Frustrations as inventions gather dust in laboratories

Posted on Oct 22, 2015

Olusanya, Ibhadode

Government’s apathy and lack of funds condemn inventions in Nigeria to antiques in the laboratories, FOLASHADE ADEBAYO writes

With a minimum speed, a 1984 Honda Civic car travelled across the premises of the Tai Solarin University of Education Secondary School, Ijebu Ode, Ogun State, in July 2014. Spectators, which included students, members of staff and community locals watching the scene, cheered wildly like a crowd on a football pitch. The car, powered by water, took a bend with ease and earned itself more applause.

Standing by, with the biggest smiles of their lives on their faces, was Mr. Moses Olujinmi, the Physics teacher and his team of three students who made it happen. Months earlier, the water-technology car had looked like a mirage, until one day when they heard a pop sound produced as they watched hydrogen gas separating from water in the school laboratory. The harvested gas, which was stored in a cylinder, would later serve as fuel for the Honda car on its first test run in the school premises.

The invention had gone on to win the 2014 Schlumberger Schools Science Project Challenge, an annual science competition among all secondary schools in the country. But, aside from the star prize trip to France, which comes up this Sunday, all has been quiet at TASUESS – one year after. Life had gone back to its usual grind for Boluwajoko Ogunyemi, 15; Oluwatobi Oguntoye, 17 and 15-years-old George Olaniyan, who worked together to produce the car.

When our correspondent visited the school on Monday, the constituent parts of the project, which included an oscillator, electrolysis chamber and a cylinder, were gathering dust in the school store. The development is an anti-climax for the pupils who had spent months in the laboratory unravelling the concept of electrolysis, a subject taught only as a theory in class.

“The water-technology car is my greatest experience yet. Electrolysis was something I only read about. To see it happen with a pop sound as hydrogen escapes from water is something that will stay with me forever. Nobody can take that away from me. It also helped me to know that science can make our lives easier. My belief was that this project would elevate Ogun State and Nigeria and not necessarily me or any other member of the team,” Oguntoye said.

For Olujinmi, this may be the end of the road for the landmark project as he believes it is only the government who can mass-produce the technology because it is capital intensive.

“We need to fabricate or buy modern electrodes to advance the research. As it is now, water can still escape with the hydrogen gas and knock a car engine. The escaping water can also rust the exhaust pipe. But we can solve that challenge with funds to fabricate modern electrodes,” he said.

Going down memory lane, Olujinmi said the invention, which he claimed gulped N200,000 (car not inclusive) almost died a natural death.

Frustrations as inventions gather dust in laboratories“Nobody wanted to experiment with his car, not even tricycles popularly known as Keke Marwa. But we could not look back at that stage and I had to use my car. But my car was also not in a good condition. We were introducing the gas into the wrong place and we did not know it was also leaking. The car refused to start and we wasted money and materials. But here we are today. The dissociation of water into constituent elements made it happen,” he said.

“My team and I are disappointed that the government has not taken up this project. Many government agencies were represented at the competition and even posed with us for pictures. We all know that our refineries are not working and there are other challenges with crude oil. With water technology, the price of goods and services will crash. You will not need to convert your fuel tank to water tank. You only need to install the hydrogen kit and change the exhaust pipe and your car begins to move,” he said.

But the feeling of disappointment is not limited to the TASUESS team. Way back in 2013, a mid-sized hydrogen generator roared into life in the premises of Doregos Private Academy, a secondary school in Lagos, supplying electricity into the halls and classrooms for six hours. Standing in the place of premium motor spirit, popularly known as petrol, is a gallon of foamy urine, sourced from the bladders of Adebola Duro-Aina, Zainab Bello, Oluwatoyin Faleke and Abiola Akindele, four pupils who initiated the idea of building a generator that will emit only clean, non-poisonous gas into the environment.

The idea of a configured generator was birthed after Duro-Aina read about a Nigerian family of five who perished after inhaling carbon monoxide gas from their generator. Power supply in the country was less than 3,0000megawatts at the time and more than 10,000 Nigerians were said to have died inhaling carbon-monoxide, a poisonous gas emitted by power generators.

For the teenagers, a generator powered with urine would not only stop deaths from carbon monoxide, it would also crash the cost of using and maintaining generators for Nigerians who were already dealing with the hardship of fuel subsidy removal at the time. For the team who sacrificed time and efforts, the feeling was akin to walking on the moon for the first time. The invention went on to win the National Festival of Schools Science Fair and Quiz in Lagos, while the Lagos State Government was said to have initially paid attention to the prospects from the urine-powered generator.

But, more than two years later, dust has literally settled over the glee of the invention. The hydrogen generator, with its bulky component of an empty car battery, two filter chambers and a gas storage, has not left the shelf of the DPA laboratory. Faced with lack of fund to simplify and mass-produce it, the inventors too are no longer a team, busy studying diverse courses in different universities abroad.

