Cutting edge research to benefit all

Carried out within the Department of Health Sciences, the three research thrust areas are algal Biotechnology, Environmental Pollution and Indigenous Medicinal Plants.

The research around algae is the focus on the production of algal biomass using a Novel photobioreactor. Algae are simple plants without roots, stems and leaves and they contain chlorophyll.

Algae are of great interest to all biologists because all algae, single or multicellular, are complete organisms capable of photosynthesis and the production of a multitude of other compounds which make up the cell. Algae occur in great abundance in oceans, seas, salt lakes, fresh water lakes, ponds and streams and can be found in many places where there is moisture, carbon dioxide and light.

There are many different kinds of algae. What makes algae important to biotechnologists is the fact that through the process of photosynthesis (in the presence of light, carbon dioxide and water) they are able to produce algal biomass which is a renewable resource. This algal biomass can be used as is to feed animals and humans or it can be burned to produce energy, valuable products can be extracted to be used as pharmaceuticals or health products or algae can be used to make biofuels.

One of the drawbacks of using algae in biotechnology processes is that they only grow where there is light, and sunlight is the cheapest source of natural light. Also, their conversion of light energy to cell compounds is low (ca 4%). In most ventures where algae have been used to produce biomass for whatever reason, use has been made of photobioreactors (different kinds) and natural sunlight.

Although there are success stories especially in sunny countries like Spain, Israel, parts of the USA and others, the production of algal biomass has always been subject to how it can be beneficiated (value added). One of the most important breakthroughs that can be made in algal culture would be to use light energy much more efficiently.

In previous work that has been done it was observed that because of the nature of the photosynthesis process (light and dark reactions) it may be possible to make use of “pulsed light” (choosing the right periods of illumination and darkness) to increase the production of algal biomass. At present the value of pure Spirulina as a health food is high.

The research looks at using the alga Spirulina because it has several advantages that can be used to cultivate it easily. The Department of Health Sciences is responsible for the development, construction and operation of a small pilot plant scale, novel photobioreactor which will allow the possibility of testing the “pulsed light” theory.

The research will bring about a new way of producing algal biomass which has not been attained yet. It will allow VUT to become an important player in the algal biotechnology which can include a plethora of different opportunities from protein, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and biofuels production. It will allow the establishment of a new business and marketing enterprise, which will be able to ensure food and feed surety by maximising scarce resources like water and agricultural land.

Additionally, it can establish local SMEs to do extraction of chemicals and purification of pharmaceuticals. Finally, the whole idea will be sustainable as it will provide for an ever-growing niche for feeds, food, chemicals, health foods (supplements) and biofuels. Institute of Applied Electronics research, incorporating the Telkom Centre of Excellence (CoE).

The research focus on Alternative Energy, Applied Electronics and NRF/Thrip-defined focus areas. South Africa has a population of 44 million, of which more than 10 million people live in rural areas. The national electricity supplier is under severe pressure to supply electricity to the industrial and mining sectors, as well as urban household areas.

An alternative to the national supplier of electricity, which uses fossil fuels and to a minor extent nuclear energy, has to be found and implemented as the demand for electricity increases daily. During 2008, for the first time in the history of South Africa, the country experienced a major shortage of electricity with such consequences that load shedding had to be implemented. This proved very costly to the economy and very inconvenient to the normal household receiving electricity from the national supplier, Eskom.

Today, about 25% of the 12.5 million households in South Africa are still without electricity. On the other hand, South Africa is blessed with an abundance of sunshine, estimated to be around eight hours per day. Most of the power currently generated in South Africa comes from fossil fuels, with which South Africa is also blessed.

Unfortunately, the conversion of fossil fuels to electricity is not very environmentally friendly. Fuel cell electricity generation is one of the possible solutions to this major problem. Fuel cell research at VUT started in 2004 and has grown to a point that a novel membrane has been developed and manufactured.

Another focus area for the Institute of Applied Sciences is to develop a sustainable fuel cell system to provide sufficient power to operate a typical telecommunication system. The system would also be applicable to a rural community without any electricity. The fuel cell is not a new concept, yet the application has been limited. Much work is being done on the application of fuel cells, particularly in the transport field, but the problem of electricity supply to remote areas remains unsolved.

There are a multitude of questions to be addressed, such as the economical supply of hydrogen, the control of the interface between fuel cell and load, and the robustness of the fuel cell to the climate extremes experienced in South Africa. One of the main problems with the application of fuel cells is the cost of the membrane and membrane electrode assembly.

This has lead to the design and development of a novel membrane by researchers from VUT, Wits, Telkom, M-Tec, TFMC and Meds International. This is a major development in the research, giving new perspectives and research opportunities, and the membrane is currently being patented.

Institute of Chemical and Biotechnology (ICBT) Research
The ICBT is a unit within Technology Transfer and Innovation. The Institute initially received its mandate from the Faculty of Applied and Computer Sciences and has since extended to be inclusive of all other faculties and the community of VUT and beyond, hence its residence within the Technology Transfer and Innovation (TTI). The ICBT, as it is normally referred to, strives towards enterprise and SMME development. The ICBT puts its resources, facilities and infrastructure towards the incubation and nurturing of Chemical and Biochemical-related business units, both from within the VUT and outside the University. It welcomes all individuals and developing and developed businesses alike.

The Microbiological Analytical Service merged with an independent company Renaissance Environmental Hub to form a new entity called Ambio. This business unit will offer Microbiological and eco-toxicity analytical and consultancy services to industries and municipalities in the Southern Region and beyond. The unit operates in laboratories within the VUT with an expectation that the unit will stimulate further research-relevant analytical methods. A further business unit is to be established: Syringa Bioscience, which is currently operating in Centurion (Pretoria).

