Prof Mmantsae Moche Diale, Associate Professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Pretoria (UP), and leader of the Solar Energy Collection and Conversion Research Group, has been awarded a prestigious Research Chair in Clean and Green Energy by the National Research Foundation (NRF).
The Research Chair is part of the South African Research Chair Initiative (SARChI), which is funded by the Department of Science and Technology. SARChI’s objectives are to expand the scientific research and innovation capacity of South Africa; improve South Africa’s international research and innovation competitiveness, while responding to the social and economic challenges of the country; attract and retain excellent researchers and scientists; and increase the production of masters and doctoral graduates.
With expertise in semiconductor physics, Prof Diale is an advocate for clean renewable energy. She explained that the objective of the Chair is to significantly increase the number of high quality, well-trained graduates in the energy landscape of South Africa, while also catering for candidates from the Southern African Development Community and other parts of Africa.
The National Development Plan aims to eliminate poverty and reduce inequalities by 2030. South Africa has the capability to achieve this goal by drawing strengths from its people, growing an inclusive economy and promoting leadership and partnerships throughout society. She said: ‘The Plan aims to improve economic infrastructure, where the first three objectives are focused on provision of electricity, with at least 20 000 Mega Watts of this capacity derived from renewable resources. The actions to be taken include the move to less carbon-intensive electricity production which includes the most free renewable energy resource, the sun.’
Prof Diale explained that ‘the current situation with energy supplies is that most of the electricity is derived from coal, with nuclear energy from Koeberg and a gradual introduction of renewables in the form of photovoltaics (PV), wind and hydroelectric power. While renewables are still very expensive as compared to conventional energy supplies, solar PV has reduced in price by approximately 70% in recent years, allowing for an introduction of solar panels to non-grid users.’
While independent power producers have been granted an opportunity to expand even without licences, the NDP issues are not well addressed. ‘Most of the informal settlement citizens cannot afford to buy a solar panel or establish a power plant – thus continuing to be poor with ESKOM’s management issues,’ said Prof Diale. The Chair hopes to reduce the price and supply by redress in the renewable energy sector; produce new technologies made in South Africa, thereby creating sustainability in the economic sector.
She said that the Chair will follow an interdisciplinary approach, putting energy research within different science disciplines, including physics, chemistry, engineering, materials science and biology. ‘Energy plays a very important role in economic upliftment and poverty reduction as it gives access to communication methods that improves national education standards. All businesses require a stable electricity supply: for production, sustainable profits, stable workforce and poverty reduction.’
Prof Diale explains that ‘affordable fuel production using photovoltaic generation of electricity to power electrolysis, a holy grail for decades, is now within reach, thanks to recent progress due to new and cheap catalysts, based on earth-abundant materials, and the advent of Halide Perovskites, (HaPs) as a basis for one of the materials to be included in the high performance PV cell.’
Furthermore, Liquid Fuels from artificial photosynthesis (AP), as are used today are ‘amazingly compact to store and carry energy. This makes the production of solar cells sustainable, while keeping them affordable, which is of major importance.’ The integration of PV/AP will then be used to make solar energy accessible to non-grid communities in South Africa, with PV providing electricity when the sun goes up and liquid fuels providing energy when the sun goes down.
Prof Diale’s interest in energy was sparked from the time she was growing up in a village, ‘with power cables passing through our village’ but there was no power station so people did not have electricity. ‘My dad had a generator to light up our home and do his business of developing photographs and running movies.’
After many meetings with the authorities, her family was the first to install electricity in their home in the village.
Prof Diale is a late-comer to the South African research landscape, ‘Before I came into research, I worked in industries where I was testing electric motors, then became a teacher of physical science,’ she said. She was mentored by Prof David Cahen from the prestigious Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, in materials for PV research.
She enjoys research collaborations in Senegal, Ghana, Zambia, Tanzania and Uganda. All these connections are in solar energy materials research, including nanotechnology and semiconductor physics. She has been involved in a consortium applying for European Union and World Bank mobility funding with African scientists. ‘The World Bank has granted us funding with the consortium to work on nanotechnology research in water purification,’ she said.
Prof Diale is passionate about human capital development. She is the founder of Women in Physics in South Africa, addressing the issues that affect women’s acceleration in Physics research. She also founded the Black Science and Technology and Engineering Professional Association, to address the plight of Technikon (University of Technology) trainees who have not been able to graduate due to lack of experiential training facilities. In this project, Prof Diale has brought in over R25 million in five years, to run the project.
She is also a passionate first year lecturer who believes that ‘without proper support of under-performed matriculants, we are losing potential candidates for future leaders in the country’.