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BIOFUELS: HOW PREPARED IS NIGERIA?

By: Ugochukwu Anieto

Published September 7th, 2010

In the wake of unending oil drilling catastrophes giving rise to massive destruction of the ecosystem, irresponsible onshore/offshore drilling practices, environmental concerns such as increased green house emissions (GHG), political instabilities within the oil producing regions, rising concerns over the continual availability of fossil fuels- Nigeria’s cardinal source of foreign exchange, fluctuating oil market, politics of oil trading within the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), brain drain as a result of underemployment of Nigeria’s university and polytechnic graduates, it has become exigent for Nigeria to join the rest of the world in the search for renewable energy which is biofuel.

Fanaei et.al (2008) defined biofuel as a liquid or gaseous fuel for the transport sector that is produced from biomass. Brazil and the United States are currently the world leading nations in biofuel production utilizing sugarcane and corn respectively in the quest for this all important fuel. Brazil currently has motor vehicles that are engineered to run on only bioethanol- the most common of biofuels. Notwithstanding these enviable feat, bioethanol is not yet a perfect fuel for operating the current design of motor vehicles given to so many shortcomings which include but not limited to corrosiveness of ethanol and its hygroscopic nature – high water content could lead to phase separation between the water and gasoline. Currently 5% to 30% ethanol is blended with gasoline in so many developed countries as a means of reducing the carbon imprints associated with using pure gasoline, increased octane rating (ethanol is converted to ethyl tertiary-butyl ether to raise the octane level of gasoline and promote cleaner combustion) as well as serving as anti-knocking agent are some of the known benefits of biofuel. Until automobiles and other machines that use gasoline are re-designed to operate fully on biofuel, blending continues to be nearest and very necessary usage of bioethanol. Nigeria nay Africa can neither afford to convert sugarcane nor corn to biofuel for such common reasons such as the widely debated food versus fuel campaign which simply means that it will be inhuman to channel food to the production of fuel when the vast majority of the populace are nearly feeding from dustbins. Other environmental impacts are the expensive irrigation practices and the pressure on land use. Extremely weak research activities to generate the best strains of crops taking the least time from germination to maturation as well as having desirable traits to make the entire process profitable. Another minor/overcomeable issue could be poor management style as exemplified in almost every facet of the Nigerian life, this is one singular factor is militating against us in the quest for total self reliance. Having mentioned all these drawbacks, shall we rend our clothes and pour ash on our heads in defeat? The answer is NO. There is an upheaval in the pursuit of biofuel production using agricultural, industrial and municipal wastes as primary substrates. Corn stover, crop straws, sugarcane bagasse, herbaceous crops (alfalfa, switch grass), short rotation woody crops, forestry residues, waste paper and other wastes (municipal and industrial) are currently used in the quest for sustainable biofuel production. Currently the production volume is a little above 30 billion litres and climbing, this represents about 2% of the total gasoline usage worldwide. Nigeria has environmental management problems especially in the commercial cities. Many cities are suffused with wastes as a result of extremely poor/inefficient disposal systems in place. Some the systems in place were designed by the colonial masters and no longer technically feasible. Municipal wastes generated in everyday life could be turned into biofuels with the right technologies and of course the right attitude. The switch grass, poplar, alfalfa etc which can be used for our biofuel production grow on marginal lands and the need for irrigation and extensive monitoring is totally eliminated. Agricultural wastes could be channelled for the same process at no cost or threat to our food chain. Industrial wastes which as at now constitute a major biohazard are also cheap sources of our biofuel substrate. Industrial waste could come from food and beverages processing companies, paper mills, etc. Biodegradable municipal solid wastes (BMSW) represent the cheapest and easiest means of providing substrate for our biofuel industry. Nigeria is groaning under the burden of excessive municipal waste, the easiest form of disposal amongst city dwellers is to throw out the trash into drainages during light to heavy rainfall. This is of tremendous public health concern with the vast majority of Nigerians becoming ill due to contamination of our food and water sources. Waste management has never been easier than using it for our biofuel production. As a matter of fact, the idea of landfills is being phased out in advanced countries. European legislative pressures target for minimising landfill use in European countries and the amount of biodegradable municipal solid waste (BMSW) going to landfill must be reduced by 25% by 2010, 50% by 2013 and 65% by 2020. Do we as a nation have such a plan? I don’t think so.



