Knowledge is central to accessing opportunities – Obode
Elizabeth Obode is an energy enthusiast with a first degree in Petroleum Engineering from the University of Ibadan and currently pursuing a Master of Science in Chemical Engineering at the Texas A&M University, Qatar Campus, all on scholarship. In this interview, she talks about how to succeed in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics and about the shift to clean energy. She spoke to Stephen Onyekwelu. Excerpts:
For your first degree, you got a scholarship to study petroleum engineering at the University of Ibadan. Now, you are studying at the Texas A&M University, Qatar campus, on a scholarship. What are the success factors for landing serial scholarships?
I think knowledge is really central to accessing opportunities. For undergraduate studies, there are scholarships from some companies including Chevron, Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG), Mobil, and MTN.
These companies post yearly calls for application. The basic requirements are usually posted with the calls for application. The scholarship exams are usually in Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) or SHL question format and were organised by Dragnet, so it is good practice to review these types of questions during semester breaks to build up confidence for when you get shortlisted.
For graduate studies – Masters or doctor of philosophy (PhD), the requirements are a little different and it varies with your course of study, the country you want to study in as well as the type of scholarship you are getting – whether external scholarship or university assistantship. A graduate study is research-intensive and the ability to conduct research is what professors look out for.
For graduate studies with an assistantship in engineering a high Graduate Record Examination (GRE) score is a good way to start (for USA schools). For United Kingdom schools, GRE is mostly not required. Your statement of purpose that explains your motivation for applying to the school and the particular area is also very important – it could be used to explain low scores or career pivots. Because the variables are many at this level, I tell my inner circle to follow GetInEdu on Instagram because they post scholarships and guidelines on how to make your graduate applications stand out. Dr Adeola Olubamiji has interviews with professors on Youtube on how to apply to Canadian and US schools, and I listen to these. Writing GRE and these standardised tests cost money and even when you apply to universities, most of them require an application fee.
The Michael Taiwo scholarship helps with paying for some of these fees to help ease the burden. I want more people to take advantage of these resources because we need a critical mass of truly skilled and knowledgeable people to create the continent of our dreams.
You seem to be at home with mathematics an important component for anyone pursuing a career in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. How would you explain your “at-homeness” with mathematics, the same subject that scares some people away?
I didn’t know it was supposed to be hard and I thank my parents for that. I think adults sometimes impose their limitations on their children and the children then take these limitations as the boundary of their ability.
Some people would be better at maths than others – just like with anything else in the world – but I think that this pedestal we have put maths and science on is not accurate and even hinders our development as a nation. As the world moves further into Industry 4.0, what we see happening is that STEM permeates every aspect of our lives.
In the US, for example, some universities are closing down departments because students are just not enrolling on those courses – courses with no obvious or conventional value in the world that is unfolding. The meaning of ‘value’ as it relates to knowledge is up for debate – knowledge for knowledge’s sake seems to be taking a back seat. Is that right – that is also up for debate. However, maths, science, and knowing how to interact with computers and technological interfaces are going to become very basic. There was a time when knowing how to type was a skill – now it doesn’t even deserve a space on your resume.
So parents should encourage their children and if they cannot, engage with teachers who can guide their young minds so that instead of seeing maths as hard, they see that just this topic is a bit difficult and I can get the skills to know it.
Renewable energy and the race to net-zero carbon emission by 2050 are top priorities for many big oil companies and nations. What are some of the recent developments in this space?
Climate change is one big trouble of our times and the most important problem is that it creates ‘Black swan’ events.
Economic models as well as material resilience and future projections fly out the window. One only needs to look to the recent crisis in Texas where a state not designed for freezing conditions experienced such low temperatures that increased energy demand led to grid overload as well as the failure of engineering systems and materials.
It is also clear that the energy-intensive nature of human development has led to more amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere than is safe. This is why many nations and companies are working to change their current trajectory to steer their energy processes to become carbon neutral – net zero. Recent developments can be broadly divided into three – research, green funding and climate justice.
