An energetic catalyst for change

Some of South Africa’s leading scientists, science fundis and environmental experts are working on solutions to arrest global warming and help alleviate its effects.

Electrical engineer Professor Pragasen Pillay is one of them. He specialises in using science and technology to reduce household waste and is adamant that environmental charity begins at home. “Anyone looking to make a difference in the environment has to start with what is closest to them — their own household waste,” says Pillay.

Pillay was a maths and physics buff at school and chose to pursue a path in electrical engineering.

“When I got into the intricacies of the discipline I found that it was interesting and pursued it as a career,” he says. These days Pillay teaches at both Clarkson University in New York and at the University of Cape Town, and has students from South Africa and other parts of Africa as well.

Aside from his interest in household waste, Pillay has been involved in studying environmentally friendly renewable energy sources, particularly solar and wind energy. “The South African government has set targets for renewable energy,” he says. “So we have been giving some time to the potential of small to medium-sized wind turbines.”

He explains that wind is regarded as an important contributor to the generation of “green” electrical power and one of the most focused on alternatives to coal-generated electricity.

It’s a particularly topical subject, given the Eskom power crisis and the load-shedding which is hitting South African consumers hard.

Also under Pillay’s microscope is solar water heating — heating hot water tanks using solar energy and thereby removing the demand for electrical energy.

“This is a good way to reduce demand and prevent blackouts,” says Pillay, adding that he is also working on projects to improve the efficiency of electrical machines, including a project to upgrade the machines lab at the University of Cape Town in order to do more extensive testing on electrical machines.

Improving motor efficiency is something of a mantra for Pillay.

“About 60% of all the electrical power generated in South Africa goes through an electrical machine, so if you can increase efficiency you can reduce the amount of coal that you use as well as the associated harmful emissions at the power station,” he says.

“We have a serious problem with climate change associated with the use of fossil fuels. We have to shift away from fossil fuels towards more renewable energy and higher efficiency,” says Pillay.

“Worldwide, the demand for renewable energy is increasing and will substantially increase over the next few years. We are now working on solutions which will sustain the planet’s energy requirements without damaging its environment. These include wind energy, mechanical, hydro and solar energy and the generation of electrical power using biomatter — where you use waste from restaurants, food, farm and crop waste to generate power.”

Pillay says that you can also generate power from municipal waste.

The South African government is investing in the future of renewable energy sources and has established a research hub at the University of Stellenbosch, which is linked to other universities.

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Sumayya Ismail
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