Engineering professors appointed in SARChI Research Chairs to advance knowledge in green hydrogen and power systems fields

Prof Prathieka Naidoo from the Department of Chemical Engineering at the Faculty of Engineering of Stellenbosch University (SU) has been awarded a Sasol-NRF Research Chair in Green Hydrogen to strengthen and improve research and innovation capacity of public universities to produce high-quality postgraduate students and research outputs.

“It’s a truly exciting time to be in this research space of renewables, alternate energy sources, energy security and sustainability, with the transformation of the South African energy sector and, in fact, the global changes around diversifying energy sources,” she says.

Funding is provided by the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI), designed to significantly expand the scientific research base of South Africa in a way that supports the implementation of national research and development policies. The objectives of the SARChI are to expand the scientific research and innovation capacity of South Africa and improve its international research and innovation competitiveness while responding to social, economic and transformation imperatives of the country. They also aim to attract and retain excellent researchers and scientists and to increase the production of master’s and doctoral graduates.

Prof Naidoo says the work under the Green Hydrogen Chair, specifically Green Hydrogen Integration and Transition, will involve a collaborative effort with researchers from SU’s Faculty of Engineering, Schools of Data Sciences, Climate Studies, Water Institute, and other local and international researchers and businesses.

“I am looking forward to these opportunities in training the next generation of researchers, graduates and creating awareness for young learners on technology solutions and new possibilities of energy sources and their implementations. However, with the dramatic increase in electrification and renewables, much work must be done while being cognisant of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the COP26’s target to keep within the 1.5 temperature increase,” she says.

“Hydrogen is one of several platform chemicals and a major constituent of other valuable power fuel sources. Hence a critical aim of this Chair is to investigate a diversified energy mix,” she adds.

Prof Naidoo says being awarded the SARChI Chair is a significant achievement. “This is strengthened by having the support from the Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies (CRSES) and by aligning very well with the joint initiative of the Departments of Chemical Engineering, Mechanical & Mechatronic Engineering, Industrial Engineering and Electrical Engineering to promote research in the field of green hydrogen through funding received from SU’s Strategic Fund.

“Expansion of research activities in this field is strategically important for the Department of Chemical Engineering to position itself to contribute effectively to the country’s Green Hydrogen Programme,” she says.

The Department of Chemical Engineering now has two SARChI Research Chairs, the other being the Research Chair in Sugarcane Biorefineries under Prof Johann Görgens.

Prof Naidoo continues: “There is strong synergy in the projects under the Chairs, aligned with the UN’s SDGs, in targeting existing hard-to-abate manufacturing operations, decarbonising industries within the timeframes of 2030, eventually to attain net-zero by 2050, identifying feasible technology routes in green fuels production, and applying a systems integrated engineering approach within identified industrial economic zones. This must be achieved by partnering locally and internationally with communities and representatives in developing sector coupling.”

The Department of Chemical Engineering also has well-established research groups in the fields of Water Technology and Extractive Metallurgy within which capabilities, expertise and industrial networks exist that will broaden the scope and impact of the work performed under the Green Hydrogen Chair to consider effective water and waste management as well as relevant metal production and recovery challenges.

Improving power systems simulation research

Associate Professor Bernard Bekker from the Department of Electrical & Electronic Engineering at the Faculty of Engineering of Stellenbosch University (SU) has been awarded the SARChI NRF Chair in Power Systems Simulation. According to Prof Bekker, this chair aligns very well with the existing research within the department’s Power Systems Research Group, which aims to characterise variability in the power system and understand its impacts in support of power system planning and operations.

“The Chair will focus on improving methodologies and input assumptions for simulating various aspects of current and future electrical power systems. The Chair’s vision is to optimally leverage SU’s existing ecosystem of renewable energy and power system simulation expertise and industry and academic relationships towards developing and strengthening a national competency in power system simulation within South Africa,” he says.

According to Prof Bekker, power system research is fascinating, given the rapid changes in technology, communications, data science and market models. “South Africa’s increasing load shedding challenges have also highlighted the importance of research in this field, especially into long-term power system planning informed by accurate simulations. As such, I’m very excited to be allowed to build on and extend our existing competency in this research field at SU.”

Photograph: Proffs Prathieka Naidoo and Bernard Bekker

[Article by Amber Viviers]