IAST … Science is making a comeback in Guyana
By Crystal Conway
When Dr. Suresh Narine took over the Institute of Applied Science and Technology (IAST) in 2005, it had sunk into a state that was a far cry from the days when it was called a “flagship institution of the Caribbean.” Today it is slowly climbing out of that condition to regain a seat in the Guyanese scientific arena.
Five years ago, the buildings were in a serious state of disrepair and the facilities were all flood-damaged. All of the records – staff, financial and scientific, 38 years worth of them, were completely lost in the devastating floods of 2005. The staff, which numbered approximately 50, had one or two technical persons and the institute had a budget of some $30M.
According to Dr. Narine, “It was safe to say that the Institution was not fulfilling its mandates.”
Established in 1977 that mandate was “to provide a vehicle for the harnessing of science and technology for commercial purposes.” At the time of the Institute’s establishment research funding flowed freely, with monies coming from the United Nations, the Non Aligned Movement and various other international pots. But some time in the 90s international funding dropped off and the Government funding was not nearly enough to keep the Institute afloat so that was the beginning of the institution’s decline”.
Dr. Narine pointed out that “the agency’s director Dr. Trotz had left, the institution bled massively of its skilled staff, lack of repair exacerbated existing problems …”
When Dr. Narine was offered the post by President Bharrat Jagdeo in 2005, he undertook a housecleaning where he was able to effect a change rather than as he put it, “write letters”. He replaced almost all of the administrative staff with technical staff. He says that in IAST there are no ‘job descriptions’ because there are simply too many activities to be done across the board. “What you will find are skill tiers. A person may be a Technician Level 1 and another Technician Level 3, each tier requiring certain skill sets and proficiencies. Participation in projects is shared among staffers. Today the clerk in the stores department is doing stores, but tomorrow he may be working on bituminous products.”
These and other innovations, he noted, are what contributed to the growth of the Institute. In the last 5 years the operating budget has risen three times in four years from $30M to $86M and the agency even sees capital funding of $70M of which there was none five years ago.
In a further bid to secure funding, IAST decided to get the people of the country behind their cause. To do this, Dr. Narine said, “We chose to do a project that would capture the public’s imagination.”
That’s when they came upon the idea of Biodiesel. It wasn’t new science but it was science with commercial possibilities and immediate returns as well. They decided to show the people of Guyana that with a little imagination and not a lot of technical work that it was possible to make science work for them. The pilot of their biofuel project still benefits IAST today, almost three years after they embarked on the project. They collect the waste vegetable oil from the restaurants in Georgetown, and reuse it to make Biodiesel. This is no different from ordinary diesel; there is no need to modify diesel engines to accommodate the lighter fuel, it can be used anywhere.
As it is, most of IAST’s vehicles use Biofuel made from waste oil generated in the city’s restaurants. A quick examination shows that almost the entire fleet – including the director’s uses Biodiesel. According to Dr. Narine, the entire IAST compound could be run on Biodiesel too since that’s all they run their generator on – he estimates that they save some $18M a year by using Biodiesel instead of regular fuel.
And the end result?
According to Dr. Narine, in the last three and a half years, biodiesel has become a household word, with many Guyanese who would gladly use this technology if it was afforded them. He noted that the fact that the country spends more than 40% of its GDP on fossil fuels creates an enabling environment for the use of biodiesel. The start materials can be almost anything organic and are not limited to waste vegetable oil but may also include feedstock and certain grasses.
Today the Institute is focusing on four main areas of research, all with a significant level of commercial viability. These are alternative fuels such as biodiesel, and using clay, with emphasis on creating cheap construction and road paving materials – a cheaper alternative to cement as it were.
Another area is bio-prospecting – that is seeking medicinal and cosmetic benefits of the local flora, one of the major projects slated for the near future where visits will be made to the rainforests to retrieve samples and bio-data for further research. They are also working on recycling, especially bituminous products such as old tires – from which they recently ran a pilot project to cover a few of the Demerara Harbour Bridge’s decking plates with a bituminous material that would not crack as the plates bent under stress, allowing the covering to last longer.
These projects are not abstract science either; the institute has tangible results for each study area. Their Biodiesel research is actively used with their fleet of vehicles and in the generator for the compound. Bituminous products research is basically old tires that have been shredded, melted and mixed with asphalt. The resulting material can be used to cover traffic areas that deform elastically and may crack coverings that are less pliable. This was the motivation behind covering the metal decking plates of the Bridge, which tend to expand and contract with temperature changes as well as deform under pressure from heavier vehicles.
The clay research is not so easily seen, however, unless one was to visit the IAST compound at Turkeyen. The coast is rich with kaolinite clay, and using that soil as a construction material has become the focus of IASTs research. Researchers at the agency have created a cheap method of production where the earth is pressed into the shape of blocks and can then be used to replace certain construction materials. To demonstrate the viability of this project, IAST has actually built a house entirely of pressed earth, and to make it truly eco-friendly, it has a thatched roof, bamboo shutters and solar panels for electricity.
Dr. Narine noted that there is no need to be that extreme in your building choices, but if more people were to use pressed earth instead of cement and concrete, then paint it over, very few people would be able to tell the difference. He also said that the strength of the pressed earth has been evaluated on a comparative basis with cement and for normal construction purposes – such as homes, the material strength is sufficient.