Episode #91 Circles of Power: Urban Micro Anaerobic Digestion with Rokiah Yaman
How can we embed circular thinking in our food, energy, water & waste to benefit people and the planet? LEAP Micro Anaerobic Digestion is building the systems in the UK, Nigeria, Malaysia and around the world to create local zero waste cultures that provide food and energy to their communities.
Rokiah Yaman is the Project Director for LEAP Micro Anaerobic Digestion. A part of the project from the start, she coordinates the LEAP demonstration sites, oversees fundraising and planning activities, and manages infrastructure and operational logistics, helping to bring micro AD technology and the closed-loop ethos into public spaces where people can see who it works in their own communities.
In this episode, Rokia talks us through the technologies involved in Micro Anaerobic Digestion, and introduces us to the projects in London, the Scottish Highlands and Islands, Nigeria and Malaysia. We find out how it works, and how we can make it work in urban and rural settings, as part of the power spectrum of the future, where circularity is embedded in the way we live and we generate our own energy closer to home, giving us autonomy and agency and cutting the mega-corporations out of the loop.
As ever, our signature music comes from Caro C, but this week, we have additional music at the head and foot from Billy Surgeoner’s album ‘Hey Mountain Hey’ – the track is The Pollen Path
Manda: My guest this week works at the forefront of turning our waste into power and there can’t be anything much more useful than that. Rokiah Yemen is project manager at LEAP Micro anaerobic digestion. As you’ll hear, her background is neither in technology nor particularly in renewable energy. But she has a passion for making a change in the world. And so she was part of the group that helped to create the Mad Leap that is this company, looking to create a circular approach to food, energy, water and waste to benefit people and the planet. LEAP’s vision is to make managing waste easier, more accessible and more useful. They say that they aim to inspire and support a global network of decentralised waste solutions to create opportunities and value; because they want to contribute to a world where people and the planet thrive. And they believe in a future where businesses, schools, universities, flats and households can manage their own organic waste and contribute to local clean, sustainable food and energy production. The things that we need most, heat and power and food all brought into one circular system. It’s brilliant.
So people of the podcast, please welcome Rokiah Yaman. And as we head into it, we have some music from her partner, Billy Surgeoner from his album ‘Hey Mountain Hey’ – The Pollen Path. And I will put a link to that in the show notes, too. So here we go.
So Rokiah Yaman. Welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast. How is life with you? I’m guessing you’re in London. Are you in London?
Rokiah: I’m in London. In South East London.
Manda: Yay! We don’t get very many urban people. Actually, most people end up having escaped to the country for Covid. And you are the project manager for LEAP – Micro Anaerobic Digestion or LEAP – MAD or even MAD – LEAP, depending on how we read it. The website address, which we will put in the show notes is madleap.co.uk, which I do think is one of the most interesting and inspired website addresses that I’ve come across. So can you tell us a little bit about what drew you to this?
Rokiah: Ok, so I’ve had a very varied background across the arts and health, but I’ve always been really passionate about the environment. So it wasn’t something that I felt I would ever really be heavily involved in, because I don’t have qualifications in that area. Although having kind of explored a number of other areas, I find that now all of those bits of knowledge are translatable and transferable, and I can put them together and it’s a strength to be able to work across different sectors. So not specialised in any environmental kind of or engineering sort of studies. But I can understand what people are talking about. And I’ve learnt huge amounts through just being involved with the project and setting it up. So I guess I’ve been drawn to it through my passion for the environment, which you know is the key thing. And through a commitment to trying to make myself available for whatever I feel is the most critical thing to be done now. I know that sounds a bit abstract, but at some point I made a decision to… Time is short and we really need to do some urgent things at the moment. So if I can focus on those things and let go of the less the less critical parts of life, then by the end of it all, I’ll feel satisfied, I think. So that’s really why I’m involved at the moment.
Manda: And is it working? Are you feeling satisfied that what you’re doing is part of the solution?
Rokiah: I would say yes on a kind of a deep level. There’s always day to day ups and downs and all of that. But really, to have the opportunity to work on this kind of a project which has the potential to hopefully improve many people’s lives, if we get it right, it gives me a sense of purpose. It means that I focus on what is positively happening at the moment. I am in daily contact with many people who are working on lots of very innovative, inspiring either initiatives or they’re working in the government sector to support these initiatives or other areas of activity. And it means that I do have hope. And whether or not things work out in the end is not as critical as being involved in the movement towards trying to find a solution.
Manda: Yes, definitely. Yes. I think it was Vaclav Havel who said ‘I don’t fight fascism because I expect to win. I fight fascism because it’s the right thing to do’. And I think for all of us involved at this level of deeply trying to change things, it’s not because we necessarily believe we can overturn the system, but we have to try.
