Nigeria needs indigenous technology

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Nature abhors waste and so every material on earth is useful. Man can only say a material is useless when he has not found the means of converting it to something useful. Author Richard Dawkins rightly said: “Nature is a miserly accountant, grudging the pennies, watching the clock, punishing the smallest extravagance.”

At the recently concluded Lagos International Trade Fair, the University of Lagos was represented by the Hardware Laboratory of the Physics Department with an array of equipment produced locally to convert waste to wealth so as to aid Nigeria’s march towards becoming one of the top 20 economies in the world by year 2020.

In this interview with Vanguard in Lagos, Dr Henry Boyo, Senior Lecturer and Head of Hardware Development Laboratory, University of Lagos says that for Nigeria to move forward, it needs its own indigenous technology, tailored to meet its peculiar needs just as Japan did.

He had his doctorate in Japan and worked with their research laboratory for three years and that gave him some exposure into solutions to national problems in Japan. He said once corruption and misappropriation of funds are eliminated, and proper investment made in research and development, then and only then will Nigeria be self-reliant.

Excerpts:

As a technologist, what do you think is Nigeria’s most pressing problem?

Henry Boyo

One problem with Nigeria is energy and it’s a very shameful thing because all efforts by government and individuals to solve this problem have been futile. You see, people who import generators would want to safeguard their business so they don’t want a situation where generators will no longer be required.

They never wanted the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) to succeed. And then PHCN itself being a government agency, has its own problems like ineffective distribution and generation, so most of the efforts are being sabotaged here and there.

In Italy for example, the government supports private generation and distribution of energy as long as it is from a renewable source. It could be solar, wind, biogas or biofuel. So looking for a balanced point between the government and generator importers (because we want to take both interests into consideration), I feel that bio-diesel could be a neutral point for generation because if we use bio-diesel which is renewable energy, we can still use our normal imported generators.

Then PHCN is also useful because it serves as a backup to the normal electricity and moreover, PHCN cannot provide all the energy we need so definitely, these back-up services are inevitable so I feel that for such reasons, we have to develop the use of biofuel.

We can get bio-diesel from oils of the jatropha plant, vegetable and palm kernel, either edible or non-edible oil. Our farmers in most cases are interested in edible products because the market is not restricted. If you plant jatropha, then you are cultivating toxic plants just to satisfy the international requirements.

Most international investors prefer jatropha because it is not edible and the problem of goats and cows eating them does not arise because if they do, they fall sick and die so jatropha seems to be their best option for bio-diesel.

But in many African nations, cows, sheep and goats move around freely so we don’t want to endanger their lives with this toxic plant.

The western world will prefer jatropha but it is not good for us because it will be harmful to animals so I am looking at a situation where the traditional African farmer can be rich through production of palm kernel oil (non-edible oil). There is also the palm oil which is edible.

We are not likely to use the palm oil for the production of bio-diesel because it has a lot of free fatty acids and therefore likely to form soap, so it is not economical using palm oil.

But the palm kernel oil is better. So we can now say that if we plant more of these trees, and may be have a kind of co-operative society that separates edible palm from non-edible palm, then it pays us to cultivate more oil palm vegetation than jatropha but the farm management system will ensure that those ones meant for human consumption do not find their way to the bio-diesel market and those for bio-diesel do not find their way to the edible oil market.

Can that be done effectively in Nigeria?

Well, we need to discipline ourselves and then set up a mechanism that will ensure that. If we can discipline ourselves in such minor issues, then we would be able to manage our economy in a better way because without such discipline, our Vision 20-20-20 will never become a reality.

Former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown recently said that Nigeria’s economy has the capacity to grow by more than seven per cent if it had critical infrastructure like stable power, do you agree that stable power is the most important thing Nigeria needs at this time?

It’s not only because of power. Power is just a minor factor out of the many factors. Constant power supply starts from discipline. Once you eliminate corruption and misappropriation of funds, invest properly into research and development and then have our indigenous technology, we can be self-reliant.

