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FUPRE’s VC, wants bush refiners organised into cooperatives

President Muhammadu Buhari has now signed into law, long-pending legislation, which classifies the Federal University of Petroleum Resources (FUPRE) as a specialized institution—and qualifies it for special funding.

Professor A.O.A. Ibhadode

This is another milestone, in FUPRE’s maturation. Though barely a decade old, the university is rapidly establishing itself as one of Nigeria’s premier technical and engineering institutions.

Paradoxically, this unique educational venture, situated at Effurun, Delta State, is also facing a looming crisis of relevance—as the world shifts rapidly away from petroleum, to cleaner energy sources.

Speaking with J.K. Obatala, the Vice Chancellor, Professor A.O.A. Ibhadode, insists that neither the escalating Energy Revolution nor the challenges of executing its current mandate, will curtail FUPRE’s progression.

Ibhadode enunciates a revised vision of FUPRE’s future, in which research and instruction is generic—encompassing new energy subsectors, such as fuel-cell and electrically powered engines.

He also articulates a panoply of pioneering programmes and projects—some with foreign collaborators.

Not surprisingly, for the pastor of a church (in Benin City), Ibhadode is socially empathetic. He believes illicit refiners ought to be reformed, rather than arrested, and has just established a philanthropic institution.

A distinguished production engineer (at the University of Benin), the Irrua (Edo State) indigene recently unveiled the Ibhadode Gifted Persons Foundation, in Benin City.

Congratulations, tardily, on finally attaining Specialized Status for FUPRE—and, also belatedly, on your establishment of the Ibhadode Gifted Persons Foundation.

Thank you…The Foundation is a way to give something back, to society. Because not everyone has had the privilege of being able to do the things I’ve done.

Specifically, I felt the need to establish a foundation that would care for very talented persons.

What I’ve observed, over the years, is that when such individuals are discovered—at exhibitions, trade fairs, etc.—government officials get excited, clap loudly… and make promises.

But after exiting the venue, they forget about their promises, leaving prospects with their hopes aroused—and, sadly, unfulfilled.

How does the Foundation work?

We will help improve the skills of gifted youth and, if possible, assist them in becoming gainfully employed—either by finding a job or starting up a small business, as an outlet for their talents.

Also, when a person comes up with new ideas, inventions or innovations, we will facilitate patenting and work with investors, to help commercialize their creation.

Your “small-refinery” research project is modeled, to some extent, after that of illicit bush refiners. But the Government has been arresting the bush operators. How is this going to affect your activities?

[Laughing] No, no, no! We didn’t quite have any relationship with them! What we did, was to study their processes, to see how we could improve on them—to get better products and reduce environmental degradation.

Then, we got in touch with the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR), which controls oil operations. They came and inspected what we were doing.

DPR advised us to upgrade our model, beyond the vision we had…otherwise, we might inadvertently encourage the so-called “illegal” operators.

In short, develop a more complex model that would be difficult for them to replicate?
Yes. One that would be more difficult for them to copy easily—so as not to provide any incentive for vandalizing pipelines, in order to get crude oil.

In our last interview, you suggested that, instead of arresting the bush refiners, Government should empower FUPRE to train them. But the operators are still being arrested!

[Laughing] Well, we were just talking on our own! Government obviously has not bought that idea!

The approach we are currently championing, is that, after FUPRE has fully developed its mini-refinery—which uses local resources—we should then be able to organize these bush refiners into cooperatives.

Professor A.O.A. Ibhadode

The cooperatives would be registered, making them legal entities. Former bush refiners could then source funding and have free access to crude. That is what we are looking at.

Foreign-manufactured modular or mini-refineries are not feasible, for bush operators—because their importation would be too expensive.

By contrast, our own mini-refinery will be affordable for the proposed cooperatives.
Are these guys still operating out there? Do you have any contact with them?

I’m sure they are still operating. But we don’t have any relationship with them.

FUPRE was liaising with Ahmadou Bello University, on refinery research. How far has this gone?

Well, there is now a Government committee on “Modular Refineries”. It consists of several universities and federal agencies—including the National Agency for Science and Infrastructure (NASCENI).

The committee has a mandate, to develop a modular refinery. We are involved with that committee.

Do you have a target date, for the execution of this project?

Yes. There are two phases. We have limited funding, for phase one.
A research group has done the design. They are now at the stage of fabricating units. It’s just one major unit that they want to fabricate.

We are hoping for funding from Government or some other source. We are looking for “angel” investors.

When funding comes, our engineers will proceed to execute the full blown project. We can have this thing running within a year—provided we get the funding.

A bill to provide legal backing for the university, has now been signed into law. What difference is this going to make?

It will set FUPRE apart, as a Specialized University—and entitle us to special funding. We’ve been operating, just like any other university.

But because of the specialized nature of this institution, our students are very few. Consequently, we cannot generate income, like the other institutions.

Where was your funding coming from, before?

Only from the Ministry of Education. It’s based on our student population, which is only about 3000—whereas the conventional universities have about 40,000 to 50,000.
So, operating without appropriate legal backing, has not been easy for us.
You recently established a “Helium Committee”.

Yes. As you are aware, I’ve directed the registrar to issue letters of appointment to members of the committee. You are an external member.

We were waiting to receive the terms of reference—which, as you know as well, the chairman has enunciated.

What do you expect this committee to achieve?

Its terms of reference are, first of all, to carry out a survey of Nigeria’s helium resources.

