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National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)

Professor Michael Claeys

For his lifework on the development of capacity and research capacity in catalysis which lies at the heart of 90% of production processes for chemicals.

Sponsored by Eskom since 2003

The winner of the 2020/2021 for Engineering Research Capacity Development Award is Professor Michael Claeys from UCT was given this Award for his work in catalysis. Catalysis significantly shapes modern society and lies at the heart of 90% of production processes for chemicals, fuels and pharmaceuticals. Claeys focuses on understanding catalyst sustainability and improvements.

Catalysis cleans up our act – and our planet

There are systems and processes in our world that we don’t see, or that we take completely for granted, and one of these is catalysis, or the process of modifying the rate or outcome of a chemical reaction. This is not just the stuff of experimentation in laboratories: it’s essential to the success of 90% of the world’s production processes in which chemicals, fuels and pharmaceuticals are involved.

Michael Claeys, Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Cape Town’s Catalysis Institute, and Director of the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Catalysis, c*change, believes that developments and improvements in catalysis are vital if we are to move towards a society that is not dependent on fossil fuels, and if we are to preserve and protect the environment.

“Catalysis is a very expensive undertaking, and achieving an economy of scale can only be attained via resource sharing, including personnel, data, ideas and infrastructure,” he explains. “Close collaboration is key, along with the participation of smaller research units, with this combination leading to the development of a large cohort of next-generation academics.”

His research has included the development and use of novel and unique characterisation tools, which include patented devices such as the in-situ magnetometer (developed with Sasol), and an in-situ XRD reaction cell, which has been successfully commercialised by Cape Catalytix, a spin-out company at UCT.

The establishment of the c*change Centre of Excellence, of which Claeys has been a director since 2008, has greatly enhanced the field of research and development in the catalysis field. Its multidisciplinary nature provides a national network in which large groups have been formed to collaborate on tough, long-term challenges, while developing technology that is relevant to South Africa and the world.

 

The greatest emphasis, however, has been on capacity development, and in the last 10 years, c*change has grown to a full capacity of 65 enrolled students, including an increase of black students from 55% to 75%, and a growth of female South African students from less than half the cohort to about 60%.

During this period, the annual publication output has increased from 14 to over 30, and nine academics from designated groups have been supported by the centre of excellence’s mentorship programme. External funding, previously just 20% of what was required, now makes up at least 50% of the targeted amount.

“While it is extremely pleasing to see that my research has made an impact on industrial applications, my greatest fulfilment comes from watching the careers of the students that the Centre has trained, along with others that I have supervised, and taking pride in their careers over time,” Claeys says.

“Many of them have become industry leaders or academics, with some having attained professorship. It’s also wonderful that more than 90% of them have stayed in the sector, which emphasises the importance of the work that we are all doing. Our collective work is making it possible for us all to transition to more efficient processes, a cleaner society, and although the role that catalysis plays is not widely known, it really is going to make the world a much cleaner, better place.” — Kerry Haggard

Read the special Mail & Guardian supplement about all the NSTF-South32 Award winners.

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