Bennies graduate completes masters in 18 months
University of Cape Town (UCT) graduand Daniel de Oliveira is one of hundreds of students who will be honoured at UCT’s mid-year virtual graduation ceremonies between 12 and 19 July. He will receive his MSc Civil Engineering (cum laude) having completed his course in just 18 months, even though COVID-19 limited his access to laboratories.
His master’s research examined a process to turn mine tailings into bio-bricks; the same biological chemical process that created the world’s first bio‑brick from human urine in 2018 in his supervisor, Associate Professor Dyllon Randall’s, laboratory. Though Daniel managed to create a bio‑solid from the tailings, the quest to develop a bio-brick is ongoing and is currently being investigated by a new PhD student, Emma Horn.
To complete his experiments in an intense four-and-a-half months, Daniel said he worked “Mondays to Sundays” in a mini microbiology laboratory he created in the Water Quality laboratory in the Department of Civil Engineering, which was partly funded through Associate Professor Randall’s Future Leaders – African Independent Research Fellowship.
Daniel’s work is part of Randall’s broader research project on converting waste into valuable, usable products.
It’s a promising development with potential for the circular economy; a model based on large quantities of cheap, easily accessible materials, such as urine and mine tailings. Mine tailings are the crushed, sand‑like by‑products left after minerals and metals have been extracted from ore. Their storage in stacks, pits and tanks creates serious ecological and health hazards.
The importance of innovation for repurposing waste streams was highlighted by the United Nations’ 2021 theme, International Year of the Creative Economy for Sustainable Development.
“My dream was always to come to Cape Town.”
On South Africa’s mineral‑rich Witwatersrand, mine dumps are familiar eyesores. The Johannesburg‑born graduand said he’d always wondered whether the dumps could be put to use. After matriculating from St Benedict’s College in 2014, he set out on an academic path that would one day try to answer that.
Curiosity has always driven him, Daniel said.
It wasn’t a linear journey. After two years studying chemical engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand, Daniel visited a friend at UCT. After an introduction to the Chemistry Mall on upper campus, he was sold.
“My dream was always to come to Cape Town,” he said.
The following year he joined his younger brother, Dominic, who was starting as a UCT undergraduate in civil engineering.
Daniel de Oliveira (left) and his brother Dominic are both graduating from UCT this month; Daniel with an MSc Civil Engineering (cum laude) and Dominic with a BSc Civil Engineering.
Building on a world‑first
To make the solids from the mine tailings, Daniel used a natural process called microbial induced calcite precipitation (MICP). The loose tailings were colonised with bacteria that produce urease. The urease breaks down the urea in urine to produce carbonate ions. These carbonate ions then combine with free calcium ions in the solution and ‘glue’ the loose tailings together into any shape, such as a brick.
The work built on the processes used by UCT master’s student (civil engineering) Suzanne Lambert to create the world’s first bio‑brick using human urine in 2018. Randall also supervised that work. The urine bio‑brick subsequently made world headlines, an exemplar of what could be achieved by extracting value from waste.
Fortuitously, Daniel had worked with Randall on an allied project to create a business model for portable toilets that convert human urine into fertiliser. Randall recently received the national South African Institution of Chemical Engineers 2021 Innovation Award for the urine bio‑brick process and the fertiliser‑producing urinal.
For his master’s, Daniel opted to pursue this line of research with Randall.
Graduating in record time
It wasn’t all plain sailing. The COVID‑19 disruption was massive and halted his laboratory work for three months. The second challenge was getting mine tailings, and the third, getting the process to work.
“We knew [the mine tailings] would be toxic to our bacteria but we didn’t know how big an impact that would be,” said Daniel.
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