Petronas’ Iban scientist from Simanggang helps to blaze trail in regional hydrogen production


By Ashley Sim

BORN IN the sleepy town of Simanggang (now known as Sri Aman), Iban scientist Colin Patrick has made Sarawak proud by being one of the inventors in Petronas’ patent-pending proton exchange membrane (PEM) hydrogen electrolyser, a solution to making hydrogen production more affordable.

Being away from home all these years, Colin is glad that his present job provides a lot of opportunities for him to spend more time in Sarawak, now that the Land of Kenyalang has embarked on its journey on mass hydrogen production.


What enthuses him most is that, being an Anak Sarawak, he can now contribute directly towards accelerating Sarawak’s development while at the same time, be part of the great plan to leapfrog Sarawak’s economic growth and witness the State’s ascent to greater heights within a decade.

Young family: Toddler Colin with his family.

Colin, the Iban son of Sarawak

It was a Tuesday morning. As Colin walked into the meeting room for his exclusive interview with DayakDaily, the journalists were taken by surprise.

Born to Iban parentage, he looks nothing like a typical Iban, leaving the journalists wondering if he was really the right person to be interviewed.  Apparently, the journalists were not the only ones who were sceptical.  Colin himself had wondered the same, when he was younger.

“I am an Iban. We don’t know anything about my grandmother’s or mother’s biological family lineage. So, we just assumed that they’re all Iban,” Colin said.

But that is Sarawak, a land of diverse cultures, backgrounds and ethnicities with all living in natural harmony.

Colin speaking to DayakDaily in an exclusive interview.

Colin, the grandson of Tawi Sli

Throughout the one-hour or so interview, Colin, who spoke with a quiet aura of confidence and authority, but not without an air of friendliness, did not focus much on his own achievements. Rather, he spent more than half the time speaking nostalgically of his grandfather, the late Datuk Penghulu Tawi Sli, Sarawak’s second Chief Minister.

Tawi was appointed the chief executive of Sarawak during the 1966 Sarawak constitutional crisis.  He was the chief minister for three months (June 16 to September 17, 1966) before Tan Sri Datuk Amar Stephen Kalong Ningkan was reinstated by the High Court as the legitimate Chief Minister.

Sarawak’s second Chief Minister Datuk Penghulu Tawi Sli

It was a turbulent time for Sarawak.  Tawi was sworn in again as the Chief Minister for the second time on September 23, 1966, following the successful ouster of Ningkan.

To Colin, Tawi was the role model whom he looked up to, whose way of life and moral values had become the beacon of light leading him to where he is now.

“If I were half as good as he was in terms of honesty, integrity, and upholding everything good and noble, I would be fantastic.

“There are always challenges in my life.  He was such an important role model to me that every time I have a major decision to make, I’d imagine what he would do.”

More than RM1.00

Colin’s grandfather had a unique way of showing him how to appreciate the value of money.

“During the school holidays, my parents would send me to my grandfather’s house, where we would learn how to earn money.

“My grandfather would pay us RM1 per day for us to move soil into his house compound to improve the landscape, and do other housework.

“It was laborious and I never understood why he asked his grandchildren or sons to do the work. It was later that he told us – ‘I could’ve hired people, but I want you all to experience how difficult it was to make money during my era’.”

For Colin, the RM1 brought about the happiest moments of his childhood because he would spend it on ice kacang, which only cost a few cents back then, or used it to watch movies at a small iconic cinema in Sri Aman.

The late Tawi (right) has always been Colin’s hero.

“This was when I learnt to appreciate the value of money. My grandfather always placed a high value on integrity. You must earn through the most honest way possible. Honesty was extremely important to him, and he was very particular about it.

“When you’re young, you want to have fun and do things without much regard for rules or regulations. But he was very strict about following rules, which is why I am here today. Actually, all my childhood memories played a big part in helping me to understand a lot of things these days.”

Tawi may have passed on, but he definitely still lives in Colin’s heart and the many Sarawakians whose lives he had impacted, be it through life experience or the decisions he made as the second Chief Minister of Sarawak.

Colin Patrick, the ‘Son of Petronas’

Upon completing his education at St Thomas’ Secondary School in Kuching, Colin was offered both JPA and Petronas scholarships.

As Petronas is a big name, Colin chose the latter which sponsored his education from A-Levels right up to his Bachelor of Science in Polymer Science at the University of Manchester’s Institute of Science and Technology in the United Kingdom.

Following this, in 1996, Colin joined the Petronas workforce and when he decided to marry his colleague, his fate with the oil and gas company was sealed. It has been 27 years since he first started his job in Petronas to date.

Colin (seated, third left) at St Thomas Secondary School, Kuching, in the 1980s.

Between 2018 to mid-2019, Colin was seconded to Sarawak Energy Berhad to develop the first South East Asia’s hydrogen production and refueling station in Biawak, Kuching using Alkaline Water Electrolyser.  He was also tasked to develop and propose a hydrogen economic blueprint for Sarawak.

When he finally returned to Petronas, he was assigned to lead the hydrogen technology programme for PEM in this big multi-national family.

