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UDS Researcher Nominated for the Africa Prize of Engineering for Pioneering Sustainable Sewage Treatment

L-R, ROFSIEQ team members, Ato Fanyin-Martin, a chemical engineer, Dr. Abubakari Zarouk Imoro, team lead, and Nana Aboagye Acheampong, a mycologist, pose for a group photo at the ROFSIEQ fungal mycelia production lab in Nyankpala, Northern Region, Ghana. October 25, 2023. Proof Africa/GGI Images/Francis Kokoroko

Ghanaian environmental technologist Abubakari Zarouk Imoro, from the University for Development Studies, is leading the charge in environmental biotechnology with his groundbreaking Myco-Substitutes method. This revolutionary sewage treatment system utilizes fungi and viruses to break down waste and create useful products like yarns and leather alternatives. Dr Imoro is the head of the Energy Technology Center – UDS. He has been nominated for the African Prize for Engineering Innovation 2024 for his works on Myco-Subtitutes.

The genesis of Myco-Substitutes lies in the urgent need to address the health hazards associated with informal toilets and the improper disposal of faecal sludge in Ghana. In many regions, inadequate sanitation infrastructure leads to significant public health issues, including the spread of waterborne diseases. Imoro and his team set out to create a system that not only mitigates these health risks but also capitalizes on the waste as a resource.

Mechanism of the Myco-Substitutes Process

The Myco-Substitutes process is a multi-stage treatment that begins with the introduction of bacteriophages into faecal sludge. Bacteriophages are viruses that infect and lyse specific bacteria, effectively reducing the bacterial load in the sludge. This step is critical for minimizing pathogenic threats and preparing the sludge for subsequent treatment.

Following the bacteriophage treatment, the sludge is inoculated with various fungi, including Basidiomycetes, Rhizopus, Aspergillus niger, and Aspergillus flavus. These fungi utilize the remaining solid waste as a growth medium, developing extensive mycelial networks. The presence of toilet paper in the sludge serves as an additional carbon source, enhancing mycelial growth. Over a period of 72 to 120 hours, 10 liters of sludge can produce approximately 500 grams of harvestable mycelia. The nomenclature ‘Myco-Substitutes’ is derived from the mycelia-based materials produced through this process.

Applications of Mycelial Products

The harvested mycelial threads offer a sustainable alternative to traditional fibers in the textile industry. These threads can be processed into yarns that rival cotton or synthetic fibers in quality and utility. Moreover, mycelial sheets, which are produced in 500 mm x 500 mm dimensions, serve as a substitute for animal-derived leather. These sheets can be tanned and fashioned into various products, including bags, belts, and shoes. By layering multiple mycelial sheets, the resultant material can achieve the strength and durability of conventional cowhide.

To enhance the tensile strength of mycelial threads, they are often combined with natural latex and fibers derived from Calotropis procera (giant milkweed) and the Kapok tree. This composite material not only mimics the properties of cotton but also contributes to the sustainability of the production process by utilizing readily available natural resources.

Pre-Pilot Phase and Production Capabilities

Currently in its pre-pilot phase, the Myco-Substitutes technology has demonstrated the capacity to produce between one and five balls of yarn per day. Production rates are influenced by several factors, including the species of fungi used, the available cultivation space, and the supply of giant milkweed. The research team sources faecal sludge from wastewater treatment plants, ensuring a consistent supply of raw material for their process.

Upon receiving the sludge, it undergoes analysis to identify and cultivate bacteriophages, which are then reintroduced to the sludge to target bacterial populations. The liquid effluent, post-bacteriophage treatment, is disinfected using chlorine or ultraviolet (UV) light, rendering it safe for use in irrigation. The residual sludge is subsequently converted into biochar, a substance that can enrich soil fertility or be compressed into eco-friendly briquettes for use as fuel.

Advancing a Circular Economy

The Myco-Substitutes initiative epitomizes the principles of a circular economy by creating value from all components of faecal sludge. By integrating waste treatment with resource recovery, Imoro and his team have developed a system that not only addresses sanitation challenges but also contributes to environmental sustainability and economic development. This holistic approach ensures that waste is repurposed into valuable products, minimizing environmental impact and promoting resource efficiency.

Impact and Future Directions

Abubakari Zarouk Imoro’s pioneering work on Myco-Substitutes holds significant implications for sustainable waste management practices. The integration of bacteriophages and fungi in the treatment process represents a novel approach to sewage treatment, with potential applications extending beyond Ghana to other regions facing similar sanitation challenges. As the project progresses beyond its pre-pilot phase, scalability and adaptation to different environmental contexts will be critical for broader implementation.

Future research efforts will focus on optimizing the mycelial cultivation process, enhancing the mechanical properties of mycelial products, and expanding the range of applications for the materials produced. Additionally, ongoing collaboration with stakeholders in the textile, agriculture, and waste management sectors will be essential for the successful commercialization and adoption of Myco-Substitutes technology.

Conclusion

The Myco-Substitutes project, spearheaded by Abubakari Zarouk Imoro and his team at the University for Development Studies, Ghana, is a significant advancement in the field of environmental biotechnology in Ghana. By transforming faecal waste into valuable materials, the initiative not only addresses critical public health issues but also contributes to sustainable development goals. Through innovative use of bacteriophages and fungi, Myco-Substitutes exemplifies how interdisciplinary research and technological innovation can drive positive change in society.

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