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Biofuels: How prepared is Nigeria? (2)

THIS is of tremendous public health concern with the vast majority of Nigerians becoming ill due to contamination of our food and water sources.

Waste management has never been easier than using it for our biofuel production. As a matter of fact, the idea of landfills is being phased out in advanced countries. European legislative pressures target for minimising landfill use in European countries and the amount of biodegradable municipal solid waste (BMSW) going to landfill must be reduced by 25 per cent by 2010, 50 per cent by 2013 and 65 per cent by 2020. Do we as a nation have such a plan? I don’t think so.

Nigeria and the rest of Africa are virgin lands for biofuel production. Antoni et.al (2007) noted that Biofuel industry in Africa is marginal whereas production potential is enormous. With the exception of South Africa, Africa is still in the woods and making very limited attempts at coming close to understanding the immense gains of utilization bioethanol at least in blend with gasoline for better protection of our environment.

The environmental impact of crude oil spillage which was a recurring decimal with the Niger-Delta region of Nigeria is still being felt till today.

The latest oil spillage in the Gulf of Mexico involving British Petroleum could cost more than the estimated $20 billion to clean up and the cleaning up process could take several years. No mention could be made here as to the likely rearrangement/distortion of the entire ecosystem as a result of this terrible spillage. Nigeria’s economic backbone rest on crude oil with very little contribution from other sectors.

So many other ventures have been attempted but failed, a problem that is largely attitudinal- allowing the wrong persons to run such intended money- making ventures and with very little accountability.

Nigeria has all that it takes to research extensively into biofuel production and by this I mean starting with the two most promising biofuel- Bioethanol and Biobutanol. Our government must think futuristic here, our oil reserve may not last forever and even if it will, once the biofuel production is optimized in leading research countries, our earning capabilities might be greatly hampered.

This would be another catastrophe for the economy. It is left for the government to design and implement a sustainable biofuel production programme employing the services of skilled professionals in the industries to design a formidable process, faculties of various higher institutions in several disciplines and the armies of students (from undergraduate to doctoral candidates) to work on the research ranging from the target micro-organisms to use and the best substrates for each micro-organism, management practices, engineering, environemental issues. etc.

This programme if implemented could employ millions of unemployed and/or underemployed Nigerians.  Currently most bioethanol and biobutanol production rely on known species of such micro-organisms as Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Zymomonas mobilis, Pichia stipitis, Clostridium acetobutylicum, Trichoderma reesei Streptococcus fragilis, Kluyveromyces fragilis, Klebsiella oxytoca, Erwinia chrysanthemi, etc. Research could identify novel strains within these species that could surpass the abilities of the current strains, even an entirely new micro-organism with the desirable traits- high ethanol/butanol yield could be discovered in the quest.

Because the current micro-organisms have their own limitations; the first target here should be genetic engineering of the known strains to optimize their performance from saccharification to fermentation. British Petroluem (BP) supports the biofuel research centre of University of California at Berkeley with $500 million .

I  do not know the extent of support given to Nigerian universities for such research activities by the locally operating oil companies and even if they support research how would the funds go to research hungry professors without unnecessary influence by university management?

The way forward here is extensive research involving a lot of academic areas. Government must also invest money into this programme by supporting the training of Nigerians to study the entire biofuel production process.  Some of our crude oil profits must be channelled towards this noble venture. Remember researchers are toiling night and day to break the OPEC monopoly through sustainable and cost-effective biofuel production and once the process becomes optimized in terms of cost, our economy would face serious challenges if it hopes to cling on to crude oil exportation.

The way is long and the journey is arduous. Nigeria must learn that pain is a process not an end result. How else can we build a lasting legacy if not to join this research now? The cost of biofuel production continues to go down every day, once the desired cost is achieved, Nigeria may turn into a biofuel importing nation.

The current draw back in using lignocellulosic materials are recalcitrance, low product yield, product inhibition due to undesirable side products after pretreatment, inability of scientists to identify “the do-it-all” micro-organism. Nigeria as a major crude oil producer must invest now in biofuel research from the immense earnings of crude oil.

By Ugochukwu Anieto, a Ph.D  student, writes from Texas, USA.


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Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.