Scientist warns against use of chemicals in clean-up of Niger Delta

A university don says a student of his university has discovered a better way of cleaning up crude contamination.

A professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and Provost of the African University of Science and Technology (AUST), Abuja, Wole Soboyejo, on Tuesday warned against the use of chemicals in the planned clean-up of oil pollution in the Niger Delta region.

Mr. Soboyejo said in Abuja that it would be safer to use bacteria to clean up the oil spills rather than chemicals.

He said that the AUST, in collaboration with other scientific organisations, is working on the possibility of adopting the use of bacteria as a method for the clean-up exercise of the polluted Delta region.

A recent United Nations Environmental Program report on pollution in Ogoni community of Rivers State revealed that Nigeria would require at least one million dollars to clean-up the contamination in the oil-rich region. The report said the amount would be an initial payment for a sweeping environmental restoration of the Niger Delta and that the whole exercise may take up to 30 years.

The polluted Ogoni land, like other parts of the Niger Delta, is characterised by creeks, swamps, waterways and huge reserves of oil which have contributed to Nigeria becoming the world’s 8th largest oil exporter. However, decades of exploration by national and multi-national oil corporations have contaminated and destroyed the region’s land and fresh water resources, leaving the residents in abject poverty.

Mr. Soboyejo noted that if the ongoing research on the use of bacteria for the clean-up exercise of the region is carried out to a logical conclusion, it would serve the affected community better than the use of chemicals.The university provost said that the use of bacteria would be a more natural source of clean up, noting that the use of chemicals could further contaminate the environment.

He said that the natural clean up method was devised by a student of the university some years ago after discovering that there was a problem in the oil rich areas with breaking down emulsions (oil-water mixtures).

Mr. Soboyejo said that the student developed a method that essentially manages emulsion problems for industries.

“We found again that there are certain bacteria that breakdown crude oil, so, we introduced these into crude oil and it showed that over time the structure started to degrade and separate.

“Effectively, we characterised that breakdown as a function of time that basically shows that this process can work but the question is: what is the optimum temperature? What is the optimum time? What are the optimum conditions in terms of bacteria concentration?” he said.

Mr. Soboyejo said the advantage of the research at the university is that it brings together physicists, biologists and chemists who traditionally do not work on the same project as a team.

The don, however, said that the research had witnessed a little setback as the student had been engaged by a company in Holland due to his creativity. He said the university had invited the student and awarded him with “innovation fellowship”. The student had also been supported to pursue the research with funding from STEP-B.

The university provost unfolded plans by the university to recruit some gifted students, who he said, would focus more in research, but noted that for significant impact to be achieved, the university would need a minimum of five students to handle such research.

Mr. Soboyejo said there is evidence that marine bacteria could also be adapted to accelerate the process.

“That is the direction we are trying to go but we need to recruit more people to make progress,” he said.



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