We recently ‘met’ with FlowPhotoChem P.I. Dr Justus Masa of Kyambogo University in Uganda for a short interview. Dr Masa’s core research is in electrocatalysis and energy conversion, with a focus on the rational design of advanced low-cost catalysts and electrode materials for electrochemical energy systems.
Please tell us a bit about yourself and your research career in electrocatalysis.
I grew up in a remote mountainous village in Eastern Uganda, Buginyanya Sub-county in Bulambuli district. At the time, the village was without running water, electricity, and no paved roads. Today, there is electricity, still no piped water and the roads remain unpaved and unmotorable during rainy seasons. The challenges imposed on life by these and other conditions instilled a desire in me to be a part of the solutions that would simplify the lives of people in this area. I figured out rather early, with the guidance of my mother, that only science, engineering and technology could offer the solutions to most of the challenges. This set me determined to study natural sciences, driven by the will to improve human livelihoods. I eventually joined Makerere University on a state scholarship to study Industrial Chemistry and later MSc Chemistry with a Scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).
My career in electrocatalysis begun when I joined Ruhr-University Bochum (2008) to pursue a PhD under the supervision of Prof. Wolfgang Schuhmann with the support of a scholarship from the DAAD. My original research interest was to develop low-cost electrochemical sensors for food, medical, agricultural, and industrial applications, among others, using molecular metalloporphyrins as catalysts, taking inspiration from their involvement in many biological catalytic processes in nature.
While working with molecular metalloporphyrins, I learned that there was a lot of interest in the scientific community to develop affordable catalysts for the ORR (oxygen reduction reaction) in fuel cells. Interestingly, the materials derived from controlled pyrolysis of metalloporphyrins and related materials, so-called “MNC catalysts” were the leading contenders to replace expensive platinum-based catalysts, as low-cost non-precious metal catalysts the ORR in fuel cells. I found this to be very important and appealing, specifically considering the current need to decarbonize our energy systems, which led me to change my research focus to electrocatalysis. There can’t be a better time to be an electrochemist and to work on electrocatalysis! A hydrogen economy, where green hydrogen becomes the dominant energy carrier for the future is the ultimate solution for a green and sustainable energy landscape. To this end, the core focus of my research in electrocatalysis is aimed at addressing fundamental barriers in knowledge and material design on the path towards the hydrogen economy.
Why are the FlowPhotoChem outputs (first set of reactors, FlowPhotoChem system demonstrator) of particular interest to your international network in government, academia and industry?
Global warming is driving climate change and exposing humanity and ecosystems to imminent dire consequences. Governments, industry and academia have to act cooperatively and with a sense of urgency on the drivers of global warming to avert future crises and catastrophic consequences. Direct photochemical conversion of carbon dioxide and water into chemicals and fuels, that is, solar-to-chemicals conversion, presents the opportunity to close the anthropogenic carbon cycle and is an ideal pathway towards a carbon-neutral future, circular economy and green industry.
The outputs of the first set of reactors in the FlowPhotoChem project are expected to be hydrogen, carbon monoxide, ethylene and propionic acid, among others. These outputs are important feedstocks for the chemical industry and provide a green alternative to the conventional petrochemicals industry that is the dominant global polluter and key driver of global warming due to carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide emissions may be local but the consequences spread across national boundaries thus necessitating concerted international action and cooperation. The FlowPhotoChem project provides such a platform for cooperative international action in confronting a global challenge to derive shared benefits.
How will involvement in FlowPhotoChem benefit research at Kyambogo University? What are the potential benefits of European-African collaboration in the area of sustainable manufacturing?
Kyambogo University is Uganda’s second largest University. It is a relatively new University, founded in 2003, and there is a strong need to enhance research capacity in all the faculties. International partnerships and collaborations are extremely important to support this effort. Kyambogo University’s involvement in the FlowPhotoChem project will contribute to enhancement of the quality of graduate teaching and research capacity strengthening in the Department of Chemistry. The university will be hosting two meetings of the project partners in the 3rd and 4th years of the project. These meetings present opportunity for establishing new international partnerships. Uganda, and the whole of Africa in general, is well-suited for solar-to-chemicals manufacturing. In addition, Africa is primed to experience rapid industrial growth in the coming decades thus presenting many untapped industrial ventures and opportunities to supply Africa’s growing consumer population.
Have you worked with any FlowPhotoChem partners before? If so, tell us more about the collaborations.
Yes, I worked in the same department with Dr Jelena Stojadinovic of Membrasenz, at the Center for Electrochemical Sciences, Ruhr-University Bochum (Germany). We didn’t work on the same project but there were areas of common interest in our work, so we interacted and supported each other although we didn’t have any joint publications or patents. At that time, my research focus was on the development of low-cost non-precious metal electrocatalysts for the oxygen reduction reaction (ORR). This coincided with a growth of interest in hydroxide exchange membranes for alkaline fuel cells, among others, which was Dr Stojadinovic’s main research interest. Ionic conductivity of the membranes and oxygen permeation were some of the questions that Dr Stojadinovic was dealing with, while I had an interest in the development of low-cost miniaturised oxygen sensors. So, I was interested in testing the performance of her membranes for fuel cell applications, particularly, their stability and ionic conductivity, while she had an interest in miniaturised oxygen sensors for her testing her membranes.
Thank you very much for your time and responses. Let us hope to ‘meet’ in person before the end of the project!