Researcher Looks to Home Country for Latest Project

Toufiq Reza has conducted plenty of research in his role as assistant professor of chemical engineering, but a recent grant is allowing him to potentially improve the lives of millions of residents in his native country of Bangladesh.

Reza and researchers from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, Bangladesh Agriculture University and Dhaka University recently received a three-year international grant worth $174,000 from the National Academy of Sciences and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) that will allow them to examine the use of biogenic residue in Bangladesh to create clean energy, such as hydrogen production.

As one of the fastest-growing countries in South Asia, Bangladesh is expected to experience a rise in energy demand. However, fossil fuel reserves in the country of 180 million people have already been depleted. But researchers may be able to find a silver lining to that energy consumption: a byproduct called biogenic waste, which is an organic material that degrades with time, polluting the environment.

The team is researching how to convert biogenic waste into energy that could then be distributed inexpensively across the country via low-risk, accessible, modular hydrogen generation systems. The project proposes an innovative process that uses biogenic residues for renewable hydrogen generation on the modular scale. Anaerobic co-digestion, biogas cleaning, and management of digestate, which is the material remaining after the anaerobic digestion of a biodegradable feedstock, will address current operations and maintenance issues and waste management limitations of ongoing biogas programs in the country.

“I was raised in Dhaka, Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated cities in the world. We were accustomed to scheduled blackouts every day due to the lack of electricity generation compared to the electricity demand,” Reza said. “With the natural gas deleting out gradually and not much land to dedicate for energy production, I was concerned about the future of energy sector in Bangladesh. By knowing that more people mean more waste, I was always keen to find a way to convert waste to energy.”

The concept would use anaerobic digestion of the biogenic residues to produce biogas, which would then be cleaned and further upgraded with a low-cost catalyst. Catalytic upgrading of biogas to hydrogen would be performed in a reactor, which has a greater ability to convert biogas into a hydrogen-rich syngas, thus allowing for a more cost-efficient energy source that has a lower negative impact on the environment. Experimental activities will be carried out at the universities in Bangladesh, and Reza will share his findings on digestate conversion to high-value carbon materials from a different National Science Foundation-funded project the team has secured.

The team has also facilitated the formation of an advisory panel that will provide an interactive platform for researchers and industry representatives to collaborate. Life-cycle assessment and techno-economic analysis will provide policy-level recommendations to help provide a smooth transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources. In the meantime, the research project will also aid in developing the required workforce for realization of the concept, through improved curricula at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, multidisciplinary research activities, and exchange of information among participating institutions.

The grant is the part of USAID’s January announcement of more than $5.8 million to fund partnerships in scientific cooperation on research projects to discover, test and scale breakthrough solutions for critical challenges in international development. The agency selected 26 research projects for awards through the Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research, a collaboration with the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

For Reza, helping Bangladesh with future energy demands is an exciting and personal opportunity.

“This USAID project is a very timely project, as it allows me to utilize my knowledge to resolve waste-to-energy challenge of Bangladesh,” he said. “This project also allows me to collaborate with academia, industries, regulatory agencies, and governmental sectors of Bangladesh. It would be amazing and satisfying to see that our technology has been adopted and used in Bangladesh. I could then truly believe that I have finally given something back to my country.”

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