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20 March 2020
Working With Water For A Better World: Leslie Petrik On Nanoscience For The Environment

(Published - 20 March 2020)

South Africa is a water-scarce country. It’s also a country that relies heavily on mining activities that generate rather a lot of waste. If not properly managed, that waste can pose a significant environmental challenge, and a severe hazard to human health. University of the Western Cape (UWC) nanochemist Prof Leslie Petrik is working to prevent that.

“Water quality is a serious issue that affects millions worldwide, including right here in South Africa, where acid mine drainage can be a significant pollutant,” Prof Petrik explains. “Every year, 36 million tonnes of fly ash is produced by burning coal for power, and most of this goes to designated waste disposal sites. This is the single largest form of waste being generated in South Africa. We have found a way to use this waste to treat acid mine drainage.” 

Prof Petrik leads the Environmental and NanoScience Research Group at the University, which is known for award-winning research on water chemistry and effluent remediation. This includes treating and removing organics from various effluents such as textile waste water, and inorganics from industrial brine, as well as acid mine drainage. Another outstanding contribution is the development of processes for industrial waste reuse.

“As chemists, we have caused untold pollution by unleashing a plethora of highly complex chemical compounds upon consumers, yet without recognising their very negative environmental impacts,” she says. “Many chemical processes and products are not designed with their ultimate fate or impacts in mind, and consumers often misuse or overuse chemical compounds.”

As part of UWC’s Institute for Water Studies, Prof Petrik has brought her considerable talents to the task of dealing with the chemical byproducts of the industrial underpinnings of the twenty-first century.

“The aim is to gain a deeper understanding of waste water chemistry in order to treat it successfully,” Prof Petrik explains. “Our studies aim to provide valuable knowledge for the intelligent design and application of new water treatment processes.”

As a National Research Foundation C1-rated scientist and leading expert in the field of environmental remediation, water treatment, and beneficiation of industrial wastes, Prof Petrik has received award after award for her work towards achieving sustainable water management, knowledge generation and solutions - including the prestigious NSTF-Water Research Commission (WRC) Award.

“Work like this is achieved due to teamwork,” she says. “Each and every one of my students and technicians has contributed to the success of our research, and the accolades I am getting are truly theirs as well.”

Do No Harm: Developing A Better World

After working at UCT in catalysis research, Petrik came to UWC in 1998 as a research manager at the Inorganic Porous Media Group (IPMG) in the Department of Chemistry, UWC, under the leadership of Prof Vladimir Linkov - the group that later became the South African Institute for Advanced Materials Chemistry (SAIAMC).

In the 22 years since, she obtained her MSc (2003) and PhD (2008) in Chemistry on a part-time basis, while holding various research and academic positions at the University. She was able to attract considerable amounts of research funding from industry and established her own independent postgraduate research group in 2006 - the Environmental and NanoSciences (ENS) group - and was appointed to the rank of Professor in 2014.

“Graduating with my own MSc in 2003 and PhD in 2008 from UWC was my personal highlight,” she says. “I obtained my PhD in my fifties - so I guess it’s true what they say: it’s never too late to start.”

Since 2003 she has supervised to completion 25 PhD and 50 MSc UWC students, and mentored 22 Postdoctoral Fellows. Over the 13 year period that the ENS group has existed, 87 postgraduate students (MSc, PhD, NDT, MTech, DTech) have been supported financially by ENS programmes.

During her years at UWC, she has published extensively and managed to provide opportunities for many postgraduate students to present their research at international conferences, as well as spend time at international laboratories, allowing them to gain exposure to international best practices.

“Seeing each one of my students achieving their goal of graduating is my ongoing delight,” she says. “Several young postdoctoral and PhD students who were under my supervision, and mentored in the requirements of academia, have been directly appointed to academic positions in other national and international institutions.”

As Prof Petrik retires this year, she’s proud to leave behind a legacy of postgraduate student throughput and accomplishment.

“An academic career is a long road and not an easy one, with many big – and small – challenges: it is not a career for the faint hearted or the lazy,” she says. But it’s ultimately very rewarding, if the success of your students is your motivation.”