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Inaugural Brian O'Connell Visiting Fellows Lecture

Organic Solar Cells for Africa’s Future: Daniel Egbe Delivers Brian O’Connell Visiting Fellows Lecture

“The appropriate use of abundant solar energy can be regarded as a solution to the African energy problem - but this will require highly qualified and coordinated human resources and research at all levels.”

So said Johannes Kepler University Linz Professor Daniel Egbe, delivering the inaugural Brian O’Connell Visiting Fellows Lecture at the University of the Western Cape on 30 March 2016.

Prof Egbe’s lecture*, on Designing Organic Materials for Optoelectronics and Low-Cost Solar Cell Applications - Benefits for Africa, provided an overview of the state of energy and solar concerns in Africa and worldwide, covering everything from the laws of thermodynamics to synthetic methods of conjugating polymers to organic light-emitting diodes and organic solar cell parameters.

Less than 40% of sub-Saharan Africans have access to electricity, and the lack of energy and infrastructure has a negative effect on development efforts. But Africa cannot embark on the same developmental path as Europe, USA and China by relying mostly on non-environmentally-friendly energy sources - not if the continent is to achieve its Sustainable Development Goals and the resolution of COP 21 to maintain the global temperature rise at 1.5oC or below.

The solution is simple, said Prof Egbe - using the sun as an energy source. “We have massive solar potential here on Earth - every hour, the sun bathes the planet with enough energy to satisfy global energy needs for a year,” he noted. “And Africa has vast deserts, copious sunlight, and comparatively clear skies - the recipe for greatness in solar energy provision, if we develop the human capacity to do the research and development needed.”

And building that capacity, and performing that research, is Prof Egbe‘s calling. His main research interest as a professor at JKU Linz is the design of semiconducting materials for optoelectronic applications, including photovoltaics (he has produced more than 150 peer-reviewed articles). And as the initiator of the African Network for Solar Energy (ANSOLE), he helps coordinate a platform of exchange for those who are devoted to promoting the use of various renewable energy forms to address the acute energy problem in Africa, while preserving and protecting the environment.

Scholarship for Africa and the World

The prestigious Brian O'Connell Visiting Fellowship for Scholars from the African diaspora, established via a grant from the Kresge Foundation and the Atlantic Philanthropies, is reserved for distinguished scholars from the African diaspora who are working in Africa or in other countries.

Prof Egbe is certainly a good example of that: Hailing from Cameroon, he obtained his BSc in Physics and Chemistry in 1991 at the University of Yaounde, Cameroon, before moving to Germany where he obtained a MSc and PhD in Chemistry in 1995 and 1999, respectively. He completed his "Habilitation" in Organic Chemistry at the same institution in 2006, before extended scientific stays at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Mainz, Germany (02/2006-08/2006), at the Technical University of Eindhoven in Holland (2006-2007) and at the Technical University of Chemnitz, Germany (2007-2008). Since 2009, he has been a member of the Linz Institute for Organic Solar Cells of the Johannes Kepler University, Linz, Austria.

The Visiting Scholar Fellowship is given in honour of UWC’s former Vice-Chancellor, in recognition of his contribution to higher education in South Africa and beyond - Prof O’Connell served UWC as Rector and Vice-Chancellor for 13 years before retiring at the end of 2014, and has also served on a national level in several fora and on higher education committees.

“This Fellowship is in many ways an extension of Prof O’Connell’s immense legacy,” said Prof Tyrone Pretorius, Prof O’Connell’s successor as Vice-Chancellor of UWC. “When he took office, UWC was in dire straits, hardly featuring among research institutions in South Africa. Today, we are one of the country’s top 5 universities, the top 7 on the continent, and the top 100 in BRICS, and we are able to celebrate the contributions of scientists like Prof Egbe, who contribute immensely to the improvement of the condition of humankind.”

“Every epoch has the burden and responsibility of understanding its own challenges. Danger arrives when the environment changes and we aren’t prepared - and we don’t adapt,” noted Prof O’Connell. “As with the dinosaurs and the meteor that ended their long domination, or the Mayans, who succumbed to a long drought despite all their accomplishments - because they couldn’t change their thinking to understand the realities facing them.”

Our reality, he noted, includes the HIV epidemic, economic challenges, and above all, climate change - energy concerns, water shortages, rising water levels. To deal with these, he said, we need to have a strong intellectual culture.

“Our great challenge is to shift the minds of the majority of South Africans to embrace change through science, in the shortest possible time and with the help of the best possible models,” he explained. “We need thinkers with a global picture and an affinity for the challenges facing South Africa, Africa and the world - and who can respond appropriately. And we need to get these luminaries of African descent into the universities, sharing their work and their vision.”

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” added Prof Egbe, “and African universities definitely have a part to play in that.”

*Want to know more? Download Prof Egbe’s lecture here.