Innovative engineering minds shine at the 29th Jac van der Merwe competition

The Faculty of Engineering at Stellenbosch University (SU) celebrated the 29th Jac van der Merwe Competition for Innovation on Friday, 8 December, showcasing and rewarding the most innovative and impactful final-year projects.

Simoné Fontini from the Department of Chemical Engineering emerged as the winner with her groundbreaking research on the production of faux leather from symbiotic cultures of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY) used in kombucha production. Prof Eugene van Rensburg supervised her.

The judges agreed that the project showed technical ingenuity and addressed sustainable and eco-friendly solutions in the fashion industry. The leather industry is one of the ten biggest contributors of harmful industrial effluent and a source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Keegan Kieser from the Department of Civil Engineering secured the runner-up position. Her project leader was Dr Humaira Fataar and Prof Brand Wessels, and she focused on the structural grading of Eucalyptus Grandis. Her project aimed to determine whether this timber species could be utilised as a structural material, and which properties could be used as a predictive measure to estimate the mechanical properties of the timber without performing destructive tests.

The competition was established in 1995 in memory of SU alumnus and M-Net founding member Jac van der Merwe. MultiChoice, a leading entertainment company, has been the industry sponsor since 2013 and sponsored R60 000 (twice as much as last year) towards prize money.

Senzekile Mtsweni, Manager of Media Technology Engineering at MultiChoice and who represented the company on the day, said: “As part of the evaluation panel, I was impressed by the remarkable quality of oral presentations and innovative solutions presented by the top students in their respective departments at Stellenbosch University. Well done to all the students who participated in the competition!”

The other candidates who participated on the day (in no particular order) were:

Minette Farrell (Electrical & Electronic Engineering)
Project title: Exploring the use of contrastive learning to perform audio classification for TB screening
Project leader: Prof Thomas Niesler

Celina Gruber (Industrial Engineering)
Project title: A deep learning computer-aided diagnostic tool for functional endoscopic sinus surgery using computed tomography scans
Project leader: Mr Eldon Burger

Elgeron Marais (Mechanical Engineering)
Project title: Gearless variable multi-speed transmission system
Project leader: Mr PEJ Trinchero

Nicholas Watt (Mechatronic Engineering)
Project title: Smart demand response: Development of an NRS048-9 compliant residential emergency load control solution
Project leader: Mr Christo Nicholls

Prof Gert-Jan van Rooyen, an Associate Professor Extraordinary at the Department of Industrial Engineering, was once again the chair of this competition, with his involvement key to the success of this event. The competition highlighted the innovative spirit at SU, reflecting the university’s dedication to nurturing excellence in research that not only push the boundaries of knowledge but also contribute to solving real-world challenges.

Photo: (from left to right) Mr Nicholas Watt, Ms Keegan Kieser, Ms Simoné Fontini, Ms Senzekile Mtsweni (MultiChoice representative), Mr Elgoren Marais, Ms Minette Farrell and Ms Celine Gruber.

[Article by Amber Viviers]