“Power supply is one of the basic and most important services Nigerians depend on. Many lives are practically tied to this one service and it is quite worrisome that we’re still having issues in this sector. I would definitely like to see changes and improvement to be made. I am a bit disappointed that it hasn’t been mass-produced yet because I believe this would be a very cheap and easily available alternate source of fuel for not only Nigerians, but also for the rest of the world to use. But I still have high hopes for our invention and I believe it will be taken up by either the government or any other interested party and mass-produced.

“More importantly, the generator only needed one litre of urine to produce enough hydrogen gas needed to fully operate for six hours. We found out that as of 2009, 60 million Nigerians owned a power generating set. Therefore, we assumed that those who would like to purchase this invention would already own a generator. The generator would only need to be reconfigured to work using hydrogen gas. This service could be provided by whichever industry decides to mass-produce the invention,” said Bello, in an email interview with our correspondent.

For independent researchers, long walk to freedom

But scientific projects and discoveries in Nigeria are not limited to machines and devices. Diseases and other health conditions are being targeted by researchers working in different laboratories across the country. Findings by our correspondent revealed that more researchers are breaking new grounds in different areas of human endeavours.

In August, a Consultant Paediatrician, Dr. Bolajoko Olusanya, and Tina Slusher, her American research partner, pioneered a sunlight phototherapy tent capable of reversing neonatal jaundice within four hours. The low-cost invention, builds on the 1959 accidental discovery by a nursing sister in the United Kingdom of the therapeutic effect of sunlight on infants with jaundice.

Mothers across the world, including Nigeria, had since bought into the fortuitous knowledge, but at the risk of dehydration and sunburn arising from several days of exposure to the infrared and ultraviolet rays of the sun. Moreover, experts have said that only mild jaundice cases can be so treated, as they submit that it is extremely dangerous to proffer home management solutions to severe cases of jaundice in newborns.

According to the World Health Organisation, neonatal is a leading cause of hearing loss and cerebral palsy in children. At least, 35,000 babies are said to be born every year with jaundice-induced hearing loss in Nigeria.

The latest discovery, which is said to filter out the bad rays, is able to trap the blue ones (rays), which are considered the active ingredients of the phototherapy solution. The result of the study also made it as far as getting published in the New England Journal of Medicine, touted as the most reputable medical journal in the world.

‘My husband sponsors me’

The Sunlight Phototherapy Tent itself is coming 20 years after Olusanya launched her first study as an independent researcher. The investigator, who specialises in hearing loss in children, said she had never depended on government to fund her research.

“I went out of the system and God has been gracious to me as an independent researcher. It is possible that we did the study and we did not have anything to report but we are glad that we have something to report. The exodus of researchers out of the country caused this huge vacuum in research. The vacuum is so huge that we are all at a loss as to how to fill it.

“I have a husband who has been sponsoring me and I didn’t have to earn money as long as he could support me. I just went after my heart and he allowed it. This research is going to change medical books. Before now, what we were told was not to put babies under the sun because of the dangerous rays, but now the the experts will have to change it that babies can be under the sun as long as those bad rays can be screened out,” she said.

But, unless the government and private investors take the lead in the invention, producing the filter net to exclude dangerous rays in commercial quantities may remain a pipe dream. According to Olusanya, sufficient fund is needed to reproduce the nets into umbrellas and other handy materials that parents can easily use on the balconies of their homes and in rural areas.

“This is not meant for teaching hospitals alone but also in rural areas where people do not have access to all the gadgets. It is useful wherever babies are born and they can access the sun. We plan to replicate it across Nigeria and eventually other African countries because of the ease of access to the sun. Our motivation is that we can reduce the number of babies that are being damaged by jaundice. We need collaborations about the dangers of jaundice and the availability of these low-cost materials,” she added.

Where there are no venture capitalists

The Vice-Chancellor, Federal University of Petroleum Resources, Effurun, Delta State, Prof. Akaehomen Ibhadode, warns that more research outcomes will continue to be stuck in the laboratory unless there are venture capitalists willing to buy stakes in them. Ibhadode, whose project, Precision Moulds and Dies, won the 2010 Nigeria LNG-sponsored Nigeria Prize for Science, also blamed the government and its institutions for the lapse.

“It is a failure of the government and the society. The Nigerian environment is hostile to invention and we are not leveraging on our inventions to improve the society. Government agencies are also not effective in their functions. We have a lot of inventions but only one, which is an equipment for processing Kilishi, (a local delicacy), is in the market. We need to have venture capitalists who will stake their money and take it back once the invention breaks even. They essentially buy over the technology.

“We are proposing a Research Innovation Centre in our university. It will be an incubation centre for our members of staff and students with outstanding ideas who will make submissions. We will then invite industry experts to assess their market potential while the university will fund their commercialisation. We want it to be a model that can be replicated across universities,” he said.

