 10-70% regulation causes logistical problems and will inevitably require more frequent trips, which in turn makes the transportation inefficient. 

Breaking the wave

Funded through a Maritime Seed Award MarSA, a research group from the University of Malta, DeSloSH, is aiming to Decrease the Sloshing effect on Ship Hulls. In order to accomplish this, Dr Mitchell Borg and Prof. Inġ. Claire De Marco (Faculty of Engineering, University of Malta) are building a testing rig that will analyse how the sloshing phenomena and its effects transpire in different tank designs and how internal structures can be designed and installed within the tanks to suppress the dynamic effects of sloshing.

The testing rig developed by Dr Mitchell Borg and Prof. Ing. Claire De Marco. Photo courtesy of Dr Mithcell Borg

The sloshing problem is not limited to maritime transportation, but is also crucial for the aviation industry. Airplanes have to carry fuel in their wings, which also results in sloshing. Studying this effect is also a major contribution for the aviation industry, and several aviation-related projects are underway to analyse and suppress the sloshing effect in a controlled environment.

However, the types of external forces subject on an airplane are quite different from the forces a vessel experiences at sea. This means that there are fundamental differences in the way that the DeSloSH testing rig has been designed. While existent designs use pistons to induce an external force on a tank in the lab, DeSloSH designed the experimental set-up so that it could induce a torque to replicate motions experienced by vessels in the sea.

When a cargo ship or any other type of vessel is in operation at sea, it oscillates upon its axis, similar to an inverted pendulum. In physics, this type of motion is known as simple harmonic motion. In DeSloSH’s setup, a stepper motor converts electrical energy into rotational motion which is then transformed into simple harmonic motion by a scotch yoke. The scotch yoke simulates the external forces on a partially filled, downscaled tank to induce the sloshing effect. A torque sensor will measure the resulting torque on the tank. The torque relates how a force can affect the rotational motion of a body, and by measuring it, the strength of the sloshing effect can be understood.

After realising how the tank behaves, different internal structures will be added to the tank. For example, adding direct partitions like walls along the rotational axis will decrease the sloshing effect, but the project’s new concept is to apply purposely arranged and sized perforated partitions so that the holes break the wave with much greater efficiency.

The impact in the transportation sector

The team explains how, ‘we are starting from scratch, from conceptualization to design, purchasing the raw material, fabrication and assembly of the new design, and testing…’. The use of computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and numerical software to simulate this phenomenon, allied with the experimentation in the testing rig, makes it easier, cheaper, and more reliable to simulate different conditions. For instance, one can test if the software agrees with experimentation and then simulate upscaling to full sized tanks, and crucially this method allows researchers to predict the behaviour of different types of liquids and volumes within the tanks instead of physically testing the model. 

DeSloSH aims to design new tank architectures and predict, through simulations, that carrying liquid volumes within the prohibited 10-70% interval is safe. This would solve many logistical problems, reducing unnecessary journeys and making the process of transportation safer, cheaper, and more effective. Above all it would lower the emissions of the sector, making it more ecological.

The DeSloSH project is supported through the Maritime Seed Award 2020.

Is BIM the solution to Malta’s Construction Woes?

While the construction industry in Malta is facing many challenges, Building Information Modeling (BIM), is rising globally. Can BIM become the solution to Malta’s construction challenges?

The construction industry in Malta is one of the main pillars of economic growth. It has the potential to transform the small island into a center for prestigious design investments. That is, if it can work through some of its embedded problems.

Being a historical island, outdated infrastructure presents quite a challenge. Not to mention the rampant over-development, outdated practices, and ‘uglification’ of certain districts. 

In addition, the construction industry is very fragmented, since the various project stakeholders do not generally work in harmony. Every year, construction projects are becoming more complicated, and traditional means of collaboration and workflows are not sufficient anymore. This creates conflicts, constructability issues, communication problems, delays in construction and delivery, budget overruns, and similar problems.

While these issues require a multifaceted approach to even begin solving, the solution to outdated infrastructure might be within reach. 

Laying the foundations

Construction projects in Malta are divided amongst different consultants. To name a few: architects are focused on the design of the structure, structural engineers prioritize the structural aspect, and mechanical and electrical (M&E) engineers design and analyze the overall ventilation and electrical needs of a building. These various stakeholders need to be able to communicate and collaborate clearly with each other, a task that is difficult to manage. 