Manda: So tell us a little bit about what LEAP is; and if you can, were you involved in actually setting it up? So you could tell us a bit about the history.
Rokiah: Basically we started 2012 as a an informal partnership. We spanned across technology, academic sectors, community sector, and we brought together various organisations who all had an interest in managing food waste more sustainably and seeing if we could find a solution that would work for cities, initially. Because if we can make it work in cities, it can kind of work anywhere. It’s not a new technology. It’s been going since – kind of enforced – since the 70s, really. And originally the motivation in the UK at least, was pollution abatement on farms. So it’s a way to manage organic waste on farms, but then it kind of spread. Now it manages food waste from cities. It operates at the large scale industrial scale, farm scale and also microscale. So what we’re doing is not new. It’s just that we’re applying it in the sort of developed country context within the urban environment, which is a little bit more what is new. So. In the developed world, let’s say it’s very much in force on farms, in industrial kind of locations, that sort of thing. In some developing countries, it’s much more evident at the micro scale on smallholdings and that sort of thing. So we’re kind of combining; we’re trying to have a Low-Cost but robust version that works in cities that we can then adapt to also for the developing country context, but to be a more robust version of what’s already out there.
Manda: Ok, so let’s dig down into what the technology is that’s been around since the 70s and used on farms. How does it work? What does it do? What’s its potential?
Rokiah: So it’s like a series of tanks, if you imagine a digestion system. You basically have a bit that chews the food at the beginning. It goes down to the stomach. It then gets acidified and then hydrolysed and then goes out into the small intestine, the large intestine, and then comes out as poo and wee. So we basically have to copy nature in that respect and, you know, recreate that process as well as we can, as cost effectively as we can and as reliably as we can with tanks and fittings and hoses and pumps and motors and all of that. Essentially, we’re taking in any kind of organic waste, apart from woody waste, which it doesn’t digest. We’re turning that into biogas and liquid fertiliser. And in our process, we’re incorporating composting as well. So we get the the soil organic matter as well.
Manda: Ok, so let’s start off with the old way. This was, say, my understanding is places like chicken farms that produce extraordinary amounts of very high nitrogen waste. So you macerated it up, put it into the processor. And what you get out is methane and then potential fertilisers. Is that right?
Rokiah: Yeah. You get the volatile elements of the feedstock get turned to methane and carbon dioxide. That’s usually around 55, 60 percent methane. So that’s the burnable bit. And if that waste were to go to landfill, let’s say, for whatever reason, then that would still happen. But those gases would go up into the atmosphere unless they’re being captured. Methane being a very powerful greenhouse gas, it’s it’s a very good way of mitigating climate change because you’re actually capturing that powerful greenhouse gas. And that has an almost bigger impact, really, than than capturing CO2. If we can if we can reduce our methane emissions it’s really significant.
Manda: Yeah. Because methane is something like 50 to 60 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Is that right?
Rokiah: I’ve seen lots of figures; anywhere from below 20 to above 70. And I think it depends how you measure it, basically. But it is.
Manda: But it’s much more short lived in the atmosphere.Which is why we tend to focus on the CO2 just because it sticks around much longer.
Manda: Ok, so. The methane can then be burned as a source of heat and power. Is that part of what LEAP does to create the the heat and power generation from the methane?
Rokiah: So LEAP’s kind of had the benefit of working across a few living lab sites in London. And at those sites we’ve basically sort of modelled how to use biogas in different ways. So we’ve used a CHP unit, which is combined heat and power; that is basically burning the gas to generate electricity and heat at the same time. We’ve burnt it in a boiler to just generate heat only. We’ve used it for cooking. The one thing we haven’t done is to upgrade it and compress it and use it as a vehicle fuel. But that can also be done. And there is technology around to do that now at the small scale.
Manda: And so you burn the methane. My memory of chemistry is not great, but I’m thinking C2H4 plus 02 to CO2 and H2O. Is that right? You get carbon dioxide and water as a result of burning methane?
Rokiah: We get the carbon dioxide because it’s in the gas anyway. I can’t remember my chemistry very well either. But yes, mainly carbon dioxide coming out the other end and water vapour, which was already in there.
Manda: So what we’re doing is taking products initially from farms, but now from any food production in an urban setting, which creates then a lot of vegetable matter. Question: Do you also take all of the food output from a house? So if you’ve got – I don’t know – chicken bones or bits of cheese; do you have those as well? Churning those through, creating the gases that you create, which are mainly methane and CO2, and then the methane can be used to create other power. In other ways. And burning methane, with my memories of school time chemistry, creates carbon dioxide and water, I think. So we’re not adding to the CO2 in the atmosphere anymore than would already have been there. But I’m wondering, are there ways that we can put that CO2 to better use than simply filtering off into the atmosphere?
