Yogyakarta. Before Indonesia sinks in its own notoriously mismanaged plastic waste, young researchers from Gadjah Mada University are trying to save the day by transforming it into energy.
Three chemical engineering students from the university in Yogyakarta have been working on a smart car equipped with technology to convert plastic to motor fuel.
Herman Amrullah, Sholahuddin Alayyubi (Ayub) and Thya Laurencia Benedita Araujo (Ujo) told the Jakarta Globe in a recent interview that the idea behind the car was inspired by the need to find a solution to Indonesia's garbage crisis.
"We see how plastic waste is increasingly becoming an issue and we want to try to develop a technology that could address that," Herman said.
Indonesians dispose of around 9 million tons of plastic annually, according to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. Most of it ends up in landfills, but 1.3 metric tons end up in the ocean, making the country the world's second-worst polluter of marine life.
To avoid creating another type of pollution, the young researchers want to minimize emissions from the smart car by equipping its engine with microalgae cultivation support (MCS) technology.
"We were looking for an alternative solution to the emission problem and we found that the most feasible idea was to use microalgae, which can capture carbon dioxide," Ayub said.
While the government aims to reduce plastic waste by 70 percent before 2025, it also seeks to increase the use of renewable energy. During the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo expressed Indonesia's commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 29 percent by 2030.
The smart car idea was submitted to Shell Ideas360, an international competition for students who develop solutions to problems related to food, water and energy.
Organized by global energy giant Shell International, the competition attracted more than 1,000 entries this year. The Gadjah Mada University team, which calls itself Smart Car MCS, is among the five research groups selected for the finals in London next month. Other finalists hail from Australia, France, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.
"We didn't believe it at first," Ujo said. "When we were going to submit the proposal, all of us happened to be in different cities. We worked on it together using online tools, through emails and WhatsApp. It was really close to deadline."
According to Hanifrahmawan Sudibyo, a UGM lecturer and the team's adviser, many students from the university have entered Shell Ideas360 in the past, but this is the first time they made it to the finals.
"We saw that there's an urgent need to address energy issues in Indonesia, so we tried to focus on that and develop an idea from the experiments we have worked on at our university," Hanifrahmawan said.
Domestic Challenges for Innovation
Though the idea may be timely, Hanifrahmawan told the Jakarta Globe it would still take a while to be developed and introduced, as the regulatory environment is slow in reacting to innovation.
Officials often request comparative studies before they agree to invest in new technologies, which usually discourages researchers, as it involves too much time and money.
However, revolutionary ideas can make chemical engineering flourish in Indonesia, not only theoretically, but also alongside efforts to address the environmental issues currently facing the country.
"Chemical engineering is borderless; it can be applied in the energy, environment, food and water industries. Chemical processes take place around us, not only in industrial settings," Hanifrahmawan said. He added that in the future, chemical engineers will work with policy makers to establish an innovation-friendly legal and business environment.
"For the time being, our biggest hurdle has to do with regulations. Communication is also very important. If you have an idea or innovation, you must be smart in conveying it to the public," he said.
The government is already showing support for intellectual property rights to help inventors secure their patents.
According to Ujo, the team's participation in Shell Ideas360 helped its members learn valuable skills, which will be useful in their careers.
"It's been a great experience; we've been learning how to explore ideas, argue productively and debate our perspectives, which is important, because we are not always on the same page," she said.
Despite the predominant view that chemical engineers want to join oil and gas companies, Ujo is passionate about energy and the environment and wants to deal with these aspects in the future.
"I've been learning about teamwork and how to deliver our ideas. In the next five years, I hope each of us will get to enter the fields we're interested in," she said.