The chemicals industry is often overlooked as key to the generation of new and alternative energy solutions, says industry body South African Chemical Institute (SACI) Green Chemistry division chairperson Dr Vincent Nyamori.
“In South Africa, our current energy usage is finite and mainly relies on coal as a raw material, which has a high carbon footprint. “Finding solutions will ultimately rest on the shoulders of scientists and, in particular, chemists have a significant role to play.
“However, despite the importance of the chemicals industry for the betterment of society, it is sometimes viewed in a poor light because of the detrimental effects of some of its initiatives,” he says.
A green chemist must work, especially in energy generation, to revert the negative public perception and this can be achieved by developing innovative devices or designing methods to improve energy efficiency, he says.
Green chemistry can help to devise methods to garner solar energy for use in water purification and splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen, where the latter is used as a fuel. These steps involve the use of catalysts such as algae, which is derived from nature, and is renewable as well as sustainable, he explains.
“To innovate and to explore these new methods will require more investment in South Africa’s green-chemistry industry,” says SACI Green Chemistry division secretary Werner van Zyl.
There are solutions that need more funding and support. Wind energy will probably become a long-term solution, but the biggest game changer will ultimately come from the sun and water, he argues.
“Photocatalysts need to be developed that can use light energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen components. “If this can be done with reasonable efficiency, there is enough energy density locked up in the covalent bonds of water molecules in a standard swimming pool to serve all South Africa’s energy needs for a year,” he says.
Currently, the costs of renewable resources are high, but they can be made economically and technologically viable through green chemistry, says Van Zyl.
The symbiotic relationship between green chemistry and renewable energy is undeniable and South Africa is exploring some exciting opportunities, avers Nyamori.
South Africa is part of a trilateral nanotechnology initiative, together with India and Brazil, to incorporate nanomaterials in photo- voltaic cell materials to improve solar energy efficiency.
“This research will enhance our capabilities to harness solar energy, which is a clean and sustainable source that can meet current and future energy demands.
“Solar energy can be an effective way of providing the necessary clean energy for sustainable development, especially in the context of poverty alleviation, clean water, remediated or uncontaminated environments, green cities, as well as other positive growth and developmental markers,” Nyamori concludes.