South Africa’s position as a global leader in nanotechnology, and Rhodes University’s contribution to this field was given a boost last week with the launch of the first-of-its-kind Rhodes/Department of Science and Technology (DST) Centre for Nanotechnology Innovation, one of the most advanced facilities of its kind within a single facility in a university environment in South Africa.
Senior political officials including Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, Chief Executive Officer of the National Research Foundation (NRF) Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, Vice Chancellor of Rhodes University Dr Sizwe Mabizela, Deputy Vice Chancellor: Research and Development, Rhodes staff and students gathered on campus on Friday 14 November to celebrate the launch of the Centre.
Hosted in the Chemistry department under the leadership of the DST/NRF South African Research Chairs Initiative Professor of Medicinal Chemistry and Nanotechnology, Distinguished Professor Tebello Nyokong, the Time-Of-Flight-Secondary-Ion-Mass-Spectrometer (TOF-SIMS), examines thin films and provides surface composition of these films, and studies the surface characteristics of nanoparticles. The examination of the surfaces using TOF-SIMS impacts not only on layer interactions in development of sensors and drug delivery agents but in a wide range of disciplines where thin films are employed and where the immobilisation thereof is critical to the success of the technologies being examined or developed, such as electronics, physics, geology and biotechnology. In addition, the equipment could be used in the fields of pollution treatment, in green chemistry, forensic sciences, biotechnology and could be geared towards energy and sustainable development. The cutting-edge equipment was purchased with a combined substantial investment of R 17 million from Rhodes, the DST and National Research Foundation (NRF).
According to Pandor, Nanotechnology has a critical role to play in the future of South Africa and is a key tool for industrial development and as a means to improve the lives of ordinary people through more efficient health care services, safe water and low-cost, clean energy. According to Pandor, “I’m really pleased when I observe the field of Nanotechnology and the manner in which it has developed well in South Africa. We believe Nanotechnology has an extraordinarily important role to play in shaping our future. We are taking our place in the world and attracting scientists to our shores… We are very important actors in the scientific community and we shouldn’t neglect that fact. We’re not only investing in nano science because we want people doing high level research with highest quality equipment, but we are also interested in whether Nanotechnology can play a role in socio-economic development in our country,” she said.
In 2005, the DST launched the National Nanotechnology Strategy, which aims to coordinate nano research and development at a national level around six focus areas including water, energy, health, chemical and bio-processing, mining and minerals and advanced materials and manufacturing. As one of few countries to develop a formal Nanoscience teaching programme, South Africa is recognized as excelling globally in this science and technology field, housing some of the continent’s most advanced and specialized equipment in two Nanotechnology Innovation Centres at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and Mintek. According to Pandor, she decided to prioritise the provisioning of appropriate equipment following her appointment as Minister of Science and Technology and after meeting with a number of senior managers in Science and Technology in Pretoria to find out what their needs and concerns were. “One particular young senior manager told me about her experience as a postgraduate student in Science and that while she was studying for her PhD there was a particular piece of equipment she needed to do advanced research. As the months for using the equipment approached, it broke down. It was the only piece of equipment that would allow her to do her work. It was sent away to Paris be repaired for six months. She said, minister, I hope you’re going to change this. I thought equipment is going to be one of my priorities.”
In partnership with industry and many of South African universities, the Centres are conducting cutting-edge research to unlock the potential of Nanotechnology and to support the training of young nano-scientists and technologists, a critical area according to Pandor. “We have not yet properly addressed why we are placing equipment in universities and not training the technicians who are maintaining it. I would like to get to point where we have people trained within all laboratories who can maintain our equipment,” she said.
The Eastern Cape is increasingly being recognised for its role in advancing the field. Along with the Rhodes/DST Centre, the province plays host to the Ultra High Resolution Transmission Electron Microscopy Facility located at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in Port Elizabeth, making the Eastern Cape a significant Nanotechnology hub in the country. According to Prof Nyokong, the province has an important role to play in advancing the field and her decision to remain at Rhodes is testament to her belief in the potential of the calibre of researchers and facilities here. “I am a supporter of the underdog. I have decided to stay in the Eastern Cape. The news media will say it’s a poor province and nothing good will come out of it, that Rhodes is too small. For me those things are challenges. This equipment, together with the equipment at NMMU makes us the hub of Nanotechnology. People can say we are poor, our education is low, but we will make a difference slowly.”
The Rhodes/DST Centre is considered a national facility and is used by other Eastern Cape universities including NMMU, Walter Sisulu University, University of Fort Hare and other South African institutions such as the University of Johannesburg, Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the University of the Western Cape, Mintek, the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal and the University of the North West. It also serves international researchers from countries such as Kuwait, Turkey and China.