We want the committee to let us know where the helium deposits are and if we can quantify them.

After that, we’d like to know how Nigeria’s helium can be exploited, for the benefit of the country.

The industrialized states have begun to introduce legislation that will make the manufacture or importation of petroleum-powered vehicles (and the processing of petroleum) illegal, effective 2040. What are the implications for FUPRE—as a petroleum-focused institution?

The decision, taken in Paris, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is largely what’s driving these policies, to ban fossil fuels.

After the Paris Conference, in 2015, we immediately set up a committee to map out a new direction for FUPRE.

Indications are, that within the next few decades, petroleum may no longer be relevant. So, to ensure the university’s continued existence, we need a survival strategy.

The committee is still working–trying to make projections that will enable FUPRE to reconfigure its vision.

Energy, of some kind, is a necessity. Hence, I see FUPRE’s long term future as an energy university…instead of one that focuses narrowly on hydrocarbons…

Are you looking at hydrogen and fusion?

We are considering all feasible energy options—especially those that are sustainable and don’t pollute the environment.
Please walk me through some of the major engineering projects at FUPRE.

One area, of keen interest, is prime movers. Currently, the major ones are internal combustion engines that use petroleum.

FUPRE is avidly exploring the possibility of domestically manufacturing electric engines. That’s one major project we are working on.

Then, as Shell Professor Of Small Automobile Engine Development, I am spearheading an effort to develop conventional power plants, with reduced emissions—as an interim measure. From there, we will veer into electric drives.

This raises a crucial question: How can you achieve these very laudable objectives, when there is no industrial base? When the steel industry, for instance, is moribund?
Shouldn’t you combine this effort with advocacy—aimed at persuading government to
revive the steel industry?

You are right. That is a big problem. We are working through various avenues—urging Government to revive the steel and other primary industries.

Our advocacy is channeled through interest groups, such as the Nigerian Society of Engineers and the Materials Society of Nigeria.

Meanwhile, we’ll continue with our developmental work, against the time when primary industries are operational.

You recently installed a new Chancellor. How is he doing?

He’s doing very well. He’s helping us to reach out. He’s promoting our interests.
Has he raised any money for you?

[Laughing] We are still in the process. You know, it’s difficult to raise money, nowadays. But the prospects are very bright.

A few weeks ago, FUPRE went through an accreditation exercise. How did it go?

Very well. The Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria (COREN) appraised and accredited all five of our engineering programmes.

Also, the Nigerian Universities Commission considered ten FUPRE programmes. Nine were fully accredited. It has since approved the 10th—so that all prorammes considered are now accredited.

I think you have “diving” and “Offshore” studies here?

Yes. We have two marine centres. One is the Centre for Maritime and Offshore Studies, which is concerned with diving, seafaring and that type of thing. It is operated, here on campus, in collaboration with two companies—Ocean Dive and Generic Technology College.

Generic is based in the U.K., with a branch in Abuja. It provides courses for training in maritime vocations, such as seamanship and diving.

As a pastor, what are your views on the issue of secularization? You know, there was a conflict over “opening” and “closing” prayers, during my recent lecture on “Helium,” at FUPRE.

[Laughing] I believe religion should be left out of the educational system—especially at the university, where a free reign of ideas is essential.

Nobody should be tied down to a particular religion. Religion ought to be left out completely. It’s a personal thing.
Let’s discuss your MOUs.

Yes. We have signed quite a number of them. Some are working very well. An example, is I-Flow Energy Company, in the U.K.

We have floated a joint company with them, called FUPRE Energy Solutions Limited. Its purpose is to provide training, for the oil and gas industry and carry out consultancy services, along with some engineering development work.

We hope to launch our operation, as soon as conditions permit—possibly at the Eko Hotel, Lagos. It’s a big project.

Finally, we also operate the Centre for Safety Education, in collaboration with the Institute of Safety Professionals of Nigeria.

Perhaps ministries should be required to defer to the universities, before signing MOUs—since universities know better when, or if, external technical assistance is needed?

There’s some sense in that.
I’m curious about another centre, which you haven’t mentioned. That’s the Centre for Research and Innovation.

It’s purely a university-run organ, and did not result from any collaboration.
FUPRE has a number of products, which were developed at our laboratories. We needed an outlet, to promote these products, and facilitate their commercialization.

The Centre for Research and Innovation stages exhibitions, around the country. Last year, for instance, the Nigerian Content Development and Monitoring Board held a conference at the Eko Hotel, Lagos. Our products were displayed.

What kind of products did you exhibit there?

We had quite a number on display. Among them were a waste motor oil derivative–developed in collaboration with the Hyper-Trans Company. It’s a Lebanese-owned outfit, in Benin City.

We are trying to find a use for discarded motor oil, which currently degrades the environment. It’s converted to diesel-like fuel, to power diesel engines.

Then, FUPRE students have designed a pneumatic generator that uses compressed air, as the source of power. It’s a renewable energy source that dispenses with petrol or diesel.

Another device we’ve developed, controls the water level in a tank. It will pump water, then stop automatically. This is a simple technology, which we can sell to households.

Are any of your products generating revenue?

Yes. We market liquid soap locally, within the university, under the “FUPRE-Wash” brand name as well as sell fresh and smoked fish, from our pond.

Any space science or astronomy programmes in the making?

[Laughing] That’s your passion! You’ve connected us with the director general at the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA). We have not finalized that MOU. But we’re working on it. We want to use their facilities, in whatever way possible, to help drive our own operations here.


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