The awe-inspiring story of Uwaoma, the man who built, by reading up the ideas in technical/science books, Nigeria’s first indigenous gas plant model university professors are now talking about
By CHIKA ABANOBI
The first surprise that confronts you as you arrive Uwaoma Nwoke’s residence located somewhere in Satellite Town, Lagos, is piles of books stacked so high, to a dizzying height, from the floor to the ceiling, in the three bedroom flat that make up his apartment.
You are forced to wonder how the man, his wife and his family of five children, three boys and two girls, are able to walk about in the little space that is left without having the books fall on them and seriously injuring them or even killing them outright. Put together, they are nothing less than 10,000 volumes.
The second surprise: As you look more closely, you get to discover that the books, encyclopedia, dictionaries, big, heavy textbooks, etc, are on various branches of sciences – chemistry, physics, chemical engineering, petroleum engineering, mechanical engineering, civil engineering, metallurgical engineering, just name it.
Tread carefully! You are in the house of the man who gave us the Graceland Liquified Natural Gas Plant Project – the indigenous research-based engineering company that has the capacity of producing 10 million tonnes of gas, using 40 per cent domesticated technology and 60 per cent foreign, as against the 95 per cent foreign content and technology, currently in vogue. Many Nigerian newspapers which include The Guardian, The Punch, ThisDay, The Nation, BusinessDay, Daily Independent, Leadership and Business Hallmark and foreign newsmagazines like South-South International, have reported and are reporting on the feat achieved by this genius.
But none seemed to have published any storyon the making of the man, on how he came about the idea. And, so as information filtered into your ear that this man who built the first Nigerian gas-plant model over which professors and doctors in engineering are said to be shaking their heads in wonder, according to the report carried by the South-South International of September 2011, did not go through formal university education, as Mr. James Andrew Yakubu, the Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) and Mr. Babs Jolayemi Omotowa, the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas (NLNG), did, but read up the ideas he used in building it up in books, you decided it was high time you visited him to see things for yourself.
It is true that Yakubu read Chemical Engineering at Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), and Omotowa, Industrial Chemistry, at the University of Ilorin, but it is doubtful whether they could have, while on the campus, as in their lifetime, read the volumes of books that Uwaoma read on the subject of petroleum engineering, oil and gas sector, including the business aspects.
“I try to disabuse the mind of Nigerians when they talk of paper qualifications,” Uwaoma said as you raised the issue. “I am an avid reader. If I have any weakness, it is in the area of reading.
I believe in studying to show myself approved. So, the background of this is personal study because I research a lot with books. You can see the books. Thank God you are here. “I don’t like the idea of anybody insinuating that maybe you didn’t have a technical background. The technical issues they are talking about, are they not written in books? Knowledge is in books.
If others can read the books and acquire the knowledge and improve on them, why can’t I? In any case, discoveries all over the world, have not always been an academic factor, it has not been done in university laboratory all the time. “I am a person that believes in a studious life. Ask my children.
Day and night, I keep on studying on areas of interest. So, it is the information I was able to gather from my reading of core technical books, that I was able to build this prototype. Okay, how did I know there are demarcations? How did I know how gas plants operate? It’s because I read them up in core technical books on petroleum. I develop my technical drawings through the technical knowledge that I have by reading technical books, data and so on. It is not as if the thing came from oblivion or magic.
No.” All the same, it makes for magical moments to listen to Uwaoma, who has a diploma in ICT course, explains how his invention reported by South-South International of November 2010, as “the first in Africa,” works.
There are 16 complex layouts in the petroleum model, built on a plastic platform, and having as the main sections, the compression train and the condensate stabilization unit. One unit includes the propane where pre-cooling is achieved, the cryogenic unit as well as the fractional distillation unit which operates with 500 centigrade and the storage tank farm. On the indigenous gas plant, which uses MFC (mixed fluid cascade) technology, as against APC (Advanced Process Control) currently in use in most of the world’s LNG plants, Uwaoma tells Education Review that “the primary objective of processing natural gas – stream in methane – industrial, butane, propane – residential fuels and heavy hydrocarbon liquids suitable for petrochemical feedstock lies in essentially in the cryogenic – low temperature refrigeration that considers the advantages of reducing its mass volume to smaller unit of 1/600 times by condensation – the removal of sufficient heat from gaseous state thereby prompting the gas to change to a liquid state, while resulting into liquefaction at – 161 centigrade at atmospheric pressure.”
On why he decided to go for the German MFC technology as against the American APC, he said: “We took a long term view in the overriding LNG Production markets, and guidance of the prevailing situation in Africa, especially in Nigeria. The decisions are based not on the immediate gains which might turn around to haunt the project on the long term, thereby becoming unnecessary risks that are inimical.
