By Ebele Orakpo
Engineer Taslim Abidoye Owonikoko, is one young Nigerian who has set his sights on catapulting the nation into the world’s consciousness for the right reasons through his research works. The1993 graduate of Chemical Engineering from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife is the CEO/HEAD R&D, Berekotry Auto-Grease Limited and Berekotry Detergent Limited.
He has over 17 years post-graduate experience in scientific research, development and manufacturing which saw him getting the 2007 National Gold Award as the best Inventor/Innovator in Nigeria and a Joint Gift Certificate Prize by Innocentive-MIT-CBS Team in 2005.
He was also recognised by General Electric USA Ecomagination Challenge as one of the Global Top 100 in New Energy inventions and innovations. In this interview with Vanguard in his Iseyin, Oyo State office, Owonikoko said he has discovered a lasting solution to oil spill. Excerpts:
You have acquired five patents and six are pending, how did it all start?
As a young graduate, I was working with some Asian industry operators in Lagos as a freelance raw material agent. They bring their raw materials into the country but most of the time, they did not know which company uses what and at what time of the year the products should be used.
By and large, I was able to really prove my mettle within the first one month of joining the company. I was able to get N1 million worth of order from an industry in Sango Ota. It was a milestone for the company and they thought I had a magic wand.
That was the beginning. But how I got the inspiration to really be on my own was that while working with these companies, I foraged into cosmetics, soap industry, paints, chemicals and plastics. The first inspiration came when I was supplying raw materials to Johnson Wax Ltd.
They challenged me to source for shea butter which they could not import from the UK at the time because a dollar had jumped to N87.00 from N22.00 and that could not fit into their budget for the year and they needed the raw material to produce.
I told them I could source the raw material locally and it will do the same job. They laughed at me, but I come from an area where we are thought how to use local materials to meet our personal needs. So I worked on the sample they gave me at Johnson Wax and juxtaposed it with the local one, I realised that with some chemical manipulations, the local sample can fit into what the company wanted.
I worked on my local sample and submitted it for laboratory analysis and it passed the test, so I got my first order from Johnson Wax, to supply about three metric tons for a start and it worked perfectly. I said to myself that if that thing could work, it means there are things we can source for locally and everybody will be engaged, more so, local farmers who are planting these things but do not know where to apply them.
With our education and knowledge, we can be a bridge between the industry and local raw material producers. We were able to talk to these companies on so many things we could do and we looked for ways of really making local raw materials fit into making goods that can replace imported ones.
Along the line, I found out that if I really wanted to make impact, because of the urge in me and the need to practise what I learnt, (because I found out that most graduates of sister courses, were hoping that one day, I will work one of the oil companies, but these companies employ less than one per cent of Nigerian graduates and Nigeria produces almost 10,000 to 15,000 graduates every year, where are they going to work?).
I did my investigation and discovered that the real complex where scientists, especially technical people who can turn around this country, can apply their expertise, is not yet on ground so there is no way to practise what they have learnt except to start inventing things.
What are some of your inventions and what needs were you trying to meet?
Grease: Our grease is of high quality and high temperature. A percentage of that grease comes from cassava which gives it the local content we are talking about and I think the main focus of the present regime in Nigeria is geared towards enhancement of local content in the oil and gas industry.
Oil spill solution: Nigeria is a major producer of crude oil but the bad side of crude oil exploration is the negative environmental impact of oil spillage. This product was targeted at really impacting the oil and gas industry. We have been able to tap from agriculture to impact other aspects of the economy.
We are lagging behind in the areas of oil exploration, manufacturing and the rest, but we should be able to do something in clearing the mess made by oil exploration with our own local technology. That was the target. I will like you to understand that I am not from the riverine area to really know the full impact of oil spill but we are being affected one way or the other.
For instance, the allocation being shared by all tiers of government comes from oil, and if a barrel of oil is coming at the rate of $100 and this company is paying about 30 cents for the environmental impact cleaning of the oil industry, (Nigeria currently produces about 2.6 million barrels per day) according to a recent release.
This means that if you are paying 30 cents each on 2.6 million barrels, we are talking about US$800,000 per day, going to Health, Safety and Environment (HSE). Convert that to naira and you are talking of over N50 or N60 million everyday. It is interesting to know that our solution is not tied to imported input.
The local raw materials we are using are from agricultural waste; we are talking of those things we burn down on the farms after harvest – corn cobs, groundnut shells, rice husks etc. Fortunately, these things are well distributed all over Nigeria so if we put these things to full commercial usage, the plant can be sited anywhere in Nigeria. We already got our intellectual property covered with the patent issued by the Nigerian Patent Office and it is even attracting a lot of international attention.
The incredible thing about this solution is that based on the information we got from the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), we got to know that the imported enzymatic cleaning agent takes between 11 and 12 months to clean oil spill especially in the riverine areas but our own solution will clean within just 10 minutes.
You can see the difference – 12 months to 10 minutes. So this is what makes a real innovation not just to impress or gain academic feat. We are solving problems for the purpose of generating revenue for local people in every part of Nigeria so as to be able to impact the real revenue earner for the country which is oil and gas.
This solution is already patented and we are currently receiving a lot of boost and cooperation from the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) and the Ministry of Petroleum Resources. There is a lot of interest from abroad and some local agents of these international operators are already talking with us.
