Lancaster leads Africa bioenergy demonstration projects to support a safer, circular water economy

People walking by an open sewer in Africa
ACTUATE will help deliver a safer circular water economy in two African countries

Lancaster University is leading a major new project that promises to tackle major global development issues and improve lives in communities across two African countries.

Funded with around £700,000 from the Global Challenges Research Fund through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the ACTUATE programme will deliver electricity, sustainable fertilizer for crops and sanitation improvements through the development of anaerobic digestion demonstrator systems in Ghana and Nigeria.

These plants, which use organic waste to produce biogas, will demonstrate the effectiveness of this key technology to delivering a safer circular water economy – working with, and inspiring confidence in, local communities.

One in three Africans do not have access to electricity – often having to use kerosene, and wood or charcoal for cooking, or spending hours in darkness. Those who do have electricity often find it unreliable or expensive.

Bioenergy offers a way to provide a source of affordable and sustainable electricity for unconnected communities - playing a vital role in reducing poverty, improving health, education and employment opportunities. It can also be used as a cooking fuel, replacing more polluting fuels.

In Africa, thousands of tonnes of human waste ends up in open dumps or wetlands, contaminating surface and ground water and posing major health hazards.

Community-based waste to energy systems, such as the anaerobic plants that will be delivered as part of ACTUATE, are able to improve sanitation and reduce the potential for disease outbreaks, as well as providing ‘feedstocks’ for the energy systems.

Bioenergy provides other significant advantages over other sources of energy, in part due to its potential to stimulate the agricultural economy, through providing residues that are sustainable and affordable alternatives to conventional inorganic fertilisers and soil conditioners.

Kirk Semple, Professor of Environmental Microbiology and Assistant Dean for International at Lancaster University’s Faculty of Science and Technology, is lead investigator of ACTUATE.

He said: “Africa is littered with failed bioenergy systems; as a result, community confidence in and acceptance of these systems is low. Furthermore, local people do not see the health issues associated with wastes. The deployment of these two demonstrators will reveal the energy locked up in wastes, showing that it is possible to produce energy sustainably, while positively impacting on human and environmental health. Arising from the learning afforded by the GCRF-funded RECIRCULATE project, ACTUATE has the potential to be truly transformational by working with young people and stakeholder communities to effect real change.”

The project will work with local schools, communities, universities and NGOs to educate them on the health and environmental benefits of a circular economy.

It will also work with local businesses, investors and entrepreneurs to support the commercialisation, and expansion, of the technology.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has awarded £14.8 million to 18 international partnerships that are specifically aimed to deliver scalable solutions to issues faced by low and middle-income countries,

The projects have been funded as part of UKRI’s Global Challenges Research Fund Innovation and Commercialisation Programme, developed to fast track promising research findings into real-world solutions.

UKRI Director of International Development, Professor Helen Fletcher, said: “This is a really exciting opportunity to fund 18 projects through the Global Research Translation awards. Each and every one will make a massive difference to peoples’ lives in communities spread across the world to ensure some of the most challenged communities have a brighter future.

“Over the next year and a half, UK researchers will work with their international counterparts, policy makers, businesses and local organisations to turn promising research into solutions that can be taken forward through various pathways such as spin-out companies and social enterprises to make a positive difference to people who live with the reality of challenges such as climate change, poor sanitation and disease every day.”

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