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Biogas and organic pollutant research win UJ Three Minute Thesis (3MT) Competition

Doctoral candidates researching economical biogas generation and the removal of organic pollutants from water, were the respective winner and runner up in the 2017 Interfaculty Three Minute Thesis (3MT) Competition at the University of Johannesburg, on 5 September 2017.


Mr Samson Masebinu, a full-time doctoral candidate in the UJ Department of Mechanical Engineering Science, was the overall winner of the UJ 3MT Competition and also won the Audience Choice award. Masebinu’s PhD topic is ‘Anaerobic digestion process stabilisation and in-situ upgrading of biogas using biochar’.

“In South Africa, 75% of the waste generated is disposed of at landfills across the country. The economic value of waste generated in South Africa has been reported to be about R25.3 billion/year. Meanwhile, biogas can be generated from the organic fraction of municipal solid waste, industrial organic waste, agricultural waste and purpose-grown energy crops,” said Masebinu.

“Presently, the University of Johannesburg through its Process, Energy and Environmental Technology Station (PEETS) analyses organic waste for the biogas industry throughout South Africa with positive feedback from clients.

“My research work challenges the status quo of the need for commercial and extremely high tech required to clean biogas for high-value application. As CO2 is not combustible and not required in biogas, the existing procedure is to separate the CO2 in an external energy intensive process. My approach is to find how the CO2 in biogas can be removed in-situ by using other combustion residue,” said Masebinu.

“3MT was very challenging in the sense that compacting three years of high-level technical work in three minutes was not easy. It was like one minute for each year of work. What I gained was how to unlearn and relearn the act of communicating highly technical research to a lay audience and get their attention under the first minute,” concluded Masebinu.

Masebinu’s doctoral research is supervised by Prof Esther Akinlabi, immediate past Head of Department at Mechanical Engineering Science, now Engineering Vice-Dean Teaching and Learning. Masebinu’s co-supervisors are Prof Edison Muzenda, a visiting professor at the UJ Department of Chemical Engineering Technology, and Dr Wale Aboyade.

Organic pollutants in water

Mr Gbenga Peleyeju, a full-time doctoral candidate in the UJ Department of Applied Chemistry, was the runner-up in the closely-contested UJ 3MT competition. Pelejeyu’s PhD topic is ‘Removal of Organic Pollutants from Water by Electrochemical and Photoelectrocatalytic Methods using Carbon and Semiconductor Anodes’.

“Availability of adequate and clean water is necessary for the survival of humans everywhere. Human activities in many areas, however, have negatively impacted on the quantity and quality of water available for human consumption. Given the fact that there is shortage of fresh water in SA, it is necessary to give due attention to water reclamation.

“In addition, pre-treatment of industrial effluents to reduce or remove dissolved organic substances before being discharged into the environment is essential. This is particularly important for people in the rural areas who rely on surface water and groundwater to meet their water needs. To do this, we need effective and cost-efficient methods. Our research efforts are channelled to accomplishing this,” said Peleyeju.

“Organic pollutants pose health risks to human and animal populations including aquatic creatures. They also adversely affect the ecosystem. Low amounts of some of these chemicals in the human body can lead to major organ damage. Organic pollutants are contained in domestic, industrial and agricultural wastewaters.

“The study sought to use low-cost materials that would utilise minimal electrical energy and the abundant sunlight energy for removal of organic substances from water,” he added.

“It was challenging coming up with appropriate words in the 3MT to explain science and chemistry jargon to a lay audience and doing that within a very short period of time,” Peleyeju concluded.

Peleyeju’s doctoral research is supervised by Prof Omotayo Arotiba from the UJ Department of Applied Chemistry. His co-supervisor is Prof. Jonathan Babalola, Department of Chemistry, University of Ibadan, Nigeria.

Valuable experience

The UJ 3MT competition was organised and hosted by Dr Pia Lamberti, from the UJ Postgraduate School on the Kingsway, Auckland Park campus. Dr Lamberti is the Head of Research Capacity Development at the School. 3MT was originally founded by The University of Queensland in Australia in 2008.

Said Dr Lamberti:”Since it is becoming increasingly important for researchers to step down from the Ivory Tower and engage with the real world, PhD candidates need to learn how to think and talk about their research in ways that engage ordinary people. Therefore, competitors have to rise to the challenge of communicating effectively about their research with the general public.’’

“The standard of the presentations was high this year. The panel of five judges agreed that there was a small margin between the scores of most of the 14 participants,” she said.

The judges were Prof Tien-Chien Jen from Engineering, Prof Brenda Leibowitz, Dr Melissa Card from Humanities, Dr Edwin Madala from Science and Dr Daniel Maduku from the College of Business and Economics.

“However, some of this year’s competitors held the floor for less than three minutes. Since a PhD thesis of 80 000 words would take over nine hours to present orally, three minutes is the minimum time it should take to do a thesis justice. I suggest that future competitors make optimal use of the time available and use the full three minutes,” suggested Dr Lamberti.

Prizes for winner and runner-up

The winner and runner-up of the UJ 3MT interfaculty competition receive prizes. This year the winner received a book voucher prize of R1000 and the runner up R500’s worth of book vouchers. They each won R1000 worth of PPS unit trusts. There was also an audience choice trophy for the competitors voted the most outstanding by the audience.

The overall UJ winner has the opportunity to showcase her/his research and presentation skills to an international audience in the U21 3MT Competition, to be held in October. As videos of the presentations are uploaded on to the U21 website, and people are invited to view all the competitors’ presentations in order to vote for the best one, competitors are given wide exposure.

Who can compete?

Potential competitors should be PhD candidates at UJ, who are recognised by their departments and supervisors as promising researchers. All competitors need to present convincingly the research findings and explain the significance of their research. Candidates should be close to completion of their studies and those who have already graduated are not eligible to take part. Ideally, competitors should have excellent oral presentation skills.

In 2016, some UJ faculties had faculty-specific competitions before the inter-faculty competition. Only the winner and runner up went forward to the UJ competition. In 2017, the vice-deans were asked to confer with departments to establish who the most promising PhD candidates were and to nominate up to five candidates to represent the faculty. The nominees were then invited to enter the competition.

UJ in national 3MT competition

In 2016, Optometry and Journalism PhD Candidates from UJ competed in the 3MT national finals.

In 2015, a PhD candidate from the UJ Postgraduate School of Engineering Management (PSEM) won the first nation-wide South African 3MT competition, presenting on a maintenance strategy for slurry pumps used in tailing plants in the mining industry.


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