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Advancing nanotechnology shrinking a world of problems

Just imagine that you take a bath and shrink by about 1.8 billion times – almost like in the 1989 movie Honey I Shrunk the Kids! If you walk into your bedroom, what you would see would not be a bed, chair, television, or people, but atoms and cells.

Reduced to the “nanoscale,” you would not only see the atoms that everything is made from, but you would actually be able to move them around! Now, if you put those atoms together in exciting new ways, like building blocks, you could build all kinds of incredible materials, everything from brand new medicines to ultra-fast computer chips and extremely strong materials.

However, since we live on a scale of metres and kilometres, it is quite hard for us to comprehend a world that is too small to see. Nano means one billionth (or 10-9), so a nanometer (nm) is one-billionth of a metre. To put it in perspective: a single water molecule is about 1.5nm; a strand of human DNA 2.5nm; a single haemoglobin molecule 5nm; a single bacterium about 1 000nm long; and a red blood cell 7 000nm wide. If you are a blond, your hair is probably between 15 000 and 50 000nm in diameter. If you have dark hair, its diameter is likely to be between 50 000 and 180 000 nm.

Operating at the nanoscale, scientists and engineers are currently creating new tools, products and technologies to resolve some of the world’s most burning issues, including low-cost filters to provide clean drinking water; medical devices and drugs to discover and treat diseases more successfully with fewer side-effects; lighting that uses a fraction of the electricity; and sensors to detect and identify harmful chemical or biological substances.

One of the most powerful aspects of operating in the nanoworld is that at the nanoscale the physical and chemical properties of matter change and the substance behaves differently. Copper, for instance, is transparent on the nanoscale, while gold, which is naturally unreactive, becomes chemically very active. Carbon, which is quite soft in its normal graphite form, becomes incredibly hard when it is tightly packed into a nanotube.

Although they may not be aware of it, many people are already using nanotechnology, for example wearing nanotechnology trousers, walking on a nanotechnology carpet, using nanotechnology suitcases or sleeping on nanotechnology bed sheets.

All these products are made from materials coated with “nanowhiskers.” These tiny surface fibres are so small that dirt or water cannot penetrate them, which means the underlying layers of material remain dirt-free.

If red wine is spilled on a nanotech carpet, the nano-particulate coating will keep the material from absorbing it and staining the carpet. These tiny surface fibres are somewhat akin to the 1 billion tiny adhesive hairs of 200nm on a Gecko’s toes that enable it to walk on a ceiling.

Some sunscreens use nanotechnology in a similar way: they cover the skin with a layer of nanoscopic titanium dioxide or zinc oxide that blocks the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. Nano-coatings are also used on scratch-resistant car bumpers, anti-slip steps on vans and buses, wound dressings and corrosion resistant paints.


Another form of nanotechnology that is quite well-known are nanochips, packed with thousands of transistors currently just 45nm wide. However, cutting-edge experiments are already developing much smaller devices that will make computers even smaller and more powerful.

A range of nanoscale materials are used in thin films to make them water-repellent, self-cleaning, anti-reflective, ultraviolet or infrared-resistant, anti-microbial, anti-fog, scratch-resistant, or electrically conductive.

Nanofilms are frequently used on eyeglasses, computer displays and cameras to protect or treat the surfaces.

The displays on cellphones, laptops and flat screen TVs are moving to organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs), made from nanostructured polymer films providing a very high quality picture.

In the area of nanomaterials, carbon nanotubes are just as promising. These rod-shaped carbon molecules are roughly 1nm wide and 100 times stronger than steel. Carbon nanotubes are used in tennis racquets, baseball bats, and some car parts because of their huge mechanical strength and light weight. Nasa and other scientists recently suggested that carbon nanotubes could be used to make a gigantic elevator stretching from Earth to the space station.

However, it is the possibility of building incredibly small machines from individual atoms that have scientists excited.

Nanomachines could be made into nanorobots (or nanobots) that could be injected into our bloodstream to screen for cancer and infection, to destroy tumours and to remove harmful bacteria and toxins.

Also in the nanomedicine field, nanofibres were successfully used on mice to increase the growth of nerve cells and help regenerate damaged spinal nerves in a damaged brain or spinal cord.