Rokiah: Yes, that would be our next step. So basically what we’d like to do next is to capture that CO2 from the exhaust, use the gas and the heat that comes along with it, to support food growing in a protected environment like a poly tunnel or a greenhouse. So it means that the CO2 will really support the plant growth. It can help to accelerate plant growth. So that’s using that kind of waste as a really useful input into food growing. And the heat is also useful as well from that point of view. So we can extend the growing season within probably tunnels and greenhouses by doing that.
Manda: And do you have plans to actually do this?
Rokiah: We do have some plans, yes. We’re currently fundraising for it. So what we really like to do next is have a demonstrator in London that’s at a larger scale than what we’ve been doing. We’ve been prototyping at the very small scale. But we’d like to do something that serves, let’s say, a social housing estate. So we’re currently based on the site of one. And we’d like to scale up what we’re doing there, engage the residents. We’ve already started the engagement process, but we need the next step, which is to raise the funding for the actual larger scale infrastructure to do that. And if we can do that, we’ll be able to create a blueprint for social housing initially. But because flats are very sort of traditionally tricky sort of environments to recycle in; you know, the infrastructure is not usually great and people don’t often engage in flats. But if we can get it right there, that’s something that could be replicated across the UK, across other countries, and really help to bring down carbon emission levels.
Manda: Ok so can we look at the small scale prototyping that you’ve been doing? Tell us a little bit about on the ground – the people involved – and give us a sense of the day to day work, because I have looked at the pictures on your website, but people listening haven’t. So if you could paint us a picture of one of these microscale sites and what it feels like to be there and what works and what doesn’t work.
Rokiah: Ok, so the first site we heard camli Street Natural Park was a London Wildlife Trust site. They had,I think it was a two acre site, right by the canal. And they gave us space very kindly. We built a couple of small buildings. We installed the micro anaerobic digestion system in one of them. And then we also set up a cafe there to utilise the gas for cooking. So we had a nice closed loop cycle going on. There was some food growing space nearby, so we would be doing digestate growing trials. So digestate is a liquid fertiliser that’s recovered from the food waste. So we had a cargo bike and we went to do collection rounds within a one mile radius area around King’s Cross. So that was fun. And basically we got to grips with running a system on a very day to day basis. You know, what the issues are, what the technical issues are, what the opportunities are for engaging people around it. Because when you’ve got technology, at that very small scale it’s very human scale. And one of the things we hadn’t anticipated was how much interest we’d get from local people, but also universities, because it ties in with a lot of different areas of research, not just the obvious engineering, biochemistry, that kind of thing, but also urban planning, circular, bio economy, et cetera, et cetera.
Manda: Brilliant. And how long has that been up and running? The one at the London Wildlife trust
Rokiah: That was up and running for about, let’s say, fully functioning for four and a half years. And then we’ve moved it to another site. And there’s another one, the other side of King’s Cross, which was on a community garden. So that linked in with that food production there. There was a polytunnel at that one. There was a a larger a cafe. So we was growing food for the cafe and we were taking the waste from the cafe on site. So everything was on site at that one.
Manda: So tell us a little bit more about the closed loop recycling, because I noticed that on the website you’ve got a course, a Circular Economy training day. And what’s so inspiring about this is it’s circularity; that you’ve really thought about how the product of one process becomes the input field for the next process. So can you tell us a little bit about the thinking that went into that and how does it work? Have you found obstacles or is it flowing? And do people really get it?
Rokiah: Ok, so circular economy has been around for a little while now. There’s no waste. It’s a zero waste concept as far as is humanly possible. And what we did on that course was to try and just give people an outline of that general ethos. There’s a whole sort of design methodology attached to it. So you can apply the circular economy to materials, to manufacturing of products. When when we look at organics, then we call it the circular bio economy. And really, to be honest,it’s recycling. It’s the same ethos as that. It’s just got a bit more, let’s say, packaging, or a bit more presentation to it and links it more with the economy. It looks a little bit more in detail about the design process. If you want to design something to be circular, you’ve got to think through not just the fact that you should be able to recover components, let’s say, or recycle it at the end, but also what kind of business model you use. So if you have a leasing model, for example, you basically will design your equipment to be long-life and long lasting and robust, rather than short-life and having to be replaced every three to five years. And you know, you might you might design components so their easy to take in and out, to replace, to upgrade, et cetera, et cetera.