But even if we get the discipline aspect right and there is no traditional technology developed for our environment, we will always run into problems. Electricity is not Nigeria’s technology, we imported it from abroad and then we have to fine-tune it to meet our needs.

That is part of the reasons we are now developing our own local raw materials and sources of energy and local forms of energy generation. I look at bio-diesel as a prospective option to solve this problem because it is something that can be done either on an industrial or private scale.

The bio-diesel tank was developed and built here and then we looked at the problem of bio-diesel being very expensive because the raw material itself is already very expensive.

What are the raw materials?

We are looking at vegetable oil and palm kernel oil. You may be surprised that while vegetable oil costs about N240.00 per litre, palm kernel oil costs almost N250.00 per litre. So if palm kernel oil which is non-edible oil should be an option for production of bio-diesel, then it means that we must find a way of reducing production cost.

Now, normal production time takes about 18 – 24 hours using transesterification of the oil but the method we have designed can produce the bio-diesel in one hour so we hope that this reduction in production time will translate to economic advantage bringing down the price of bio-diesel per litre.

*Mixer for the production of fire bricks

Where do you think the government can come in to help make the raw materials cheaper and the bio-diesel more affordable?

Well, it’s just a newly developed product. We developed it in August and won the Best Research Award for the Faculty of Science at the University of Lagos Research Fair and based on that, we were asked to represent the University at the last Lagos International Trade Fair.

So it’s just showing up into the market but charity begins at home. University of Lagos needs bio-diesel so let us use it in our own environment first and convince ourselves that it is suitable and economically viable before we can sell it to the public.

Is bio-diesel environment-friendly?

Yes, it is environment-friendly because we use biodegradable materials/organic materials such as palm kernel oil, and the final diesel does not contain sulphur which is part of the environmental contaminants. It does not cause smoke and emission of carbon dioxide.

It’s considered as one of the renewable energy sources along with solar and wind energy. While solar may not be able to produce energy for heavy machineries like boilers and heaters efficiently, bio-diesel can run high duct engines and these engines can be used for earth-moving equipment, heavy machinery and others.

So definitely, there is need for hybridized energy. Solar will provide substantial energy for home-lighting, light power equipment such as electric fan, television, etc but may not provide sufficiently for industrial machinery. The cost is not economical but with biofuel, you use existiACng diesel engine so you don’t need to do any modification to your existing machinery. All you need to do is change the fuel.

Can this bio-diesel be used in the generator?

Yes, all normal diesel generators will use it without any modification. Just pour it directly into your tank. And if you feel it’s too expensive to use 100 per cent bio-diesel to run your engine, you can have a blend we call B-20 i.e. 20 per cent bio-diesel fuel and 80 per cent fossil fuel.

The fossil diesel fuel comprises more or less 80 per cent kerosene because kerosene is cheaper than diesel. Unfortunately, it is mostly adulterated and this causes engine wear and knocks in good time so the maintenance cost of most diesel engines is extremely high.

So if you have B-20 product, a blend of 20 per cent bio-diesel fuel along with your 80 per cent supposedly fossil diesel fuel, your engine should last longer because it gives a better lubricating effect.

Can this fuel be used for cooking?

For cooking, we always suggest methane gas/biogas. You have a lot of waste materials; just put them in the anaerobic digester to produce gas for cooking. The oil is more or less heavy oil so not really for cooking.

Research and Development (R D) are really important if the economy must grow. Has the government been up and doing in the area of funding R D in the Universities and Research Institutes?

There is no discipline in the system. The whole system is epileptic. As much as some of our leaders may have sincerity of purpose, but the dubious ones are smart at the game so the money does not really get to the grassroots where it is needed. It’s just a matter of ‘funds are available’ and then those who are experts in applying and retiring funds, people with no business in research, grab the money so the money is not getting to the researchers.

Does that mean that most researchers fund their research projects?

Yes, basically. They will always tell you there is money there, apply. Once you apply, the bureaucracy is something else and by the time you get the funds, the concept is obsolete. But it is not a matter of complaining.

