UK-Paducah engineering students off to Uganda for research project

Engineering students Shelby Browning (from left), Rana Turkmani, Chandni Joshi Jangid and professor Jeffrey Seay explain how a low-cost processor converts plastic waste into a diesel fuel substitute at the Emerging Technology Center. The group is embarking on a four-week research trip to Uganda in July as part of an ongoing project.

KELLY FARRELL | The Sun

Students and faculty from the University of Kentucky College of Engineering-Paducah Campus are set to arrive in Uganda on July 7 for a four-week research trip, part of an ongoing project to convert plastic waste into marketable fuel in developing regions.

The UK Appropriate Technology and Sustainability Research Team collaborates with Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, to implement the technology and has worked on research involving plastic waste for several years.

Four students from Paducah are making the trip: Chandni Joshi Jangid, Rana Turkmani, Shelby Browning and Brett Quigley. They are led by UK chemical engineering professor Jeffrey Seay. It's a return to Uganda for most of them, but it'll be the first visit for Turkmani, who is enthusiastic about the project.

"So far, everybody that's been was excited to go again and they told me great things about it," Turkmani said. "I'm really excited, but nervous because I've been out of the country before, but at a very young age so I don't really recall it."

Browning made her first trip after high school graduation. This will mark her fourth visit.

"You get over there and you realize it's a whole different world," Browning said. "The culture is different. The people are different, the mannerisms, the food, the infrastructure, everything is completely different from what you're used to.

"You get to adapt and readjust to working in a new environment and I think that's a skill that's necessary in this day and age because the world is only getting smaller."

Seay said the research approach is to give value to plastic waste by developing low-cost processors to convert it into a diesel fuel substitute. The conversion process is simple, but only certain types of plastics can be used to make the fuel. People can collect the plastic, place into part of the processor, put that into a stove and light a fire, which heats the plastic and melts it.

"Plastic is a long-chain polymer and what happens is, as it heats, it goes through a process called thermal decomposition and those molecules get shorter and shorter and shorter until they reach the length to be similar to a diesel fuel," Seay said.

Seay said the science behind the process has been known for a long time, but it's their job as research engineers to figure out a method to implement it in underdeveloped regions. The processors don't require in-depth technical education or rely on sophisticated controls. It also uses little firewood.

"Eventually, we want this to be a self-sustaining process where someone can then buy a processor and use it as a business, so in order for someone to buy it, they need to know what the payback period is," he said. "From what we're seeing, it's very quick."

The research team had a $5,000 Rotary District grant last year that allowed it to take a prototype to Uganda and set up a family to collect plastic, make fuel and sell it. It's gone "very well" and they wanted to extend the project.

"We needed two things: We need money and we needed to identify families who would be good candidates to take this process and turn it into a business," he said. "And in exchange, give us data on the process, how it works, how much money they make, what problems they have with it, so that we could then disseminate this elsewhere around the world."

That's where two community partners come in.

Beyond Uganda, a Paducah-based outreach organization, helps the research team vet families in Uganda to receive processors. The organization's staff will receive training for operation and then identify families, train them, provide technical support and gather data, Seay said. The processors will be distributed to Beyond Uganda sites in Kampala and the Bugiri District.

Brent Housman, who volunteers with Beyond Uganda, said the project puts feet to action, impacts lives through science and has a "nice byproduct" of cleaning up the environment.

"We're able to find families that need income, that need jobs, that can take these plastics and convert them," he said. "You're literally feeding families by this project."

Meanwhile, Rotary Club of Paducah stepped in to assist with funding through a Barbecue on the River booth selling fried Twinkies and Oreos, which UK students helped run. More than $12,000 was raised for the project from the sales. The total budget was about $14,000, so Seay said a Rotarian "kicked in" the other $2,000, which allows them to bring six processors to Uganda.

"Poverty is not the amount of money you have in your pocket," said Randy Bridges, Rotary president-elect. "Poverty is the lack of hope and that's what we're trying to do -- provide hope for these families. These processors are a sustainable hope that they can see a future that can be better than what they have right now."

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