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Five Ways UWC Chemistry Changes The World, One Atom At A Time

Author: Nicklaus Kruger

To celebrate the International Year of the Periodic Table of Elements, the University of the Western Cape is takes a look at some innovative uses of the very building blocks of existence. Here’s how UWC makes use of 5 of those building blocks

(Published - 7 March 2019)

Chemistry is unique: a science that touches all the other sciences, linking the elementary particles of physics to the complicated molecules of biology - and it does this through looking at the properties and interactions of the atoms that make up the world around us.

Those atoms are famously listed and arranged on the Periodic Table of Elements - created by Dmitry Mendeleev in 1869, and Periodically revised by the International Union of Pure Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) as new data becomes available. This year the United Nations is celebrating the enormous impact of chemistry, and 2019 has been declared as the  Interna​tional Year of the Periodic Table of Elements.

In honour of that impact, here are just a few of the ways the Unive​rsity is making innovative use of the atoms that are the building blocks of the Periodic Table (and the Universe)...

1. Hydrogen (H): The first element on the Periodic Table, Hydrogen is also the most abundant element in the universe (90% of all atoms are hydrogen atoms). And Hydrogen power is one of the best alternative energy resources available: when hydrogen fuel cells are used, the only waste product is water. And UWC’s HySA Systems is leading the way in developing hydrogen fuel cell technologies in South Africa. Along with national and international partners, HySA has been responsible for introducing many hydrogen fuel cell technology innovations, including (among others) South Africa’s first hydrogen-powered tricycle and scooter, first 2.5kW fuel cell backup power system for telecommunication markets, first hydrogen-powered golf cart. ..and much much more.
2. Carbon (C): The second most abundant element in the human body by mass, and the basis of organic chemistry on Earth, Carbon is unique in that it is known to form up to 10 million different compounds - there are more compounds known which contain C than compounds which don’t. Carbon is also the basis of the Industrial Revolution, as most of our energy needs have been met by burning some form of carbon-rich fossil fuel to power our technologies...and also unfortunately release carbon dioxide (CO2), fueling global climate change. UWC’s applied geologists are at the forefront of utilising petrochemical resources to drive the country forward n the world energy economy….and UWC is also at the forefront of figuring out ways to capture and store CO2 - part of the reason UWC is often declared Africa’s Greenest Campus.
3. Lithium (Li): The lightest and least dense of all the metals, Lithium is soft and silvery-white at room temperature - and is also extremely reactive and flammable (it needs to be stored in mineral oil, as it will react with air or water). It’s also a perfect conductor of electricity...which is why rechargeable Lithium ion, or Li-ion, batteries are found in power tools, toys, electric bikes, laptops and cellular phones, and other items that most of us make use of practically every day. South Africa has almost 80% of the world’s known reserves of manganese – an important component in a popular Li-ion battery. But there’s only one facility on the African continent that has the capability to produce Li-ion battery cells at pilot scale: UWC’s Energy Storage Innovation Lab (ESIL).
4. Silicon (Si): Famously used in electronics and semiconductors, and thus the basis for much of modern civilisation, Silicon is the second most abundant element by weight on Earth (Oxygen has it beat), and is also the main element in many meteorites. Silicon is also essential in the creation of solar cells, used to harvest energy from sunlight. And UWC’s PASTA (Process Equipment for Amorphous Silicon Thin-film Applications) machine is a multi-chamber ultra-high vacuum system used to create thin film silicon solar cells (the solar cell being the building block of a solar panel, amongst other things). Solar panels usually look like flat glass plates with a few wafers inside. With the thin film technology solar cells can be made on flexible foil and on cheaper substrates. They are lightweight and can be rolled up, depending on which substrates are used.
5. Calcium (Ca): In its pure form, Calcium is a metal, and an important one at that - not only is it the third most abundant metal in Earth’s crust (after Iron and Magnesium), but it’s also essential for animal and plant nutrition, and is the most abundant metal in the human body, found mainly in bones and teeth. And UWC’s Faculty of Dentistry is responsible for more healthy teeth than just about anybody else on the continent. It’s the biggest dentistry school in Africa, responsible for training almost 50% of all new dentists in South Africa. The faculty’s two main teaching sites at Tygerberg Hospital and Mitchell’s Plain see to an average of 120 000 patients a year, and the School is recognised as a faculty of excellence on the continent with its status as a World Health Organization Collaborating Centre.

Want to know more about UWC’s Department of Chemistry, and its innovative approach to the field? Why not check it out for yourself?

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