When Corey Ndifon began thinking about tackling a problem for his senior design project, his thoughts turned to his real-world experiences visiting his family’s homeland in Nigeria.

He had seen the impacts and challenge of having only spotty electricity availability in his family’s community. And, he had seen a lot of litter, especially pervasive plastic bags.

Working as part of a multidisciplinary team, Ndifon and his fellow engineering students have developed an idea for a small-scale gasification device that would allow Nigerians and people from other countries with a limited electric power grid to convert their trash to electricity. Earlier this year, they received a grant from University of Washington to develop a prototype and were one of 16 finalists in UW’s recent Alaska Airlines Environmental Innovation Challenge, where they won the $5,000 EarthLab Community Impact Prize. The WSU team will also compete in both the UW and WSU business plan competitions.

With a growing population, electricity demand in Nigeria is growing. A little more than half of the country has access to electricity with the rate of electrification in rural areas at only 31 percent. Many people get their electric power from diesel generators, and while Nigeria has been awash in oil for decades, corruption artificially inflates prices and makes diesel fuel out of reach for many people, Ndifon said.

Solar panels have been considered an option for electricity production, but they are difficult to maintain and a popular target for theft, the students said. The panels are taken apart and sold for scrap.

At the same time, the country also struggles with waste management. Only about 25 percent of the approximately 32 million tons of annual garbage is collected, and that trash is burned, creating pollution issues. The rest of the uncollected garbage simply ends up in the environment.

Gasification is not a technologically difficult process and is already commonly used in many chemical industries, the students say. Nine kilograms, or about 20 pounds, of garbage treated in a gasifier will produce about 10 kilowatt hours of electricity, which is about a third of what a typical American home uses daily. The students want to use the technology at small scales in people’s homes to power appliances, cell phones, or other small devices.

“I saw this as a good opportunity to raise awareness and to try to solve a problem,” Ndifon said.

A screen capture from Zoom of Philip Virtue, Corey Ndifon, Alex White, and Maximilian Obasiolu.
The students, who met mostly virtually for the project, include (clockwise, starting top left)
Philip Virtue, Corey Ndifon, Alex White, and Maximilian Obasiolu.

“Just knowing that from an infrastructural standpoint that a lot of emerging nations don’t have access to stable power is something I’m very passionate about,” said Maximilian Obasiolu, a senior in electrical engineering whose father is also from Nigeria. “We’re trying to attack the problem from the standpoint of decentralization, so that people are able to take their resources into their own hands. We hope they can use a device like ours as a catalyst to be able to power their appliances and have more freedom in their daily activities.”

The gasifier would work by burning the trash in an oxygen-free chamber, which would break it down into a vapor of methane, hydrogen, and light hydrocarbon molecules. This “syngas” can then be used to power a generator, converting the chemical energy to mechanical energy to produce the electricity.

“The technology already exists on a large-scale and can be replicated,” said Philip Virtue, a senior in chemical engineering. “Our project is minimizing it and using it for personal use.”

When Ndifon and Virtue started the project, their professor, Ray Combs, had initial concerns that they could even manage such a big effort, said Ndifon. He has since come on board and recruited Obasiolu and Alex White, a senior in computer engineering, to the team.

“It’s a hard project,” said Ndifon. “I wanted to prove that we could do something that’s very difficult but feasible.”

Virtue and Obasiolu are students in the Harold Frank Engineering Entrepreneurship program, a program for engineering, communications, and business students who are interested in technological entrepreneurship. The program has allowed the students tremendous flexibility in pursuing a project that is of personal interest, said Obasiolu. They have also been brought together with students from a variety of disciplines, preparing them for the workforce that they will soon encounter.

“The Harold Frank programs allows you to look at your engineering through a different lens – not just as an engineer,” said Virtue. “It really broadens and diversifies your skills and what you’re able to do in any engineering discipline.”

While White is not formally a part of the Harold Frank program, he believes the course is providing him with skills that will make him a strong candidate for jobs after graduation.

“This class is start to finish,” he said. “You do a lot a bit of everything.”