Building Information Modelling (BIM) is a workflow management system that creates and manages information throughout the whole life cycle of a construction project. It connects people, technology, and processes to enhance the outcome of a project. By creating a clear line of communication from the start of the project, it allows everyone involved to collaborate, saving time, effort, and money.

Hasan Yumer, founder of Integrated BIM, an international team working on delivering BIM services worldwide, studied Architectural Technology and Construction Management in Denmark prior to studying Architecture at the University of Malta. He then read for a Masters in Construction Project Management with BIM in the UK (funded by the Tertiary Education Scholarships Scheme). He explains that BIM enhances a project’s workflow, emphasising that scale doesn’t matter since the aim of BIM is solely to improve communication and collaboration. 

But if BIM can improve a project, then why hasn’t it been implemented locally? Hasan explains that there are a number of misconceptions surrounding BIM, such as that it is only viable for large projects or that a large budget is needed to reap the full benefits. Another misconception is that the meaning of BIM is simply narrowed down to a 3D model created by software (e.g. Revit, ArchiCAD, Tekla), instead of focusing on its original meaning of communication and collaboration. Alternatively, it could be a lack of understanding of its potential. Hasan explains, ‘if these concerns aren’t addressed, things will never change. It’s all about mindset.’

Building Information Modelling (BIM) is a workflow management system that creates and manages information throughout the whole life cycle of a construction project.

Dr Architect Rebecca Dalli Gonzi (senior lecturer at the Faculty for the Built Environment, University of Malta) agrees, ‘we need to educate different institutions, the government, NGOs, and the private sector on how they can improve their operations.’

Aversion to Change

Change is usually met with aversion, and the hesitancy to adapt BIM can be attributed to players in the construction industry being set in their ways. Dalli Gonzi recalls the time when the industry shifted from hand drawing to digital (i.e. Computer-Aided Design [CAD]). ‘There was similar resistance to change, just as what is currently happening with BIM.’

Hasan echoes this sentiment by pointing out that ‘[…] the change from CAD to BIM starts with a change in the mindset. We aren’t talking anymore about individualization and fragmentation of the industry. Instead, we are talking about improving communication and collaboration for better access to the right information by using digital tools.’ 

Essentially, the industry needs to understand what it can do with BIM and whether it is worth its time and investment. It is useless to have an innovative technology if people are unaware of its potential. To address this problem, Dalli Gonzi has taken the path of integrating BIM into the faculty curriculum to teach students the skills and applications of BIM. She explains, ‘large companies have started applying BIM in their operations, but medium and small companies have not yet taken the plunge. There is a blockage between who is offering tuition, and who is receiving the knowledge. This block in mindset needs to be addressed.’  

Adapting BIM in Malta

Changing a mindset isn’t something that happens overnight. However, it is clear that we need to start somewhere. For Hasan, the first step needs to be for the government to recognize the importance and benefits of BIM. But in order for this to happen, the relevant departments need to be aware of BIM and how it can benefit the industry.

This leads to the second point, specifically education. Universities should implement BIM in their syllabus, as this will create knowledgeable individuals who can help drive the construction industry forward. 

Finally, investors should also push for BIM in their projects. Besides being one of the main beneficiaries, it can help streamline their projects by reducing conflicts, delays, and improving quality and control.   

Dalli Gonzi also believes that local societies, such as the Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers (Kamra tal-Periti), the Chamber of Engineers, and the Chamber of Commerce can be good intermediates between academic knowledge and construction enterprise. 

Academics have an opportunity to work with students and prepare them for their contribution towards architectural design with a strong emphasis on management. This will ensure a leaner use of materials and processes, thus facilitating an industry that should always look towards innovation whilst respecting its local heritage. After all, one of the many roles of academia is to help improve society at large, rather than walling itself off in ivory towers. 

“Blockchain Island”

Malta’s steps towards becoming the ‘Blockchain Island’ have seen some criticism lately. Dr Joshua Ellul is the chairperson of Malta’s Digital Innovation Authority and co-ordinates UM’s Masters Degree in Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technologies, both new enterprises. Jonathan Firbank is in conversation with Dr Ellul about Malta’s efforts.