So the decisions were taken based on minimizing chilling technology, optimized cost and local fabrication. “Nigeria has come a long way in industrialization as witnessed by its giant strides in oil and gas sector. One of the areas of breakthrough technologically is the liquefied natural gas.
However, one of the challenges we are having in the oil and gas sector is how to increase the local or Nigerian content. Almost 95 per cent of the input in the LNG is foreign and this is not good for our developing economy. Hence this invention is to draw the attention of the government and other stakeholders to the need of domesticating some aspects of the LNG, thereby improving the Nigerian content.”
Some of the identified areas of domestication, according to Uwaoma, include sewage plant, water treatment, power plants, internal structure of columns and towers, local sourcing of chemicals for LNGs, engineering design offices, shipyards and fabrications and construction yard and other support facilities to support the LNG development.
Some of the benefits would include job creation, increase in local content and creation of rooms for skills acquisition and enhancement of national capacity building. But the problem he seems to have right now is that with all his exhibitions, showcasing which had people from all walks of life, engineers and non-engineers, including delegates from the Brazilian Consulate in Nigeria, shaking his hands for a job well-done, nobody from either the NNPC or NLNG, seems to be interested.
As far as they are concerned, he is on his own. “If it is not real, they should forget all about it,” Uwaoma noted with a tinge of sadness in his voice. “We are in technological era, but Nigerian LNG came as a result of the abundance of gas we have while Graceland LNG came as a result of research trying to drive down cost. Instead of awarding this contract to TJSK, the consortium that did it, we now say no. We want to fabricate some of these things locally and then we pay in Nigerian currency so that we can reduce cost and create jobs. So, these are the things that parted the two projects. S
o, our own is set at driving down the cost. The major difference between this plant and all the other LNG plants in the whole world, is that this is the only one that is coming with a domestication plan. It does not exist anywhere in the world. There are similarities in the operations, but in terms of economic planning, we have different goals. It is not something hidden, when we took it to UNILAG, people made positive comments.
So, my brother this is where we are at Graceland.” At what point did you start thinking of showcasing this, you asked. “Precisely, when people started mounting pressure on me: ‘you have this technology and you don’t want to take it out’ and stuffs like that. They saw it as something novel because some of them have worked in oil and gas industry, so they see it as ‘how did you come about this idea. Why don’t you take this thing out?’ I said, it has not gotten to that stage.
They said, no, no, take it out. And then I took this thing to NNPC, that was in September, 2004. I thought, ordinarily, as my fellow countrymen, they would encourage me to go to the next level, but it was unfortunate.
“I wrote them and they invited me and I went there. To be frank with you, 99 per cent of the people that came from the gas division of the NNPC initially appreciated the job. They were talking about taking it to the next level but there was a man called Engineer Adam who was a chemical engineer. He asked me, where did you study? I said, no, I got my own through inspiration from reading. He said he is a senior lecturer in a university in London, he cannot take it.
“One interesting thing about my UNILAG exhibition is that the people who came are not from UNILAG alone and some of them have not seen me from Adam. Even when they were asking questions, they didn’t know my background, whether I was a PhD scholar. They were asking based on what they saw.
Their assessment was on-the-spot. In fact, it was not a UNILAG thing, it was something that involved more than 20 different universities. Did I go and bribe them to come and write positive things concerning the plant?
The doctors and professors in engineering from different universities, did I go and bribe them? So that stage has come and gone, except somebody who wants to fool himself. I strongly believe in personal development. When I started this project, there were some core technical books in petroleum and gas engineering that I did not know how to go about reading them.
But I patiently studied them. “I spend the last kobo we have in this house to buy books. I have flair for reading. I have flair for books. Even as I am talking to you now, if I have N200 in my pocket and I go out and see a book I like which is N150, I will buy it and wouldn’t mind trekking the rest of the way to my destination.
On the road, in the bookshops, anywhere I see good books, I buy. Now, my research is no longer limited to oil and gas, it involves economics, oil and gas politics and management. I buy to make sure I get myself updated. Education and research is dynamic. I know what is happening in oil and gas sector. I believe in inspiration.
“I have taken my time to study this industry and the research has been long. And one of the things that God has blessed me with is retentive memory. So, when you see my terminologies that come from the oil and gas industry, I did not study them one day.
God will bear witness for me. It was residual knowledge that I used in presenting the project at UNILAG. So, I strongly believe in reading. If you have a son or daughter, tell him or her to read. I believe in studying. I study so many things.
I have so many encyclopaedias here. I buy them. I use them to work. I have no other business here than to read up information. I think that is my agenda on this planet earth. I so much believe in reading. When you read, you sit down and study what you’ve read. I am research conscious. I believe in digging up information.”