Science & Technology

Integrating the Study of Photosynthetic Bacteria for Biogas Production and Transitioning from Classrooms to Industrial Plants 

     Cooking oil is our everyday's need and we know that the liquid is squeezed and pressed out of tons and tons of oil palm fruits to meet consumers’ demand. 
But where do those empty fruit bunch fibers go after all the oil has been exhausted? Instead of being left wasted, they further contributed to the source of industrial scrap-based clean energy and linked classrooms and the local community’s industrial plants together. 

    Prof.Dr. Wanna Choorit, Vice President for Research and Social Services, Walailak University, shared with us in this article her research on the use of the bacteria in palm oil mill effluent and empty fruit bunch fibers and highlighted her indispensable integrated role as a researcher and a teacher. Prof. Dr. Wanna combines her pedagogical practice with research, field-experience to contribute to society economically and environmentally. 

Photosynthetic bacteria: Transforming the waste into the valuable products


      Accumulative experience traced back to graduate school years, Prof.Dr. Wanna described photosynthetic bacteria as a viable producer of valuable products such as 5-aminolevulinic acid (ALA) and cells, applicable to vegetation as a precursor of Chlorophyll, and to fix atmospheric nitrogen. Of all the pluses, the most prominent prospect conducive to sustainable energy security to that it can produce hydrogen, clean and alternative energy. Therefore, given such usability, photosynthetic bacteria also play a pivotal role in treating wastewater, especially mill effluent, not to mention that it grows at a speedy rate with relatively less care demanded. 

     Prof.Dr. Wanna mentioned her interest in bringing photosynthetic bacteria to industry ground in accordance with her research-integrated teaching and as a community member. Being a teacher teaching students specifically the utilization of industrial plants’ scraps, the biggest task is predicated on drawing a connection between class teaching and real setting, in other words, classrooms, and industrial plants. That led me to identify the geographical setting supplying us with the practical learning contexts. 

    “in the south, tons and tons of agricultural scrap, empty fruit bunch fibers in particular were to be disposed of in the production,” said Prof. Dr. Wanna. 
From classrooms to Industrial plants 

    Learning was transitioned from classrooms to oil palm industrial plants. Making observations during plant visits, the students learned that a hundred tons of oil palm were needed to yield 20 tons of oil. This means that one day of the plant’s operation alone leaves behind gigantic piles of empty fruit bunch fibers and effluent. Therefore, a channel supplying the classroom with authentic learning sources was available. 

    “I trust that it will be fun learning because we are able to make connections between the community or real-world problems that need to be addressed. After that, we will add on techniques and knowledge to make learning most illustrative and beneficial to both the students and industrial plants” explained Prof. Dr. Wanna. After having exhausted the scales with mill wastewater, Prof. Dr. Wanna switched to fiber scrap naturally composed of sugar components such as cellulose. Dissolved into small molecules using photosynthetic bacteria, hydrogen is produced as a result. The entire process demonstrates how interest is tied to research. 

    Following her work, Prof. Dr. Wanna through the research-integrated teaching method as described yielded tangible outcomes both in a form of international publication and production of experience-based graduates working as an industrial plant consultant with both clients in Thailand and across Asia. More concerning the students’ experience, Prof. Dr. Wanna pointed out that involving external organizations also brought in funding for students such as internship allowance, salary, or commitment to returning to working at the plants.

The future direction of Thailand’s 
     Research in the utilization of industrial scrap’s value is about turning useless materials into the useful ones propelling economic flow, based on the Bio-Circular-Green Economy (BCG). Currently, only 20 percent has been achieved in terms of diversity. With broadened scale, the manufacturing cost shall improve in favor of farmers. 

     Turning to knowledge and technology development, the way industrial effluent is handled has completely changed from a conventional practice commonly used in 2002; transferring it to a pool causing the emission of methane, to a constructive method; systematically treating wastewater, and changing it to biogas. It has been a transition from a dead-ended practice to one benefiting both the economy and global ecology. 



                                                                                                                                      Prof.Dr. Wanna Choorit, Vice President for Research and Social Services, Walailak University

     “It is our job to keep pushing the research frontier in this research area even though it is susceptible to achieving less than expected or turns to be a lengthy, repetitive, or longitudinal process,” said Prof. Dr. Wanna. 

     “Until we reach the point in which development in human, thinking and teaching professionalism. That is an indicator of success.”

All at One 
   In terms of networking and collaboration, students learn about challenges starting from making contact with external organizations. It is concerned with communicating ideas, the rationale behind the process, feasibility, and the action plan to the audience. In addition, limitations in terms of infrastructure, funding, and time flexibility can determine the speed of the process. 

     Besides working in coordination with the industrial plants, collaboration on the topic has extended to an international level through co-conducted projects. Under Royal Golden Jubilee Ph.D. Program (RGJ) for example, students and advisors in a host and home country were given an opportunity to visit overseas institutions to get acquainted with contemporary practices, and cutting-edge laboratory infrastructures available in other countries. 

    Regarding this, Prof. Dr. Wanna summarized three unparalleled keys to success namely, determination, support, and effective communication. “When it comes to collaboration, shared interests coupled with effective communication is needed. You have to learn from each other to find the right rhythm.” With technology-enabled communication in a form of real-time virtual meetings via the available platforms such as Zoom and Google Meet, communication has become easy. Prof. Dr. Wanna concluded the interview by leaving key takeaway messages imperative to learning to become a good researcher: be a reader who reads and critically thinks of what has been read. The message enunciates the importance of placing reading in line with thinking, followed by analysis and synthesis. 

    “the fun part is that you will realize that something which is actually absent should be immediately added. You have to be a critical thinker being able to weigh pros and cons for the purpose of optimizing the limited resources and time,” reflected Prof. Dr. Wanna. 

    Prof. Dr. Wanna Choorit specialized in Applied Microbiology (Waste treatment and utilization of food biotechnology) and currently assuming the position of Vice President for Research and Social Services, Walailak University.

News by Nootchanat Sukkaew 

Division of Corporate Communication