So it’s looking at the whole kind of approach you might need to take in order to design a circular world, let’s say. And really, it’s very much copying nature, isn’t it? So, you know, nature does it naturally. There’s no concept of waste in nature. We’re struggling to catch up here, but hopefully we’ll make it.
Manda: Yes, because I listen quite a lot to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. They do a series of talks and obviously their whole thing is taking big, big mega companies and helping them to think in the way of the circular economy. And I listen to Ellen MacArthur talking to someone saying that she was sailing around the world looking at all the plastic coming out, and that she realised that sustainability was the process of gradually reducing the amount of stuff that you put into things. But she said the end point of that, is that you end up making new products out of new resources and selling them to nobody. And nobody’s going to do that. So we have to start finding the circularity where the end point is that whatever is the waste product of your production becomes the input feed to something else. I remember in Schumacher, there was a little bit of circularity going on where some people had another cargo bike and they went round and got all of the coffee grounds from all of the cafes and they hung them up and great big nets in a shipping container and grew mushrooms, which they then sold to the cafes. It was great. And it had that sense of, yes, we can actually make things circular. And I think bringing that in as a mindset. It seems to me that part of what LEAP is doing is changing people’s view from the see-want-take-use-throwaway mentality of predatory capitalism and the last few decades, and bringing us back to what was a much more natural way of living. All our previous generations have reused and recycled and and brought stuff in. And so I’m really interested in the social reach of this. You’ve talked a few times about engagement. To what extent are people who are not necessarily directly working for LEAP, but are touched by it; buying food from the cafes or having the cargo bike come and collect from them. To what extent do you think they’re buying into this and is it having a ripple effect on the rest of their lives?
Rokiah: Well, I’d say that there’s a big appetite and it’s increasing now for this kind of thinking, these kinds of solutions. People not just want to hear about what is happening in terms of climate, but they want to be able to do something about it. And so, you know, if we’re able to expand on what we’re doing and roll it out more widely than what we’d ideally like to do is to give people opportunities to get involved; either through training, internships or through actual employment. A key goal, is to create green training and employment opportunities. If we do that within and we can do that for companies, but also if we can do that for, let’s say, social housing, then we can kind of start to maybe infiltrate the culture there a little bit more. And it’s because our model is so linked with the food production side of things in order to close the loop. It’s not just the waste. It’s growing stuff. It’s growing stuff locally for local consumption. So zero food and waste miles. Then people can see a little bit more and actually benefit from that local food because it’s being grown without having to be transported long distances, without having to be chilled and harvested early so that the nutrient content is much higher. And so from a health point of view, you know, that’s that’s much more beneficial.
Manda: Yeah. And do people appreciate that? Are people weaning themselves off the plastic ready meals when you offer them something that is more nutrient dense, fresher, grown locally and has all of those benefits? Have you noticed an increase in people’s interest in urban farming and locally grown food while you’ve been doing this?
Rokiah: I think so, because every kind of little event you do, or training or whatever, if you just pass on the information then they’ve got it there and they can take it away. And if it was passed on with enthusiasm and you know and love, then people get it much quicker. When they can see the example of, let’s say, waste being turned into energy, that’s quite striking I think. You don’t normally see that in a city. It’s not that it’s not going on, it’s just that it’s not so visible. And making it visible is part of the equation, I think.
Manda: Yeah. Because most people would wean themselves off fossil fuels tomorrow, if they could see that there was an alternative, that it was readily available and affordable. And so I’m interested in how potentially we roll this out. If we were to take ourselves five or 10 years down the line and have, let’s fantasise quite freely and suppose really solid political backing of this. Can you see a point where most of the urban planning and retrofitting in not just the UK, but around the world, was involving Micro AD within the heat and power production template? Is that a possibility?
So I have two questions. Is that a possibility with food waste? But also, when I looked into Micro AD a while ago, I was looking into it using human sewage as a potential feedstock. And I’m wondering, is that a thing now? Could we use our own outputs, all of our organic outputs, to heat and power our homes? Is that technically possible now?
Rokiah: Technically, yes. But it wouldn’t probably provide all the heat that you need. So it will be part of what they’re calling an energy sort of matrix or hybrid sort of approach, an energy mix, basically. So in the future, I don’t see any reason why we can’t integrate this technology into the built environment. But it’s important to say that it won’t provide all the needs, electrical and heating needs, of the built environment. It will provide some of them, and it will provide a waste management solution and it will provide some value added products which hopefully support employment opportunities. So those are the benefits I see. And I think that really the value is partly in sort of managing waste locally where it makes sense to do so. Partly it’s going to be complementing centralised infrastructure, which we will still need. And partly it’s going to be playing a part in engaging people and making things visible so that it’s going to be easier for them to change their behaviour around it.
