Biofuel from Gmelina fruit
Gmelina trees comprise around 60% of Nigeria's planted forest. However, the fruits of the tree are hardly used, either by people or animals - a huge, wasted resource. Processing the fruit flesh to extract ethanol could make Gmelina fruit a very valuable feedstock for the biofuel industry - producing a fuel that can power vehicles and generators, and cost much less than diesel. Collecting and processing the fruit could also be a good income generating activity for rural communities, and as a biofuel, the Gmelina-based fuel is more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels.
Onyekwelu Now we have discovered that there are lots of agricultural wastes that can be transformed to wealth. One of them is the fruit of Gmelina. Gmelina is a tree species that is native to parts of China. It's an exotic tree species in a lot of tropical countries. Nigeria is one of them. And in Nigeria, Gmelina is about 60% of our entire forest plantation and this tree species produces a lot of fruits every year and these fruits are always allowed to waste. So our interest was to look at how to convert this waste to wealth in terms of researching into the amount of ethanol that is bound into these fruits and if we succeed then this ethanol can be used at feedstock to biofuel. And we know that the more biofuel we have, then the less we depend on fossil fuel.
Asough So in essence when you talk about transforming waste to wealth you are saying that climate change is a blessing in disguise?
Onyekwelu Well I cannot say that it's a blessing in disguise but what I can say is that it has forced us to think more deeply on how to overcome the problem and that has led us to utilising things that otherwise we would not have thought of utilising. So it has challenged us in the scientific community to think wider. It has challenged us to look at resources with good potentials.
Asough You talked about the Gmelina fruits that get wasted and you are thinking about the amount of ethanol that can be gotten from there. How about how useful those fruits can be in terms of food for humans and maybe animals?
Onyekwelu We know that today commercial ethanol is produced from a lot of things that are edible to humans. For example sunflower seed is used in producing ethanol. We also have maize which is used and we also know that the palm fruit is being used also to produce commercial ethanol. And with the emergence of the recent food crisis, that began to make us to think, Are there no other feedstock we can use which are not edible to humans? And that was part of what led us to thinking about Gmelina fruit. Gmelina fruit is inedible, it is not consumed by humans and it is hardly consumed by animals. So it is a complete waste if nothing is done to it. So we are looking at it in this way, that if we succeed in this way we are going, then we will reduce the pressure on human edible ethanol feedstock.
Asough Well you are talking about biofuels and ethanol and all that from fruits from these plants. How about the sun that we have in Africa?
Onyekwelu Currently we know that yes, we can tap the solar energy to meet some of our energy requirements. But we know that the cost of providing solar cannot be met by a lot of inhabitants in Africa. I am not aware but I do not think that there are solar-powered vehicles, but if they exist, well that is good for us. The biofuel we are working at is to be used in powering our vehicles and the generators. Generators can be used to generate electricity in our rural environment. We also know that most people cannot afford to buy diesel to power their generators. So if we have alternative, cheaper alternatives, so why not?
Asough You talk about how expensive it is to the locals tapping the solar energy. How affordable will the biofuels be to the locals?
Onyekwelu We think it will be much cheaper because the process of production is also much cheaper and since we have these resources in abundance we will not think of the problem of acquiring the feedstock. So we believe that in the long run it is going to be much cheaper, giving the example in developed countries and then given the very simple technology that is used in getting this ethanol.
Asough Is it something that people can easily extract in their local industries and make use of?
Onyekwelu I would not say this of the Gmelina fruit because, like I said, the work we are doing is just at a preliminary stage. What we know about the Gmelina is that it doesn't have to go through cold press because we do not use the seed; it's a fruit pulp we use. You blend the pulp and it will go through simple process of ethanol extraction and then you get it.
Asough Are there other products that are wasted that could be transformed into wealth?
Onyekwelu Yes, there are so many. We know that there has been research into using the waste from the pod of bitter kola; and bitter kola is known all over Africa. Scientists have also looked into using maize cob, the one inside, as a white one inside that's much thrown away, and they have found that some ethanol can be gotten. There is also wheat straw; they have also found that you can get ethanol from it. Papaya which is commonly called paw paw has also been researched. That is the waste from it has been researched and found that they have some amount of ethanol. The intention is to try and research into as many as possible and then you come out with the ones that are sustainable, the ones that would be economically viable, and that is the one that would most likely be put into commercial production. End of track
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