No doubt, the future is tiny due to the continuous advances of nanotechnology in medicine, biotechnology, manufacturing, information technology and other equally diverse areas.

Written by Prof Louis Fourie, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Knowledge and Information Technology

*This story first appeared in Independent Media’s Business Report

Student achievers acknowledged

Two students achievers were recently given the chance to introduce themselves to CPUT executive management.

Anele Gebenga, recipient of the Abe Bailey Travel Bursary, visited Bellville campus while the two shortlisted runners-up, Luchulumanco Nanto (ND: Accounting) and Kaylinn Higgs (B Ed: Foundation Phase), were unable to attend the meeting. Anele was accompanied by Yamkela Ndumo, founder of the CPUT Book Club which recently scooped several awards at a national competition.

An MTech student in Business Administration and Project Management Anele embarks on his trip at the end of November. He described his itinerary which includes a visit to the African Union in Addis Ababa and a whirlwind tour around United Kingdom universities.

“I have applied for this scholarship since 2016. Generally I am a focused person so I would like to say getting this scholarship is as a result of me not giving up on my dreams. I am the first person from my township who will travel abroad. (While Anele now lives on res as postgraduate student, he is originally from Mount Fletcher in the Eastern Cape)

“The fundamental reason I applied for the bursary is not to boost myself, I was doing it for my community. I want them to see me as motivation. It will also assist me in my leadership skills and give me a global perspective to understand other cultures and be able to respect other people,” said Anele.

Vice-Chancellor Dr Chris Nhlapo congratulated both on their achievements and said the positive news the two were generating is important to show that focusing on the core business of the institute will help the university go places. “Around the world our students are occupying senior positions and I think you are following in their footsteps and we appreciate and are proud of you,” said Nhlapo.

Yamkela, a third year student in Real Estate, explained how the CPUT Book Club has grown over the past three years in its mission to instil a reading culture at the university and to enhancing reading skills while fostering a love for indigenous languages. He sources books in various local languages from the National Library and the students meet regularly to discuss and review the books.

At the ninth Funda Mzantsi Championships held in George at the beginning of October the CPUT Book Club competed and won against 186 other books clubs in four categories.

“It is still so surreal to me. English was the one which was the toughest competition because most, if not all, of the book clubs work in English so for our book club to win over them and take number one position in English overall gave me great satisfaction and joy,” said Yamkela.

They were also placed in position two for isiXhosa, Xitsonga and siSwati.

Yamkela told the gathering that he would like to see the book club expand to other campuses so each can send their own representatives to the Funda Mzantsi Championships.

Written by Theresa Smith

Banking on language to learn more

Dr Ignatius Ticha, language coordinator for the Applied Science Faculty, is experimenting with a different approach to multi-lingual teaching.

During Science Communication 1 classes he tasks a particular student to act as a language banker. Students are encouraged to use their home language if they do not know a particular English term and the word banker notes it and then finds the appropriate translation and explanation.

Ticha says this is a different process to the formation of the online multilingual glossaries which takes place in a formal forum incorporating input from students, lecturers and language experts.

This ongoing process of working with multi-lingual terms and explanations in the classroom was recently ameliorated with a poster exhibition assignment.

For the Science Communication 1 module taught by Dr Ticha and embedded in Prof Muhammad Nakhooda’s Immunology course the students created posters about indigenous remedies and then presented them to classmates, explaining how the remedies worked before presenting an exhibition of their posters to the Faculty in the week of Heritage Day.

The exhibition theme was Our Heritage, Our Health, Our Medicines and there were two components.

“The first was the presentation of their posters in class and students from the Film & Media Studies came and recorded their presentations,” said Ticha.

The students presented in groups of five, producing all manner of samples, some of which their classmates did not recognise at all.

The second component was the exhibition where the video of the classroom presentations was screened.

A key component of creating and presenting the posters was allowing the students to use multiple languages.

“We had students presenting part of their work in Kiswahili, which was quite interesting. We also had students presenting in Lingala which is the Congolese language, in French, and a lot of the students presented their work in isiXhosa and Tsonga, but also in English because the intention is to create a multi-lingual space.”

During the presentations in class the language banker had to write fast to note down indigenous names of herbs and the students engaged in vigorous debate.

