News & Media

Unisa gets first patent registered in the US

Unisa Professors Vijaya Vallabhapurapu and Wei Ho

Novel research led to a novel experience in the University of South Africa’s (Unisa’s) 145-year history: the university’s first patent registered in the United States.

The team behind the invention which was granted American patent rights, Prof Vijaya Vallabhapurapu and Prof Wei Ho from Unisa, and Ivan Hofsajer from the University of the Witwatersrand, said what started as a fun experiment ultimately advanced to the level of an international patent.

In layman’s terms, the collaborative innovation which was patented involves removing, through nanotechnology, heavy metals from fluids (such as water) without mechanical stirring. In a country whose mining sector remains a critical driver of the economy and where water poverty is on the increase, the emergence of a solution of this nature is like striking gold. Indeed, considering the size of the mining industry internationally and the increasingly urgent need to purify the vast volumes of water used in mining operations, the patented process is sure to enjoy major uptake globally.

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, we use the magnetic property in the cleaning phase as well."

Vallabhapurapu pointed out that the achievement goes beyond the main researchers. "The patent is a big boost for our team members, comprising not only of research staff and students but also of the Research Support Directorate in Unisa’s Research, Postgraduate Studies, Innovation and Commercialisation (RPSIC) Portfolio, who provided full backing for this team effort."

Going forward, Vallabhapurapu says that the vision underpinning the patent expands beyond water purification. "Now we are expanding this work into the treatment of biofluids, and our dream is to treat human fluids such as blood. To this end we have already registered an additional PhD student into the project." 

"Research and innovation at Unisa has been going from strength to strength since the establishment of a dedicated RPSIC Portfolio in 2011, which saw the university investing strategically in world-class equipment and facilities, attracting and developing internationally acclaimed researchers, and providing unequalled support to its research community", added Unisa Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Prof Mandla Makhanya.