Stepping on the (bio)gas

Congratulations to Ralph Muvhiiwa from Unisa’s Institute for the Development of Energy for African Sustainability (IDEAS). He will be doing his postdoctoral studies at Cranfield University in the UK from 1 May until 31 December 2018, supported by the Rutherford Fund Strategic Partner Grant.

Muvhiiwa did his MSc on anaerobic digestion and his PhD continued to look at the conversion of solid biomass to gas, both through low and high temperatures. He will be working on iron transformation in wetlands for wastewater treatment at Cranfield.

Digging deep to make biomass energy a reality

Comfortable in a laboratory filled with hi-tech chemical engineering equipment, Muvhiiwa is just as comfortable pushing a wheelbarrow and digging with picks and spades. If this is what has to be done to make biomass energy a reality, then so be it.

Many a weekend has been spent this way, and the results speak for themselves. The bio-digesters that Muvhiiwa and his fellow members of Engineers Without Borders at Unisa have been building work like a charm, converting cow dung into clean, affordable biogas for household cooking, heating and lighting.

Their first bio-digester was commissioned at the home of a Muldersdrift sweet-potato farmer in 2015, and another is up and running in the Lenasia area as part of a Unisa/ Medical Research Council project to showcase the benefits of clean fuels for use in energy-poor communities.

Engineer with a mission

It’s well known that cow dung releases methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. Instead of leaving this waste to emit methane into the atmosphere, it can be harnessed for household use and, in the process, be converted into CO2, which is about 24 times less harmful than methane.

“I aspire to be an engineer who can help solve problems that are important to society,” says Muvhiiwa, a doctoral fellow in chemical engineering at IDEAS, where he specialises in renewable energy technologies, and, in particular, biomass energy.

His passion for research and his drive for results has brought him a number of awards, among them Best Master’s Student by Research for 2017 and Best Presentation Long Paper, Natural and Physical Sciences at the Unisa Students Research & Innovation Showcase 2014 and 2015.

Rising star

He has presented his research at several high-profile conferences, including the 24th International Conference on Chemical Thermodynamics in Guilin, China, in August 2016. At that conference, Muvhiiwa shared the podium with top scientists such as IDEAS director Professor Diane Hildebrandt and Professor David Glasser, an A1-rated researcher.

He has also co-authored articles in highly-rated journals such the Journal of Thermal Analysis and Calorimetry, and, most recently, in the July 2017 edition of Energy, Sustainability and Society. He is a member of the Institute of Chemical Engineers, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the Golden Key International Honours Society.

When not in the laboratory or pushing a wheelbarrow, Muvhiiwa plays a mean game of hockey and golf and is hard to beat in a game of darts. He’s clearly on target for great things.

*Compiled by Clairwyn van der Merwe, Thembeka Ntuli-Mpapama, and Sharon Farrell