Last Thursday, Nigerian-born Dr Mathew Aneke won the 2019 Nigeria Prize for Science, alongside a Chinese researcher, Wang Meihong, for their works on carbon capture, utilization, and biomass gasification and energy storage for power generation.
Aneke, an indigene of Enugu State and a Chartered Energy Engineer, who works at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, speaks in this interview about his award winning research among other issues.
Kindly give us information about your background, up to the events leading to your relocation abroad.
I’m a Chartered Engineer with the UK Engineering Council, a Member and a Chartered Energy Engineer with the Energy Institute and a Fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy.
I’m from Amokwe, Udi Local Government Area of Enugu State. Prior to leaving the shores of Nigeria to continue my study and professional career development overseas, I had my first degree in Chemical Engineering from Federal University of Technology, Owerri, Imo State. I graduated in 2004 and emerged as the best graduating student of Chemical Engineering. After my National Youth Service programme in Maiduguri, Borno State, I obtained the Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PTDF) Overseas MSc scholarship to Study MSc in Process Systems Engineering at Cranfield University, United Kingdom. It was this scholarship that led to my relocation to the UK to continue my career development. .
Your award-winning research focused on carbon capture, utilization, biomass gasification and energy storage for power generation. What is this about?
I was able to put together the award-winning research proposal because of many years of experience working in diverse research areas. First of all, I would like to elaborate on my research expertise, as I believe this will help the audience to understand the concept of carbon capture, utilization, biomass gasification and energy storage.
Immediately after completing my MSc programme in 2009, I obtained a PhD scholarship from the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) — a UK Government Research Funding Body — to complete a PhD programme at Northumbria University, Newcastle Upon Tyne, United Kingdom.
I completed my PhD in Process and Energy Systems Engineering in 2012. I completed my PhD research work (before the official three-year duration) without correction. The title of my PhD thesis was ‘Optimizing Thermal Energy Recovery, Utilization and Management in the Process Industries.’ The research work showcased how waste heat from process industries, especially the food and drink industries in the UK, could be utilised to generate electricity using the organic Rankine Cycle technology, thereby reducing the carbon footprint of process industries and improve their energy efficiency.
The book that emerged from my PhD research is currently available in Amazon and ebay online stores. The title is ‘Optimizing Thermal Energy Recovery, Utilization and Management in the Process Industries.’ Mind you, this ORC technology could be used to convert Nigeria’s gas flaring to electricity. This is currently being practised in other countries, but this is a topic for another day.
The successful completion of my PhD research spurred me to undertake research in areas that can help combat climate change, which is currently a global threat to mankind.
I took up my first research fellowship in 2013 at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, where I worked with Professor Johann Gorgens on the development of biorefinery strategies for the conversion of sugarcane bagasse (the dry pulpy fibrous residue that remains after sugarcane or sorghum stalks are crushed to extract their juice) and post-harvest organic waste materials to bio-fuels, biochemicals and electricity. The work showcased how biomass materials could be efficiently utilised for the production of different value-added products instead of the current common practice, especially in Africa, of burning them for energy generation purposes, which is inefficient.
Based on our work, we were able to secure the South Africa Green Fund research grant and the Swiss-NRF research grant both of which I was a co-investigator. These grants enabled us to further investigate various biomass conversion techniques, including biochemical and thermochemical (pyrolysis and gasification) conversion processes for the efficient utilization of biomass materials for bioenergy and biochemical production.
After my research activities in South Africa, I returned to the UK in 2014 to continue my quest to find solutions to issues relating to climate change. I joined the University of Hull, UK, as a research Fellow. At Hull, I worked on several EPSRC, NERC and industry-funded projects, including Liquid Air Energy Storage, Carbon Capture, CO2 Utilisation, Thermochemical Conversion of Biomass to value-added products and Energy Efficiency Improvement of Industrial Processes. While in Hull, my work on Energy Storage received the Applied Energy most-cited paper Award for two consecutive years (2016/2017 and 2017/2018).
I later joined the University of Sheffield in 2016, where I was involved in the development of materials and processes for industrial carbon capture processes with focus on energy intensive industries such as cement manufacturing, refineries and iron and steel industries. As part of this research, I participated in the development of novel hydrotalcite material (a clay kind of material) which acts as CO2 adsorbents. When this material is placed in industrial effluent streams, they are capable of removing CO2 from the stream and allow the CO2-free effluent to be discharged into the atmosphere. By this, we can reduce the amount of CO2 emission into the environment. By the way, CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and thus its uncontrolled release into the environment is responsible for the global warming which causes climate change.
When you capture the CO2, the next question is what to do with the captured CO2. I have carried out research into this area and have looked at different ways in which CO2 can be utilised or transformed into other useful products. I have put all these experiences and expertise together to generate the novel idea I proposed in my award-winning proposal.
What I proposed in my award-winning proposal, especially when we narrow it down to Nigerian environment, is a “zero waste” strategy in which, instead of the indiscriminate felling of trees due to the over-dependence on fuel-wood (firewood) for energy, for cooking and lighting (the main cause of deforestation in Africa, including Nigeria), we can carry out pyrolysis of waste biomass material (wood chips and post harvest organic waste) to produce bio-oil, bio-syngas and bio-char.
