Elvis Osamudiamhen Ebikade, The future is garbage

Elvis Ebikade loves to cook for his friends and he was working on a recipe book before starting his Ph.D. studies at UD. Perhaps this is partly why he thoroughly dove into the science of food waste “valorization”—attempting to close the loop on food waste by making it a valuable product.

Elvis’s Ph.D. research consists of several projects, from the fundamental to the applied. He conducted fundamental research on how starch in potato peels is broken down into sugars. He is looking at making adhesives from corn stover and sugar cane waste material. He is examining the use of different catalysts and reaction conditions on these transformation processes.

From his work has come a provisional patent on a biorefinery technique that turns zero-value food waste, such as potato peels, into multiple bioproducts. The university’s intellectual property office is now floating the idea to industry in hopes of finding a buyer to commercialize the technique.

The prospect of “unlocking the potential in waste” excites Elvis. “People think it’s nothing useful, but with the right techniques we can use it to create wealth and perhaps help solve waste disposal issues.”

He became interested in solving environmental problems during his youth in Lagos, Nigeria, which is about one-fifth the size of Delaware, but is home to about 20 million people, 20 times that of Delaware. “Waste was everywhere. I would step out of my house and see a dumpster right by the road,” he says. “Sometimes we’d wake up to a really bad smell because of the trash. It was a reality I knew too well.”

To solve problems such as these, Elvis decided to study chemical engineering in college. He always loved chemistry and was good at math.

Elvis interned at the Guinness brewery in Lagos during his undergraduate years, which gave him opportunities to see the techniques of chemical engineering in practice in a real-life system. He learned there that gas for cooking can be harvested from the wastewater treatment process. This fueled his passion for using the techniques of chemical engineering to solve problems.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Lagos, completed the required year of military service, and applied for Ph.D. programs around the world. When he started his Ph.D. in 2016, it was his first time in the U.S. He was named a DENIN Environmental Fellow for 2019–2021.

Elvis’s Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Dionisios Vlachos, Allan and Myra Ferguson Professor of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering, “inspired me from the first moment I sat down with him,” Elvis says. He thought he wanted to work with microorganisms to make biofuels, but Vlachos’s passion and energy quickly persuaded Elvis toward food waste valorization.

He sees himself working in industry after he’s done his Ph.D. in 2021. His expertise spans beyond the U.S. or Nigeria, so he’s open to opportunities anywhere to meet the global need for solutions to society’s waste problems.

He’s already part of a start-up company seeking to use waste wood to make bioproducts such as adhesives.

Besides the research, Elvis has been learning about mentoring younger students. This past summer he was frequently away at conferences, but he had carefully laid the groundwork for an undergrad to conduct lab work contributing to his Ph.D. studies and was gratified that the student was able to work effectively alone. The student decided to continue working with Elvis this fall.

Both in mentoring and in the lab, “I’m a very practical person,” he says. “I like to see a direct benefit in my work. Knowing that the projects I’m working on could impact the world gives me a lot more drive. We’ve only scratched the surface” of the potential for transforming food waste into valuable products. When we find solutions, it inspires people” to explore the reuse of similar materials. “The future is garbage,” Elvis says. “We can use it as a real resource.”

By Joy Drohan, Eco-Write, LLCPhoto file name: Ebikade_Elvis_Lab_Corn_Waste_Rsrch-050-cropped.jpg

Photo: Elvis Ebikade setting up a pilot-scale reactor for breaking down agricultural waste residue like corn stover into chemicals for developing biobased products.

Photo Credit: Kathy Atkinson