Nigeria and the rest of Africa are virgin lands for biofuel production, Antoni et.al (2007) noted that Biofuel industry in Africa is marginal whereas production potential is enormous. With the exception of South Africa, Africa is still in the woods and making very limited attempts at coming close to understanding the immense gains of utilization bioethanol at least in blend with gasoline for better protection of our environment. The environmental impact of crude oil spillage which was a recurring decimal with the Niger-Delta regions of Nigeria is still being felt till today. The latest oil spillage in the Gulf of Mexico involving British Petroleum could cost more than the estimated $20 billion dollars to clean up and the cleaning up process could take several years. No mention could be made here as to the likely rearrangement/distortion of the entire ecosystem as a result of this terrible spillage. Nigeria’s economic backbone rest on crude oil with very little contribution from other sectors. So many other ventures have been attempted but failed, a problem that is largely attitudinal- allowing the wrong persons to run such intended money making ventures and with very little accountability. Nigeria has all that it takes to research extensively into biofuel production and by this I mean starting with the two most promising biofuel- Bioethanol and Biobutanol. Our government must think futuristic here, our oil reserve may not last forever and even if it will, once the biofuel production is optimized in leading research countries, our earning capabilities might be greatly hampered. This would be another catastrophe for the economy. It is left for the government to design and implement a sustainable biofuel production programme employing the services of skilled professionals in the industries to design a formidable process, faculties of various higher institutions in several disciplines and the armies of students (from undergraduate to doctoral candidates) to work on the research ranging from the target microorganisms to use and the best substrates for each microorganism, management practices, engineering, environemental issues etc, this programme if implemented could employ millions of unemployed and/or underemployed Nigerians . Currently most bioethanol and biobutanol production rely on known species of such microorganisms as Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Zymomonas mobilis, Pichia stipitis, Clostridium acetobutylicum, Trichoderma reesei Streptococcus fragilis, Kluyveromyces fragilis, Klebsiella oxytoca, Erwinia chrysanthemi etc. Research could identify novel strains within these species that could surpass the abilities of the current strains, even an entirely new microorganism with the desirable traits- high ethanol/butanol yield could be discovered in the quest. Because the current microorganisms have their own limitations; the first target here should be genetic engineering of the known strains to optimize their performance from saccharification to fermentation. British Petroluem (BP) supports the biofuel research centre of University of California at Berkeley with $500 million dollars. I do not know the extent of support given to Nigerian Universities for such research activities by the locally operating oil companies and even if they support research how would the funds go to research hungry professors without unnecessary influence by university management? The way forward here is extensive research involving a lot of academic areas. Government must also invest money into this programme by supporting the training of Nigerians to study the entire biofuel production process.  Some of our crude oil profits must be channelled towards this noble venture. Remember researchers are toiling night and day to break the OPEC monopoly through sustainable and cost effective biofuel production and once the process becomes optimized in terms of cost; our economy would face serious challenges if it hopes to cling on to crude oil exportation. The way is long and the journey is arduous. Nigeria must learn that pain is a process not an end result. How else can we build a lasting legacy if not to join this research now? The cost of biofuel production continues to go down every day, once the desired cost is achieved, Nigeria may turn into a biofuel importing nation. The current draw back in using lignocellulosic materials are recalcitrance, low product yield, product inhibition due to undesirable by side products after pretreatment, inability of scientists to identify “the do it all” microorganism, capable of starting the process of hydrolysis to fermentation effectively but all these draw backs are being overcome day by day. Nigeria as a major crude oil producer must invest now in biofuel research from the immense earnings of crude oil.

 

Ugochukwu Anieto

Ph.D student,

Texas, USA.




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