In 2020, Colin delivered the first PEM prototype and in less than two years, he opened up the market for PEM and has since been one of the inventors in the patent-pending PEM and has co-authored an Elsevier paper on “Overview of Degradable and Biodegradable polyolefin”.

Colin’s passion towards novel and inventive technologies has been his key driver in his professional life.

To date, the proprietary PEM has been commercially accepted in Sarawak’s three-in-one multi-fuel station project as well as a few others being finalised with international partners.

With a lower cost value proposition, PEM provides an impetus for the Malaysian market in general and Sarawak in particular, to start adopting the clean and sustainable form of energy.

When Colin meets Abang Jo

Colin’s work with hydrogen technology is in line with Sarawak’s target to be a global renewable energy powerhouse. It is thus not surprising that when the scientist and Premier of Sarawak Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Abang Johari Tun Openg met, they clicked instantly.

“During a private conversation in a small room, I must say that he is a different Premier. In contrast to his outward appearance, he is incredibly articulate, technology savvy and detail-oriented. With full curiosity, Premier would be asking — ‘Colin, how do you come to this? How do you do this? How do you consider this?’ So, he was very interested, which makes my job easier.

“When we talked about hydrogen blueprints, everyone would eventually fall asleep but not him. Eventually his vision becomes my inspiration because I now get to know that I have a hydrogen supporter.”

Colin (second left) giving Abang Johari (right) a visit during the latter’s visit to Petronas hydrogen production facility.

Contrary to many skeptical Sarawakians, as a scientist who deals with facts and data, Colin saw the huge potential for Sarawak to be a powerhouse in the areas of sustainability “if Sarawak were to shape it well”.

“My primary concern is always sustainability. Hydrogen is part of it.  So my wish is to see a wholesomeness in this area of sustainability as the world cannot go very far without sustainability.”

“We require a hydrogen society — people who are aware of the benefits that hydrogen can provide.”

To him, Sarawak is advanced in many areas, including vision and willpower, but more talents must be developed to realise the vision of being a hydrogen powerhouse in South East Asia.

“I always believe that the triangle of success consists of resources, technology, and market.  Sarawak, in my opinion, has a lot of these resources.  Sarawak may not have the market, but with the right technology and resources, it can be a major player.

“When you look at Korea and Japan, they are both very developed countries, but they don’t always have the resources that Sarawak has. Hence, I believe Sarawak’s next generation should be at the forefront of hydrogen research.”

What’s next after hydrogen?

Despite still taking infant steps in mass hydrogen production, when face-to-face with a scientist whose concern is on environmental preservation, the DayakDaily journalists could not help but ask – after hydrogen, what’s next?

Colin has a ready answer – graphene, which according to him was discovered by chance by his alma mater, the University of Manchester.

“Just now, I may have mentioned that hydrogen is a better alternative than battery as the metal part of the battery is difficult to dispose, and thus environmentally unfriendly. And also, the battery today is still not as effective for storage as we want it to be. But in actual fact, if we can improve it, then battery could be even more sustainable, comparable to hydrogen.”

Fully aware of the importance of energy storage, Petronas is now embarking on developing hydrocarbon-based graphene, which is known for its capacity and strength, a potential gamechanger material.

“Graphene allows higher charging capacity and fast charging time.  We can see enough energy being generated but not many can harness or store it.  Actually, a lot of the time,  energy is produced at the wrong time at the wrong place. For example, solar energy.

“So we need to figure out how to store that. Others may continue to do energy generation but we want to be players in storing them and then use them when we need it.

“So if you ask me what is it going to be, to me, it is how do I store all this huge amount of energy and able to move it around for people use it.  Then I don’t have to build too many solar farms and whatnot. And this is going to be the challenge. That’s my answer to you.”

Colin (right) is one of the speakers of Ceraweek 2022 held in Houston, USA.

The Iban culture of Berjalai

Aside from attributing much of his success to his grandfather’s guidance and the opportunities his education afforded him, the eminent 52-year-old scientist did not forget what runs in his veins – the Iban distinctive culture of berjalai, which translates to an expedition in seek of betterment and personal maturity.

When he was young, Colin was inspired by the journeys of his many relatives who travelled to the United Kingdom and elsewhere.  He, too, was given the opportunity to work abroad throughout this career. But Sarawak will remain a special place in his heart.

While he can now return home more often due to his work nature and thus curing his homesickness to a certain extent, he hopes other Sarawakians, especially his Iban fellowmen, will not have to go through what he went through by finding their dream jobs in Sarawak.

For that to happen, he earnestly calls on young Sarawakians to get themselves a good education so that they may have the opportunity to explore the world before returning to contribute to the State and country with experience, maturity and training the world has given them.

“Do not quit school. Continue. Finish what needs to be finished and you will be able to realise your dreams. I know some people will simply drop out of school, but don’t. Because education is extremely important in life.

“I value it greatly, which is why I get to travel beyond Sarawak to other parts of the world, thanks to Petronas’ education sponsorship.”

His next advice for Sarawakian youths is to find a role model to look up to, move on and never waver.

“Find someone who inspires you and motivates you to perform ten times better than that person. And never lose sight of your goal!” — DayakDaily