The difference between a small unknown university and a big league university like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Harvard University, the University of Cambridge, and Princeton University is research and innovation, something Unisa’s executive management is committed to building and sustaining said Professor Srinivasu Vallabhapurapu, incumbent of the newly established Unisa Research Chair in Superconductivity Technology.
“And I am glad that as Unisa enters its 140th year of shaping futures, our leadership, Professor Makhanya, (Principal and Vice-Chancellor) and Professor Phakeng (Vice-Principal: Research and Innovation) have a very strong vision and are very serious about building this component, research and innovation at our university.”As one of the recipients of the 2012 Unisa Innovation Award, Vallabhapurapu, from the College of Science, Engineering and Technology, said he is excited and driven to be a part of the evolution of research and knowledge production taking place at Unisa. “The Research and Innovation portfolio and our Dean of CSET provide us with great support. And while awards are always good, it is the spirit of the research and innovation portfolio that is very encouraging and supportive for scholars.
“Adding to that is the camaraderie amongst all academic and administrative staff in our college who work like a family, sharing the ups and downs of both their academic and personal lives. I must say that the administrative staff really help and support academics and our activities, ignoring the just work-to-rule kind of attitude. This culture at Unisa is simply great, possible through Unisa’s great leadership, and we should strive for all departments to have this work ethic if we are to become the hub of scientific knowledge we aim for.”
Superconductivity technology relevant for Africa
It is this level of support for research that motivated Vallabhapurapu to assume responsibility of establishing a research platform in South Africa for superconductivity technology. Explaining the relevancy of a chair in this field, he said the chair will focus on enhancing the research platform of superconductivity science and technology for the development of energy-saving technologies. Superconductivity technology, he added, offers great energy savings, in hundreds of billions of dollars, and minimisation of energy wastage as compared to any technology, which is why first-world countries are pushing it.
“Current renewable energy technologies have not grown to an optimum level where they can replace the traditional ones. At the same time the traditional ones are also not producing enough energy. This produces a strategic gap between production and utilisation. The demand for energy is ever increasing and production is not able to meet the demand. In these circumstances of ‘energy crisis’ worldwide and in particular South Africa, energy storage and energy-saving strategies are gaining in significance.”
The proposed research programme for the Chair in Superconductivity Technology has applied research activity, and fundamental research activity to support the former. “The applied activities will include an African superconducting cable and a superconducting flywheel for energy storage … It is important to note that understanding the fundamental properties is very important while we tailor the superconducting materials that will be used in the these mentioned applications. We will research fundamental properties of high temperature superconductivity in both existing and newly discovered superconductors, and superconductivity in novel systems.
“We will also be developing as bi-products of this primary focus, areas related to superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID) based medical imaging and advanced electronics, as well.”
SA riding the superconductivity wave
The Unisa Research Chair in Superconductivity Technology forms part of the Unisa Research Chairs Programme. The programme, which comes at an opportune time in Unisa’s140 year history, is designed to help the university achieve research excellence in different disciplines and will play an important role in building on Unisa’s growing reputation as a key player in research and innovation in South Africa and internationally.
Another main aim of the chair, said Vallabhapurapu, is to make South Africa ready by 2020 to ride the superconductivity wave. He believes that establishing this research platform is very important and urgent because this will help SA to get ready to embrace superconductivity technology by 2020 when this technology penetrates energy markets.
“It will be a unique platform in the country, which will help develop skills and build capacity in this area. Thus, Unisa will be a hub of activity for superconductivity niche-area research in the country, building a network with other universities that will integrate related technologies into superconductivity research. We not only want to build capacity in this highly advanced area, but, by 2020, South Africa should be one of the key international players in this technology, and by then, Unisa will be the vehicle equipped with expertise, manpower, equipment and international reputation to ride this wave.”
Vallabhapurapu, together with Professor Wei Hua Ho from CSET, filed Unisa’s first successful patent on a method and apparatus for treating a fluid. In addition to his water research, other work includes fundamental studies using electron spin resonance and low field microwave absorption in nanomagnetic systems, spintronic and novel magnetic systems and superconducting materials, materials for fuel cells, nano-Josephson-junctions for quantum bit applications in quantum computing, novel memory systems, and nano and micro lithography using atomic force microscopy and lasers.
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* Written by Rivonia Naidu-Hoffmeester