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Experiencing Nano behind the scenes at UFS and Mintek facility tours

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UFS nanotour: Professor Vermeulen, Dean of the faculty of Natural Agricultural Sciences, addressing the audience.
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Dr Mthuthuzeli Zamxaka, project coordinator at SAASTA presenting at the Mintek nanotour.

Members of the public had the opportunity to see nanotechnology in action during a tour of the facilities of two top-class South African research groups in this field of science. The tour’s aim was to bring nanotechnology closer to society, was arranged by the Nanotechnology Public Engagement Programme and SAASTA in collaboration with the University of the Free State (UFS), and Mintek’s Nanotechnology Innovation Centre (NIC).

Learners, researchers, scientists, policy makers, industry representatives, science communication practitioners and members of the media attended interesting tours of the nanotechnology research facilities at the UFS and Mintek on 20 and 29 September 2017 respectively. The tours created awareness of nanotechnology, while educating and enhancing the understanding of nanotechnology and nanoscience. The tours also gave participants the platform to interact, discuss and establish network with the researchers and their research work.

The participants in the UFS tour were welcomed by Professor Danie Vermeulen, Dean of the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, who shared his pride in the contribution of the university to nanotechnology research in South Africa. Professor Hendrik Swart, senior professor in the physics department at UFS, shared information about the facility’s background and its equipment. He emphasised that teamwork had led to the major developments of the science facilities and he expressed gratitude to entities such as the National Research Foundation (NRF), the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and Sasol for assisting with sponsorship in the Faculty of Science.

Xolani Makhoba, Deputy Director: Emerging Research Areas at the DST gave a keynote address about the development of nanotechnology in the country. In his concluding remarks, he said it is envisaged that, through focused innovation interventions, at least two South African developed nanotechnology products will hit the markets by 2025/26.

At Mintek, Dr Jones Papo, manager of the Advanced Materials Division, gave warm welcoming remarks. The Mintek NIC director, Dr Lucky Sikhwivhilu, shared the work the centre does in health, water and sensors. He also stated that the NIC is committed to transferring fundamental research to usable technology.

Mmboneni Muofhe, Deputy Director General at DST gave a keynote address on technology innovation and emphasised that “Effective communication of science is the key to the economic growth of our economy.”

SAASTA’s Science Communication manager, Michael Ellis, spoke on both occasions about the purpose of the tours. He quoted Christopher Coons, a United States senator, who said “scientists simply can’t be silent, or else science truly will be silenced,” to inspire science researchers to publicise their work and share their endeavours with the public.

At the end of the talks, the participants watched an audio visual presentation of the facilities. They were then divided into groups for the tour and were guided to different laboratories to learn about the nano research conducted at each facility. At each point of the tour, the researchers also explained to the participants how experiments were conducted and the purpose of equipment in the laboratories.

The participants learned about the synthesis and characterisation of various nanostructures for use in different applications. At Mintek, participants visited the peptide synthesis laboratory, which focuses on making nanomaterials for targeted drug delivery applications. The participants were also taken to the bio labels lab where portable and user-friendly diagnostic kits that can be used for health related applications are being made. The participants also visited the water laboratory where research is conducted on chemicals that will be added to products used to purify water.

The participants were introduced to a variety of equipment at the UFS laboratories. These included the X-ray Photoelectron Spectrometer, which is used for the study of atoms; the Scanning Auger Microscope; as well as the Ion Time-of-Flight Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometer, which is used to reveal the chemical bonds in a sample and to draw maps of the positions of atoms.

Ogugua Simon, a PhD student at UFS said, “It was a wonderful experience taking students to different labs and explaining to them about the experiments we conduct. Although at first they did not understand and did not even ask questions, as they were going through different labs they started to be free and participated actively.”

Vuyiswa Moyikwa (16) from Vulamasango High school, a participant in the UFS tour said, “I am very excited to be here and I learned a lot. I wish this programme can be developed in rural areas so we can learn about different science careers and research that the researchers are doing.”