More research is going into technologies to advance net zero – from materials for sustainability, battery technologies for increased storage, synthetic crude/fuel for engines, carbon capture and sequestration to blue hydrogen, a lot of work is going on in laboratories across the world. This is the space I play in at the moment – my interest is in blue energy technologies and minerals for sustainability.
Green funding is a very interesting development in the race to net zero. Large funding bodies like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank are titling more strongly to carbon negative projects. Also, Bill Gates through the climate arm of his foundation is seeking to fund risky but futuristic ideas with high impact potential. Elon Musk recently pledged some money to carbon capture projects.
Climate justice and equitable energy distribution is a really interesting dimension to climate discussions. For developing countries of the world, energy poverty is a challenge as pressing as climate change.
For example, the energy that goes into powering computations for cryptocurrencies is more than the energy used by Ethiopia and Kenya combined. The energy used in California to power televisions alone is more than the energy available to Senegal as a country. These are some interesting developments in this space.
Nigeria’s autogas policy seems an important step in the right direction in deepening domestic gas use. You do not think this is the best policy at the moment for the country. What are your views about what Nigeria could be doing with its gas reserves?
The government’s heart is in the right place but the direction is wrong. It is obvious that natural gas is the perfect transition fuel to meet carbon reduction targets – efficient gas-to-power plants emit 50 – 60 percent less CO2 than coal-powered plants and gas-powered vehicles emit 25 percent less CO2 than gasoline-powered vehicles.
For a country with 203 trillion cubic feet (203TCF) of gas in reserves and current production of only 8 Billion cubic feet per day (8 BCF/D), the tone of our strategy should first be value-added exports then gas-to-power. Methane is a great feedstock for various materials ranging from fertilizers, plastics to even synthetic crude.
Domestic utilisation should be kicked off with gas-to-power projects. This solves the electricity challenge for domestic use but also creates a multiplier effect in that we can begin to encourage homegrown industrial activities. Then, attention can be turned towards vehicles.
This Autogas policy should come up at a later time. Nigeria imports most vehicles in the country. We can ban the importation of gasoline-powered vehicles and organically, most vehicles in the country would be gas-powered.
The government had initially promised to bear the cost of converting gasoline engines to gas but in December 2020, backtracked. It is obvious this auto-gas policy has not been well thought out. Value addition should be the name of our game.
Tell us about how Qatar is transforming its society using the energy sources available in the country?
The Qatar story shows foresight and patience. I’ll tell you a bit about gas. Crude oil, unlike gas, can be produced, placed in vessels and sold either to contractual buyers or ‘on the spot’ buyers.
On the other hand, if you want to sell your gas directly from your production facility, you need to construct pipelines to your supply destination. This is pipeline gas export. Russia is the king here. Because of the geopolitical concerns and sometimes underwater pipeline construction, this can be difficult when it comes to permits.
However, when the pipeline is constructed, you can always make supply to the destination. One can imagine that this sort of configuration is not flexible – look at Russia’s Nord Stream 2 project to get a feel of tense geopolitics.
Another means of export is liquefied natural gas (LNG) – Liquefied natural gas. In this process, gas from the production facility is cooled to temperatures low enough to change its state to liquid. This can then be transported via specially designed vessels on the sea to the buyers.
Qatar has thrived here and by using the sea has been able to diversify its buyers and avoid geopolitics to a large extent. Perhaps the great competitive advantage of Qatar is her extreme focus on value-added gas via gas-to-liquid technologies.
GTL is different from LNG in that LNG is a physical conversion process but GTL is a chemical conversion process. Qatar has the largest GTL plant in the world – the Pearl GTL plant. Industrial activities like the manufacture of Ammonia, Urea, MTBE, kerosene and even diesel is gotten from this process.
Yes, you can get crude oil from gas – syn-crude. But these plant and processes are expensive, take patience to set up and require an actual commitment of the leadership. Quick schemes like burning the gas in automobiles cannot bring about the kind of economic viability we need in Nigeria. Qatar is now the richest country in the world per capita.
