“In Africa millions of people lack access to stable electricity”. Musa Bishir is on the quest for a change

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During the ELLS Student Conference 2019, in Uppsala (see article), I had the opportunity to attend Musa Bishir’s presentation about his Ph.D. research project on microbial fuel cells. After his presentation, I asked him if he was available to have a talk about his background and interests. We sat in the library in Ultuna campus, (the conference’s venue), which is part of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU).

From Africa to Europe

Musa Bishir comes from the north-west part of Nigeria, from a village called Bakori. After completing his primary and secondary education, he moved to Zaria, about 75 km from Bakori, to study microbiology at Ahmadu Bello University. As soon as he finished his first degree he was employed as a teacher at the same university, where he is still a lecturer. In 2016, he finished his Master degree. Immediately, Musa Bihir started his Ph.D. at the same university. In 2017, he was suggested to apply for a scholarship by a colleague, and one of his former lecturers. He followed her suggestion and he won the scholarship from PTDF, the Petroleum Technology Development Fund, who has a partnership with DAAD, the German Academic Exchange Service. Since it was a governmental scholarship, he had to be granted permission from his home university to study abroad. Therefore, he signed a bound to come back after the completion of the Ph.D. and he moved to Stuttgart, at Hohenheim University. He is currently working on proposals to continue with a post-doctoral research anywhere in Europe, and why not even in Denmark?

The Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PTDF) aims at creating high qualified Nigerian graduates in the field of the gas and oil industry, who, through research and adaptation of technology, can develop the industry. It does so by developing and upgrading local institutions that train and educate Nigerian, making available books and training equipment in these institutions, sponsoring visits to the oil fields, financing and participating in conferences and seminars about petroleum industry and finally, providing scholarships. PTDF offers one scholarship to study in Nigerian universities, and one to study abroad called: “Overseas postgraduate scholarship scheme under PTDF strategic partnerships in France, Germany, China and Malaysia. In his application process, Musa had to include a Ph.D. proposal relevant to the oil and gas industry, stating the expected development impact on the national development, the viability of the research plan and an admission letter from the receiving university. Musa got accepted in Stuttgart, working in team with his project supervisor, Andrea Kruse.

How to make an already existing technology sustainable and cheap

“Characterization of biogas digestate and corncob developed carbon electrodes used in microbial fuel cells”. This is the title of Musa’s research. Difficult to even grab the topic if you are not in the field, but let’s take one step at a time. Microbial fuel Cell (MFC) is a technology to produce electrical current using bacteria in wastewater. So instead of consuming energy to treat wastewater, we use wastewater as a power plant. “Wastewater is already rich in bacteria, like the one digested from biogas plants, so you don’t need to collect, or to add bacteria, they are already there”, Musa explained me.

Here is how it works (picture in the sidebar). Two chambers filled with wastewater are needed. One of the chambers is sealed so it cannot get access to oxygen and contains an anode. The second chamber contains a cathode and it is exposed to oxygen. Microbes in wastewater such as bacteria, adhere to the anode and, without oxygen, oxidize the organic matter present in wastewater to produce electrons (e), protons (H+) and carbon dioxide (CO2). The protons are free to pass from anode to cathode through the membrane that separates the two chambers. The electrons flow through an electric meter to the cathode. The flow of electrons generates electric current used for any utility. In the cathode chamber, microorganism use electrons to reduce the oxygen into water, or convert nitrate to nitrite or N2, or convert CO2 to acetate.

This technology is already a reality, but Musa and his team’s research try to make a step forward: they aim at finding more sustainable and cheap material to produce the electrodes, which now are made of graphite at a prohibitive cost. They came up with the idea of using corncob which is a farm waste material otherwise left on land or burnt producing CO2 emissions. Through the pyrolysis (thermal decomposition of organic material at high temperatures in the absence of oxygen) of corncobs they obtained a material with very good properties to be an electrode: high surface area for the colonization of the electrogenic bacteria, reliable stability in structure, and high electrical conductivity (read abstract in ELLS Scientific Student Conference 2019, p.38). “This gives a better application of this material over graphite, which is even expensive. And the good thing is that it is not only corncob biomass, nearly from all biomass you can produce this electrode material”, adds Musa.

Building up an interest 

I ask Musa how he got the interest in this field. He tells me that he first got fascinated by microorganisms because “we use microorganisms to produce valuable products to mass economic benefit, like in the production of bread, beer and wine, in biogas production”. This brought him to study microbiology in his bachelor with a thesis about biogases. During his post-degree he got interested in applying microorganisms or their products in industry. His master degree was about glutamic acid production, which, he explains me, is “an essential amino acid, because we cannot synthesized it in our system, but it is used in many industries as a flavour enhancer, and it increases neurologic response, because it is a neurotransmitter”.

When he started his Ph.D. in Nigeria, he wanted to work on enzymes production of tannase, an inducible enzyme produced by a variety of microorganisms and used in the treatment of wastewater contaminated with tannins [1]. At Hohenheim University though, he found himself working on developing carbon material for microbial fuel cells, which still deals with wastewater, but from a different angle. “I am very happy for this topic, because it allows me to apply my knowledge about industrial microbiology in agriculture”.

Suppling good water and electricity at the same time

The microbial fuel cell from biomaterial has many applications, as Musa explains me: “you can use them as soil amendment agent, as electricity generation, you can use them in biogas generation, you can even use them in the production of super capacitor in making car batteries so instead of having fossil fuels in our cars, which increases the emissions, we can have rechargeable electric cars, whose batteries are made from this biomass material”. It really seems the solutions to many problems, but there is something that Musa has considered only recently after that somebody at a conference pointed out the issue to him: the CO2 emissions from the microbial fuel cell is less compared to the combustion reaction, but still they are present, therefore pose a problem as Musa says: “we are trying to clean the environment by providing a substitute for the fossil fuel but at the same time you are also generating carbon dioxide, which is a problem”. He came up with the idea of capturing the carbon dioxide by plants in greenhouses, but the issue is still not solved. 

Regarding his personal future prospect, would Musa be glad to go back to Nigeria to implement this technology? Yes, he says, Nigeria or in Africa at large. “In most African countries, unlike Europe, millions of people lack access to stable electricity and that is why most of our industries are not functioning. At the same time, rural areas are suffering from access to good water supply. We can establish the fuel cell in our wastewater treatment and at the same time produce some electricity instead of requiring electricity for aeration of activated sludge system that are commonly used in wastewater treatment”. The investments and the facilities are a problem though, so for now he is planning to stay in Europe to continue with his post-doctoral research and find some partnership with Europe and some funding that can allow him to implement the technology in Africa.

Studying in Europe

Lastly, Musa tells me about his experience in Europe. Being his first time in Europe, everything is new and very different from his country, but the economic strength and the regulation policies of Europe are not comparable to the ones in Nigeria. Therefore, in his opinion, there is access to good facilities and equipment everywhere around Europe. “In Hohenheim, I have access to whatever I need anytime I want to do an experiment, I have the equipment, I have the facilities, I have access, so I will do it. Back in Nigeria sometimes you would be limited by availability of facilities so you have no chance in doing that”, even though the teachers and professors in Ahmadu Bello University are very motivated and encourage students a lot, something that Musa appreciates very much about his home university.

[1] C.N. Aguilar, C. Augur, E. Favela-Torres, G. Viniegra-Gonzales (2001). Production of tannase by Aspergillus Niger Aa-20 in submerged and solid-state fermentation: influence of glucose and tannic acid. Journal of Industrial microbiology and biotechnology, Nature publishing group.

Dori Zantedeschi is a Master student of Environmental Science in Europe, University of Copenhagen