Manda: Yes. And I’m wondering, this may get too technical, so let’s see where we get to. But part of the issue, particularly with heat and power, when we start looking at weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, is that most of the renewable energies are weather dependent. You either have sun or you don’t. You either have wind or you don’t And most of the sun doesn’t shine when you need most of the heat in the power in the winter and and wind offshore is fine and onshore is less fine. And part of the things that we really have to grapple with seems to me, is transmission of power. We lose so much power just going along power lines; so that the more we can produce locally where the distances are much shorter, the less power we need. And so I wonder if to what extent Micro AD can become the baseline that otherwise people seem to want to fill with nuclear power, so that there is always something ticking along in the background when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Has it got a potential for that or is it not going to fill that gap?
Rokiah: Gosh, that’s a hard question for me to answer. I don’t know is the honest answer, but it can certainly provide a good percentage. That’s something I’m not sure I can answer
Manda: No worries. It seems to me it’s quite an interesting avenue potentially to go down. So we might find somebody one day who can. So let’s head back to the projects that you have on the ground, because you’ve got the ones that you mentioned in London. And I’m wondering, are you spreading to other urban centres in the UK?
Rokiah: Not at the moment, but we would hope to. So I think for us, it’s going to be easiest to have the first larger demonstrator in London so we can manage it properly. We’ve got fabrication facilities in Gloucestershire, which is where we can build the stuff. So there may be some activity happening around there as well. We’ve got good links with one of the local colleges there.
Manda: But then you do have other things going on around the world in other countries.
Rokiah: Yes, we’ve been working quite closely with Nigerian partners and Malaysian partners and in both countries looking at the role of Micro AD for communities, for smallholdings, for farming cooperatives, for Peri-urban applications. And in Nigeria, for example, we’ve been working with some great partners out there, to look at the feasibility of a solar AD mini grid model and what kind of communities might that serve and how is it going to benefit them. So we’ve just finished a 15 month feasibility study on that, where we tested some of the equipment, but also tested out the business models and engaged with the communities themselves and set up three potential demonstration sites for the next stage. In Malaysia, we worked with great partners there as well.
Manda: Let’s unpick, if we can. Have you been there? Have you been out to Nigeria?
Rokiah: No, it started just before Covid, so we were not able to go there. But we’ve had lots of online meetings, obviously, and it’s been a real education, because I didn’t know much about Nigeria beforehand. And now I know a bit more. And it’s interesting
Manda: Tell us as much as you can without breaking commercial or personal boundaries. Tell us a little bit more about this, because it sounds really exciting, so much potential.
Rokiah: So basically, I think, the biggest differences are the infrastructure there is really, from the electricity point of view, kind of quite unreliable. So they have to rely instead on diesel generation, which is very obviously polluting. Much more energy for them comes from diesel generation, than from the grid. And they have a lot of downtime. And it’s obviously worse in the countryside than it is in the rural centres. But even in the rural centres, it’s not fantastic. So they’ve got very many challenges of a basic nature. That we would we would call basic, but for them it means that there’s huge cost to their businesses. They can’t, let’s say, extend the life of their crops very easily because they don’t have the energy to do it. So everything has to be sort of consumed there and then for some farmers. It makes life difficult from that point of view. I’m sure there are many positive aspects of it as well. But they struggle from a lack of kind of basic resources and some technical know how.
So there is a role there for us to play, I think, in transferring some technical knowledge over there and helping the companies that we’ve been working with to really be able to deliver the environmental benefits that they could be doing. And hopefully we could also be involved in that process.
Manda: Brilliant, because Nigeria is a little bit sunnier than London. And you’d think that solar power would be a no brainer, for starters? And then again, you could be using the anaerobic digestion for the times when the sun isn’t shining, which is mostly at night. And so I’m guessing you’re pushing against an open door with this, that people were interested. Was it a lack of funding that has stopped them from shifting from diesel to solar already?
Rokiah: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, it it would take quite a lot of money to, you know, overhaul their infrastructure for electricity supply. And I think they’re really seriously looking at minigrid microgrid solutions because it makes more sense. And they obviously have loads more solar than we do.
