Unabridged budget vote: Science and Technology: Deputy Minister Derek Hanekom

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Honourable Speaker, Minister Pandor, Honourable Members, It is good to see you all back in the House after the robust elections campaign! The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), once again, did an excellent job in ensuring successful free and fair elections. To a large extent, technology made this possible. And indeed, we are convinced that science and technology can make us a winning nation in many ways.

Honourable Members, as you have heard from the Minister’s speech there is a lot happening in our country in the area of science and technology. New inventions, successful clinical trials, groundbreaking and pioneering research, the design, manufacture and operation of a satellite, the bid for the most powerful radio telescope in the world – the list goes on and on. However, let me start with our youth as they are our future.

It is vital to attract South Africa’s young people to science and technology studies and careers. Our collaboration with the Department of Basic Education is very important in the achievement of this goal.

Through the “Youth into Science” programme, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) sponsored the participation of over 11 000 Dinaledi school learners in the National Science Olympiad last year. The plan is to increase this to 20 000 learners in 2012.

Science centres also play a vital role in the implementation of the Youth into Science Strategy. Twenty-nine science centres are currently receiving support from the DST, and 90 schools in Mpumalanga, Limpopo and Gauteng stand to benefit from curriculum-based science experiments that will be provided through the mobile laboratories that were given to three science centres last year. Four more centres will receive mobile laboratories during this financial year.

The private sector plays an enormously important role in support of science centres. One fine example is Arcellor Mittal, who have taken the lead in opening their third sponsored science centre in South Africa. BHP Billiton also deserves special mention for supporting a R4 million expansion to the Unizul Science Centre in Richards Bay. The completion of this project will result in the first science centre in this country that, in addition to an early childhood development programme, has dedicated 600 square metres to a children’s museum.

We are creating real opportunities through our Youth into Science interventions. With us today we have Matsobane Makgota from Limpopo, a University of Cape Town (UCT) student who benefited immensely from participating in the DST’s Thuthuka Maths and Science Development Camps and Maths Olympiads. He matriculated with six distinctions and made it onto the Dean’s Merit List at the end of his first year. He is now doing his third year in civil engineering. Matsopane’s is one of many success stories we should all celebrate.

Palaeontology

While all our efforts are geared towards a better future for our country it is important for us to appreciate our past, and the distant past that we are studying through the outstanding work of our palaeontologists and archaeologists represent the collective past of all of humanity.

We initiated a consultative process last year to formulate a strategy for archaeology and palaeontology. We want to instil a sense of pride in the special place that South Africa occupies in the story of life and humanity on Earth. Our intention is to empower our museums to curate our extraordinary fossil collections, to create capacity in our universities to produce a critical mass of archaeologists and palaeontologists, and to drive knowledge production to make South Africa a world centre of scientific excellence in these disciplines. Our plan is to establish at least one centre of excellence, as well as a few research chairs in these fields, where we have a heritage unrivalled by any other country in the world.

Responding to the challenge of climate change

Honourable Speaker, climate change may be the biggest single challenge facing humanity today. This is not just the forecast of pessimistic scientists – it is real, it has started, and it will get worse, much worse.We have already witnessed devastating floods, heat waves and droughts in various parts of the world. We have to use science to prepare ourselves for what is likely to happen in our own country.

We will use the opportunity of South Africa hosting COP17 in Durban later this year to showcase some of the research, development and innovation activities we have initiated in response to the threat of climate change.

Human and institutional capacity to assess the vulnerability and environmental risks of global environmental change is essential for proper planning at local government level. To develop this capacity, five university based centres will be established over a period of three years, starting with the Universities of Limpopo, Fort Hare and Walter Sisulu. These universities will be fully supported by the DST to produce high quality honours, masters and PhD students that can support local municipalities.

Improving the scientific understanding of changes to our global environment is crucial to our country’s responses to the impacts of climate change. The Department has now finalised a 10-Year Global Change Research Plan to guide our research efforts towards a better understanding of global environmental changes and to provide a scientific basis for our responses to climate change.

Energy security

By far the biggest contributor to climate change is the CO2 emissions from our current unsustainable energy sources, especially the burning of coal to generate electricity.South Africa has made the bold commitment to a 34% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. This can only be achieved through a radical shift towards the use of clean and renewable energy.

The Department supports a number of renewable energy initiatives. We have established renewable energy research programmes focusing on biofuels, wind and solar energy. Specific capabilities being advanced include the development of second generation biofuels like algal biofuels at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

R24 million from the European Union’s Sector Budget Support programme has been allocated to three energy initiatives. One of these is a University of Fort Hare-based project, piloting the use of solid municipal waste to generate biogas that will be used as a source of energy in food processing and preparation of meals for the school nutrition programme.

Hydrogen and fuel cell technology

Honourable Members, as you know, South Africa is rated number one producer in the world of strategic minerals such as platinum – a key material in autocatalysts, which are used for cleaner internal-combustion engines, among other things. With 75% of the world’s known platinum reserves, South Africa has become the focus of the world with the intensification of research and development efforts towards a hydrogen economy.

