The South Agency for Science and Technology Advancement participated in the Sustainability Week 2015 as sponsor for the first time. SAASTA is a business unit of the National Research Foundation (NRF), and is mandated to advance public awareness, appreciation and engagement of science, engineering and technology in South Africa. In responding to its mandate, SAASTA also contributes to increasing the pool of quality learners, who will become the scientists and innovators of the future.
All of the NRF’s science promotion and awareness programmes, including those undertaken by SAASTA, reside under three key strategic areas, namely education, communication and awareness. These three areas operate in a highly interdependent fashion, with each enhancing the effectiveness of the other two.
At Sustainbility Week 2015, the focus of SAASTA’s activities was on two particular areas – nanotechnology and hydrogen and fuel cell technologies. These technologies are considered as critical to the future development of the mining and energy sectors in South Africa.
In order to showcase its efforts and current collaborations in these areas, and in line with its mandate as an educational organisation, SAASTA participated in the Sustainability Week exhibition, and in several of the event’s conferences.
The objective of this participation was to provide all exhibition visitors and conference participants with insight into the advantages, benefits and challenges associated with these emerging technologies. In addition, SAASTA’s aim was to improve public awareness of the cutting edge research and development activities taking place in South Africa, as well as to promote knowledge transfer within academic and professional circles.
In its awareness initiatives in the fields of nanotechnology and hydrogen fuel cells, SAASTA collaborates extensively with research organisations, and other relevant industry bodies.
Nanotechnology and Mining
The specific focus of SAASTA’s activities at Sustainability Week in the field of nanotechnology was its application in the mining industry. Accordingly, the organisation facilitated a presentation to the Sustainability in Mining Seminar held on Tuesday 23 June 2015. Dr. Richard Harris of Mintek, on behalf of the national Nanotechnology Innovation Centre (NIC), made the presentation.
Mintek is South Africa’s national mineral research organisation, with an established reputation as one of the world’s leading mining technology research organisations, specialising in mineral processing, extractive metallurgy and related areas. The organisation is a state-owned science council and reports to the Minister of Mineral Resources.
The NIC is a national facility, Department of Science and Technology (DST), established at Mintek in 2007. Its activities are aimed at addressing national priorities in the field of nanotechnology. These include transforming the South African economy from a resource-based focus to a knowledge-based.
Since its inception, the NIC has established several collaborative partnerships with South African tertiary institutions, including the University of Western Cape, Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg. Under these partnerships, current areas of research focus on the development of various nano-structured materials and nano-minerals, for application in the fields of health and mine safety.
Dr. Harris’ presentation revealed a number of fascinating insights into the world of nanotechnology. The most striking of these was the fact that the global nanotechnology market is expected to grow at annual rate of 30-60% over the next five years.
Another interesting aspect of the NIC’s research activities is that many of the most promising nanotechnology developments depend to a significant degree on mineral inputs such as gold, platinum group metals (PGMs) and other strategic minerals. For a number of these minerals, South Africa’s reserves are among the highest in the world (In fact, South Africa holds the world’s largest reserves of gold and the PGMs).
Key areas of research Dr. Harris identified in the field of mining nanotechnology include gas conversion technology in which carbon monoxide, a gas that can be lethal in mining environments, can be converted through the application of nanotechnology alloys into carbon dioxide. The latter presents a far lower risk to miners in underground environments.
Another area of research involves the use of PGM-based alloys to improve the micro-structural properties and lifespan of components used in aviation turbine engines and terrestrial gas turbines. This would in significant reductions in fossil fuel consumption and associated greenhouse gas emissions.
Finally, nanotechnology products hold significant potential for application in the field of biosensors and cancer theranostics (theranostics being defined as products that offer both therapeutic and diagnostic properties). This field involves the use of gold-coated iron oxide particles, which can be applied in highly targeted cancer treatments, without the negative side effects of traditional radiation therapies.
Hydrogen Fuel Cells
Dr. Mkhulu Mathe of the materials science and manufacturing division of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) made a presentation about hydrogen fuel cells to the Sustainable Energy Seminar held on Wednesday, 24 June 2015.
The CSIR is South Africa’s national research council, responsible for the promotion and execution of specific and multidisciplinary research, technological innovation and scientific and industrial development. These activities aim to improve South Africa’s the international competitiveness of South Africa and the quality of life of its citizens. The materials science and manufacturing division undertakes specialised research and innovation in the field of materials science. It places South Africa in a highly favourable position to add value and develop human capital in the materials manufacturing industry.
A significant competitive advantage of the division arises from its comprehensive coverage of materials and manufacturing disciplines within one operating unit. This enables the CSIR to conduct effective multi-disciplinary research and development in these fields. The division’s strategy focuses on six specific sectors – aerospace, automotive, bio-based buildings, energy, health and micro-manufacturing. It also houses a number of emerging science initiatives and industry, including the Aerospace Industry Support Initiative, Light Metals Development Network, Fibres and Textiles Industry Support Centre and the National Foundry Technology Network.
Dr. Mathe’s presentation started with a quotation from the Jules Verne’s novel, The Mysterious Island. Published in 1874, this novel contains one of the first recorded suggestions for the use of water as a replacement for fossil fuels. The presentation then described the global energy transition that has taken place over the past 150 years and that is likely to take place in the future from low energy-intensity solid fuels (wood and hay) to higher energy-intensity solid fuels (coal and nuclear materials), to liquid fuels such as oil, and increasingly in the future, on to gaseous fuels such as methane and hydrogen. Another interesting aspect of the presentation covered the levels of spending on research and development, in the area of hydrogen fuel cell technology. In this regard, and in terms of the relative size the national economy, South Africa appears to punch well above its weight. The presentation also described the role of Hydrogen South Africa, a joint initiative of the DST, CSIR, Mintek and several South African universities. The mandate of the initiative is to deliver technologies to support hydrogen production, storage and distribution infrastructure.
Based on the two presentations at Sustainability Week, it is clear that in both of these fields the role of South Africa’s research institutions in developing and maintaining the country’s competitive advantage is critical. It is therefore important that ongoing public and private support be provided to SAASTA and its partner organisations, so as to maintain their world-class endeavours in these rapidly evolving technologies.
By Alistair Schorn