‘Waste’ Fuels Scientists’ Efforts (story and video)

By Dipti Kumar, Michael Ruiz and Ansa Varughese

TURKANA, Kenya — For decades, the logistics of moving equipment and people to remote deserts hindered Richard and Meave Leakey’s paleoanthropological research. They needed a better way to hunt fossils.

“If you ran out of toilet paper, you had to drive six days to get more,” said Dr. Lawrence Martin, a primatologist from Stony Brook University who has worked with the Leakeys in recent years.

Travel time and camp setup trimmed the three-month field season by about 40 days, Martin said.  That left less than eight weeks for researchers to work.

“So for a lot of money and a lot of effort, they were getting a relatively small research time,” Martin said.

To Leakey and Martin the solution was simple—build an infrastructure that would enable a year-round field season.

Now the Turkana Basin Institute, an interdisciplinary scientific research compound founded by Leakey and Stony Brook University in 2005, enables researchers to study in the region with fewer constraints from expense, season or logistics. With the infrastructure in place, researchers can gather 10 times as many fossils in a given year, Martin said.

The infrastructure’s backbone is renewable energy.

Most of the power at the institute comes from solar panels, but these have limited battery capacity.  Buying fuel for the backup diesel generator is expensive. So is transporting it.

To ensure greater sustainability, Leakey and Martin are looking beyond solar power into other forms of alternative energy.

One project is the gasifier, which turns discarded doum palm nuts into energy. Housed in a 100-square-foot shack, the gasifier consists of a cylindrical, metallic drum, an engine and a control panel with a few buttons and knobs. The contraption — it looks like a science project — produces enough electricity to light up the dozen or so buildings on the 100-acre facility, Martin said.

“They are utilizing nuts that nobody wants,” said Dr. Devinder Mahajan, an alternative energy expert from Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Laboratory, after he inspected the doum-palm-nut-eating machine during a recent visit to the facility.

Doum palms are abundant in the region. Workers feed the nuts into the gasifier, where they burn in a low-oxygen chamber until they release enough natural gas to power the attached engine. Running the gasifier is cheaper than running the diesel generator, Martin said, although the gasifier is less reliable.

When the gasifier is working, it solves the classic problem solar power presents: energy storage.

“The problem is there’s a limit to how much power you can store, and people like to use power at night,” Martin said. The solar batteries often run out of juice as students and researchers work past sunset.

The institute’s leaders have an insatiable appetite for all things renewable.  They are excited about the prospect of extracting fuel from the abundant algae in the Turkwel River, which runs past the institute.

“Oil from algae right now is one of the pathways to produce non-petroleum fuels,” Mahajan said.

He added that the equatorial sun could streamline the process for drying the algae and extracting oil — the expensive part.

“Within a day, you can produce oil,” Mahajan said. “You can produce fuel on demand.”

Meanwhile in Nairobi, Louise Leakey, Richard’s daughter, is using an advanced three-dimensional printing technique to create fossil reproductions that researchers can study. Once the institute can support the energy requirement for this technology she can bring the machinery to the institute’s labs.

A slew of deep-pocketed investors gives Leakey and Martin hope. They are raising money to complete the Turkana Basin Institute’s second compound across nearby Lake Turkana, at a place called Ileret. Construction has already begun.