“There was so much passion around some of the things that were presented. One of the things that came out for us was the debate around the divide between superstition and science.”

“What we are trying to do with this project is our own contribution towards the decolonisation of education because these home remedies are forms of indigenous knowledge that students bring with them,” said Ticha.

Written by Theresa Smith

Growing the agricultural campus

When building started on the Agriculture Centre on Wellington Campus, the biggest problem was creating a French drain to siphon water away from the buildings. Three years later the biggest water-related problem is how to irrigate the experimental farm that will form part of the next phase of building.

Affectionately referred to as the Agri-hub by staff and students who started using the centre earlier this year, the buildings house 327 students studying Agriculture from first year to Masters level and 10 staff members.

In-house CPUT-employed architect Adriana Hornea says executive management decided to use the empty land next to their rugby fields, which sported a caretaker’s house and several palm trees. She had overseen the building of an experimental wine cellar on the premises between 2007 and 2009 for use by the viticulture and oenology students.

Taking its cue from the existing experimental cellar and caretaker’s home Somerset West-based husband and wife team Linares Architects designed the campus in a traditional Winelands style that wouldn’t clash with the area’s aesthetic.

Lillian Linares pointed out that when they started building the ground was very wet which constrained where they placed the Administration block. “It was not advisable to put a laboratory on the other side of the Admin block, that’s why they had to put the channels down to take away the water,” said Linares.

Their first master plan suggested a much bigger complex but budget restraints limited them to one laboratory building, one lecture hall and an administration building.

A walkway from the admin building leads the students to a courtyard and then a lecture hall with the laboratory to the right of classroom.

Unfortunately, after the buildings were completed the big tree in front of the entrance was discovered to be dying and it had to be cut down to a stump.

Head of the Agriculture Department Professor Francis Lewu laments the loss of shade but is excited about the possibility of up-cycling the stump into a signpost that will show what they do on the campus – teach students about the technicalities of growing crops and, eventually, taking care of livestock.

The next phase will be to extend the laboratory spaces and lecture halls, add more office space and most importantly get started on the experimental farm.

First though Lewu says they will erect greenhouse tunnels to start the students propagating plants under controlled circumstances while they figure out how best to manage irrigation of the experimental farm.

“The plan for the second phase is to have fixed vineyards and orchards plus designated plots for the Applied Sciences Faculty,” he said.

Written by Theresa Smith


Preparing for the first year experience

Student Retention Officers, lecturers and Fundani staffers recently gathered at Saretec for a First Year Experience Student Symposium.

They discussed the first year student’s experience at CPUT, issues encountered by student Retention Officers (ROs) during this past year and how they can all better the experience of next year’s first year students. ROs said one of the biggest problems they face is not having a dedicated space where students can always find them to ask for help or advice.

Some students also provided feedback on intervention programmes that have been initiated in various faculties. A coaching programme aimed at first year students in Chemical Engineering was deemed insightful and helpful in providing students with different ways of dealing with internal and external issues.

The question was raised whether ROs should not become involved with the orientation process at the beginning of the year. “The students need to see the support they will get from the beginning,” Student Development Officer Melani-Ann Hara pointed out.

FYE coordinator Dr Nosisana Mkonto said they are well aware that it is difficult for first year students who didn’t know who to ask for help and a proactive intervention programme which could provide skills to cope with life as well as the academic work load was needed.

She commended the ROs for their work during 2018 and said what they did keeps her motivated. “The challenges you go through is also what we in FYE go through. The stories I heard from you today is that you became mentors because you didn’t want other first year students to have your experience.

“FYE is everybody’s business. Let’s work together and make life better for the next first year students,” said Mkonto.

Written by Theresa Smith

Rewarding excellent teachers

The Faculty of Engineering recently awarded three Teaching Excellence Awards.

Lecturers who really go that extra mile were awarded with a certificate and monetary award for their teaching and community engagement efforts during 2018.

Cheryl Belford of Civil Engineering & Surveying won the Faculty Award.

Felicity Harris (Mechanical Engineering) and Bronwyn Swarts (Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering) won their departmental awards.

This is not the first time Belford has scooped this particular award – she also won it in 2016. Her efforts to finish her teaching year in 2016 using OER were so successful she was selected to deliver a paper on “the use of open educational resources within a disrupted higher education context” at the Open Education Global Conference in 2017.

