Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Femi Olajide

My dear friend Olufemi Anthony Olajide passed away last week, much before his time.  

Femi was an amazing person, very talented.  He loved Nigeria, the land of his birth, and he also loved his adopted homeland America, and West Virginia and West Virginia University.  We was a skilled mathematician, mining engineer, and chemical engineer.   He was also one of the most pleasant people you could ever meet, always smiling and laughing.

Everyone knew Femi, it seems, from the University President to the hourly workers on campus.   It was widely assumed that Femi was actually immortal, because even when he was sixty, he could still pass for a graduate student.  

The Femmeister.  We will all miss you, buddy!

     He was a prodigiously hard worker, often staying late in order to work in the labs. Yet, one word he never learned to say is "no."   People would always be coming to him to help with different projects, and Femi could never turn them down.   

      What a lot of people don't know is that he would stay also till nine or ten o'clock tutoring students. As far as I know, he never charged anyone any money for it.  He just wanted to help people.  

     Femi worked with me for much of the past dozen or so years on a variety of projects ranging from coal conversion to pitch, coke and crude oil. We were always seeking processes that were cleaner than the current processes.   Our team really did develop a process for making heavy crude oil using coal.  

      We figured that coal is just a solid form of crude oil, and so if we could get it to flow, it could be processed more cleanly in an oil refinery, rather than burning it.  And we were able to do that, ironically with the assistance of biomass products that seemed to make the coal easier to convert to a liquid form.  

     When the BP Horizon explosion and oil spill occurred, Femi and I went with two graduate students to Texas in order to work with a company interested in remediating waste water.  We operated a centrifuge suitable for separating oil from water.  

    Femi saved my life on that trip.  We rented a truck to carry the centrifuge, and I was impatient to get started.  Normally I am a stickler for measuring tire pressure before travelling, but this time I said "We'll wait till we stop for gas."  Well, we never made it that far, as one tire burst after about an hour on the road.  Femi skillfully brought the truck to a stop, and we were able to make it to a garage and change the tire. I think what may have happened is that the person who rented the truck before us may have stolen the tires and replaced them with bald ones.   

     We learned something about real chemical engineering on that trip, working in 100 degree heat with 90% humidity.  I was very proud of Priyanka Dixit and Ravinder Garlapali, who endured those conditions just fine.  "It's easy, Mr. Kennel.  We're used to this in India!" they explained.  And so it was.  Femi led the team in setting up the centrifuge and got it working.    You can see him in action on this video: 

     (it's not all that exciting, but it shows that yeah, we actually did something).

     Back in the day, we assumed that a success would one day lead to us being financially well off or at least having steady jobs.  But instead, coal research has been cut back worldwide, as natural gas and alternative energy have become more popular.  Right now it is much easier to add to the nation's oil supply by using new discoveries in shale gas and oil.  So perhaps our ideas might have to wait for another opportunity.  

     Between 2002 and 2012, we worked on coal liquefaction processes, which basically convert coal to a heavy liquid crude as a first step, and then on to other value added products.  It is demanding, nasty work.  But we did it, believing that one day America would want to produce its own crude oil rather than buying more than half of it from overseas sources as we do now.  

Me, former Governor Joe Manchin and Femi.  The football jersey refers to the fact that the first oil we tested as fuel was rated at 134 Octane, which in some ways is good and other ways not so good.

Elliot, Femi and former Governor (now Senator) Joe Manchin discuss the importance of coal liquefaction to the state economy. 


Did we really make all that stuff out of coal?  Yeah, we did...(Joe Smith, Josh, Manoj Katakdaunde, Morgan Summers, Mike Bergen, Al Stiller, Liviu Magean, Femi, Abbas Assadi, Benson Njoroge, me.)

Femi also did some great work in coal cleaning and making products from clay and rock that accumulate from the tailings from coal wash plant. We figured that if this waste product can be used for any useful purpose, it must be better than storing it in some type of impoundment.  Femi found that the rock and clay residue can actually be very effective materials for construction materials.  Maybe we may yet see the commercialization of some of these processes.

Dick Wolfe, Elliot Kennel, Femi Olajide and Helen Cummiskey studied the use of specialized binders to produce metallurgical grade coke, used in the steel industry.   

Femi and Tony Golden.  I believe that the lady in the center was also from WVU. 

John Zondlo, Femi, Tony Golden, Elliot, Al Stiller in Charleston, about 2008.  

    Femi had a million stories, ranging from his time in Nigeria attending boarding school, to helping to load oil tankers with crude oil, to being an exchange student at WVU, being a tutor for football players, and delivering pizzas or driving the late bus back to the dorms on the weekends.   

     Femi was also a fan of West Virginia Old Time music.  I admit I corrupted him.  I play mandolin and guitar a little bit, and Femi liked to come out to our Wednesday Night Jam at the Morgantown Brewing Company.  Femi was my only fan!  People would come out to see the other, more talented members of our group, but Femi would actually come out to see me play with them.  

    Sometimes he would be the only person of African descent there.  He would get challenged a little bit.  "You ain't from around here, are you?" someone might ask.  "Oh no!"  Femi would reply.  "I am from Logan County!"  and everyone would laugh.  Yet some people figured he might really be from Logan County.  What are they like in Logan County?  Hmm.    

    I'm going to compile some of Femi's stories.  I hope his friends will be kind enough to send me what they know.  Here to get us started is one of the most famous stories, about Femi's first encounter in America with a wonderful juice from a mysterious fruit.  

Femi and the Wonderful Juice.

