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‘We could take waste oil from ‘dodo’ street seller to produce biodiesel’

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Australia-based university teacher, PROF. ADESOJI ADESINA, will on Thursday be bestowed with the prestigious Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) Award in engineering and technology. His several researches hold promise for Nigerian technological advancement. He spoke on this in an interview with CHINEDUM UWAEGBULAM.

The Federal Government will in few days time bestow you with the prestigious Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) Award in engineering and technology. What distinguishes you from your peers?  
I consider it a great honour to be an awardee of this National Order. I belong to an outstanding cohort of engineering graduates from Nigerian universities in the 70s-80s. The 1980 class from the University of Lagos Chemical Engineering Department was a unique group in the depth of instruction; we received from a faculty consisting of some of the best minds in the field at the time. I can say this now with the benefit of hindsight, although at the time, we probably felt considerably stretched. Perhaps, what sets one apart is the exposure to an exceptional web of opportunities that permits serendipitous extraction of significant outcomes that projects the training received as a distinctive national asset, especially in the areas of energy, water and environmental technologies.    

You have made contributions to the global engineering community over the past three decades, particularly relevant to human development efforts.  What are these research efforts?
I began my research career through an investigation into the Fischer-Tropsch (FT) reaction for hydrocarbon synthesis at the University of Waterloo, Canada. The FT and related reactions constitute the basis of present day efforts on the Gas-to-Liquid (GTL) fuels technology. GTL process has substantial economic and environmental benefits for Nigeria because it offers reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and adds commercial value to our abundant natural gas resource. Over 30 years ago, research funding for this type of work essentially followed the crests and troughs of petronomics.

Only the far-sighted were committed. History has vindicated their position with many examples of GTL plants for both energy and petrochemicals production now strategically located across the globe. Countries not on the radar for economic prosperity about half-a-century ago, are now hotspots in the global network of financial centres. Nigeria is listed among those with GTL DNA. Fortunately, I continued my activities in this area at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia, even when it did not seem fashionable to do so. For the next two decades, we ramped up journal publications on the subject.

I initiated work on renewable energy, first as a complement to research on fossil fuels, but it soon took a life of its own. The production of biodiesel from non-edible oils such as spent cooking oils is fascinating both from a philosophical standpoint, and an engineering perspective. I am interested in the two. First, it tackles the food security-energy debate and permits the exploration of an organic approach to engineering design. At another level, the quest for optimal energy and environmental solutions provides a rich opportunity contending with and developing new tools of nonlinear analysis. Unlike earlier generations of biodiesel production from vegetable oils, algae and non-edible oils are utilised in fourth generation technologies. We took this further in my research group at UNSW through a process that utilises spent cooking oil and cheap, diluted (15 per cent) ethanol solution as the feed to a multi-purpose processing vessel. The excess water in the ethanol solution facilitates the separation of glycerol by-product from the oily phase while simultaneously improving the purity of the biodiesel product (99 per cent). For instance, this means we could take the waste oil from a local buka or dodo street-seller to produce biodiesel.

The enzymatic chemistry and governing mathematics are challenging, but we have managed to integrate them amicably. The patented technology cuts overall costs by about 50 per cent. This is good for both humanity and the environment among other technical benefits.
 
Another dimension of my work that impacts human development is the exploitation of photocatalysis (light-assisted acceleration of reactive systems over semiconductor oxides such as titania) for pollutant destruction and hydrogen production. We have been engaged in this area since 1995. Some of our results include the room temperature recovery of recyclable water from leachate obtained from municipal solid waste dump sites, removal of sodium organic impurities from spent Bayer liquor obtained during alumina processing to improve metallurgical grade quality, detoxification of aqueous discharge from explosives manufacturing plant and reconditioning of domestic wastewater discharge for reuse.More recently, we won an Australian award for the first deployment of nano-communications for catalytic product selectivity improvement using GTL as model reaction.

One of these researches has demonstrated extractive reactor technology in the continuous flow production of biodiesel from spent cooking oil. With Nigeria lacking proper used-oil disposal methods, how can this technology assist to ensure environmental safety?
As I mentioned in the previous question, there is an obvious benefit in the conversion of spent cooking oils to biodiesel. While I am unsure of the exact annual tonnage of disposable used cooking oils in Nigeria, given the regularity with which fried foods, such as dodo, akara and fish is consumed, and we would be talking in millions. For a society with native competency in ethanol production from fermentation, the technology we have developed may be readily modularised for rural agricultural regions to sustain a viable cottage industry demonstrating an example of waste-to-wealth. The process economics we have done can be readily contextualised for the Nigerian market. Actually, back-of-envelop calculations show that the process will be even more profitable in Nigeria than in a western economy. Clearly, there is an incentive for venture capitalists here. When you combine this with inducements, say by government, for waste oil collection from bukaterias, roadside restaurants, etc, not only will we have clean environment – urban and rural – but also the new job opportunities will be self-funding.

