Big news on science of small things

As a passenger on an aeroplane, your life depends not only on the pilot but also on those who designed the plane, chose the materials to make it and tested how these would be affected by high temperatures and the stresses to which they are subjected under flying conditions.

For instance, metal alloys used in a Boeing engine can now be analysed right down to the tiniest atom, measuring 0.1 nanometres — minuscule, if you consider that one nanometre equals one billionth of a metre. And it is this kind of profoundly in-depth research that can now be carried out at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s new R120-million Centre for High Resolution Transmission Electron Microscopy, launched on Tuesday this week.

But the aim of nanotechnology — the science of small things — is not only to reduce the size of devices, but also to take advantage of the fact that, at the nanoscale, the properties of traditional materials may change, giving rise to new capabilities and applications.
The centre’s director, Professor of physics Jan Neethling, said: “With our research and instruments, we will be able to assist with the development of new products. The advanced technology will help South Africa become a manufacturing nation and improve our international competitiveness.”

The R90-million suite of instruments includes the Japanese-made Jeol, a high-resolution transmission electron microscope that can analyse materials right down to atomic level and three additional state-of-the-art electron microscopes, each with ­different capabilities.

Keeping up with international developments
In electron microscopy South Africa used to be many years behind the rest of the world, but Neethling kept up with international developments since 1988 by visiting centres in Europe that were developing this equipment. Now, however, all the research can be done at the university.

Electron microscopy, developed in the past 80 years, has contributed to modern engineering materials and the microelectronics revolution, which have in turn given us television, cellphones, optical-fibre communication and computers. On the medical side it has enabled biologists to study the structure of cells, ­bacteria and viruses.

The centre intends its research to contribute to developments in energy, chemical processing, minerals and advanced materials. Specific examples include Sasol’s coal-to-liquid fuel process, materials for next-generation nuclear reactors, maintenance of coal and nuclear power stations, infrared sensors, hard metals, ceramics and diamond products used as cutting and drilling tools, and titanium and aluminium alloys for the aerospace and automotive industries.

Neethling said: “The key objectives of the centre are to conduct the most advanced nanoscale materials research on the African continent and to train highly skilled MSc and PhD graduates. It also aims to transfer expert knowledge to industries and so assist institutions to bridge the gap between research and ­product commercialisation.”

Nicky Willemse is a freelance writer contracted by Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Nicky Willemse
Nicky Willemse works from Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Freelance journalist, copywriter, proofreader, editor, booklover, parent Nicky Willemse has over 43 followers on Twitter.

Related stories

Cooper, the grocery assistant with AI, gives concierge service

The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated that there is not a part of our lives that will not be affected by the technologies of the fourth industrial revolution.

Artificial intelligence is already responding to our needs

Engineering students are best prepared for the shift in gear, but they will need to learn to change lanes

Inclusivity through innovation

Special Annual Theme Award: Materials for inclusive economic development

Pola Maneli asks: “Do you feel seen?”

Pola Maneli’s latest work, ‘An Indigenous I/Eye’, is an attempt to visualise blackness

Coding without computers reaches thousands of learners

“It was the opportunity of a lifetime for some of our kids … allowing them to explore a world of programming and the creative use of technology.”

Dream of studying comes true

When outsourcing ended at Mandela University it gave contract workers more than just a job

Subscribers only

Dozens of birds and bats perish in extreme heat in...

In a single day, temperatures in northern KwaZulu-Natal climbed to a lethal 45°C, causing a mass die-off of birds and bats

Q&A Sessions: Frank Chikane on the rainbow where colours never...

Reverend Frank Chikane has just completed six years as the chairperson of the Kagiso Trust. He speaks about corruption, his children’s views and how churches can be mobilised

More top stories

Eusebius McKaiser: Mpofu, Gordhan caught in the crosshairs

The lawyer failed to make his Indian racist argument and the politician refused to admit he had no direct evidence

Corruption forces health shake-up in Gauteng

Dr Thembi Mokgethi appointed as new health MEC as premier seeks to stop Covid-19 malfeasance

Public-private partnerships are key for Africa’s cocoa farmers

Value chain efficiency and partnerships can sustain the livelihoods of farmers of this historically underpriced crop

Battery acid, cassava sticks and clothes hangers: We must end...

COMMENT: The US’s global gag rule blocks funding to any foreign NGOS that perform abortions, except in very limited cases. The Biden-Harris administration must rescind it

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…