Developing SA's chemical production capacity

The potential to build South Africa’s chemical production capabilities is being explored at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University under the Research Chair in Microfluidic Bio/Chemical Processing headed by Professor Paul Watts.

He assumed his position at the beginning of 2013 and is applying the decade’s worth of research that he conducted in the UK to building this capacity. He says that great advances have been made in developing new techniques to manufacture chemicals using microreactors, or continuous flow reactors.

They differ from conventional methods in that they use small tubes that are placed parallel to each other to produce compounds at far lower cost. If South Africa could develop such capabilities, it would make the country independent of global supply chains that not only add to the cost of the final product but also involve fairly lengthy waiting periods.

The chemicals that can be produced through these new processes can be applied in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals and fine chemicals.

Apart from the cost and immediacy of supply advantages, chemical production in the microreactors significantly reduces the hazards of working with volatile components.

It is Watts’s aim, with the resources made available through the Research Chair, to develop local expertise by involving post-graduate students in the research. That would enable the further development of these techniques.

The ultimate goal is to build this capacity to the point where South Africa is able to produce pharmaceuticals and chemicals at an affordable cost and to meet immediate needs.

Breakthroughs in the research could lead to South Africa producing the chemicals that are used in antiretrovirals. This would have a significant impact on the country’s ability to respond to the HIV/Aids crisis, says Watts.