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Enzymes could do wonders for our country’s energy sector, Nwachukwu

By Ebele Orakpo
Nations the world over are gradualy moving away from fossil fuels to low-carbon energy economy to stem global warming and Nigeria must do something urgently in order to sustain its economy.

*Mr Ifeanyi Nwachukwu

As a mono product economy and the 7th largest exporter of crude, if those nations that buy our oil decide to seek alternative, cleaner energy sources, then the Nigerian economy would indeed be in trouble.

Experts have said that Nigeria can indeed have sufficient power supply if it explores all the energy sources available to it like wind, solar, biomass etc.,which they argued, are cheaper, cleaner and more environment-friendly. In this chat with Vanguard, Mr. Ifeanyi Nwachukwu, a young Nigerian scientist currently carrying out research leading to the award of PhD in Germany under the auspices of European Union/Marie Curie Fellowship of the EU’s 7th Framework Programme under grant No: 215009, stated that Nigeria should not wait until the depletion of crude oil reserves to build its first bio-refinery but should take steps to supplement fossil fuels with biofuels as soon as possible while continuing to engage in research on the development and expansion of this technology. Excerpts.

You studied Biocatalysis at post-graduate level, what motivated your choice of that field of study?
Permit me to first broadly describe biocatalysis as the use of enzymes (catalysts) from natural or biological sources to speed up reactions and transform reactants to products.

I first became fascinated with biocatalysis at the University of Nigeria Nsukka where I studied Biochemistry and Microbiology. Owing to the fact that enzymes have been precisely equipped by nature to act as catalysts in specific reactions and because their unique conformations are honed by evolution in ways that make them the catalyst of choice for their substrates, they are generally more efficient catalysts than synthetic chemicals.

This knowledge and the realisation of the wonders it could do for our country’s energy sector deepened my interest in bio-transformations and made me decide to go for the MSc Biocatalysis course at the University of Exeter, United Kingdom. Furthermore, the eco-friendly and sustainable nature of enzymes, their proven ability to act as cheaper alternatives to industrial catalysts, their potential for revolutionising procedures in the chemical, pharmaceutical, energy, food and allied industries, as well as potentially earth-shaking research efforts in this area of science all made further training in biocatalysis an attractive option for me.

Global warming/climate change, ozone layer depletion etc. are big issues today in the world and fossil fuels have been fingered as a big contributor. How can biotechnology help fight global warming?

Fossil fuels have been linked to global warming and climate change. Although experts disagree on details, there is a general consensus within the scientific community and among informed stakeholders that greenhouse gases like those emitted from the combustion of petroleum significantly deplete the ozone layer and increase our carbon footprint. Again, fuels from natural biological sources and other natural products in addition to being cheaper in the long run, do not pose huge adverse threats to the environment as fossil fuels and synthetic chemicals do.

It is, therefore, clear that the rapid development of the biotechnology sector and the responsible use of energy will not only significantly help curb global warming but would also demonstrate our seriousness as a country which is ready to provide leadership in finding answers to contemporary environmental challenges.

How can biotechnology provide alternatives to fossil fuels and are these alternatives environment-friendly
I would begin with the second question and the answer is a firm “YES.” Bio-based alternative energy resources like bioethanol and biodiesel have been shown to be generally more eco-friendly than their petroleum-based equivalents.

Produced by the bio-transformation of biomass by microbes, these two liquid transportation fuels represent the furthest leap so far by man in the quest for cleaner, greener energy from biological sources. Biodiesel for instance, has been demonstrated to cut carbondioxide (CO2) emissions by up to 80 per cent when compared to petroleum diesel. Bearing in mind CO2’s status as the principal greenhouse gas contributing to global warming, this clearly shows what massiveenvironmental benefits, energy and cost savings alternative bio-based energy resources represent.

Of particular interest is the fact that biodiesel is the safest to use, transport and store of all fuels because of its high flash point. Given the incessant cases of tragic fire outbreaks caused mainly by the handling of petroleum products, this would probably be of particular interest to us as a country. It is no longer a probability that bio-based fuels will replace fuels from fossils and the world may not have to wait for the depletion of fossil fuels for this to happen; the recent test flight by Virgin Atlantic from London to Amsterdam using a fuel mixture that consisted of 20% biofuel and the current practice in the US where most cars are built to use at least a blend of 10% bioethanol, all underscore this point.

Admittedly, there is still a lot of work to be done in order to optimise the production processes and ensure that the use of bioenergy is not only eco-friendly but also economically feasible.

However, this is one area where Nigeria cannot afford to play a passive role and wait for other countries to lead the way. Going down that path would mean a total reversal of fortunes for us. We cannot afford to become a consumer nation with regard to the use of fuels and the time to fund relevant research efforts, identify and woo industrial experts,  partner with other countries, and educate our people on the import of this inevitable change is now.

In a developing country like Nigeria, we need cheap and efficient solutions to our energy needs.
Do you think biotechnology could help?

Certainly. As I said before, bio-based energy will not only be cheaper, more efficient and more eco-friendly but will one day replace energy currently derived from fossil fuels. Like every new science, idea or technology, there are considerable challenges especially with regard to optimising energy generation from bio sources and bringing down costs so that the energy consumer, the economist, the environmentalist and every other stakeholder will go home happy. There is also significant opposition to the development and use of bioenergy and being a relatively new science, this is understandable.

What we should, however, endeavour to do as a country is to get to work on this issue and address concerns such as those that emerge from the food vs fuel debate. With the world’s population approaching nine billion in 2050 according to the UN’s most recent estimate, and with our agricultural sector still largely not mechanised, we should well be concerned that bioenergy is derived wholly from agricultural biomass. However, this should be no problem given the vast expanse of arable lands we have and our cultural relationship with agriculture. Nigeria should not wait until the depletion of crude oil reserves to build her first bio-refinery but should take steps to supplement fossil fuels with biofuels as soon as possible while continuing to engage in research on the development and expansion of this technology.


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