Manda: Minigrids and microgrids. We created our electricity grid in an era where great big central authoritarian things were a good idea. And also, if you’re going to burn vast quantities of diesel or coal or whatever, you might as well do it in one central place. And we didn’t care about the loss of power as it went out. The world is a different place now. And it seems to me that everywhere in the world, creating the energy locally and having nano grids, even, at kind of house scale and village scale is the way forward. When I looked into this before, the challenges were twofold: One was the generation and filling in the gaps when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing and people still want to be warm. But the second threshold was how do we distribute the power to the people who need it from the people who are producing it at a micro scale? If you’re not using a major grid like we have in the UK. And that seemed to require quite sophisticated AI computing power to balance inputs and outputs in real time as we went through. And also some kind of block chain as an incorruptible ledger that also could function in real time, to transfer whatever we’re using as value from producers to consumers in real time. Are you solving those problems? Because at the time when I looked at it in 2016, those seemed quite big hurdles to cross.
Rokiah: Yes, we were looking to do that. We did put in an application for the next stage sort of demonstration project, and that would have looked at developing smart grid control, which is kind of what you’re talking about. And so you’re right, basically, AD will supply baseload energy, which can be programmed so that it is constantly producing biogas. But also there’s a need for some storage, or it could be burnt as it’s being produced to provide ongoing baseload electricity and heat. So it’s really going to be different for each site in terms of what their energy demands are and how to match that with the energy outputs of the equipment that you have. So, you know, it’s going to be not as straightforward as the grid in some ways, but in other ways, it could be maybe adapted. We could look at how things could be used at specific times and when the digester could be fed, for example, and then offset that with the solar input as well. So there are a lot of things to do. We were going to work with the University of Sheffield on that, who have some expertise in microgrid sort of implementation, and that would have been great opportunity. But there was some ODA cuts (the overseas development aid cuts). So lots of applications were kind of struck out at that point.
Manda: Yeah. So I think pretty much every podcast, what we get to is we need a new government, but we don’t know how to get there. So we’ll bypass that one because it’s just too frustrating. One of the features, it seems to me, of microgrids, is people retaining ownership over the data that arises from that. And I wonder to what extent that is a factor in people’s decisions to want to head that way.
Rokiah: We’ve thought about ownership and that sort of thing; not so much around the data, but just ownership in general, of the minigrid itself. And so one model could be you just have a customer and they buy outright the equipment and they own it. But I think to get a good sort of community ownership model, there would need to be a community organisation set up and training provided and mentoring for a period of time until they get to grips with the system. And then they could be the ones who then administer the charges locally for the energy that’s produced. That’s kind of what we prefer. In order to do that, because the upfront cost may be a bit higher than a community organisation might be able to afford, then we’d maybe look at working together with them so that we can try to raise together some upfront financing. And then over time, that gets paid off. And then hopefully beyond that, it starts to produce a profit for the community.
Manda: Brilliant. Because community cooperative production and consumption is going to be a much better way than feeding into a capitalist system where one guy gets very rich because everybody else needs power and heat. That doesn’t seem very fair. Power, heat and cooking: Do people use the methane in places like Nigeria directly for actual cooking, or is that not a thing?
Rokiah: Yeah. So I think the the trial that we did in Nigeria was linked up to a few households. So they were cooking with the biogas there.
Manda: What about Malaysia? You mentioned Malaysia earlier. What’s happening there?
Rokiah: Oh, so that was exciting too. I’m half Malay, so I had some existing contacts which I leveraged. And basically we work with some very interesting organisations. One called ARKITREK, who specialise in kind of eco architecture and the development of sustainable building materials. And another one called the FUTURE ALAM BORNEO, who do a lot of environmental community engagement and education. They have some technical background as well. So they helped us with the plastic recycling, which we integrated into our model with AD. So we looked at how AD could basically help to power plastic recycling and how plastic recycling could then be used to manage plastic waste, which is a really big problem in Malaysia, particularly around the coastlines and the rivers there. And how it could be used to sort of help disadvantaged communities, in this instance, to generate some income, to produce sustainable building materials and also to produce food, growing infrastructure from waste plastics.
Manda: And how is that going? Are they building things from from waste plastic?
Rokiah: We did a fantastic feasibility study and. And then we kind of got a bit stuck again because of the ODA cuts. So we’ve got the plans and the partners to move forward, we just need to find the next kind of funding opportunity for that. But I would say that, you know, that despite the issues, there’s been a huge amount of support from the government. And there are lots of initiatives, not just central government, but local government as well. Lots of people very, very keen to move this kind of green agenda forward. So, while there are some issues, there’s also a lot of positive action going on, which I really appreciate.
Manda: Ok, good to hear. And I’m guessing that also the Nigerian and Malaysian governments would be quite interested in pushing these forwards; that some of the funding could come from the host countries as well as from the ODA.
Rokiah: Potentially, yes. We did manage to have some conversations with government departments in Nigeria, which were quite promising. So those are things that we now need to follow up.
Manda: Yeah, because I’m guessing Covid has got in the way of a lot of this.