By the venture capitalist option, the scientist might be referring to the route taken by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder, in 2004. According to Wikipedia, Zuckerberg, who also started the social media platform as a college student, struggled to cover operating costs until an investor, Peter Thiel, invested $ 500,000 for a 10.2 per cent stake in Facebook. As of 2014, the platform was said to worth $ 40.2bn with a string of subsidiaries.

Nigeria rising to the challenge

Indeed, more research papers and inventions are coming out of Nigeria and Africa at large.   According to Reed Elsevie, an international agency, the number of scientific researches by Africans has tripled from 12,500 to 53,000 in the last 10 years. More precisely, a report by Thomson Reuters also said research efforts on the continent had been dominated by three countries – South Africa, Egypt and Nigeria.

The agencies may be right. Since 2004, Nigeria LNG Limited has awarded a $ 100,000 prize for outstanding projects in science and literature. Also according to the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology, more than 100 inventors have benefited from Federal Government grants since 2005, with 16 inventors/innovators accessing grants of between N500, 000 (about $ 2,500) and N1m ($ 5,000) alone in 2014.

However, experts say the magnitude of research has not translated to significantly bringing about landmark changes in addressing tropical diseases, infrastructural challenge and other deficits prevalent in African countries. This, they attribute to a funding fatigue which has consistently widened the scientific development gap between Africa and the rest of the world.

An Emeritus Professor of Chemical Engineering, Alfred Susu, who won the 2004 LNG Science Prize for inventing the first indigenous leak detection technology in the oil and gas industry, said the government needed to address the funding challenge in research.

Susu, who said he would not like to comment on why his invention had yet to be implemented in the oil and gas industry, because it was a subject of litigation, also advised researchers to focus on collaborations across disciplines to bring solutions rather than palliative measures.

According to him, it is ironic that malaria research is being funded mostly by international donors despite the fact that there are 100 million cases with 300,000 malaria deaths in Nigeria each year.

“Who then should be in the forefront of searching for solutions to the malaria scourge? Shouldn’t it be us who are most affected or we just do not care? The implication of our indifference is that the West would develop vaccines (technologies) and drugs for malaria amelioration for the consuming world – of which we are some of the largest.

“Believe me, mosquito control goes beyond the use of nets and insecticide-coated nets, although these are very key components of the strategy. The solution will involve collaborations among physicians, geneticists, engineers, computer scientists and mathematicians in an interdisciplinary effort to fashion out strategies for control,” he said.

Susu may be right. A team of physicians at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System, United States, recently pioneered a cure for 12 adult patients living with the sickle cell disease by using the stem cell transplantation procedure. Before now, the high-risk technique was only possible with children and teenagers. This is also despite the fact that the disease primary affects Africans.

But the Director of Press, Federal Ministry of Science and Technology, Mr. Taye Akinyemi, admitted that the Monitoring and Evaluating Unit of the ministry was hampered by lack of fund and manpower. Akinyemi, who said that a number of agencies of the ministry had a number of inventions to their credit, added that the ministry had just inaugurated an 11-point flagship programme which would monitor the lists of inventors in its record.

“There is a big gulf between the ministry and Nigerians on the one hand and between the ministry and its agencies on the other hand. The agencies have so much inventions waiting to be commercialised. On Monday, a gentleman came to my office with a generator that does not use fuel or anything. We are conceptualising an 11point flagship programme that cut across all our agencies to coordinate what everyone had done in order to achieve results.

“We are also planning a sustainable public enlightenment and publicity programme which will enable Nigerians and investors to see what inventors have done. There are many Nigerians who may not be thinking this way. We are going to engage and encourage them to adopt some of these inventions for the purpose of commercialisation. We have a record of all the beneficiaries and we are monitoring unit is being strengthened in terms of manpower and processes,” he said.

However, the TASUESS team has said it will not be discouraged in forging ahead with more researches. The principal, Mrs. Beatrice Olaniyan, said despite the disappointments, the water technology invention was a watershed in the history of the school.

“I must say that the pupils are not encouraged by the reception given to the water-technology invention. But that will not stop them from embarking on more research. Already, they are working on how you can use sand to charge your phone and many others. It is left for the government to act on what they have done. We will participate in more scientific competitions next year,” she said.

But there may be a ray of hope on the horizon for the TASUESS pupils yet. According to Ibhadode, the institution wants to attract such pupils to its campus and buy over the technology.

“But we do not have the financial muscle yet. Maybe I will be able to drive that after my tenure or I am hoping they will be able to attract investors before then,” he said.

Indeed, scores of Nigerians have made significant contributions to research. They include Philip Emeagwali, said to have invented the world’s fastest computer; Saheed Adepoju, said to have produced a solar-powered set up in operating rooms; Ndubuisi Ekekwe, described as inventor of microchips used in minimally invasive surgical robots; Ezekiel Ndubuisi, the first prototype of an indigenous Nigerian car; and Shehu Balami, the first solid fire rocket.

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