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National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)

Professor Philiswa Nosizo Nomngongo

For her training, nurturing and mentoring students through her research focused on analytical environmental chemistry of organic and inorganic pollutants in environmental, biological and other matrices.

Sponsored by Eskom since 2003

The winner of the 2020/2021 for Engineering Research Capacity Development Award is Professor Philiswa Nosizo Nomngongo leads the analytical environmental chemistry group in the department of applied chemistry at the University of Johannesburg. Her research focuses on organic and inorganic pollutants in environmental, biological and other matrices. She won the Award for ensuring that the environment and water are safe for a sustainable future.

Nanotechnology makes SA’s rural drinking water safe

Growing up in Flagstaff in the Eastern Cape, Professor Philiswa Nomngongo was struck by how rural communities depended on water from rivers and streams for survival, but this water was a source of water-borne illnesses as much as it was a source of life. With that as a backdrop, her high school passion for chemistry inspired her to become an analytical chemist, with her undergraduate studies including a focus on environmental chemistry and chemical and environmental analysis.

She now leads the analytical environmental chemistry group in the Department of Chemical Sciences at the University of Johannesburg, and collaborates with other researchers in the Department of Chemical Sciences and Mechanical Engineering at the same university, as well as with researchers from the Vaal University of Technology and the University of Limpopo. She has also established international collaborations with various other groups working on water treatment methods in Germany, China, Sweden, Poland and Portugal.

Nomngongo’s research is across three disciplines: analytical chemistry, environmental chemistry and nanotechnology, with a focus on organic and inorganic pollutants in environmental, biological and other matrices. It also extends to the application of nanotechnology in environmental pollution monitoring, desalination and water treatment, among other areas.

“My research is motivated by the need to develop efficient methodologies for analysing heavy metals and other contaminants in water, especially in areas where drinking water is drawn from untreated rivers and boreholes,” she explains. “Toxic heavy metals such as lead and arsenic are increasingly present in our water, caused by various industrial and agricultural activities, as well as the inadequate disposal of electronic waste. Chronic exposure to pollutants — even in trace levels — can cause debilitating health conditions.

 

“Understanding water pollution allows us to understand the distribution of pollutants in soils and plants, and infer the risk of livestock poisoning and the health impacts on humans,” she says. “Once the pollutants are identified, treatment processes need to be developed, and the focus of my group’s research is the use of environmentally-friendly nanomaterials such as absorbents and fillers in membrane systems, as potential next-generation water treatment methods that can be used in rural areas.”

It’s not just the science that leads Nomngongo’s research: she is determined to boost awareness of all the issues around water pollutants in audiences as diverse as the academic and commercial environments, and among the rural people who are most vulnerable to the dangers of (invisibly) polluted water.

Human capacity development is also very close to her heart, centred on the systematic transfer of skills among postgraduate students, postdoctoral research fellows and research assistants.

“Seeing students under my supervision publish papers and graduate, and others winning national and international awards are standout moments for me, as much as seeing former students that I mentored excel in their workplaces,” she says.

The challenges related to water research and treatment are ongoing, and Nomngongo’s research goals include studying point and nonpoint pollution sources, using simplified analytical technologies and fingerprinting techniques.

“Our objective is also to develop simple treatment methodologies that can be used in rural areas where communities do not have water treatment systems,” she says. — Kerry Haggard

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

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