College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Research into Biogas for Rural Waste Management and Energy Solutions Secures Cum Laude Degree

Mr Jonathan Olal Ogwang received his Master’s degree cum laude in Civil Engineering for research that involved investigating biogas as a waste management and energy solution among rural South African communities.

Ogwang did his research under the umbrella of his supervisor Professor Cristina Trois’s South African Research Chair (SARChI) in Waste and Climate Change, which is funded by the National Research Foundation.

Growing up in Uganda in a scientific family, Ogwang developed a keen interest in environmental engineering thanks to its potential to improve quality of life. After completing his international high school curriculum, he decided to study in South Africa, choosing UKZN because of its good reputation in Engineering.

During his postgraduate studies, Ogwang was motivated by the rapidly developing biogas industry in Uganda to do research on the topic. Having seen a small biogas project when he was in high school, and having the opportunity to conduct his studies in the field, Ogwang said he was pleased to be able to use his knowledge to advance the fledgling industry in South Africa.

He set out to develop the best practice model of biogas provision at small and medium scale levels in South Africa. During the course of his research, Ogwang was involved with a National Lottery-funded project to design and implement an improved model of biogas provision at five crèches in KwaZulu-Natal, in conjunction with the South African National Energy Development Institute (SANEDI) and Khanyisa Projects.

His research involved restoration of 26 anaerobic digesters, developing an optimised model for biogas provision in South Africa, biochemically characterising locally available organic waste substrates and their energy potential, and designing and implementing an optimised anaerobic digestion system. Ogwang’s successful new digester design produced 10% more biogas than the control at a high organic loading rate, with his ambition and drive enabling him to complete his research in a year.

‘Current digester designs have a limit to which one can load them with organic waste, such as sewage or food waste,’ said Ogwang. ‘The new design enables more people to benefit because one can load it with more waste without the digester failing.  Amongst many optimisations, it mixes itself without any mechanical parts and can be heated using a unique energy efficient solar heater design.’

This work will, he believes, enable more people to obtain free clean energy and dispose of their waste in an environmentally friendly manner.

Ogwang said he found the process of completing a master’s degree to be valuable for the experience and expertise gained in the field of environmental engineering. He currently works with Defy and UKZN on a project to develop a new biogas stove purpose-built for South Africa and after the lockdown will progress to working as a junior environmental engineer with Defy, where he will engineer systems for pollution control, waste management, sustainability, water resource management and energy efficiency.

A keen athlete, Ogwang balanced his studies with participation in sprinting, basketball, powerlifting, strongman sport, soccer and jumping, and recently won the Ford Ranger Deadlift in Hillcrest. He is also a guitarist, having played in a band for a time.

Ogwang thanked Trois, his supervisor Dr Marc Kalina and his family for their invaluable support during his studies.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied