Investment in sustainable solutions is key to achieving all the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For SDG 13 Climate Action, combatting fossil fuels and implementing clean and renewable energy sources is critical to slowing down the pace of climate change.
Transport is one of the biggest contributors to climate change due to the release of greenhouse gases (GHGs). To lower GHG emissions, biofuel has been identified as a renewable energy alternative. Biofuels are liquid or gaseous transport fuels, such as biodiesel and bioethanol, made from biomass (organic materials such as plants and trees).
Biomass is not a new concept – people have burned wood to generate fire for cooking for hundreds of years – however identifying clean and renewable biomass sources and the technology to convert these into biofuel is ongoing.
Commonwealth Alumnus Dan Egesa is a lecturer in industrial chemistry at the University of Makerere. Alongside his teaching and supervision responsibilities, Dan is conducting research to identify clean and renewable energy sources to reduce Uganda’s reliance on fossil fuels.
Understanding the waterweed problem
Dan’s PhD in Chemical Engineering at the University of Bath explored clean renewable energy production, specifically biofuel production from biomass, with a focus on the conversion of algae into biofuel.
On his return to Uganda following his studies, Dan was introduced to a waterweed problem on Lake Victoria. The waterweed, or water hyacinth, is abundant on the lake and impacting the work and livelihoods of local fisherman. Due to the rate of growth, the weed is making it difficult for fisherman to fish on the lake, reducing their catch. The weed is also disabling water transport systems as parts of the lake are becoming too difficult to navigate by boat and causing a change in the ecology of the lake as the weed blocks sunlight.
With his background in biofuel production from biomass, Dan was invited to identify if the weed could be converted to create a new source of clean energy.
Building on successful early results
To conduct this research, Dan was awarded a research grant from the Government of Uganda through the University of Makerere Research and Innovation Fund. His research is divided into three phases: following completion of the first phase, Dan reported successful results and forecasted positive outcomes for the remaining phases and the project as a whole.
In the first phase, Dan completed small experiments and successfully converted the waterweed (feedstock) into crude oil, using a high-temperate liquefaction process, called hydrothermal liquefaction. The crude oil by-product is similar to petroleum oil in its chemical make-up, and can be treated or converted to other useful petroleum products, such as diesel or petrol using processes such as fractional distillation or solvent extraction.
The findings from these initial experiments have been published in the Journal of Sustainable Bioenergy Systems and Dan has now implemented phase two of the research. This is focused on scaling up the experiments to identify if the conversion process can be used for large-scale production. Dan acknowledges that funding has been challenging to scale up the experiment and he has had to reduce the size of the feedstock he will process as part of phase two.
Despite these challenges, Dan is excited about the potential impact of his findings which he says will have wider implications than just supporting the introduction of a new clean and renewable energy.
“When we convert this water weed into fuels, first of all, these are biofuels, clean, environmentally friendly and sustainable. We’ll be contributing to production of clean energy, contributing to the energy needs of Uganda, because we need quite a lot of energy. And in the process, when we industrialise, it will create jobs for so many people and income for so many people.”
Thinking ahead to the industrialisation of the energy production, Dan is confident Uganda has the trained and skilled workers ready to implement his work.
“At an industrial scale, we have many people who are trained. And at this scale, we will need electrical engineers. We will need mechanical engineers. And these are already there. We already have them. We will need chemical engineers. These are already being trained. They are being produced by different universities within Uganda.”
Transitioning from biofuel to plastics
Dan’s research into biomass began at the University of Bath, where he was encouraged by his supervisor to move from his background in waste plastics to algae. Dan is now continuing with his previous research into waste plastics conversion alongside his research into the waterweed biofuel.
“I realised that the equipment [is] the same, the reactors which I used to convert waste plastic feedstock are the same. I’m now currently picking up on my initial topic of waste plastics.”
Realising that the processes for conversion can be replicated for other feedstock is an important discovery, and one that means Dan can apply his research and skills to identify more clean and renewable energy sources.
Waste plastic and plastic pollution causes significant environmental problems, which can also impact human health. Waste plastics dumped near waterways are causing these to become clogged, leading to flooding and creating a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Dan highlights research conducted in 2014 which revealed that at least 320 people die of malaria every day – a situation which is exacerbated by the blockage to waterways caused by waste plastic.
His ongoing research into the conversion of waste plastic to create energy uses a process called pyrolysis, through which the plastics are converted into petrol or diesel using high temperatures and an absence of oxygen.
“In using this process, we’ll also be able to solve the environmental problem caused by waste plastics.”
Upscaling the technology
Sustainability is an important consideration of Dan’s research into the viability of using waterweed as a new energy source. If his work proves successful and large-scale energy production can be produced using this feedstock, Dan believes that the waterweed can be cultivated on Lake Victoria and gathered from Lake Albert on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which it poses a similar problem.
Once the process and technology to convert the biomass has been developed, Dan is eager to see it being used to convert any plant-based biomass, such as agricultural waste and even sewage.
“It can take in anything and convert it to bio-crude oil. That’s the beauty. Even if it got used up, we can look at alternatives.”
Drawing on the Commonwealth Scholarship experience
Dan credits his time at the University of Bath for helping him to develop as a researcher, gaining skills in writing research, publishing, and accessing equipment and technology to learn more about the processes required in his current work. Taking these skills and knowledge back to the University of Makerere Dan is confident will change the perception of the university as a source of high-quality, impact-driven research.
“When the research output is of high quality, it will go down to the development of new products or solving community challenges through research. Just an example is in the biofuels research, where we’re trying to solve the problem of pollution from petroleum-derived fuels. This research knowledge and the publications we are generating are extending the frontiers of knowledge and creating new knowledge which is beneficial locally and internationally. As well as contributing to or solving problems which challenge humanity.”
Promoting the findings
Although his research is ongoing, Dan is already thinking ahead to potential collaborators to support the industrialisation and large-scale implementation. To generate interest in his pioneering work, he has been presenting his findings at international conferences and already has some interested collaborators.
With the ever-present impact of climate change, there are many types of research into new and renewable energy, making it a crowded space to find funders. Dan stresses that his research has unique value due to the catalysts used in the hydrothermal liquefaction process.
“The uniqueness about our research, of course, there are so many people who are doing research about biofuels, about these same hydrothermal liquefaction processes. But the uniqueness is in the catalysts we are using to increase the yield of the biofuels.”
The catalyst Dan uses increases the yield of the bio-crude oil produced, making this an efficient process with maximum return. The catalyst can also be recycled up to five times whilst still producing high quality bio-crude oil, improving the affordability of the fuel production and, in turn, the energy produced and sold to the end consumer.
Aspiring for a renewable energy future
Looking to the future, Dan hopes to see his research successfully implemented and for more clean and renewable options to be available in Uganda and around the world.
“Ten years ago, I didn’t really imagine that I would do such a project. It’s when I got the Commonwealth Scholarship that I got directed into this direction of renewable energy. Then I read about it, studied literature, and then piqued much interest in it. That’s why I am where I am today. But ten years ago, I couldn’t imagine myself being in such a position.”
Dan Egesa is a 2015 Commonwealth Scholar from Uganda. He completed a PhD in Chemical Engineering at the University of Bath.