   One time Femi and four of his African friends (two guys and two girls) decided to go on a grand road trip to New York City.  They had only a vague idea of what America was like, in any case, one student had a car, and so away they went.  But on the way out of the state, they stopped at a roadside vegetable stand and bought a jug of fruit juice.  They had no idea what it was, but it was absolutely wonderful, one of the best tasting juices that any of them had ever had, they all agreed.  So, so they passed it around and quaffed the entire gallon jug between the five of them.  Well after several minutes, Femi started to beg the driver to please stop.  Soon the other passengers were developing abdominal cramps, and finally the driver realized that it was indeed time to stop the car, so they pulled over and ran into the woods. Soon there were five very sick African students in the woods.  What had happened?  This must have been some kind of terrible trick played on them, probably because the vegetable stand guy must hate Africans!
    Then a State Highway patrol car pulled up, and the young patrolman was treated to the sight of five Africans wobbling out of the woods toward him, getting dressed as they wobbled.  "What's this?"  he wondered.
       Well, Femi and his friends were by this time in a complete panic. "Officer!  You must help us! The West Virginians---they have POISONED us! You must take us to the hospital before we die!" The five students were understandably very upset, sincerely afraid that they were going to die. The Highway Patrolmen asked to see the fatal jug, now empty. Then when he figured out that it had contained prune juice, he started to laugh.  Soon he was shaking with uncontrollable laughter. 
     "What's so funny?"  the students demanded to know.
    "They never taught me at the Academy what to do about something like this!"  gasped the Patrolman.  Finally composing himself, the Patrolman explained what prune juice is and what its uses are.  Then he asked, "how did you come to have toilet paper in the car?"

    "We didn't--we used leaves!"  explained poor Femi.  More uncontrollable laughter.  

      Eventually however, the students got things back under control and went on their way, from then on a little more careful about sampling strange beverages.   

    The best part of the story, though, was watching Femi tell it.  He would always start laughing so much that he could hardly finish the story.  He would have to take off his glasses to wipe away the tears. But you know, I never did find out what happened on the rest of the road trip. That probably would have been the subject of another story. 

Femi and the Vermiculite

     Another time Femi was working for a certain Professor who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty.  This professor is definitely a genius, and in fact one of the greatest chemical engineers I have ever met,  but he  has the habit of always building things that are too big to fit in the assigned space.  It didn't matter how big the space was, and in fact it could have been as big as Puskar Stadium, and this professor would always build something that wouldn't fit.  

    Well, anyway, this professor had designed a furnace or something that was too big and it needed some additional ventillation.  "Well, Femi, just drill a hole in the wall!"  suggested the Professor.

    "Gee professor, do you think it is okay to just drill a hole in the wall?"  Femis asked.     

    "Of course it's okay!   This is a very important project!"  So dutifully Femi drilled a hole in the wall, which happened to be about 20 feet high, only to find that the entire wall was filled with powdery vermiculite in order to provide insulation for the wintertime.  Well, all the vermiculite came pouring out of the wall, and Femi was soon covered in white powder.  Nothing serious, right?  Well, but it turned out that some of the vermiculite got airborne and was actually sucked into the ventillation system for the adjacent offices.   

    This happened to be about the time that there was an anthrax scare around the country because some kook was sending fake anthrax to politicians and famous people.  But in any case, imagine the reaction of the people when a mysterious white powder started to come out of the vents in all the offices!  As you can guess, they all thought they were being poisoned by anthrax. 

   The building had to be evacuated, and poor Femi thought he would surely be fired and probably deported.  
    But eventually everything was straightened out and the good professor was counselled to never again drill a hole in the wall without asking.  It didn't work, but it was a nice thought. 
Why Not Everyone Likes Gerber's Baby Food
    According to Femi, not everyone back home likes Gerber baby food.  The reason is that not everyone knows how to read, especially in the rural areas.  Accordingly, in order to sell packaged food in the stores, the sellers put pictures of the food on the label.  So, for example, a jar of beans has a picture of beans on the label.  A jar of pineapple has a picture of a pineapple on it.   Imagine how horrible it was, then,  when the people saw a can with a picture of a baby on it!  Why, those terrible Americans must be killing babies and putting them in a jar!

What is in the Gerber's jar anyway?  It's  pureed, that's all we know for sure....

I'm not sure if this story is completely true or if Femi was exaggerating, but you have to admit it is very funny.

Petroleum Madness in Nigeria

     Not all of Femi's stories were funny.  He told us that the people there would sometimes try to drill holes in the pipelines in order to obtain different amounts of crude oil.  You can read about this in the news media, by the way.  Some are medium sized crooks trying to steal thousands of dollars worth of crude oil and resell it.  But others are trying to steal a few gallons by drilling holes with portable drills or even cutting torches.  Sometimes these acts of petty thievery succeed, and sometimes they result in fires or explosions, and of course they always result in spilling of oil to the environment.  Sometimes the would-be thieves are killed in accidents.   Sometimes we talked about such things in a humorous way over chicken wings at Kegler's restaurant in Morgantown, but in reality it is not very  funny.

      What possible use could there be for crude oil?   This was something that was hard to understand on American terms.   But it might be that people want to use such fuel simply for cooking, as a "free" replacement of charcoal, which is still in use there.    

     Femi also explained to us that Nigerian ports would be open to all sorts of oil tankers.  The ones from the West, operated by major oil companies, were generally very efficient operations.  But other tankers were often in bad shape.  Femi told us that back in the day it was not uncommon for tankers to have severe leaks.  But if they could take on crude oil and transport at least half of it to a petroleum refinery somewhere, it was worth it.  Like wow, man, talk about water pollution. 




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