Edidiong Okon Doctoral Researcher/Research Assistant, School of Engineering, Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, United Kingdom. She recently completed her PhD program with a first class in Chemical Engineering on the work titled “Preparation, Characterization and Carrier Gas Transport Characteristics of Inorganic and Organic Membranes for Application in Lactic cid Esterification with Ethanol”. She is a native of Nist Atai Local Government Area, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria.
CAFEW: How did your journey to study Engineering begin? What inspired you initially?
EO: I graduated with a BSc in Chemistry from the Department of Chemistry University of Uyo in 2011 with a second class upper division (2.1). During my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) in Nigeria after my undergraduate degree, I taught chemistry course and basic sciences in secondary school before I started my masters degree. During this period, I get to express the knowledge and experience that I acquired to the young pupils. This was to encourage the pupils especially the young females in the secondary school. However, it was also a source of encouragement to most of my female corps friends. Also, during my BSc course, I was always competing with the male students in my class and this led to my graduation with a second-class upper division in Chemistry.
I really had passion for academics especially sciences and Engineering courses. I progressed to obtain an MSc degree program in Instrumental Analytical Sciences (Oil Field Chemicals) from Robert Gordon University in 2013, where I did my project work at Nalco Champion Technologies, UK. I acquired a lot of knowledge and skills in thermoplastic material compatibility testing when subjected to corrosion and scale inhibitors for downhole injection applications in the oil and gas industry. Subsequently, with the knowledge of material testing analysis, I did a lot of research on catalysis which was another important material in the oil and gas industry where I found that the Chemical industry was faced with a major draw back in the choice of catalysts for different reactions such as Esterification reactions due thermodynamic equilibrium limitations and this led to my PhD in Chemical Engineering
In the first one and the half year of my PhD in Chemical Engineering, I performed a lot of research assistant work in the laboratory such as gas separation transport test with membranes for different applications. I have used membranes and catalysts to produce Ethyl lactate solvent from lactic and ethanol, wastewater treatment, biofuel production, single and binary gas separations. I also contributed to my colleagues in the Research Centre as well as supervising BSc, BEng, Meng and MSc students in their project work which was a source of encouragement to a lot of female students in the school of Engineering in my University who were aiming to start a PhD program in Engineering.
As a female research student in School of Engineering, I attended and made several presentations at international conferences including world congress on engineering and computer science (WCECS 2015) and 3rd international conference in mechanical and Aerospace (Mechaero 2015) San Francisco, United states of America, where I won the best student paper awards at both conferences. This has also served as an encouragement to a lot of women in my field.
CAFEW: What does your family feel about your profession?
EO: My family is happy and proud of my profession.
CAFEW: What currently motivates you?
EO: The motivation in my research work was to address an existing thermodynamic equilibrium problem in the chemical industry in the choice of suitable catalysts and membranes for the production of ethyl lactate. Ethyl lactate is used as a commercially available solvent used in different industries. This solvent can replace a lot of hazardous petrochemical solvents being used currently including toluene, benzene, and xylene. As such there is need for solving the equilibrium problems to obtain a higher conversion of this solvent.
The conventional method for producing ethyl lactate is by the esterification of lactic acid with ethanol catalysed by homogeneous catalysts such as sulphuric acid. However, the use of homogeneous acid catalysts causes a lot of problems including acid contamination of the ester product. Aside from thermodynamic equilibrium limitation problems, reaction yield can also be limited by other factors such as mass transfer and heat that is generated during the esterification process. These limitations can be overcome by altering the reaction design.
The motivation of research was to produce ethyl lactate by process intensification using membrane for higher yield of the solvent. In this case what the membrane does is to selectively shift the chemical equilibrium to the product side for higher conversion. The essence of using catalysts and membrane is to compare the efficiency of the two methods and evaluate the most effective method for the production of ethyl lactate, which will be recommended to the different industries such as food, petrochemical, pharmaceutical and agricultural industries that employed ethyl lactate in my home country.
Also, my motivation in teaching is to transfer the knowledge that I have acquired to the young generation especially the female students which will encourage them to aspiring as woman in engineering to the development of my home country.
CAFEW: What do you wish you could have done better? What advice would you give your younger self and why?
EO: I would love to research more in my field (catalysis) if given enough time. Work hard to accomplished the set goal.
CAFEW: Provide a personal quote to motivate others.
EO: Keys to succeed in Engineering field: Determination, Commitment and Persistence and Self confident.
CAFEW is happy to celebrate, encourage, and motivate Female Engineers and other Females who enable success in Engineering.
“Talent is unique to each person so it is highly necessary to nurture it. Dream big, work hard consistently, develop skills continuously, volunteer, read & research always to increase your knowledge bank and most of all pray always.” – Ngowari Diminas, CAFEW founder