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Suresh Narine and the end of oil

Monday, May 25, 2015
Prof Suresh Narine with Caribbean Awards Eminent Persons Panel chair, Sir Shridath Ramphal, and ANSA McAL chairman and chief executive, A Norman Sabga.

The question of what happens after we squeeze the last drop of oil from the last oil rig lurks always at the back of the minds of not just oil producers, but anyone who has thought about what powers their cell phones, cars, and homes.

High hopes are pinned on solar energy, but while this technology evolves, others, less well-publicised, are also evolving. And at the forefront of petroleum substitution technology is Prof Suresh Narine, the Anthony N Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence joint laureate in Science & Technology for 2015.

Prof Narine, a jovial, gregarious man, as willing to talk about cricket and politics as alternative energy, was born in Guyana, in the small rural village of Herstelling. After attending Queens College in Georgetown, he went to school in Canada, where he studied physics and chemistry.

He realised early on that his love for science had to be balanced with a need to make a living, so he was always attracted to the practical uses of science. His PhD was in food science and material physics at the University of Guelph. His great departure from orthodoxy there was that  “I convinced by PhD supervisors to let me take a materials physics approach to understanding foods, in particular lipids”. This paid off in 21 publications in peer-reviewed journals by the time he had concluded his PhD, in just two-and-a-half years.

Such achievements ensured he was offered a job with M&M Mars, the global food company, even before graduation. “At Mars, I learned that when the world of science is wedded to the world of commerce, amazing things can happen and have pivotal impacts on people’s lives,” he says. “I think I ceased to be a purely fundamental scientist from this time onwards.”

He thereafter was recruited to the University of Alberta, Canada, where he continued his career as a Professor from the age of 27. By this time, his prowess as a researcher had grown, and he was a sought-after scientist, researcher and commercial agent who had formed rare links between academe and industry. He was working on commercially viable research in the areas of zero-trans fat/lowered saturated fat shortenings, margarines and confections; polyurethane foams, elastomers and plastics from canola oil, and lubricants from vegetable oils.

 But like many Caribbean people, in the midst of his success, his heart yearned for home, and that yearning changed his life in 2005. “I returned to Guyana to assist after there had been a series of devastating floods,” he says. “And I was challenged by (then) President Bharat Jagdeo. He said ‘what have you done for your country which has prepared you for the success you now enjoy?’.”

In response, Prof Narine took over the Institute of Applied Science (IAST) which had fallen into dilapidation. By sheer will power and persistence, he managed to outfit the laboratory, recruit staff, and engage in research with commercial potential. And he has succeeded. The IAST and sections of the Guyana government now uses biodiesel made by an IAST programme to power government vehicles. The institute has projects for using waste biomass from the milling of rice and sugar-cane, to create brickets to burn as fuel which preserves forests. And the IAST is working on projects which will find a substitute for toxic mercury in the gold extraction process, as well as producing food products like breakfast cereals from local produce and construction materials from agriculture and forestry fibres and plastics. In fact, the IAST is currently building a factory to commercially produce breakfast cereal and nutrition bars, with funding from the Government of Guyana.

One of his main areas of research of special relevance to the Caribbean is in “lipid derived biomaterials”. These are materials that have traditionally been made by petroleum by-products, like plastics and polymers. His approach sounds simple enough: “Five to 700 million years ago, photosynthetic materials from plants were buried in the earth’s crust. Now, millions of years later, we are harvesting that material as petroleum. But why wait 700 million years? Let us take biomaterials and figure out the chemistry and physics and turn it into those materials today. And we have seen a remarkable amount of success in this approach.”

This technology does have the potential to change the world, and in addition to the plant being constructed in Guyana, others are being constructed in the United States and Indonesia, with others planned for Malaysia, Canada and Israel. However, despite his success as a scientist, Prof Narine believes that there are limits to science. “Science without the arts would lead to tremendously barren and desolate lives…for scientists, a lack of appreciation of the arts would create a life without joy...I believe great scientists and artists are made not born. So mentorship is central to fully developing our young people….and first of all, young people need mentors who believe in them…I am a great believer in the Pygmalion effect.”

This need for nurturing human potential is of special concern to him. His acceptance speech at the Caribbean Awards for Excellence Ceremony in 2015 contained an impassioned plea for Caribbean unity not as an emotional necessity, but as a pragmatic necessity. The islands are small, and by themselves cannot generate the critical mass necessary for success. The only way to survive is by cohesion, and the region needs to exploit the vast resources of land and fresh water available in Guyana, Suriname and Belize if it is to address the serious issue of food scarcity and security in the Caribbean.

“In my own efforts in Guyana,” says Prof Narine, “I have seen first firsthand how important a tool science and technology can be in leap-frogging the developmental process. I firmly believe that our region’s science and technology portfolio should be heavily focused on technology transfer and the harnessing of S&T for development and wellbeing of our people. Much more needs to be done in integrating the UWI, the University of Guyana, Anton de Kom University, University of Technology in Jamaica, and UTT.”

Notwithstanding his success in the Caribbean, Prof Narine’s accomplishments go much further. He is also responsible for a number of international research-to-application initiatives in India, Malaysia, Brazil and Israel. He is presently director of the centre for biomaterials research at Trent University, Senior NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Lipid Derived Biomaterials, and Ontario Research Chair in Green Chemistry and Engineering.