Rokiah: I suspect so. Yeah, but it’s also giving people time to think, I think, and hopefully reapproach things in a better way.
Manda: Ok, brilliant. So because I live off the edge of nowhere in that kind of edgeland between England and Wales in really quite a tiny village, we don’t see enough sun to make solar really work. Wind is problematic because The Telegraph and The Mail hate it. Therefore, quite a lot of the local people hate it also. And I’m wondering to what extent we could look towards the possibility of anaerobic digestion as a way of local communities in remote areas of the UK producing their own heat and power. Is that likely to be a thing going forward?
Rokiah: Yes, we are definitely looking at that option with remote communities, with island communities we’ve been speaking to. It’s a really good opportunity for them to manage their waste where they are not having to send it off island, let’s say, for example, and to be able to generate some of their energy needs. It also gives them the organic by-products so that they can replace the synthetic fertilisers they may or may not be using. And just to say, it’s actually the production or the recovery of nitrogen through anaerobic digestion from food waste that is the highest carbon saving of the whole technology. It’s not actually the energy, it’s the recovery of nitrogen, because it takes so much energy to produce synthetic nitrogen as a fertiliser. So it’s pretty significant from that point of view. And from an island economy, the benefits are kind of quite different and almost more accentuated within a remote community, because they’re no longer having to send things away and having to import quite so much food. Let’s say if if they do a complete closed loop cycle, it helps them to become much more self-sufficient and resilient.
Manda: There are a number of the Scottish islands where there’s been kind of an island buy-out and the island community is running the island as a unit. Are those the places that you’re thinking?
Rokiah: We spoke to the University of Highlands and Islands who’ve got about 13 campuses dotted around. So for them, it would help them to sort of decarbonise their operations. I think it just makes a lot of sense for that kind of community.
Manda: Definitely. Can we unpick slightly? Because I live in a smallholding and because we are looking very hard at how to move towards regenerative farming; Part of the point of regenerative farming is that we no longer use nitrogen. We don’t put input other than the inputs that come from the Land. But if we were to have a farm scale bio digester, those inputs would be from the Land. And there was something that I read in one of the blogs on your website, whereby they said that some of the digestate was causing acidic soils and worm die off. And that ways were being investigated that could ameliorate that. How is that going?
Rokiah: Ok, just to clarify, the certification was from a paper and the Worm die off was from slightly more anecdotal sort of evidence. And so I think a lot of that is down to dosing. How the dosing is done. If it’s too much, obviously, it’s going to have a negative impact – but that would be the same for any artificial fertiliser. So those actions are specific to those particular studies. In terms of the European project we’ve got going at the moment, that’s designed specifically to deal with what they’re calling ‘the shortcomings of digestate’. So agreed there’s there’s a lot of it. It doesn’t reduce in volume like composting does and reduce in volume. So the technology that we’re developing for this European project, with another 15 partners, is basically looking at how to: A, Reduce the volume of that, because mainly it’s kind of 90 percent plus water, B, to extract nutrients into a compact form so they’re much easier to handle (these are all the recovered nutrients from crop or farm waste or manure); and C, to sort of remove antibiotics if they exist within the digestate.
Manda: Right. And what sort of ways are you using? Is this using biological filtration?
Rokiah: It’s mostly mechanical. We can add in biological later, but this is a mechanical solution and it would potentially serve multiple plants. So it’s mobilised. So we’re looking to reduce cost in that way. And, you know, just to give you a bit of background, digestate is, or can be, one of the biggest issues for AD plants where there’s not enough land to spread it, basically. So if there’s not enough land, you get a surplus build up. And then the common sort of solution for that is to pay for it to be taken away.
Manda: I have a horrible feeling that it ends up in the rivers somehow.
Rokiah: Oh, no, no. It does end up on farms in the UK. But at some point, there’s going to be a saturation of the available space just to spread it and the amount that’s being produced. So I think it’s important also to find other ways of managing it, reducing the volume, making it more compact, etcetera, etcetera.
Manda: Yeah, because we’re going to make this nationwide and international. Then we can’t be spreading it all over land that we’re trying to regenerate where it might not be what you need to regenerate the Land. If we’re going to grow soil depth in the way that regenerative farming does and build the ecosystems back; because we’re not only in a climate emergency, we’re in a biological and ecosystem emergency, too. So how close are we to finding that? Do you think that might be a piece of string of unknown length, but I’m just genuinely curious. I’m wondering actually, at what point can we get one of these and put it on on the Land here at a financially viable scale for smallholding?
Rokiah: All right. I would hope sometime next year.