Like Belford Swartz has been at the forefront of creating Open Educational Practices at CPUT while Harris recently had her hands full working on the logistics of getting the students entering the Sasol Solar Challenge South Africa, 2018 on the road.

In handing out the awards at the Engineering Faculty Board Meeting Acting Dean Prof Mellet Moll said he hoped other lecturers would be motivated to enter “because it is a real honour and something you can write on your CV.”

He pointed out that an award like this is something that is considered in procedures such as considering ad hominem promotions.

Dr Trunette Joseph explained that applicants were encouraged to enter for the Awards which is judged by a Faculty Adjudication Committee. While five lecturers had applied this year she said only three of the portfolios met the strict criteria.

She complimented the three lecturers on the exemplary level of their work: “Well done Cheryl, Felicity and Bronwyn, for showcasing your excellence in teaching so successfully. You are setting the bar very high for those who will follow in your footsteps. Enjoy spending your award money!” said Joseph.

Written by Theresa Smith

Poster children for food safety

Two groups of Environmental Health third year students were recently invited to present projects at the City of Cape Town’s World Health Environmental Day (WEHD) celebrations.

The students presented on their Work Integrated Learning (WIL) projects which they implemented while working for the City Health department. The projects had to focus on the 2018 WEHD theme “Food Safety and Sustainability”.

First the students presented their projects to academic staff and their mentors during their WIL excursion and the group who articulated and presented the best project was invited by the City of Cape Town to present their projects at the annual WEHD celebrations.

The group who went to the Lakeside office were placed first while the group who went to the Kuilsriver office came second.  The group who came third, who worked in the Parow office, went along to the presentations at the Civic Centre to watch their fellow students present their posters.

Environmental Health lecturer Michael Agenbag said this year the City of Cape Town allowed two WIL groups to present their projects as opposed to previous years when only the winning team were invited to the WEHD celebrations.

Their topics were “Food premise identified using alternative water source while implementing the project life cycle” (Lakeside) and “Hygienic storage and usage of municipal water” (Kuilsriver).

Agenbag explained their food lecturer had expected them to select food premises that made use of alternative water sources because of the drought in the Western Cape. “As part of their project she expected them to develop a teaching poster that they had to use during their training session with the food handlers.”

He said what made the two groups stand out was the way they interpreted the assignment and integrated project management phases to ensure the successful implementation of their projects. “Also the crossfields integration of subject matter between food and management practice.”

Third year student Nonkosi Somwahla, of the Parow group, said one of the biggest lessons they learned was proper time management skills. She appreciated not only the practical experience but also being able to apply all the theory they had learned in class.

“For me presentations is one of the stressful things that I still need to master but what I’ve learned is that your audience gets an opportunity to learn through what you are presenting. Through their feedback you also learn a thing or two. I think if presentations were done on a regular basis to academics that would make students like me more fond of doing it rather than just to get a mark next to your name,” said Nonkosi.

Written by Theresa Smith

New council members on board

CPUT recently welcomed and orientated new Council members.

The CPUT Council functions as the highest decision making authority of the University and assumes the ultimate accountability for the performance and affairs of the University.

In her capacity as Acting Registrar Carin Booyse said a majority of Council members are external members as per the stipulation of the Higher Education Act read with the CPUT Statute. A similar provision is made in terms of the CPUT Statute regarding the composition of Council Committees.

Council members serve a term of four years. Council meets at least six times a year with four of these as scheduled meetings and two as strategic planning sessions. “At the request of the CPUT management, or of the Chairperson of the Council, or of any other Council members, an additional special meeting may be convened to deal with urgent business of the University,” said Booyse.

In welcoming the council members Vice-Chancellor Dr Chris Nhlapo delivered an overview of the institution’s history and plans, described the organisational structure and Vision 2020 and explained the direction in which the university is headed with regards to the #onesmartCPUT strategy.

“As you listen you will realise that you actually joined the right organisation. A university of technology is very different from a traditional university. Our value proposition is different and it is important you understand this,” said Nhlapo.

He pointed out that the #onesmartCPUT strategy is underpinned by the fourth industrial revolution and expressed his hope that the members would be part of shaping Vision 2030.

Written by Theresa Smith