“The successful filing of this patent indicates that we, Unisa, are firmly on our way.”
These remarks, made by Dr Wei Hua Ho from the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department, follow Unisa’s first filing of a patent of a method and apparatus for treating a fluid.
This accomplishment comes at an opportune time as Unisa celebrates its 140 years in South African and African academia. But more than that, Unisa also celebrates its future where it aims to be a leading global centre of excellence in science and research.
Ho, who collaborated on this invention together with Prof Srinivasu Vallabhapurapu from Unisa’s Physics department and Prof Ivan Hofsajer from the University of Witwatersrand, says the team is “very excited” about the invention and the patent.
“As academics, it is always fulfilling to know that what we are interested in and researching on eventually materialises into products that help people. This is particularly true for engineers and the field of engineering, which works towards solving practical problems. It is also very fulfilling for me personally to answer a ‘why can’t’ question and seeing the prototype work.”
Hofsajer says collaborating with colleagues from Unisa was a “great experience”. “What started out as a discussion on magnetic fields ended up with an experiment that demonstrated much more complicated behaviour than we expected. It is always exciting to discover things working differently than what you expect. It greatly expands the boundaries of what you think is possible.”
Explaining the invention in more detail, Ho says the invention involves a novel method in the use of magnetic nanoparticles that are coated with a functional layer – a layer of materials to perform the task required, in this case, to remove certain contaminants from water.
“The use of magnetic nanoparticles is not novel,” he says, “but the novelty in our invention is the way in which the cleaning takes place. Most current systems use the magnetic property to separate the particles from the water after the purification is done. However our idea is to use the magnetic property in the cleaning phase as well.”
The purification process, continues Ho, uses a chemical reaction and therefore some kind of physical excitation of the particles within the water is required. “Usually excitation of the container or the water (through the use of a stirrer or similar devices) is used. Our invention shows that a moving magnetic field can achieve the same effect.”
Speaking on the importance of this, Ho says, while the invention and method has been shown to work on a small prototype, if it can be extended to a larger commercial scale, the main advantage comes from two factors. “Firstly, because there are no moving parts (as opposed to physically stirring or shaking the container), there are little to no wear-and-tear issues, thus dramatically reducing the need for maintenance. Secondly, because we are only exciting the particles and not the water or container, the energy required could be greatly reduced. The contaminants that can be removed depend on the functional layer.”
Vallabhapurapu adds: “We have developed an electromagnetic technique to move the magnetic nanoparticles in water. This has a great implication that it substitutes the usual mechanical stirring of the particles in water in the water purification processes. Which means that the whole thing can be automated and can be upgraded to mass processing. Thus this technique has great commercial value in the futuristic magnetic nanoparticle-based water purification processes.”
He also thanked the Unisa Research and Innovation portfolio supporting the project.
With this invention certainly impacting on Unisa’s contribution to development in South Africa and Africa, Ho says the research and innovation portfolio, as a new portfolio in Unisa, are proud. “Having a patent filed so soon after the establishment of the portfolio will hopefully reduce and allay the apprehension some colleagues may have about the importance of ideas that they have.
“’Rome was not built in a day’, ‘Every journey begins with one small step’ and often ‘things seem impossible until they are done’. This is the ‘one small step’ that will hopefully show our colleagues ‘it is not impossible’ and we may eventually have a Rome. The successful filing of this patent indicates that we, Unisa, are firmly on our way,” he concluded.
*Written by Rivonia Naidu-Hoffmeester