Elhaj wins 2018 TWAS-Samira Omar Prize
Deforestation, loss of the upper soil layer from arable lands and desertification are among the problems that affect Sudan today. In addition, Sudan has a booming population with rising needs in terms of wood, charcoal and fuels that are used for heating, cooking and transportation.
Faced with these inter-related challenges, scientists must find new strategies to produce energy with a lower environmental impact. Hazir Farouk A. Elhaj is among them, and because of her work on the implementation of bioenergy technologies in Sudan, she was awarded the TWAS-Samira Omar Innovation for Sustainability Prize on 27 November at the 28th TWAS General Meeting in Trieste, Italy. The prize honours scientists from the 47 Least Developed Countries who work in an area relevant to sustainability.
Elhaj is a Sudanese researcher currently exploring the potential of cost-effective bioenergy technologies, to reduce wood and charcoal use and to cover the country's fuel demand by optimizing biodiesel and biogas production.
"I didn't expect this prize," she said. "But I'm excited! It is a great pleasure and honour that my efforts are appreciated and brought to the international level. This recognition will help me to expand my work and will encourage other researchers in the field which will bring real progress for the country."
Hazir F.A. Elhaj is an assistant professor in the department of mechanical engineering, Sudan University of Science and Technology (SUST), and the head of the statistics and information unit at the College of Graduate Studies. She holds a PhD in mechanical engineering with a focus on biofuels production and testing that she earned at SUST and the University of Technology Malaysia (UTM). In addition, she is a board member of the World Bioenergy Association, representing Sudan and North Africa, and a member of the Organization for Women in Science for Developing Countries (OWSD), a TWAS-affiliated organisation based in Trieste.
Her interests in low-impact bioenergy technologies stem from a personal desire: to support Sudan's advancement on an important economic issue. Sudan's energy demand, in fact, has almost doubled in the last two decades, going from 6.8 million tons of oil equivalent to 13.1 tons in 2015. And transport is the major source of consumption of oil derivatives, with diesel being the prominent fuel form, accounting for about half of total fuel consumption.
Bioethanol could be, in principle, a cleaner and more suitable option to fossil fuels, with less harmful impact on the environment. Sudan produces almost 65 million litres of bioethanol per year from molasses fermentation, but 90% of it is exported to Europe, and the rest is not widely available because it is used for medical or institutional services.
"A few years ago, Sudan realized there was the need to diversify the sources used to produce fuels," Elhaj said. In 2014, the government started selling E10 Nile-Ultra, a blend of 10% ethanol and 90% benzine. But in the long run, E10 turned out to be too expensive for the population. And the problem with energy was not solved.
"This is why I took active part in what is called Sudan Biofuels Roadmap, an initiative aimed at exploring effective strategies to optimize production and scale-up of biofuels, and in particular biodiesel," Elhaj explained.
Biofuels can be obtained from many sources, including sugar or starch crops; agricultural residues; harvested water hyacinth, and other decomposable materials; or from Jatropha oil, an excellent starting point for biodiesel.
Jathropa curcas is a small semi-evergreen tree, with seeds containing 27-40% oil that can be processed to make biodiesel. It is not the only oil-producing tree (Castor, Pongamia, Croton and Neem are others), but it is the one that best fits Sudan's climate. Improving Jatropha oil production is one area where Elhaj is applying her skills and the experience she gained working in Nordic countries, Malaysia, Turkey and Central Europe. Her goal is to further improve the extraction process and obtain higher biodiesel yields, at lower costs.
"Since Jatropha from different countries might have different yields, I decided to work on a variety long grown in Sudan," she explained. "I processed it for oil production both at UTM and SUST, and then tested the fuel in commercial engines. In the end I came up with my own processing parameters, which I now use in the biofuels lab we have recently established at SUST."
The first tests achieved 85% conversion yield from plant oil to biodiesel. Now, with experience, yields have reached up to 96%. And Jatropha seems a very good candidate for many reasons: Its plantations could help reverse Sudan's massive deforestation. Once the oil is extracted, residual seedcake can be used to produce biogas or compressed into pellets for heating and cooking, thus reducing the demand for wood and charcoal. In addition, standardizing the process could help small farms to achieve self-sufficiency and to create a sustainable biofuel market, with more jobs for local communities.
"The work currently done on the Jatropha-to-Biodiesel Road Map lays the foundation for development of an investment plan for large-scale Jatropha plantings," Elhaj observed. "And this prize from TWAS is going to be part of my future efforts: I really hope it will help me to achieve better recognition, and receive more support towards my work. This will be beneficial both for Sudan and the researchers who work in this field."
About the TWAS-Samira Omar Innovation For Sustainability Prize
This annual prize, named after the TWAS Fellow Samira Omar Asem, recognizes scientists from the 47 Least Developed Countries (LDCs). It includes a cash award of USD4,000 generously provided by Professor Omar. The “Innovation for Sustainability” Prize will reward scientists for their contribution in a multidisciplinary area directly relevant to the science of sustainability. The 2018 prize was intended for a scientist living and working in an LDC during the last two years immediately prior to his/her nomination, based on scientific achievements in any of several fields including: renewable energy, sustainable agriculture and agrobiodiversity, water purification and sanitation, climate change, waste management and biodiversity.
About Samira Omar Asem
Samira Omar Asem is the director general of the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR). She has been a TWAS Fellow since 2014 and currently serves as the Academy's treasurer. She is a rangeland manager, certified by the Society of Range Management, California Section, USA, and has extensively contributed to the conservation and sustainable development of renewable natural resources. She is also a member of the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD), and formerly served as vice president for the OWSD Arab Region. In addition, she was a regional councillor for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) West Asia Region (2013-2016), and a member of the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management. Omar holds a PhD in wild land resource science from the University of California, Berkeley.