Cryptocurrency’s meteoric rise is faltering. The value of Bitcoin and alternative projects has fallen sharply. Major world powers have legislated against blockchain technology, the means by which cryptocurrency is recorded and traded. Public figures have manipulated the market. Projects that were started as a joke, like Dogecoin, have overshadowed those with practical value. But amidst all this uncertainty, Malta is becoming a self-proclaimed ‘Blockchain Island’ in a sea of crypto-scepticism.

A False Start

However, proclaiming something doesn’t make it true. Malta’s efforts to develop a regulated blockchain industry seem fraught with problems. Investment from local banks, vital for new enterprises, has been extremely limited. Binance (the leading cryptocurrency exchange) was popularly considered to have a future in Malta — but this was dispelled by a statement from the Malta Financial Services Authority, and Binance quietly dropped Malta from its PR content. Last year headlines cast light on 70% of the companies invited to Malta’s initiative not pursuing a licence. Most importantly, Prime Minister Muscat, whose administration touted ‘Blockchain Island’, was forced to resign. As many in Malta will know, this was a consequence of the assassination of the investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Galizia had famously cast light on Maltese political corruption, including the administration’s links to offshore accounts exposed by the Panama Papers. Cryptocurrency is celebrated as a means of concealing monetary value; ‘Blockchain Island’’ doesn’t sound as good when the phrase is coming from alleged money launderers who attempt to silence critics. But there are two sides to the coin. Malta’s engagement with blockchain may have had a disastrous start in the public eye, but it may also have a productive future.

Malta’s efforts to develop a regulated blockchain industry seem fraught with problems.

A Blockchain Sandbox

Dr Joshua Ellul is the chairperson of Malta’s Digital Innovation Authority (MDIA), which helps regulate technology-related aspects of the new industry. He does, of course, champion the MDIA but is able to be candid about the project’s initial shortcomings: Malta could have done things better in regards to licencing faster — whilst at the same time the quality of diligence processes should not sacrifice speed for quality. The strategy could have been different; perhaps to be louder later.’ 

The MDIA now has a brand new ‘flagship utility’, a residency for tech operators and startups called the Technology Assurance Sandbox (TAS). ‘Sandbox’ might sound familiar to those with a tech background. It’s used to describe a closed environment where software can execute in a safe environment, but this sandbox is a regulatory one focused on providing regulatory assurances instead. Dr Ellul describes the TAS as ‘the first technology regulatory assurance sandbox in the world’. Its goal is to nurture new, innovative tech companies in order to gradually bring them in line with Maltese and international standards and requirements, ‘sandbox residents will be required to agree to certain restrictions to ensure operational risk is kept low, whilst being flexible as every company is different.’ It’s a process that is more cost effective than retroactively bringing a project to standard. ‘For example, let’s say there’s a company that is going to process transactions, we might start them processing 100 transactions a day, and then scale up together as they reach certain milestones.’

This gives developers a level of assurance that they wouldn’t normally benefit from. ‘Once they’re in the sandbox, they can approach investors and say, “listen, a national authority is overseeing me to ensure everything’s fine.”’ Investors and consumers also get more peace of mind, something that can be hard to come by in this rapidly evolving industry. The constant change in the blockchain space means that regulators need to be flexible as well, something that Dr Ellul believes the sandbox is perfectly suited for, as ‘regulators are learning along the way as well, seeing what to adopt and adapt. I would say we’re a bit ahead of our time.’ The EU, as of June 2021, has announced that they are going to start looking into this method of regulator-developer collaboration, so it seems Dr Ellul is right.

A Fresh Start

This highly active approach, described by Dr Ellul as ‘handholding’, predominantly caters for startups. Higher risk crypto activities (such as those with money laundering potential), on the other hand, require VFA (Virtual Financial Assets) licencing under the MFSA (Malta Financial Services Authority) as well as a full systems audit from the MDIA. In the past the MFSA has come under fire for its licencing processes. But the well publicised statistic of ‘70% of firms not pursuing the licence’ could be misleading. ‘A number did leave because it was taking a lot of time to get the licence. I think Malta could have done that better in regards to either being loud about the vision later, once everything was set up, or being quicker in processing. But out of these hundreds, realistically, were they all going to be big players? Good players? Professional players? Probably not. It’s a startup market.’

