Giving new life to water through engineering

Professor Thokozani Majozi of University of the Witwatersrand is working on creating sustainable water management techniques for the chemicals industry

Professor Thokozani Majozi of University of the Witwatersrand is working on creating sustainable water management techniques for the chemicals industry

Maths and science are hardly serendipitous disciplines, but it is serendipity to which Professor Thokozani Majozi ascribes first his romance with the subjects and then his career.

“I just happened to fall in love with mathematics and physical science during my secondary school years and decided to pursue a career that would allow me to continue doing maths after finishing school,” says Majozi, NRF/DST chair in sustainable process engineering in the school of chemical and metallurgical engineering, University of the Witwatersrand.

Coincidentally, his school had a visit from Anglo American Corporation, which had embarked on a steep recruitment drive for young black talent at the time. The year was 1988. He was introduced into engineering for the first time and decided to pursue it as a career.

“The choice of chemical engineering as a discipline was premised on the fact that it was considered to be one of the most challenging, and I was up for that challenge,” says Majozi. “I’m not certain if that was the best way of choosing a career. Nonetheless, I have never had any regrets.”

Challenges with ‘batch chemical plants’

After completing his first degree in 1994 at the then University of Natal, Majozi worked for Unilever and later, Dow AgroSciences. It was here that he encountered serious challenges with water conservation in the so-called batch chemical plants.

It quickly became very evident that no established scientific methods for the design, synthesis and optimisation of this category of chemical plants existed.

He decided to study further with the sole purpose of closing this glaring knowledge gap. In 1997, he enrolled for a master’s degree in chemical engineering at the then University of Natal. Shortly after completing his MScEng (Chemical) degree, he received a Commonwealth scholarship to complete a PhD at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in the United Kingdom.

Focusing on long-term water security

“We know that the chemicals industry ranks among the major water polluters in the world,” he says. “Consequently, the development of sustainable scientific and systematic water management techniques is mandatory for long-term water security. Our research is premised on this fundamental fact.”

Majozi has used the outcomes of his research to lead several key water minimisation and optimisation projects at Johnson and Johnson South Africa, the Deltamune animal vaccination facility in Pretoria and at Eskom’s Kriel power station.

Finding inspiration

Several experiences and people have inspired Majozi. His first inspiration was his history teacher in grade 10, who was appalled after Majozi failed a test and said, “You do not look like someone who would fail a test. You strike me as a brilliant young fellow.”

“That was the first turning point in my life,” he says. “I went back home, looked in the mirror and said to myself ‘I will never fail a test again.’ From that point onwards I was the top student in my school, and grew tremendously in my love for mathematics, biology and physical science.”

His other inspiration came when he worked for Dow AgroSciences and was assigned a project to design a buffer tank that would ensure that the process ran smoothly without any downtime.

“It became very clear that my university training had not prepared me for such a challenge — I had been trained to design continuous processes at steady-state. Although I ultimately came up with the design that served its purpose, it was by no means an optimum one. At that point I made it my objective to close that glaring scientific gap, which explains how I ended up doing the research that I am doing today.”

Encouraging young engineering researchers

Passionate about the importance of research, Majozi notes that in engineering it is never an easy task to attract and retain previously disadvantaged researchers. Most of the very talented young graduates are absorbed by industry as soon as they complete their first degrees, with incentives that no university could match.

“My success in this regard, albeit to a measurable extent, has largely been through selling the beauty of intellectual freedom and joy of new knowledge, which some students have found fascinating,” he explains.

He says another challenge has been convincing industrial partners that there is a link between academic research and what is applicable in practice.

Dire need for engineers

“South Africa is in dire need of engineers and needs to train more of these to develop and compete favourably with other progressive countries,” he says, emphasising that innovation is paramount in any developing country.

He says that South Africa currently boasts one engineer for every 3 000 people. “Compare this to other countries, like India, South Korea and Brazil, where that ratio is about 1:200,” says Majozi. “In simple terms, South Africa needs to train 15 times more engineers and significantly expand its manufacturing sector.”

He strongly encourages young people to pursue a career in engineering, but also strongly cautions that South Africa has not been very successful in growing its manufacturing sector. This is both a threat and an opportunity for aspirant engineers.