The bio-oil (a renewable energy) can be used to replace kerosene (a fossil fuel) for cooking and lighting application, thereby reducing CO2 emission which causes global warming. The bio-char has good CO2 adsorption properties and can be used to remove CO2 directly from the atmosphere through a phenomenon known as direct air capture; while the bio-syngas can either be used as fuel for cooking or for the regeneration of the spent bio-char. After using the bio-char for removing CO2 from the atmosphere, the spent bio-char can be mixed with soil to improve the soil carbon content, thus improving the soil health, which is good for agriculture and to reduce desertification.
I also recommended using the captured CO2 for greenhouse farming and concrete making. So, the award-winning idea I proposed provides a holistic solution to tackle the issue of climate change, including desertification, deforestation, erosion and drought.
As you can envisage, the process I put together to develop the award-winning proposal was a combination of all the research experience I have gathered over the years in the area of carbon capture, CO2 utilisation, biomass pyrolysis/gasification and energy storage
Why this particular research topic?
I proposed this research topic because it aligns with the theme of the 2019 NLNG Science Prize competition, which is to develop solution that can help combat climate change, including drought, desertification, deforestation and erosion, with emphasis on Nigeria. The climate change comes from global warming, which arises due to the increase in the emission of anthropogenic CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Hence, the first step in combating climate change is to first reduce the emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gas into the environment.
Talking about biomass gasification and energy storage for power generation, how may this help in relocating Nigeria’s power supply, for instance?
Gasification technology involves turning organic or fossil-based materials into gaseous fuel generally known as syngas. It occurs at high temperature in the presence of gasifying agents (mostly steam or air) and in limited supply of air. With this technology, we can convert virtually any organic material, including municipal solid waste, biomass and plastics into fuel that can be used for power generation. This can be utilised for distributed power generation systems.
In Nigeria, the use of gasification technology can help us not only to generate low carbon electricity but also for waste management. By this, I mean that we can gasify the waste materials scattered in open dumpsites all over the country and use them to produce electricity. Other countries, including the City of Sheffield where I live in the UK, are converting household waste to electricity using gasification technology. So, I see this as a useful technology that can be used to both generate electricity and efficiently utilise our wastes. This provides a two-fold solution, i.e. low carbon electricity generation and waste management.
The concept of energy storage is very crucial as we gradually move to a low carbon world where renewable energy technologies are used to displace fossil-based energy systems. The renewable energy systems like wind and solar are intermittent. As a result, we need to store the energy from them when they are available and use the energy during peak demand. My work in the area of energy storage is based on using liquid air or compressed air as the energy storage medium.
What do you hope to do with your award money?
First of all, I thank the 2019 NLNG Prize for Science Advisory Board for finding my work worthy enough to receive this prestigious science prize. This is part of what encourages us to go back to the laboratory to continue our work in search of solutions for the world’s climate challenge. As it is at the moment, human beings are not doing enough to save our environment from climate change. So, this award will go a long way for me to continue my work in my chosen field.
Currently, I am working on developing new and novel materials with high CO2 affinity. This award will help me continue my work in this area. Again, I intend to use part of the money in sensitizing members of the public on how to reduce CO2 emission. For instance, we know that simple changes in our way of life such as using the stairs instead of the lift when possible, using public transport instead of private cars, switching off your light when not needed can go a long way in reducing CO2 emission and the associated climate change.
What are you working on currently?
As I said earlier, I am working on the development of new and novel materials with high CO2 affinity.
Did you ever think you could win the award?
I wouldn’t say that I am certain that I will win the award, but I was convinced that the solution I put together for the competition was of international standard, technically sound and technologically feasible. I have competed in several international research grant competitions, some of which have been successful, including the South Africa Green Fund and the Swiss-NRF grant Award.
Which other awards have you won before, and for which research topic(s)?
I have won several awards in the past, some of which have been mentioned earlier in this interview. For instance, I won the Federal Government of Nigeria undergraduate scholarship award in 2003, Chemical Engineering Best Graduating Student Award at the Federal University of Technology, Owerri, Imo State, in 2004; PTDF Overseas MSc Scholarship Award in 2007, EPSRC PhD scholarship Award in 2009, Stellenbosch University Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2013 (for research in bio-refinery), co-investigator in South Africa Green Fund Research Grant Award in 2013 for research in the conversion of sugarcane bagasse to biofuel, electricity and heat; co-investigator in Swiss-NRF research grant award in the conversion of post-harvest residue to value-added products in 2013; Applied Energy most-cited paper award for two consecutive years (2016/2017 and 2017/2018). I was also a semi-finalist in the Elsevier Green Chemistry Grant competition in 2016 for my work in water-energy nexus.
Any other information you may want to share with us
Reliable energy supply is one of the major challenges facing Nigeria. I am keen to use my expertise to help solve Nigeria’s energy crisis. As I said earlier, every gas flaring site in Nigeria is a potential power plant. As the Nigerian government is looking for ways to commercialise gas flaring in Nigeria, I am open to participate in the discussion whenever given the opportunity to do so.
I thank my family, especially my wife (Ugo-chidi Aneke), my kids, my mum and my siblings for all their support over the years. I would also like to thank The Punch for giving me this special opportunity to discuss my award-winning proposal and how it can benefit Nigeria. Thank you so much.