MOOCs, SPOCs, GROOCS: there’s no shortage of online learning options for executives. But there are some real, tangible advantages to brick-and-mortar learning environments that will be hard to replace—and the online space has some way to go.

Delegates participating in the breakaway session were given the opportunity to hear about some of the latest scientific research and developments in South Africa and, in particular, how new skills are being fostered within the local scientific community. Dr Cosmas Chiteme (Director: Hydrogen and Energy, Department of Science and Technology) spoke about some of the work currently beingundertaken by HySA—the Hydrogen South Africa programme. Dr Chiteme explained that technology innovation is one of five core programmes under the national Department of Science and Technology, and that research around the potential of hydrogen and fuel cell technology formed a key element of that technology innovation programme. This research has been prompted, in part, by the global interest in hydrogen and fuel cell technologies (HFCT). International interest in HFCT is driven by the necessity to improve energy security, concern for the environment, the desire for economic growth and better energy efficiency.

There’s always this discussion about whether we go with hydrogen and fuel cell-powered or battery electric vehicles. At the end of the day the customer will make the choice,” explained Dr Chiteme. “However, I want to emphasise the complementarity of these technologies, because you need batteries in fuel cells to actually initiate the function of the electronics that control the gas flow and so forth. At the same time, you can use fuel cells as a range extender in battery electric vehicles. So let’s be cognisant of the fact that these technologies are very much complementary, but one thing that is clear is we need further R&D to reduce the costs because these are emerging technologies and we all know the cost trajectory as far as emerging technology is concerned. Of interest to the delegates was the fact that various hydrogen technologies are being trialled in different contexts in South Africa. In a project involving Anglo American Platinum and Ballad Ballard Power Systems, there are currently 34 homes in the Naledi Trust Village in the Free State being powered through these fuel cells. A fuel cell-powered forklift in use at Impala Platinum Refineries in Springs is taking advantage of refuelling infrastructure that has been developed by the HySA Systems Centre of Competence at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). Three fuel cell units are installed in three schools in the Eastern Cape as part of an integrated project that also looks at issues of water and sanitation, agriculture and ICT. Those fuel cells are meant to provide power to tablets that the learners use.

Another fuel cell unit is installed at a clinic in Randburg. This is used to provide back-up power to vaccine refrigerators because, with tuberculosis (TB) medication, if there is a power outage for a few hours, the medication expires.Ultimately, through HySA, South Africa would like to supply 25% of the global catalyst value chain. Ideally, SMMEs will become involved in local manufacturing of the components required for the technology (from hydrogen production to storage, distribution and the final applications). Research is currently being undertaken in partnership with a number of South African organisations and local universities. HySA Programme has already produced around 60 graduates and Dr Chiteme suggested that “the reason why the government is supporting hydrogen fuel cell technologies is not just because of the platinum resource, but because this provides an opportunity to develop high-end skills, skills that are going to be critical in supporting economic growth and job creation through the SMMEs” Dr Mthuthuzeli Zamxaka (Science Communicator: SAASTA—NPEP and HySA PADEP) both chaired and participated in the discussion on HFCT and nanotechnology, emphasising the possibilities that both these technologies present for companies and the research opportunities for interested graduates. SAASTA’s mandate is to advance public awareness, appreciation and engagement of science, engineering, innovation and technology in South Africa. Dr Zamxaka suggested that a lot of additional investment was required to further the developments of HFCT and other forms of scientific advancement in Africa.

The third speaker at the breakaway session was Dr Munkombwe Muchindu, a scientist from The DST/Mintek Nanotechnology Innovation Centre (NIC). According to Dr Muchindu, “the strategic intent [for the NIC] is for us to be a one-stop-shop in developing these innovative technologies, base systems and devices for diagnostics and water treatment”. It has long been known that South Africa has the largest reserves in the world of particular types of minerals, but it is only more recently that one particular cross-cutting technology is being explored to see how the country can benefit from these minerals by engaging in value addition. The first pre-commercial technologies were developed by the NIC between 2007 and 2012, and the emphasis of the NIC from 2012 to 2015 was on intellectual property protection.The NIC has opted to focus on health and water, particularly the use of nanominerals in applications for the health sector and in water treatment. Nanotechnology has enabled the development of extremely sensitive devices that indicate not only whether a person has a particular disease but also the “quantity” of the disease present in the individual.

Through its water platform, the NIC has started putting silver nanopart icles in water membranes to kill bacteria and microbes. “We won’t sell it to the market until we’ve done due diligence on the toxicity,” Dr Muchindu assured her audience She explained that nanoparticles have always existed but, previously, we didn’t have the equipment required to take advantage of them. In 2015, the Minister of Science and Technology launched a new cleanroom at Mintek. This type of facility is required to produce nanodevices of a high standard.  Mintek does not have the accreditation required to graduate people as nanotechnologists so it is working with the universities and, thus far, 169 students have studied in the field. “We are into IP licensing, so we are into publishing the work that we do. We’ve had 675 publications since we started and we’ve managed to patent,” said Dr Muchindu.The NIC has also been collaborating internationally. “We are into knowledge generation through collaboration, as well as skills development, andthis is good for the economy, job creation and industrialisation,” she concluded.The final speaker, Michael Ellis, SAASTA’s Science Communication Manager. SAASTA’s Science Communication Manager, highlighted that the organisation viewed science communication as one of the cornerstones of numerous other skill sets that are required in the national system of innovation.

He described SAASTA’s role as defined by the national science engagement framework. “SAASTA’s mandate is to advance public awareness, appreciation and engagement with science, technology and engineering in South Africa and we do that in various ways. We do this primarily through coordinating the Department of Science and Technology’s Science Engagement Framework. The framework has the vision of a stimulated and engaged scientific society. This vision encourages scientists to be in dialogue with society and to establish upstream engagement with communities prior to conducting scientific research,” he said. Through participation in conferences of this nature, it is evident that SAASTA is playing a key role in not only publicising scientific developments but also in generating interest in scientific and technical research as a possible career path.


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Issue 58