The ICBT is in constant negotiations to re-establish this business within the VUT reach. The Department of Water Affairs will be participating through its Working for Water Programme. If successful, the business will be in a position, among others, to impact on the medicinal plant extracts research that is already ongoing. Up to 20 students will benefit from work-integrated learning that will be afforded by this business unit. Researchers from the Departments of Bio-Sciences, Chemistry and Chemical Engineering are involved in research projects that need the attention of the ICBT.

With an increase in involvement with the various departments in research work, there has been an increase in the number of students enrolling for postgraduate studies. There are a number of Masters’ and Doctoral students involved in research projects that need the attention of the ICBT, showing that there is an adequate awareness of the need to think positively towards entrepreneurship. The nature of research includes technologies and expertise in biodiesel, biofuel, extraction from plant material, polymer membranes, sorption etc.

A number of partnerships have been initiated by the ICBT, including:
Indigenous Knowledge Systems-partnered research with the University of Pretoria. Postgraduate students are allowed access to state-of-the-art instrumentation at this university. The co-supervision and continued guidance of students from both ends will form part of the agreement. Sedichem—a Business and Chemical Incubator located in Educity operates under the ICBT. The ICBT has a Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) with the Institute of Chemical Technology in Prague (Czech Republic). ICBT is participating in the DST/ChemCity/CSIR partnership of establishing the Demonstration Centre on Plant Oil Extraction in Tzaneen, Limpopo. Research will be focused largely on oil characterisation, formulation and application.

The ICBT of the Vaal University of Technology in conjunction with the Black Engineers and Scientist Trust (Best) has agreed on a partnership to establish a Schools Intervention Programme (SIP). Volunteers from the University’s Department of NDT & Physics, Mathematics and Chemistry constitute SIP. The volunteers are lecturers, professors and under- and postgraduate students. The intention of SIP is to identify and assist the needy schools in the region with the subjects of Mathematics and Physical Science.

The approach is to empower both educators and learners to have self-esteem and confidence to tackle the subject matter head-on. So far, VUT has consulted with three schools (Mohloli High, Iketsetseng High and Thuto-Lore High) with the purpose of identifying areas of weakness. This is done by means of a survey completed by students. The survey measures the students’ attitude towards education, self-esteem, self-confidence and time management, and clarifies the influence in career choice. The educators are also involved in the programme during tutoring sessions.

VUT’s Research Focus Area: Materials Technology
Materials technology encompasses materials science and the engineering application of materials, which include metals, ceramics, minerals, polymers, composites, semi and super-conductors, and nanomaterials. Materials selection is central to all manufacturing and construction design and development. Therefore, ongoing research into materials’ properties and development of new materials is of fundamental importance. The aim of the focus area is to build research capacity covering a broad spectrum of materials, science and technology to fulfill the needs of the technology Station in Process and Materials Technology. This focus area also provides a vehicle for research conducted in the departments of Metallurgical, Industrial and Civil Engineering because many of their research topics deal with the application and development of materials.

Engineering materials are those solid state (mostly) resources used in manufacturing and construction. Materials can be broadly classified into four groups: metals, ceramics, plastics (polymers) and composites, but there are new additions such as semi-conductors, super conductors, and nanomaterials. In engineering applications, the choice of material for a particular manufacturing or construction task at hand is of paramount importance as it has to be fit-to-purpose in terms of specified properties such as strength, density etc, as well as economic properties such as cost and availability.

Strategic relevance National and International:
The Earth and its material resources are vital to human existence and their sustainable use is critical for continued technological advancement and the improvement of the human condition. The improvement of existing technology by the novel use of existing materials or new materials has both economic and sustainability relevance (e.g. the use of Titanium alloys instead of steel, or the manufacture of fuel cell membranes from nano-carbon tubes instead of Nafthion etc.). New materials often open the avenues for new technology (e.g. semiconductors in electronics).

For VUT much of the research undertaken at the Faculty of Engineering and Technology involves innovation and prototype development. Materials are used for all such artifacts, and so material selection becomes a vital component of the research. Moreover, often, the pivotal breakthrough in an innovation is the novel use of the specific material or the use of a novel material. Beneficiaries include local industries and researchers within VUT that require services such as material characterisation, development and testing, advice on material selection and the utilisation of material resources, mineral processing test work and metal extraction feasibility tests, to name a few.

The scope of the focus area is very broad and attempts to cover as many aspects as possible from sourcing materials in the ground (mineralogy), their processing and beneficiation (extractive and physical metallurgy, mineral processing, chemistry), their characterisation (chemistry and physics) and their application in manufacturing (mechanical and industrial engineering) and construction (civil engineering). Sub-disciplines would include polymer science, minerals, ceramics, metals, composite materials and nano-materials. Departments and disciplines that could participate include: Chemistry, Physics, Physical Metallurgy, Extraction Metallurgy, Mineral Processing, Mineralogy, Mechanical Engineering, Industrial Engineering, Chemical Engineering and Civil Engineering.

Main market
Manufacturing industry, including small manufacturing companies and innovators. Mining and mineral beneficiation industry Post-graduate students. Typical beneficiaries will require either services such as those listed above, contract research or post-graduate training for their staff. The services will be aimed at technological innovators and material processors that can benefit from technology transfer.

This article originally appeared in the Mail & Guardian newspaper as an advertorial supplement


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