Reflecting back and looking ahead: learning from the process and revisiting the plan

An essential part of project management is monitoring and ensuring that milestones are being met according to the timeline. The most important milestone of my project is the production of an effective activated carbon (AC). This milestone was met last March 2020 as indicated in my previous blogpost (https://nextgen.iupac2019.be/2020/03/30/pineapple-as-another-effective-source-of-activated-carbon-for-the-removal-of-pesticide-in-water/) where I shared that I had successfully prepared Banana Peel Activate Carbon (BPAC) and Pineapple Peel Activated Carbon (PPAC). Through adsorption experiments, it was confirmed that BPAC and PPAC are effective in the significant removal of the pesticide methomyl in water.

The next important step would be the conduct of optimization experiments to make the ACs even more effective, leading to the complete removal of methomyl. The results would be validated by the pesticide residue analysis of the rinsate in an analytical service laboratory. Lastly, the ACs would be characterized using Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) to empirically confirm the activation. Once the technical aspects of the project are finished, the more exciting part of exploring the business potential of the project by conducting stakeholder’s awareness and promotion on the remediation of pesticide rinsate using BPAC and PPAC was supposed to follow.

However, COVID-19 struck- eventually leading to the Philippine government’s declaration of enhance community quarantine (ECQ) starting March 16, 2020. Due to this, my work at the laboratory was temporarily halted and all forms of public transportation temporarily ceased to exist. This means that no more experiments for now and goodbye to travels to submit the rinsate for pesticide analysis and visiting different stakeholders and potential clients. I have no choice but to stay and work from home.

Due to the situation that I am in, I ask myself, “If I can’t do the experiments and travel, what can I do to advance the project?”. I will admit that I had anxiety and panic at first, but I tried to calm myself and think of what can be done to adapt to the situation, adjust, and be resilient. I came up with two things and I want to share it in this blog.

Review of the process and intermediate experiments

All successful experiments experienced challenges and a lot of questions along the way. In answering these questions, a lot of factors had been considered such as investment in time, costs, safety concerns, technical difficulties, planning and scheduling, etc. Here are practical questions that I tried to answer in each process prior to having the desired product:

  • What is the best way to dry the fruit peel and convert this to carbon?  Is sun drying enough or would oven drying be better and if so, under what conditions to ensure carbonization?

What I have determined is that sun drying might be cheaper but oven drying provides a more reliable and rapid way of drying. A few hours are enough to dry the peels when dried at 105 deg C. For the carbonization process, 1 hour is enough but a higher temperature of 300 deg C is needed.

  • What should be done to obtain a high yield of the powdered carbon? What are the conditions needed during the impregnation step that will result to an effective product?

I have learned that the use of a high-power blender with a timer setting and sieving using a fine mesh is an effective way to ensure consistency and high yield of the powdered carbon. The impregnating agent’s concentration should not be too high, and a few hours of contact time will suffice to produce an effective product. An alternative impregnation agent was explored but was found to be not effective.

  • What are the right conditions for the activation of the carbon and how do I assess that the carbon was really activated? What is the most cost-effective means of neutralizing the activated carbon prior to use?

What I have found out is that 400 deg C for 1 hour is sufficient to activate the carbon. There is no striking visual difference between an inactivated and activated carbon, but the results of the adsorption experiments indicated a successful activation. Neutralization using 3-5 successive washing was found to be effective.

  • Out of the hundreds of pesticides available, what should I choose in determining the effectivity of the ACs? What adsorption conditions would result to an effective removal of the chosen pesticide using the prepared ACs?

What I have learned is that a pesticide with a relatively high potential to leach to groundwater and surface water is an excellent choice for adsorption experiment. For the adsorption conditions. 1% w/v (AC: rinsate) significantly removed the methomyl in water using vigorous manual shaking for 1 minute.

Adbsorption experiment

Revisiting the plan and looking for alternatives

Since travelling is not feasible, the visit to different stakeholders (especially farmers) to conduct a survey, create awareness, and promote the produced activated carbon will not happen in a few months. An alternative that I have thought of is the use of online means of conducting survey and discussion. Also, the representation expenses allotted for this activity could possibly be redirected to a small monetary incentive for the participants.

Upon careful evaluation of this option, I came to the conclusion that this is not feasible due to the following reasons: (1) some of the farmers may prefer face-to-face discussion, (2) not all areas have a good internet connection, (3) this might not be the best time as the focus of most stakeholders now are safety and food for the family, and (4) logistic difficulties of giving the incentive.

Reviewing the budget for the project reminded me that a big chunk of the budget I had developed from my project was allocated for pesticide residue analysis fees. As this was not possible, I considered conducting the analysis myself using the existing equipment in the lab to have a more cost-effective analysis of samples. This would mean investing in further training, purchase of supplies and chemicals, and time to develop the method and conduct the analysis myself.

Upon considering the current difficulties in logistics, transportation, and time constraints for the project, I concluded that this is not feasible and would be more difficult to execute.

As of today, the ECQ in my province has been extended until May 31, 2020. I am staying positive but realistic that the lockdown may be extended further in the coming month(s). Definitely, there will be resulting changes in terms of the final outputs, primarily halting the exploration of the AC’s business potential, marketing, and promotion of the product to various stakeholders. Nonetheless, I considered this project successful as effective activated carbons for the removal of pesticide in water will be established by June 30, 2020, the ending date of the project.

Using this time to reflect and plan made me realized more how blessed I really am to be given the opportunity and seed funding by the IUPAC NGAGE Program to implement my research idea,  be provided with trainings and unwavering support, meet and form network with diverse type of professionals around the world, and strengthen my technical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal skills in the pursuit of success for this project. The experience and learnings from this project definitely advanced my career and personal growth.

Eric Jhon Cruz, N-GAGE Champion

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