INTERVIEW: How Nigerian scientists can compete globally — U.S.-based Nuclear Scientist (2)

Bamidele Omotowa, a Nigerian U.S.-based Chemist, Nuclear Scientist, and Co-Founder of Pearlhill Technologies
Bamidele Omotowa, a Nigerian U.S.-based Chemist, Nuclear Scientist, and Co-Founder of Pearlhill Technologies

Bamidele Omotowa is a Nigerian U.S.-based Chemist, Nuclear Scientist, and Co-Founder of Pearlhill Technologies. In this second part of his interview with Bunmi Fatoye-Matory, he speaks on his American experience and challenges Diaspora Nigerians and scientists face trying to help national development.

PT: Tell us about your American journey.

Omotowa: I was appointed as a Senior Research Scientist at the University of Idaho, where I understudied Prof Jean’ne M. Shreeve (my mentor) in the field of Fluorine Chemistry. She was trained at the University of Washington in Seattle in the early 1960s by Prof George Cady, one of the nuclear scientists that worked on the Manhattan Project in the 1945-1955 window.

I worked at the University of Idaho for six years and two months. It was a unique and prestigious field in the U.S and Europe, which was not available in Nigeria. I learned the bench techniques to manipulate the chemistry, the science, and some engineering of materials in my laboratory.

In 2004, I went to work with Idaho National Laboratory (INL). In 1951, the Experimental Breeder Reactor (EBR-I), the first reactor built in Idaho at the National Reactor Testing Station (now INL) became the world’s first power plant to produce electricity for Arco, Idaho, using atomic energy. This pioneering reactor operated for 12 years before being shut down for the last time in December 1963.

U.S. President Lyndon Johnson dedicated EBR-I as a National Historic Landmark in 1966. Also built in early 1950s at the Idaho National Reactor Testing Station, the land-based Submarine platform, First generation core nuclear reactor designed by Westinghouse (S1W) was the first prototype naval reactor used by the United States Navy to prove that the technology could be used for electricity generation and propulsion on submarines. The plant was the prototype for the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine. The vessel, which was the first submarine to complete a submerged transit of the North Pole on 3rd August 1958, was decommissioned in 1980, and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1982. Since the early 1950s, nearly 40,000 Navy personnel received training at the Naval Reactors Facility (NRF) at the INL to support the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program by carrying out assigned testing, examination, and spent fuel management activities.

However, the overall responsibility to train Naval officers and enlisted personnel has been transferred to other Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program (NNPP) support sites, and the NRF prototype facilities have been shut down and are no longer used for testing and training.

In an aspect of the nuclear plant, uranium oxide (which comes from mining ores in a few countries, like Niger) is paired with the most reactive element in nature, fluorine, to create gaseous mix of radioactive and non-radioactive Uranium fluorides. The required radioactive component is a minor component and is separated from the non-radioactive major byproduct (“depleted uranium fluoride waste”) by centrifuge purification process. Low-level radioactive nuclear waste byproducts of the process were buried at INL and other sites since early 1950s. It is estimated to have accumulated to almost a billion tons of waste.

In October of 1995, the state of Idaho, U.S. Navy, and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) reached the Settlement Agreement for a lawsuit filed by the state to prevent shipment of spent nuclear fuel to the INL for storage. Idaho got a court order mandating that federal nuclear waste leave state boundaries by a specific date.

The DOE’s environmental cleanup will remove radioactive waste from the site, protecting water sources serving the local population.  The Project needed personnel with expertise to do this when I left the University of Idaho in 2004. I was hired as a Chemist by the, then, operating contractor, the British Nuclear Fuel Limited (BNFL).

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Meanwhile, the uranium fluoride waste at other sites in the U.S. contained about 25 percent valuable fluorine in it. Fluorine is a very expensive chemical to dispose of and so its recovery is desirable. Besides, it has become difficult to contain the very reactive volatile material.

After working for BNFL for seven months, another company, International Isotopes Inc. (INIS), hired me to support their team to develop unique fluorine extraction process (FEP) for fluorine recovery from the uranium fluoride wastes. For four years at INIS, I was the head of the Research and Development Program, and the Analytical Laboratory for Quality Control.

