Dr Nguyen Thi Hoe is the foremost Vietnamese female scientist to successfully research and produce Kova paints using rice husk-derived nanomaterials to capture one of the hard-to-please Asian markets, Singapore.
Hoe claimed that after more than 6 years, in 2012, her products were widely used in Singapore's supermarkets, 800-flat buildings, and airports.
Dr Nguyen Thi Hoe (centre) and her assistants at their laboratory. — VNS Photo
She recalled that more than 20 years ago, when she taught at the HCM City's Technology University, she alone left for the US in order to conduct research about paint.
"Despite all odds, I received great help from the US partners, such as a laboratory for me to research about paints. They also discussed with me about the technology on how to make paints," said Hoe.
When she returned back home to continue teaching at the Technology University, Hoe started making paint.
Initially, her items were packed in cans, but after she was conferred the Kovalevskaia Award (the award aimed to confer a female scientist and scientific organisations having outstanding research and application on technology, economy and culture to bring benefit for communities) in 1993, she branded her products as "Kova Paint" and started packaging them in barrels.
"I first heard about nanomaterials while studying in school, but it seemed very equivocal for me, until 30 years later, where the knowledge proved very useful for me to apply into the paint industry," Hoe said when questioned about nanomaterials.
Hoe had successfully conducted research for over a decade on nanopaint and its applications in daily life, such as silica nano separated from rice husks to make her paint.
She claimed that nano fireproofing paint made from rice husk can protect surfaces, such as concrete, steel, or wood following exposure to heat up to 1,300 degree Celsius for a period of 4 to 6 hours.
"I had tested my paint by exposing it to a 1,300-degree-Celsius heat from a special lamp of a welder for 5 hours. The result is that the wood proofed with my paint was able to withstand such high temperature.
"With such inspiring results, we are confident about showcasing our items to the world for approval and to prove that this nano fireproofing paint is number one," Hoe said.
"We focussed our research on nano fireproofing materials for protecting surfaces of houses, hospitals, schools, supermarkets, and plants as well as steel structures in high-rise buildings because if they are engulfed in a major fire, the steel piles will become soft, thereby causing the building to collapse. Thus, preventing steel structures from fire is very important," she said.
In addition, Hoe also successfully conducted research on a bacterium-sterilised paint, which is specially used in kindergartens and hospitals.
"My paint has been approved and has received certification in Singapore," she said.
When questioned about her decision to choose rice husk, Hoe said that it is the waste derived from agriculture products, which is very cheap, but has high silica content.
Since several years, Viet Nam has been a leading producer and exporter of rice. In the past, farmers only used rice husks as fuel or fertilisers.
"During field trips to rural areas across the country, I saw rice husks floating in canals and rivers. I thought of turning them into nano silica materials in order to produce paint, and after several years, my efforts paid off. I was successful," Hoe recalled.
"Hoe's products have helped the country save millions of dong from importing these paints from Europe," said Chairman of Viet Nam Associations of Science and Technology Prof Dr Dang Vu Minh.
Hoe's paints have not only received recognition among domestic users, but also in foreign countries, such as Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Singapore.
Apart from researching and conducting business, Hoe has set up a fund named "Kova" to grant scholarships for good, ethnic students from impoverished families who have excelled in studies and have a thought process of applying scientific research in daily life.
Her Kova Fund also bestows scholarships to individuals and organisations having creative projects that bring high economical results for the communities.
"My fund always gives priority to ethnic female scientists in remote and isolated areas to encourage them to partake in scientific research," said Hoe.
Over the past 10 years, the Kova Fund has granted more than VND10 billion to 90 outstanding individuals and organisations.
Hoe was born in a very poor family in the central province of Nghe An's Nghi Loc District. Despite all hardships, she always remained an outstanding student during her school years.
She cleared the exams to become a student of the Ha Noi University of Technology, and after graduating, she taught at the university till 1979, when she moved to teach at the Can Tho University where she began thinking about ways to beautify houses in her country.
At that time, all good paints were imported at steep prices, but even then these paints failed to withstand the harsh tropical climate in Viet Nam, Hoe recalled.
She began to research about how to make paints from available materials in the country, but at that time, the Can Tho University did not have adequate means to support her research.
She moved to work at HCM City's University of Technology in 1986, intending to promote her research work, but it also lacked many things.
Hoe said that she had to sell off her house in order to arrange finances for her research on emery and emulsion.
Fortunately, her project was a success. She later received funding from the government to continue her work.
As a youngster, she faced many difficulties because she had three children before joining the Ha Noi University of Technology.
Besides studying, she had to do many odd jobs, such as raising pigs and growing vegetables, among others, in order to earn a living and to raise her children.
After graduating from the university, Hoe had a passion to invest in scientific research, but her husband did not agree because he wanted her to stay at home as a housewife.
Hoe didn't approve of her husband's decision, and they divorced later. This shows that she accepted a very hard life because she had to raise her children while carrying out her research.
When questioned about why such a scientist with so little time could have successfully managed to raise her children, she said that during that period, she did not have much time to devote to her children, but mainly laid emphasis on their studies.
"I helped them to prepare lessons for their university exams," Hoe said.
Hoe believes that despite old age, she will continue her research work to produce more products that can benefit the community.
"Now, I have 11 companies with several thousand workers producing paints for the domestic and export market. I also have the money to fund poor people, but I wish we could have many other scientists to joint in the efforts to make the country richer," she emphasised.
"I was impressed by Dr Hoe's unending devotion and will. In the past, when faced with difficulties, she tried her best to overcome them and accomplished many outstanding achievements in scientific research, many of which have brought effective benefits to the country's socio-economic development," noted former president Nguyen Thi Binh.
Dr Rajeev Vaidya, the executive director of the DuPont Titanium Technologies in the US said that Hoe's works have inspired him and other scientists because she is an ideal model with a strong will to rise above the rest.