Craving Alternative Energy: ABU Zaria and UN Nsukka In-depth Progress (2), Professor MK Othman

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Professor Benjamin Ozumba

As stated in the first part of this article, the fourth effort ABU Zaria is making to source for alternative energy is the conversion of typha grass into biogas, animal feeds and organic fertilizer. This effort is through one of the university’s research centers: National Agricultural Extension and Research Liaison services (NAERLS).

Typha grass is one of the resource materials with higher potentials for biogas generation. The plant is aquatic in nature and highly prolific with occupation and blockage capability of the inland waterways and irrigation channels. It can store a large amount of energy by growing fast and producing large biomass, and this, in turn, pollutes the environment. This has been a major problem in the Hadejia Valley irrigation project in northern Nigeria. At this irrigation scheme, the plant threatens economic activities, health and livelihood of the surrounding communities.

Typha growth negatively affects the productivity of rice fields; blocks water channels, impedes the flow of rivers, hinders navigation and fishing, and increases flooding risks. The grass covers significant percentage of the irrigation canals and drainage networks crisscrossing the entire 22,000 hectares of the irrigation land in Hadejia Valley Irrigation project. It tails the Hadejia River down to the Nguru wetlands. Typha grass is pervasively an ecological problem with serious threat to surrounding environment.

However, typha grass has astronomical potential to be used as a renewable energy source for generation of methane as well as conversion into animal feed. Methane is an odorless and highly flammable gas, which is a product of biological decomposition of organic matter. Despite this potential as an energy source, no effort was made to convert the grass environmental menace to economic opportunity. This could be attributed to the low rate of cellulosic digestion, as well as ability to slow specific growth rates of microorganisms involved in anaerobic conversion in conventional bioreactors. The typha grass project team innovated means of enriching microorganism with high cellulose degrading abilities through the use of rumen fluid that enhances Typha biomass degradation for biogas generation.

The Typha project team recorded excellent results at the laboratory experimentation; the microorganisms were able to degrade the grass   and provided a source of clean energy for lighting, heating, and cooking. Thus, the team was able to conceive innovative sustainable solutions to typha menace with high potentials of providing affordable power for Nigerians in rural areas and also improving the health and livelihood of families. This novel and unique technology for the economic conversion of typha biomass into biogas and animal feed with high efficiency provides a totally new approach to addressing environmental menace. It is indeed a great relief to the Nigerian people the opportunity of transforming the invasive typha weed into biogas to use locally in their communities and at the same time use of it directly as a raw material for animal feed, when harvested in early stages of plant growth or ensiling to use during the dry season.

The typha grass project is beyond addressing the environmental dilapidation of the irrigation project area, it has high level of diplomatic and academic niceties. Four universities in three different countries located in three different continents constituted the project team of researchers. The universities are ABU Zaria (NAERLS) and Federal University Gashua, Nigeria; University Polytechnic of Madrid, Spain, and University of Maryland, USA. Prof Eva Iglesias Martínez of Centre for the Management of Agricultural and Environmental Risks (CEIGRAM) UPM, Spain heads the multi-disciplinary team of typha Project researchers from these universities.

The project is one the World Bank funded activities in Nigeria under the Project- Transforming Irrigation Management in Nigeria (TRIMING) of the Federal Ministry of Water Resources. The research commenced in 2017 and has a 3 – year duration for completion. The broad objective is to develop alternative management and economic uses of typha biomass. This is done by converting the typha into an opportunity to improve livelihood of Nigerian people with emphasis on women as household managers using typha for biogas production and animal nutrition. Over the years, typha has become uncontrolled and invasive in the irrigation channels, rivers and agricultural land of the Hadejia Valley Irrigation Project (HVIP). The project is all encompassing with ten specific objectives including assessment of the long-term sustainability as well as evaluation of the social, environmental and economic impacts of the project on the people and environment in the study area. The project is aimed at transforming the ecological devastation of irrigation schemes caused by typha grass to economic opportunities and improvement of living standard.

In the last two years when the project started, a lot of water has passed under the bridge: one Nigerian PhD student, personnel of ABU Zaria has completed his experimentation and field work in University of Maryland and ABU Zaria. Two other students, one from Federal University Gasua and the other from ABU Zaria are pursuing MSc programs under the project. The PhD student used factorial experimental design to investigate the viability of biogas production from factorial combinations of typha growth stages, mixing with rumen fluid as inoculant source. It was quite an intensive work that brought out excellent methodology on how to convert the grass to biogas and organic fertilizer. The best combination was that of dried 50 gramspre-bloom typha, grinded into 1-mm particle size and mixed with rumen media. This combination produced10,142 ml volume of gas and generated 234 ml/g of volatile solid (VS).In days to come, the project will make biogas digesters available for the benefit of the communities.

In addition to benefiting the young Nigerian scientists in their PhD and MSc programs, there have been series of exchange visits before and during the project implementation. The researchers exchanged visits within and in-between Nigeria, Spain and USA with bounties of academic opportunities, knowledge and experience sharing as well as capacity building among the researchers and other stakeholders. These are efforts of ABU Zaria in anxious search of alternative energy to meet her daily needs. Now what are the efforts of UN Nsukka?

In Nigeria, the week of 18th March 2019 was awash with media blitz of UN Nsukka innovation in generating electricity using organic waste. Daily Post (online Newspaper) of 21st March and News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) of 19th March 2019 were among the media that reported Prof Benjamin Ozumba, the Vice-Chancellor expressing his happiness over the inauguration of the locally generated electricity. He was quoted saying, “University of Nigeria Nsukka would no longer be a customer to Enugu Electricity Distribution Company (EEDC)”.

“I am happy that the university under my watch has witnessed innovations and transformation, as today another feather has been added to the cap of my administration”. He further said “This is the first of its kind in the country, using of waste to generate electricity. By the time more of the plants are produced that will cover every part of the university, millions of naira will be saved every month, as UNN will longer pay monthly electricity bill to EEDC, ” The Vice Chancellor commended research team led by Prof Emenike that produced the Refuse Driven Fuel (RDF) gas plant. Prof Ejiogu, from the Department of Electrical Engineering of the university similarly praised Ozumba on his belief of making record-breaking innovations to transform UN Nsukka.

Ejiogu was quoted saying, “The 100 KVA RDF project is designed and fabricated by laboratory of industrial power devices and energy system under special grant by Ozumba. The aim is to enable UNN to generate its own electricity with organic waste that will serve as fuel”. He further said “UNN power demand now is 3 megawatts, so with twelve 250KVA of RDF plants, the electricity supply need of the university will be met. It is cheaper and can carry more load than solar energy installation.

With RDF plant in your house or office, it will carry your air-conditioner, deep freezers, pressing iron and other things in your house…” This is another giant effort from Ivory Towers in search of alternative energy. ABU Zaria and UN Nsukka were both pushed to the wall to think out of the box for a sustainable solution to perennial and unending energy crisis: short supply, high cost and unreliable. There are may be several other pockets of effort in similar way to find lasting solution to national energy crisis/embarrassment. Can there be synergy? Perhaps, National Universities Commission or the Energy Commission of Nigeria can champion this course.

Professor Othman is the Executive Director of National Agricultural Extension and Research Liaison Services (NAERLS), ABU Zaria.

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