By the end of 2007, INIS had achieved industrial capacity to produce and qualify semiconductor grade ultra-high purity germanium tetrafluoride, silicon tetrafluoride, and boron trifluoride gas products from the depleted uranium fluoride waste of the nuclear plants. As principal investigator, along with receiving several patents for INIS, I had provided direction for successfully obtaining federal funding to support INIS’s strategic project through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.

At this point, the lesson from Germany came to my mind, reminding me that I could achieve more professionally, in my active years, if I could control decision making on project funding priority, and commercialisation of our products.

In 2007, along with my wife (who is a Professor of Nursing at the Idaho State University) I co-founded Pearlhill Technologies as an Idaho corporation. As a strategic instrument for funding, developing commercialization potential, and obtaining validation of technological advancement, Pearlhill has benefited from the SBIR programmes administered by U.S. Small Business Administration and other federal government agencies.

For the SBIR programme, the government agencies identify critical areas of national development that could give the U.S. unparalleled advancement and competitive advantage in global market. The programme makes selection of five to ten percent most ranked presentations among several thousand applicants for financial support. The ranking reviews technical expertise, experience, societal impact, and management team proposing the development and commercialisation of new products and technologies.

PT: How many are you in your company?

Omotowa: Right now, we are six, but we work with several professors at different universities. We have developed our own technologies and the patents. It has given us some freedom and opportunities to achieve strategic growth.

People of African ancestry rarely move past management to the boardroom in technological and technical industries. This means we cannot make decisions on the direction and profits for specialised expertise, intellectual property, and technological advancement. This programme with the federal government is open to everyone but there is less than one percent participation from people of African descent.

My company has participated for 10 years and we’ve won many SBIR awards. We have received awards for several technologies in the following areas: fluorine recovery from nuclear waste, carbon capture from coal power plants, non-GPS control of unmanned aircraft systems (UASs), semiconductor devices of neuromorphic computing for artificial intelligence in next-Gen robots, powder coating protection of critical infrastructure in corrosive marine and coastline environments. Our products are at different stages of commercialisation.

PT: Impressive! Have you had any collaboration with Nigeria?

Omotowa: Yes, we have. We explored collaboration of our technology on powder coating with a locally-owned major paint company in Lagos. Our powder coating is a form of paint that provides decades of protection for infrastructure and other marine installation against salty sea-water and UV stress from direct sunlight in marine and coastline environments within a couple of kilometres of the ocean.

We jointly financed and commissioned a local marketing company to conduct an unbiased market survey of the opportunity and market penetration strategy in Nigeria, with the goal of developing the business plan for marketing through the Federal Government mandated Nigerian Content programme of the NNPC, and for accessing bank financing. Our problem started there.

The marketing company did a poor-quality job, and even at that, we couldn’t get an independent secondary validation of the opportunity described. We have previously done market surveys in the U.S. and it appeared that the market in the Nigerian survey was more speculation and estimation than is based on customer validation. The Lagos company did not demonstrate a reliable access to NNPC’s Nigerian Content programme.

After about two years of not making measurable progress on market access and reliable estimation of the return on investment, we figured that the potential market had not justified the significant human, technological, infrastructural and financial investment and other risks. Our negotiation did not make us feel comfortable to move forward. However, it remains my firm opinion that whereas it was difficult to advance our native values, diaspora collaboration must overcome several potential challenges to access the market potential in Nigeria. Besides, we must cross this Rubicon to reach our national developmental targets of a modern society.

PT: What do you think of the state of science and technology in Nigeria?

Omotowa: It exists, at our organized 140 universities, 23 national research institutes, several medical diagnostics centres and hospitals, Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), Nigeria Defense Academy (NDA), the maritime and manufacturing sectors. The internet-based technologies (ITs) are also creating a budding sector. There are also the unorganised scattered native technology centres, modular refineries, and illegal mining activities etc.

However, the local efforts are not supported by policy and financing infrastructure. The collateral requirement of the Bank of Industry is a high barrier for many great proposals to access needed financing, such as in mining, etc. The NNPC’s Nigerian Content Programme has not been fully exploited to produce success stories that will catalyse the revolution of science and technology in Nigeria. In an increasingly competitive global economic system, our scientists are comparatively disadvantaged by a lack of strong reference for skills development and goal targeting. We work hard individually, absent national purpose, or risk financing.

However, I believe that young students, when properly groomed, can compete and eventually thrive in a global competition. We need to deliberately focus on their needs, and engage the youth, below 25 years, and develop policy for the world in which they’ll grow old and raise their children.

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