The solution has been tested. This thing can really grow to a full commercial entity and create jobs. The local capability is already here with us, we only need to act and make good use of it so that other endeavours from other areas could be really encouraged so that they won’t say that Nigerian technicians and engineers are doing nothing.
Our bio-diesel is made from cassava as a source of alcohol (ethanol), then we got our fatty acid from vegetable oil as a source of triglycerides so basically, any theory about bio-diesel involves the esterification of alcohol with fatty acids to produce glycerine.
In our own case, we use ethanol instead of methanol which is still tied to petroleum and which means that world-wide, people are still making methyl ether for bio-diesel; they are still tied to petroleum products. But our technology is unique. The cassava is hydrolysed using acid-base hydrolysis and then we use fermentation method to produce ethanol from the hydrolysed cassava. Hydrolysis of cassava gives you glucose.
Another interesting thing about our process is that after you have used either starch or carbohydrate to produce your ethanol, you must carry out distillation process to remove the ethanol from the sludge. Fortunately, at Berekotry, we were able to do our in-house research and developed a catalyst that enables us to jump that stage of distilling out the ethanol before using it.
We use it in-situ; that means we don’t have to remove the ethanol from the sludge. We send the fatty acid into the ethanol in-situ. The fatty acid then goes in there due to the catalyst we have developed, to scavenge for the alcohol in the sludge. We now have three-layered final product. The topmost layer is clear oil (bio-diesel), the middle one is the unconverted cassava sludge because you cannot have 100 per cent conversion of cassava to ethanol. The best conversion you can get now is 16 per cent. The bottom layer is clear glycerine which is applicable in pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. There is vast market for that. We have used our bio-diesel to run a made-in-China 2-stroke, 4.41 Kw engine.
Weed control agent: Fortunately, we were not trying to create more problems because cassava sludge would have been another environmental nuisance if you did not know what to do with it. So for an average researcher, that would have been an impediment. Nobody has been able to do what we are doing here, converting cassava 100 per cent to final products. We were able to really convert the cassava sludge into weed control agents for farms and we have used it for over six years.
*Wood treatment and preservation: This sludge has also been converted for wood treatment and preservation (there is a market of almost US$1 billion worldwide now for this solution). It is a potential alternative to chromated copper arsenate.
*Vegetable/fruit preservative: We also got another product, a vegetable/fruit preservative from the pre-emergency control and wood treatment solution. We preserved a tomato fruit and ground pepper in the preservative since September 2009. We are yet to conduct toxicological test on the preservative. This preservative can keep all our perishable vegetables and fruits fresh for as long as possible. This will create jobs.
*Laboratory specimen preservative: Again, we were able to use the cassava sludge to preserve a rat specimen since June 2009.
*Fur removal extract: From the cassava sludge, we got an extract for fur removal for leather processing. The solution can remove fur from leather in just 30 minutes while the one in the market presently, takes a minimum of seven days. The National Institute of Leather Research in Zaria is currently working on a sample they got from us (There is a market of US$6 billion worldwide for this).
*Bio-plastics: We have been able to produce bio-plastics and composites from the sludge. The bio-plastics were made from vegetable oil and cassava sludge via emulsion polymerization. If you give us all the pure water sachets you throw away, we can use the resin we make from this to recycle them. The bio-plastics and composites can be applied in the automotive industry to make the bumper, dashboard, door handles, mirror cases etc.
*Artificial wood: We have been able to offer solution to drainage blockage by removing the commonest culprit which is pure water sachets and other things, and we use them to make artificial wood using the resin from the pure water nylon. We have been able to turn all those things constituting environmental nuisance, to artificial wood. This wood can serve this economy. Some Asian countries have no forests, so Nigeria can be importing waste plastics from these countries, make them into wood for export. All these things are made via cold mould, no special machine needed. The product is so strong that you can use sawing machine on it and you can drill it.
*Fertilizer: We made fertilizer from the sludge which has been tested on our farm and the yield was high.
The cassava sludge is so versatile and that is why I said it is even much more important than the primary focus, bio-diesel, we are talking about.
Anti-fungal agent: If you have athlete’s foot and you apply the chemical directly on the spot every other day, it will take about one month to clear it.
I had athlete’s foot and as I was working on the chemical, it touched the spot by accident, it was a bit painful. After about three weeks, the athlete’s foot went away. If you have fresh wound and you apply the chemical, it will just act like iodine but it works the other way round.
The wound will be healed but it will not close up immediately, it takes it longer time to close up which means it is retarding cell growth. It does not allow infection, it disinfects but it will not allow cells to grow fast. I now realised that this thing could be applied to cancer cells. We are doing further research on that.
We also have lubricant and detergent builders for domestic & industrial use, all from the cassava sludge. This means that nothing is wasted in our process. So basically, we have been able to really touch all aspects of the economy – automotive, oil & gas, pharmaceutical, agriculture etc.
We want to build a sustainable country for children yet unborn and probably serve as role model for young unemployed Nigerians who feel that they have been forsaken and that the end of the road has come for their profession due to the limited exposure they are getting in the country as a result of the import-oriented economy we are running. So we want to serve as a good example of how people can harness their talents and local raw materials for their use and also bequeath a sustainable environment to the next generation.