Interview of Thomas Kivevele Senior Lecturer at The NM-AIST

© 2022 EPFL

© 2022 EPFL

Under the context of the JFD programme, we want to demonstrate that biofuels can be sustainable, by assessing the potential to convert diverse inedible/ underutilized African biomass into biodiesel. 

Can you introduce yourself?

My name is Thomas Kivevele, I am working as a Senior Lecturer at The Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology (NM-AIST) based in Arusha-Tanzania. NM-AIST is one in a network of Pan-African Institutions of Science and Technology located across Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). These institutions, which are the proud brainchild of the late Nelson Mandela, envision in training and developing the next generation of African scientists and engineers with a view to impacting profoundly on the continent's development through the application of Science, Engineering and Technology and Innovation (SETI).

I have a PhD in Mechanical Engineering majoring in Energy from Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), Pretoria-South Africa. I have been a beneficiary of 2018 U.S Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellowship to conduct research on biofuels at Baylor University in Waco-Texas. My research interests focus on bio-energy conversion, particularly biomass-derived heterogeneous catalysts for sustainable biodiesel production.

Can you present the scientific collaboration you want to carry out through the Junior Faculty Development (JFD) programme?

Under the context of the JFD programme, we want to demonstrate that biofuels can be sustainable, by assessing the potential to convert diverse inedible/ underutilized African biomass into biodiesel. The project will also target the production of high value biochemicals from such inedible/underutilized biomass. This initiative will increase understanding of the environmental advantages of biodiesel. Additionally, by converting agricultural wastes into high-value products such as catalysts and antioxidants, we hope to reduce the pollution that comes from burning agricultural wastes in Africa and enhance waste management techniques.

How do you intend to do it?

We intend to identify suitable inedible/underutilized African biomass for production of biodiesel (a form of diesel fuel derived from plants or animals). We also intend to screen agricultural wastes with good properties for production of catalysts that will be used to speed up the process of biodiesel production and antioxidants that will be added to biodiesel to improve the storage stability. This will help reducing the oxidation (i.e. degradation) of biodiesel when exposed to air or high temperatures.

As part of our effort to address this issue, we also intend to upgrade fatty acids derived from biodiesel/vegetable oils of African origin by lowering or completely removing oxygen from them using a procedure known as Ketonization (a chemical reaction in which two carboxylic acids convert into ketone/ high value biofuel, carbon dioxide, and water). We will also test our produced biofuels in engines to examine how they compare to diesel in terms of performance, emissions, and combustion.

Why did you present a collaboration project with a researcher from EPFL?

EPFL is a top university worldwide with top-notch labs. EXAF Centre linked me with Prof. Jeremy Luterbacher during proposal development. Prof. Jeremy Luterbacher is co-investigator of the project, is a renowned researcher. He has been conducting groundbreaking and diverse research in the field of catalysis. His expertise and the team's competences at the Laboratory of Sustainable and Catalytic Processing (LPDC) are crucial for the project's successful completion, especially with regard to upgrading biodiesel into high-value biofuels.

Is this the first time you are collaborating with a European university as a professor at the East African Institute for Basic Research?

No, I have collaborations with other European institutions in Hungary and German.

What is the scientific challenge of your research topic?

One of the challenges we want to address in this project is the auto-oxidation of biodiesel when exposed to air, high temperature and metal contaminants. We also want to address the issue of food vs. fuel debate. Presently, most of biodiesel is made from edible oils which poses threat to food security. The project intends to demonstrate that biofuels can be sustainable when sourced from inedible biomass.

What does excellence mean to you?

Excellence, to me, means doing something to the very best. For this project, excellence means conducting high quality original research that contribute to the body of knowledge and bridging the gap between science and society.