In a recent interview with Vanguard, the Director-General, National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion, Dr. Umar Bindir, noted that there is a disconnect between Nigerian industries and the Universities/Research Institutes because the researchers do what interests them not taking into consideration industry needs and that is the gap NOTAP is trying to bridge…

But that is why the trade fair is there – to reduce the bridge between the researchers and the industry. Researchers have no time for bureaucracy and all these gimmicks. That is why there must be a broker – somebody who operates between the researcher and industry and understands the ethics of researchers and the ethics of industry/business. So the broker will safeguard the interest of both the researcher and the industry. For now, I have to ignore remuneration just to make the country move forward.

Though government has budgets, these budgets are being implemented and they retire with reports but with nothing to show for it because these things never get to where they are intended to go or even if at all they get there, just about one-tenth actually get to where it is needed, so it is like dropping a teaspoon of salt in the desert saying you want to retrieve it.

What’s the difference between biogas and bio-diesel?

Biogas is in gaseous state while the bio-diesel is in liquid state. Usually, biogas is methane gas which is combustible and it causes a lot of greenhouse gas effect, about 20 times more potent than even carbon dioxide so that is why we need to monitor and control the emission of methane gas.

It is usually produced from anaerobic digestion of waste i. e. in the absence of oxygen. You know the surface of a dump site has oxygen but deep under, there is no oxygen so you have some anaerobes (microbes) working, breaking down the waste into lactic acid and other components and then methanogenic bacteria will start producing methane gas.

When this gas gets to the surface, it mixes with oxygen so even if it is just lightening strike, it will ignite and start burning. This gas is constantly being emitted into the atmosphere increasing the greenhouse gas effect. The materials for producing this gas if properly harnessed can be used to produce gas for generating electricity. It can also be used for producing cooking gas.

Do you have the technology here?

Yes, we have. The tanks are for producing biogas. We load them with faeces or kitchen waste and they produce gas which we use for our heater.

What do you think government should do to overcome the energy problem?

Every aspect of Nigeria needs God’s intervention. There is nothing that can change the system easily unless the person is ready to die prematurely. No matter how good the dreams and intentions of President Goodluck Jonathan are, he is only good as an individual. The infrastructure to implement them is not there. I think that was what Obasanjo tried to do that people thought he was just getting back at his enemies.

Corruption is the main cause of our backwardness and it comes from deliberate laxity in the system. Even though there are methods you can use to check corruption, such methods are frustrated by the bad eggs who would not want such implemented so that they cannot be checked.

Before you check them, they would have finished what they want to do and then use legal manipulations to misinterpret what they have done. So you see, a complete overhauling of the system requires almost a complete wipe off of one or two generations but that is not a feasible thing to think of so I just think that we need to pray.

Is the fish farm part of the project?

The fish produce waste which contains a lot of nutrients like waste food, excess food, urea and other things. We use the slurry to mix the cow dung or store it for producing biogas. We also use the waste water, put it into the photo bioreactor to cultivate algae which we harvest and extract the oil from.

The oil is then used to produce bio-diesel. So the nutrients produce materials for our algae culture. On the other hand, they also assist in the aerobic digestions of our slurry for the production of biogas. But the excess water, we pump into the tanks, where it gets filtered and by the time it comes down, it passes through the activated carbon layer and becomes clean and it can be reused.

We produce activated carbon too. One tablespoonful of activated carbon has a surface area equivalent to a football field. So if you have 15 tablespoonfuls, it is equivalent to 15 football fields in surface area of absorption. Activated carbon removes colour, taste and smell from water.

What other products do you have?

We have the mixer used for the production of refractory/fire bricks. It mixes the raw materials to get high temperature bricks which can withstand temperatures as high as 1,800 degrees Celsius. Fire bricks are used to line the walls of high temperature furnace for melting iron and sand.

Sand melts at 1,400 degree Celsius and when it solidifies, it becomes glass. It’s also used in lining of data rooms and areas you want to be heat-resistant. There is also the dryer for drying the bricks.

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