It’s no secret to people familiar with crypto that a lot of startups are revealed to be scams or simply fail. Hundreds of new companies failing in Malta’s relatively small economy could cause a great deal of harm to the country. ‘We can actually see this happening elsewhere. A lot of companies went to Estonia because of its very lightweight approach to regulation. Estonia ended up having to revoke their licences because of corruption scandals.’ Malta’s regulatory regime is very strict in comparison, giving a Maltese licence credibility, a rare asset for such new technologies.

The MDIA now has a brand new ‘flagship utility’, a residency for tech operators and startups called the Technology Assurance Sandbox (TAS).

The word ‘corruption’, of course, leads us to Malta’s greatest problem. But Dr Ellul believes wider acceptance of cryptocurrency is unlikely to make things worse. A popular perception of crypto, exploited by its critics, is that it is a technology for illegal activity. But Dr Ellul brings up a counter-argument that has ‘hidden in plain sight’ throughout debates on the criminal aspect of blockchain technologies: cash and conventional banking, of course, is used for illicit activity just as much. There have even been banks set up specifically for money laundering or sheltering criminals’ funds. ‘However, cryptocurrency keeps an immutable record of transactions. Unlike cash, the blockchain keeps that record forever. This is helping investigators to do post mortem investigations and find various bad actors.’

Education is Key

In addition to his work with the MDIA, Dr Ellul also co-ordinates the Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technologies Masters Degree. It was launched in 2019 as a direct result of the ‘Blockchain Island’ rhetoric: ‘When the government announced Malta would become the ‘Blockchain Island’, we reached out to ask what they were going to do, obviously sceptical. How do you create a blockchain island?’ After some dialogue, Dr Ellul and his colleagues were asked to help review and draft the legislation. Helping review and draft laws involved interacting with lawyers, technical specialists, and people with a background in business. A communication gap problem began to emerge: how could people with such different specialisations communicate effectively? ‘We realised that we have very different vocabularies, different lingo. We saw that the blockchain sector, the crypto sector, is bringing tech together with finance and law, and there needs to be a way to bridge the communication gap.’

They decided there was a need for a multidisciplinary masters degree that could bridge those gaps, allowing individuals to gain an understanding of the other disciplines that they would interact with professionally. But, like the Technical Assurance Sandbox, the course plays to people’s strengths, ‘digging deeper into the individual’s area of specialisation’ rather than applying the same, jack-of-all-trades approach to every student. ‘Our IT guys learn about building blockchains, our lawyers learn about regulating, and our business guys learn about tokenomics.’ If, for example, you have a tech background, you’ll be introduced to law but you won’t study it as deeply as a colleague who specialises in it. Conversely, lawyers would be introduced to programming to facilitate their understanding, but they wouldn’t be expected to become experts in it. ‘It’s the first programme of its kind, to have a multidisciplinary nature that really digs deep into specialisations but also provides introductions to the other areas. To tell the truth, I can’t find any other programmes in the world like it,’ admits Dr EllulValuing unique needs and optimising strengths takes centre stage here, the same ethos that the Technology Assurance Sandbox promotes. It seems inevitable that this conscientiousness will lead to success stories in Malta, while innovators elsewhere are held back by increasingly hostile attitudes to cryptocurrency. But if Malta truly wants to become ‘Blockchain Island’, its government may need to wholeheartedly adopt that same conscientiousness to keep pace with these new technologies. This time, ‘inevitable’ isn’t the word that springs to mind.

Charging into the fast lane!

Road transportation makes up to 20% of all global emissions. Electric cars are one of the many ways we can help the environment. But there are a few features that electric cars are lacking. THINK’s Sam Shingles gets in touch with Dr Robert Camilleri (Institute of Aerospace Technologies, University of Malta) to find out how they plan to lead the way!

In this busy world, the human race is constantly on the go, and technology has had to keep up! Items like our phones and laptops are constantly being used, from work to entertainment purposes. Research has had to develop batteries that can keep up with this 24/7 lifestyle. In today’s world, some of the latest phones on the market can be charged halfway in just 30 minutes. But what about larger electrical devices, say, electric vehicles? 

Typically it takes around 8–14 hours to fully charge an electrical vehicle, possibly longer for larger cars. As much as we all want to do our bit to tackle climate change, this charge time is a drawback, especially when compared to the few minutes it takes to fully fuel a petrol car.

