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Harnessing Algae As A Sustainable Biofuel Source In Uganda

Algae biomass growing in a pond in Kisasi, Kampala

One of the inadequacies of the current energy situation of Uganda is the overreliance on biomass for cooking and heating. To address the environment and biodiversity impacts accelerated by the sourcing of the different biomass, the Ugandan government has developed several biofuel frameworks and polices.

However, the biofuel sector still has not fully kicked off as it still faces significant challenges due to lack of infrastructures and systems to support the production, collaborative initiatives, distribution and marketing of biofuels.

Additionally, biofuels from first generation sources sometimes face issues originating from food security, land use requirements and high product costs. This is especially when it involves materials like sugar cane, maize, cassava and potatoes.

Sustainable biofuel fuel sources are therefore needed for the strengthening of biofuel initiatives in Uganda. Enter algae – a promising source for enhancing the production capacity of affordable bioethanol.

Algae biomass which are third generation fuel sources provide a more feasible and sustainable ethanol source. Algae do not require a lot of land and rapidly multiply as compared to other bioethanol sources.

To advance this concept, a team of early-stage chemical engineers from Kyambogo University has successfully developed a facile strategy for upgrading of algae into bioethanol as well as fabrication and testing of an affordable ethanol stove under their Fumba Project.

The project aims to develop affordable bioethanol fuel through artificial cultivation of algae and harvesting of algae biomass from streams and water bodies. Algae contain high amounts of carbohydrates and oils because they can make their own food.

In a scientific study conducted by Ramachandra and Deepthi Hebbale in 2019, the authors illustrate the enormous potential of ethanol yield from algae biomass. They present that 730 tons of algae biomass can be harvested from 1 hectare per year and a whopping 23,400 litres of bioethanol can be generated as compared to 65 tons of cassava per hectare per year and 11,050 litres of bioethanol.

The Fumba Project aims to deliver this potential in Uganda – on the back of a seed grant in 2022 from the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Youth IDEAthon programme.

The Fumba team has so far proven that algae can be reproduced under laboratory conditions and bioethanol can be synthesized from algae. In addition the team has locally developed an affordable ethanol stove.

Kirumira (L), the Fumba Project team leader and the ethanol stove the team developed locally

The project can offer several benefits to Uganda’s energy sector as it promises a bioethanol source that is cheaper, requires less land and does not directly compete with society’s food needs.

Moreover, harvesting waste algae biomass in water streams has potential for water resource and aquatic life conservation. This accelerates the initiative the government is undertaking towards the ‘Clean Energy Integration’.

To scale, the project still needs to design and test appropriate algae photo-growth reactors, optimize co-digestion profiles for maximizing the conversion to the biofuels, which data will be applied in the commercialization and promotion of affordable bioethanol usage.

Fumba believes that when the research and product development phase comes to an end in 2024, at least two (2) patents and utility models will have been filed and awarded by the Uganda Registration Service Bureau (URSB).

Subsequently, Fumba intends to develop a self-sustaining model that owns the algae synthesized bioethanol as well as affordable ethanol stoves.

This we believe will advance Uganda’s biofuel policies; thus contributing to the global linkages for achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

In conclusion, Fumba continues to welcome support from potential partners which will help the project realize its ambitious goals, that is, the transformation of Uganda’ biofuel sector.

The author, Mark Wilson Kirumira, is the Team Leader, Fumba Project. The early-stage scientific researcher is also a chemical engineer, entrepreneur, innovator, sustainable development champion and industrialist. Email: kirumiramrk@gmail.com

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