Under the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Research, Development and Innovation Strategy, there are currently three HySA centres of competence co-hosted by the universities of the Western Cape, Cape Town and North West, in partnership with Mintek and the the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

The scope of the research and development work being undertaken by the centres comprises four key programmes.These are: combined heat and power, portable power, hydrogen-powered vehicles and combined lithium-ion battery and supercapacitors.

In the area of lithium-ion batteries, HySA Systems has produced the first prototypes of cells with capacity up to 20 amps per hour as the energy storage devices in fuel-cell-powered vehicles. In the short to medium term these can be used for electric cars,scooters and bicycles. Last year the Minister launched the first hydrogen-powered bicycle, built by students from the Tshwane University of Technology. HySA Systems developed the hydrogen-storage technology for the bike.

The ultimate goal of the HySA programme is to supply 25% of the global fuel cell catalyst demand by 2020.

Fighting poverty through sustainable livelihoods

Honourable Members, in our drive to apply knowledge and technology in the fight against poverty and unemployment, we have introduced pilot projects to determine the technical, environmental and financial feasibility of technology solutions in the cultivation of medicinal plants, fish, essential oils and new plant cultivars. Successful pilot projects will be converted into commercial ventures and serve as models to stimulate further expansion.

One such successful pilot is the on-shore production of abalone. Working in partnership with the University of Stellenbosch and the community of Hondeklipbaai, the DST has demonstrated that abalone can be grown successfully on the West Coast, and we are now working with other departments to explore the expansion of the pilot to a 120-ton-per-annum abalone farm, which will create over 120 jobs in the area.

Equally promising is an initiative on the cultivation of the plant Artimisia annua (commonly known as sweetworm wood). Its extract artemisinin has been demonstrated to be effective in the fight against malaria. A British variety which has been planted at various altitudes across the country, seems to be adapting well to South African conditions. The trial plots will lead to the selection of a site that produces high levels of artemisinin, and will therefore offer viable enterprise development possibilities. This early work has already attracted the interest of the Industrial Development Corporation and pharmaceutical companies.

Using science and technology for economic development

To increase the competitiveness of our economy we will have to build on the strong science and technology capabilities we have in a number of areas with the potential to create more high-tech industries. The Department has a growing portfolio of research and development initiatives that are designed to support these industries. We are making good progress, including a few significant breakthroughs:
·Honourable members, you may recall that researchers at the CSIR successfully developed a novel technology for producing titanium as a metal powder, which provides considerable cost and other advantages in the manufacture of components and parts, including components used in the manufacture of aircraft. A global race to produce titanium powder cost-competitively at industrial levels is currently under way.

Participants in the race will have to address technological and production challenges related to the production of titanium powder to scale, where the final product meets strict international standards. Without giving too much away to our competitors, we can report that the team at the CSIR is now able to produce titanium powder continuously at a rate of 1 kg per hour. This is an impressive achievement at laboratory scale. The next step is to build a pilot plant capable of producing at 2 kg per hour, and to start including production challenges related to waste, energy, water and recycling. Dealing successfully with these challenges will determine the economic feasibility of commercialising this novel titanium technology.
·To complement the titanium metal powder programme, the DST is supporting a partnership between the National Laser Centre and the aircraft manufacturer Aerosud. This has resulted in the successful development of a proof of concept for titanium-based aircraft components using laser-based technology. This proof of concept has met the strict requirements for use in the aerospace industry and enjoys a high-level of confidence of Airbus. The DST will continue supporting expansion of the capabilities at the National Laser Centre so that they are in a position to support technology development that enables South Africa to produce parts at a scale that is required in the manufacture of aircraft.

These and other exciting initiatives will contribute greatly to the development of world-class, competitive industries across a range of industrial sectors in South Africa.

Water

Our government has achieved a great deal in the area of water service delivery. However, millions of people in rural areas still have to walk long distances to fetch water, mostly from polluted streams. Providing universal access to safe drinking water is a huge challenge, which requires innovative solutions.

The pilot project that we started over two years ago jointly managed by the CSIR and HSRC was designed to ensure that people who live in remote rural areas have access to safe drinking water. A holistic approach was followed, comprising social mobilisation, hygiene promotion activities, the provision of ceramic filters, the construction of communal water stations, and the institutional arrangements for operation and maintenance.

By the end of last year, we had distributed about 2000 ceramic water filters at the selected sites. Communal water stations with purification plants were constructed to produce three cubic metres of potable water per hour. The water is then pumped from a storage tank in the water station to a reservoir, from where it is piped to taps in the villages through gravity.The ripple effect of the project is improved health through hygiene promotion activities, improved skills through training, the creation of jobs in the villages through social mobilisation and construction activities, and exposure to different appropriate technologies.

The project will be launched next month at one of the sites in the Amathole District. We have started the process of expanding the project to rural districts in Mpumalanga and Limpopo.

Honourable members, it remains a pleasure working with Minister Naledi Pandor, who, with her passion and drive is ensuring that we achieve the highest possible standards. The competent and hard-working team at the DST, led by our extremely capable Director–General Dr Mjwara, continues to make us proud.

And finally, we appreciate the support we get from members of all parties in the Portfolio Committee, under the leadership of the Chairperson, the Honourable Ngcobo. We are looking forward to the opportunity to share with you in greater detail some of the exciting initiatives that we have just touched on today.



Issued by: Department of Science and Technology
24 May 2011