Manda: Oh, excellent. Well, if you want you want a trial smallholding on the edge of Wales, let me know. Fascinating. I don’t think we have enough livestock at the moment, but we’re staring hard at the feasibility of a micro dairy. So that might move towards it. Brilliant. So, amazingly enough, we’re heading down towards the end of our time. There was so much that I wanted to ask you about. One of the things: you have a course on your website about hydrogen and the use of hydrogen for power. And I’m wondering how does that come out of anaerobic digestion and and where is it going? Because that sounds quite exciting also.
Rokiah: Ok, it was linked because we had a dialogue with an artist who was, I think, at the Slade. He obviously is a particular type of artist. But he was developing in low cost electroliser, open source electroliser, which basically uses surplus solar to generate hydrogen. And it’s a it’s a storable gas, so it’s slightly easier to store in some ways. And the link that we had with him, was because there’s a technology which is being tested at the moment, not by us, but by other groups. It uses hydrogen and it injects it into the digester and creates a sort of a biological pathway where it increases the methane production. You can either inject it in the digester or have it in a separate vessel, but you’re basically increasing methane production.
Manda: Yes, because CO2 plus H2 equals C2H4 plus O2. Interesting. Ok. And then my understanding up till now is that one of the key uses of hydrogen has been to power cars. That’s what they’re doing in Orkney, where they use their amazing amounts of wind power to split seawater and get hydrogen from it. And you were also talking about the potential of using methane in cars. And I know that a lot of us who don’t want to be driving cars powered by fossil fuels are looking at electric vehicles and are deeply concerned about the rare earths and the mining thereof. And the astonishing pollution attached to that. Is the use of methane and or hydrogen in cars likely to be a commercial possibility, do you think?
Rokiah: Well, it’s already happening, so basically they’ve got hydrogen buses on the road in Camden. They’ve got a transport depot that’s serviced by methane fleets. So they get bio methane shipped in from a landfill site that captures the biogas and purifies it and liquefies it. So biomethane coming in liquid form, being decompressed into the vehicles. In Malmo, in Sweden, they’ve done a very smart thing where the municipality has partnered with the farmers on the outskirts. And they basically take all the food waste from the city, they digest it on the outskirts, they give the digestate (the liquid fertiliser) to farmers and biomethane powers the city buses. So it’s a very joined up way of doing things. You know, it would be nice if it could happen here, but I’m sure there’s many models for it to work.
Manda: Yeah, I would think Preston is probably looking into this, given that Preston is one of the most obviously advanced of our local councils. How brilliant. That’s that’s genuinely inspiring. I think probably given the time, that’s a really good place to stop, unless there’s something obvious that I haven’t asked about that you think people would like to hear?
Rokiah: No. I guess the one thing I would say is that if you have an aspiration, let’s say, to do something for the environment. Or, you know, people in general, whatever it is, I would say follow that. You know, if it’s a passion, if you if you feel something like that, follow it. Whether or not you feel qualified,just seek out like minded people, or look for similar sort of initiatives to what you have in mind and just link with them and start talking to people. And you don’t know where that will lead. For me, it’s basically led me into a position where I’m very involved in this kind of move towards hopefully a more sustainable world. And there’s nowhere else I’d rather be at the moment. So I just say go for it.
Manda: That’s brilliant, thank you. And actually, if somebody wanted to go to madleap.co.uk, it looks like you’ve got some jobs going.
Rokiah: We do. We’re recruiting people for the workshop. So if you have any fabrication skills or anything like that, we really want to hear from you. We’re also looking for people to help with the London based demonstrator. So if you’ve got various skills, either in marketing, graphic design and practical skills, please get in touch.
Manda: And even if you didn’t want a job, it sounds like there’s a lot of room for volunteering here and possibly elsewhere. Yes. Fantastic. Brilliant. Ok, people on the podcast, you have your new mission: Go out and find something useful to do with anaerobic digestion. Rokiah, Thank you so much. That has been genuinely inspiring. I’m so glad that everything that you’re doing is happening. Thank you.
Rokiah: Thank you, Manda.
Manda: So that’s it for another week. Enormous thanks to Rokiah, for her enthusiasm and the depth of her knowledge and for all that she and Mad leap are doing to change the world. Because this kind of deeply committed, thoughtful, connected, regenerative outlook and solutions to the ways that we need to live if we’re going to change our trajectory, Is what we need. I am so genuinely inspired that this is happening and that it’s happening under the radar in spite of everything else that might be trying to continue with business as usual. And genuinely, if you live in London and you want to help out. Go to the website. I will put a link in the show notes. Have a look at the jobs and the projects and see if there’s anything that you want to give time and energy to. Because this feels really absolutely useful and fun. And in the meantime, we will be back next week with another conversation.
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