However, this might be about to change. To find out more, we sat down and talked about all things battery with Dr Robert Camilleri, lecturer within the Institute of Aerospace Technologies (University of Malta) and the principal investigator on the NEVAC  (Novel Evaporative Cooled Technology) research project.

How does fast charging work?

Before we can understand how fast charging works, we need to see how batteries function. A battery is a device that stores energy in chemical form and converts it into electrical energy. There are two ends, each made of different metals: the anode and the cathode. In between these two points is a chemical called the electrolyte that allows electrons to flow through a separator and generate electricity when the battery is attached to a device. 

Secondary batteries, such as lithium-ion batteries, can do this process reversibly; i.e. their chemical reactions can be reversed by applying an electrical current to the cell. This regenerates the original chemical reactions so they can be used, recharged, and used again multiple times. However the charging process is associated with a speed (or rate) at which the battery cell can do this process safely. Fast charging requires that a higher current is pushed into the battery cell, thus making the reaction faster (hence fast charging). Since this conversion is not 100% efficient, charging often generates heat. Therefore, one of the major limitations of fast charging is thermal management of the battery. 

As Camilleri explains, ‘when batteries have a high current pushed  through them, they generate a significant amount of heat. If this is not dissipated, the battery temperature increases. Beyond a certain temperature threshold, there is a risk of batteries experiencing what is known as thermal runaway.’ Thermal runaway is when the batteries experience a chain reaction in which more energy is released. This causes the electrolyte to break down into flammable gasses, which eventually catch fire or explode. 

Dr Robert Camilleri – the principal investigator on the NEVAC  (Novel Evaporative Cooled Technology) research project.

Lithium-ion batteries have extremely narrow operating temperatures and are therefore susceptible to thermal runaway. In electrical vehicles, where thousands of batteries are stacked next to each other, there is the additional risk that this will spread to neighbouring cells. In the automotive industry, thermal management of batteries has become a critical point of discussion. Camilleri recalls that the first generation of electric vehicles had no cooling mechanism. However, as customer demands increased (including the need for higher performance and lower charging time), manufacturers started to respond, first through forced air cooling and, more recently in third generation vehicles, through liquid cooling systems. However, these still face significant challenges, including the thermal runaway problem for fast charging. This is where NEVAC steps in.

Sweating those batteries

NEVAC uses evaporative cooling as the thermal management system. This cooling system uses the concept that every liquid has a unique boiling point, and once this temperature is reached, the liquid turns into gas. The process of turning the liquid into gas requires a lot of heat and energy. NEVAC takes advantage of this principle, making it able to absorb a large amount of heat, which prevents the battery cells from overheating.

The system is designed so the electric batteries sit in a pool of dielectric liquid (one that is safe for electronics) that boils at 35℃, the comfort temperature for lithium-ion batteries. When the batteries have a high current passed through them, they heat up. The heat is absorbed by the liquid, causing it to reach its boiling point and evaporate into gas, effectively transporting  the heat away from the batteries. The battery system is sealed to prevent loss of the coolant in its liquid or gaseous state. The gas is then condensed back into its liquid form, ensuring that the system is self-sustaining. 

NEVAC has two advantages, Camilleri says: ‘One: we are able to extract a lot of heat when a high current is pushed through the battery. This enables the possibility of fast charging without suffering from battery overheating, and two: the liquid always boils at the same temperature, therefore despite the battery being made of thousands of cells, they will all be maintained at the same temperature. Keeping the gas within the system was very important and was easier said than done!’

Camilleri and his team have proved that with the NEVAC design batteries can stay cool whilst fast charging. The team has demonstrated that the system prevents thermal runaway. ABERTAX, a manufacturer for advanced battery accessories and project partner, have developed a technology demonstrator for independent review in Germany. The team are now in the process of patenting key features of the technology and hope that they can attract the interest of car manufacturers. The key question is, will we be seeing this tech in commercial electric vehicles soon? Camilleri is optimistic, ‘I’m very hopeful. We’ve just concluded the NEVAC project (3 years!). We have successfully proved the concept and built a technology demonstrator. The results are very promising. I believe there is a real opportunity to maximise on the findings made. The dream is for this to be in a Tesla car one day!’

NEVAC (R&I-2016-002-V) is financed by the Malta Council for Science & Technology, for and on behalf of the Foundation for Science and Technology through the FUSION: R&I Technology Development Programme.