Can a water molecule power the country?
For a relatively small economy, South Africa is one of the world’s most carbon-intensive countries – so it’s important that we embrace green chemistry and the solutions that will deliver alternative energy.
As the South African Chemical Industry (SACI) celebrates 100 years of existence, it reminds us how chemistry has drastically improved our lives over the last century – and its potential to play a vital role in our future.
South Africa ranks at an unacceptably high 13th place in global carbon emissions due to our high reliance on coal and liquid fuels.
According to Werner van Zyl, secretary of the SACI Green Chemistry division: “The future of green and sustainable energy solutions in South Africa and worldwide lies fully within the realm of chemistry.”
SACI Green Chemistry division chairman Dr Vincent Nyamori says that despite the importance of the chemical industry for the betterment of society, it is sometimes viewed in a poor light because of the detrimental effects of certain initiatives. “The chemical industry is an often-overlooked key to the generation of new and alternative energy solutions,” he says.
One of the many roles of a green chemist is to change negative public perceptions, especially with regards to energy generation – and this can be achieved by having innovative devices or designed methods to improve energy efficiency. Green chemistry can, for example, devise methods to garner solar energy for use in water purification, and split water into oxygen and hydrogen – where the latter is used as a fuel.
According to Van Zyl, to explore these new methods requires more investment into South Africa’s green chemistry industry. “There are solutions that need more funding and support,” he says. “Wind energy will probably become a long-term solution, but the biggest game-changer will ultimately come from the sun and water.”
The mutualistic relationship between green chemistry and renewable energy is undeniable and South Africa is exploring some exciting and new opportunities, says Nyamori. The country is part of an initiative, together with India and Brazil, to incorporate nano-materials in photovoltaic cell materials to improve solar energy efficiency.
Chemistry is indeed an exciting field, full of secrets waiting to be unlocked – there is enough energy density locked up in the covalent bonds (the sharing of electrons) of a water molecule to serve South Africa’s energy requirements for a year!
As Nyamori points out, research will enhance our capabilities to harness solar and hydro energy sources that are clean and sustainable, and which could meet our current and future energy demands. “Solar energy can be a very effective means of providing the necessary clean energy for sustainable development,” he says, “especially in the context of poverty alleviation, clean water, remediated or uncontaminated environments, green cities, and other positive growth and developmental markers.”