Renewable energy is not so clean after all some say because of the mining of rare earth materials that pose serious environmental and health hazards. Explain this, please.
Nuances are a fact of life – and even in renewable energy, there are shades of green. This doesn’t mean that the technologies are bad in themselves – it only means that there’s more work to be done to actually become green than is currently reported.
Look around you – anything that is not grown is mined. Technology has always been critical mineral intensive. However, solar panels and wind turbines need rare earth minerals.
Smartphones, laptops, LED lights are just a few other uses of these minerals. There are 17 rare earth minerals and they are actually common in the earth’s crust but finding large ores to mine is really difficult. Also, they are found together making separation difficult and they exist in small amounts.
So, you have to overturn and sift through large amounts of earth to get these minerals. The separation process is chemical-intensive because it requires leaching. The wastewater by-products also have a high concentration of radioactive residue.
Due to the environmental concerns of this rare earths mining process, the USA closed down their mines. Now, about 90% of all rare earth minerals supply is from China. The areas in China where these mining have gone on for decades have become almost inhabitable with a reported increase in leukaemia as well as numerous skin lesions and diseases.
These are environmental calculations that are not taken into account when we talk about ‘green’ energy. Recently, due to tense relations between the USA and China, there has been unease on what the consequences might be if China were to stop exports of rare earth minerals.
Something similar happened in 2010 when China banned exports to Japan in the Senkaku boat collision incident. Prices of these minerals soared to such levels that the Obama administration had to file a case against China at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The US does not want to take this chance and has started research into home mined rare earth minerals.
Geology must be having a laugh because, in the US, these minerals are found in coal and coal by-products. In China, these minerals are found in clay formations. Of course, the fact that the coal is not primarily for combustion reduces the CO2 footprint of the technology. When the carbon footprint of materials needed for green technology is added to carbon calculations, it seems that lush green colour fades to grey. This doesn’t add the land-use footprint seeing that solar panels are about 20% efficient.
What has been your experience studying in Qatar, cultural differences and social life? How have you adapted?
I came into Qatar some weeks before the lockdown and I think I had to adjust to largely virtual interaction with my new environment. The country is really beautiful and as the country prepares to host the 2022 world cup, the stadia architecture is breathe taking.
I have seen more horses and camels here than I had ever seen before – in preparation for the Arabian horse racing tournament.
I have enjoyed experiencing the middle-eastern culture and seeing a pattern for development without westernisation. I think Qatar is more liberal than her neighbours. I have friends from different nationalities because there is a high foreigner population here. It took me some time to find the Nigerian community here but overall, it has been a good experience.
Where do you see the world’s energy mix in the next 10 – 20 years?
The energy mix would definitely vary by region. For developing economies, I see natural gas taking up the larger percentage of the mix –from gas to power systems and coal to gas switching.
For developed nations, the biggest questions to be answered by the consumers would be that posed by the energy trilemma – what would the most dominant factor be between energy security, energy equity and environmental sustainability and what would be a reasonable price to pay for energy.
What is the nature of your studies in Qatar and are you paid for the research assistant work you do?
I am studying Chemical engineering here at Texas A&M (Qatar Campus). Currently, I research osmotic energy technologies. Oil and Gas reservoirs usually produce a lot of water – which we call produced water. The high salinity of this water means that there is energy generation potential which could offset the cost of water disposal. It is really exciting because I get to have knowledge of different blue/green energy technologies from actual school work and interactions with other researchers.
Beyond my niche research area, I am interested in blue hydrogen production – because it is a unique intersection of underground storage from my geology/petroleum engineering background and separation techniques from my chemical engineering knowledge.
LOL! I am just paid the humble stipend of an academic.
What do you consider the most exciting thing happening in the energy sector now, across the globe?
Personally, I think what excites me right now about the energy sector is the possibility of space mining. Researchers are currently looking to moon and asteroid mining for critical minerals. In fact, the Colorado School of mines started a minor in space mining. It’s exciting, the thought that drilling and mining engineers could one day work in space.