How did you reach this peak in your career?
There is truth to the statement; “we get to the top by standing on the shoulders of others”. This is my situation. I owe my success to several unsung heroes who were my teachers and mentors. Beginning with a pre-school phase in 1963 at St. Paul’s Anglican Primary School, Idanre, Ondo State and UNA Primary School, Aiyegbami, Ijebu-Ode, my formal education commenced at St. Matthews School I, Ojowo, Ijebu-Igbo in 1965 and later at St. Luke’s School, Otun-Agbakin, Moniya with completion in 1970 at St. Stephen’s Anglican School, Inalende, Ibadan.  

Secondary education took me first to Premier Grammar School, Abeokuta and I subsequently finished at Lagelu Grammar School, Ibadan in 1975 with Grade 1 Distinction in the West African School Certificate Examinations. I am thankful to my parents and family for a home atmosphere that encouraged my scholarly eccentricities. My undergraduate degree in chemical engineering between 1975 to 1980 was most influential in shaping my future. This was a young but dynamic department with world class faculty. My memories of Professors Ogunye, Susu, Omatete, Jeje and others are indelible. I am grateful to have obtained a first class honours under their tutelage. My PhD studies at the University of Waterloo, Canada under Professors Robert Hudgins and Peter Silveston opened my eyes to a new world of inquiry and I feel fortunate to be a descendant of some of the great founding fathers of chemical engineering such as Nusselt, Schmidt (both at Munich, Germany) and Wilhelm (Princeton, USA).
 
Although I taught briefly at the University of Port-Harcourt, most of my research accomplishments were realised at UNSW with funding largely from the Australian Research Council and industrial support from international conglomerates.    Certainly, without teachers, graduate students and supporters in these institutions/organisations, there could be no histories such as we have today. In quite unspeakable ways, my wife and children have been magnificent encouragers and benevolent in the giving of their time and understanding.

What have you gained from these experiences?
My training is in chemical engineering has taught me to see transformation as the centrepiece of human development. The principles have ramifications not only for natural resources and endowments conversion, but there are distinctive parallels (and yes, benefits) in the social sciences, business and entrepreneurial studies as well as theology.
 
How do you feel to be among the few that have won the Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) Award?
As I indicated earlier, this is a rare honour for which I am immensely grateful. I echo the sentiments of Prof. Wole Soyinka that one does not work towards this as a life goal. It happens, in my view, largely providentially.

The Nigerian engineers have been clamouring for local content development in the sector, especially the use of local professionals in rendering engineering services in the country. Do you think the engineers are right in this campaign? What is the handicap of local engineers?
That we live in a knowledge economy is a well attested fact. I doubt whether we will realise our national potential if we do not take ownership of our technology development. It is not mean-spiritedness to say that nobody just hands over to another what they have worked for. It is in this respect that the Nigerian engineering and technology communities must be engaged and relied upon to be the primary generators of our technical know-how. For that reason, I support the national engineers’ campaign to redefine what is commonly termed “technology transfer”. Such a call is not inimical to global participation in national technology development ventures. However, Nigerians must champion the process. I do not believe that local intellectual capacity is lacking.

The literature is replete with evidence. Even so, confidence in our own ability to solve technological challenges needs a boost through, recourse to and inspiration from archipelagos of successful talents, interaction with Nigerians in diaspora (and some of us in this category need not exhibit a messiah mentality), constant bench-marking of training and outputs with the best international practice, intentional and accountable government-industry-academia partnerships, etc. In spite of the so-called resource curse theory, it is contrary to all intuitive logic that a country as blessed as ours will not ultimately experience a synergistic coalescence of the natural forces of heterogeneity inherent in its formation to advance technological prowess.

The brain drain in professional services has increased in recent times, due to the recession in the economy. What should the federal government do to attract home Nigerian scientists abroad?
I share the frustration of scientists and in fact, professionals abroad, who want to come home. This goes back to the implications of one of my previous answers, namely; we need a critical pool of diasporans to demonstrate the viability of returning home. In fact, I now hear rumblings of a “brain-gain”. Money, at face value, seems to be the draw card but it is uncertain that it constitutes the necessary and sufficient condition for such a phenomenon to remain sustainable.

There are issues associated with the interplay between existence of structures and structures of existence, which the government is already working on, as I understand it. A detailed decomposition is outside the scope of this interview.

This NNOM Award comes with a medal and a cash price of N10 million to enhance your research capacity. What are your plans in this regard after the award?
You are right; the award comes with significant incentives. Whatever I make will be ploughed back straight into this system to encourage engineering and technology training especially for the younger generation. At the risk of sounding evasive, it is premature (and proprietary prevents us) to spell out the specifics here. Even so, be assured that the foundation for this initiative predates the NNOM Award but the latter will certainly push our ambition further than planned.
 


 
 
 


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Adesoji Adesina

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