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South Africa Always Something New
When the Roman naturalist and soldier Pliny the Elder wrote that there was “always something new out of Africa”, he was relying on stereotype and not intending to flatter. By new, he meant strange, and what he was referring to was Africa’s unusual wildlife which he took to be the result of the miscegenation of species thrown together by the search for water in an arid land. Pliny was not the first and certainly not the last outsider to have a peculiar understanding of Africa. For many, the continent is still terra incognita. Happily, that is changing rapidly, which is all to the good because today, what is coming out of Africa isn’t strange, but genuinely new and fresh and exciting. Africa has a huge contribution to make as mankind seeks to advance the boundaries of knowledge and solve the problems that confront the shared and shrinking planet we call home. Here are some examples.
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Square Kilometer Array Telescope South Africa is leading a bid with eight other African countries to host what, when it is completed in the middle of the next decade, will be by several orders of magnitude the largest and most powerful radio telescope ever built. The Square Kilometer Array, or SKA, as the instrument is known, will consist of thousands of linked receiving dishes, enabling scientists to see back to the very beginning of time. The technical challenges are immense. As the SA project director Dr Bernie Fanoroff puts it, “The SKA will collect more data in a week than humankind has collected in its entire history. The amount of data that will flow through the SKA will be about 250 times the total data traffic currently on the internet, requiring supercomputers about 1000 times faster than the fastest now available.” South African scientists, engineers and industry are finding solutions to these challenges as they work on the SKA’s precursor, the MeerKAT, which astronomers from around the world are already lining up to use when it becomes operational in 2015. The SKA project is exciting not only for the light it promises to shed on the origins of the universe. It is inspiring a generation of young Africans to seek the skills and knowledge needed to be part of it. The technological breakthroughs and new communications infrastructure that will be required to make it happen promise to spawn new industries that could revolutionize the continent’s development. Sustainable Wine
Already, says Dr Fanoroff, “the project has created a critical mass of young people with world-class expertise in the technologies which will be ubiquitous in the global technology economy in the next decades.” The MeerKAT is being designed and built in Cape Town. Key South African industry partners are EMSS, a Stellenbosch company developing innovative receivers, radio feeds and cryogenics; Tellumat, which is working on the manufacture of boards and receivers; MMS and BAE Land Systems, which have built the composite dishes; Eskom, the national electric power utility; Optic 1, which built the power and fiber optic cables to the site; Broadband InfraCo, which is connecting the site to Cape Town and the world; and MESA Solutions, working on electromagnetic compatibility. For more information, visit www.ska.ac.za or scan the QR code labelled SKA with your smartphone to see the project’s twitter feed. Joule Electric Car As project manager for SALT, the Southern African Large Telescope, Kobus Meiring oversaw the completion of the biggest device of its kind in the southern hemisphere on time and on budget in 2005. Today he is the driving force behind an ambitious bid to make South Africa a world leader in electric car design and production. Optimal Energy, Meiring’s Cape Town-based company, plans to start manufacture of the Joule, a sleek five-seater powered by lithium ion batteries, in 2012. The Joule has a range between charges of over 200 miles based on the US Environmental Protection Agency’s standard, known as the urban dynamometer driving schedule. It is expected to reach South African showrooms, where car prices are generally higher than they are in the US, with an unsubsidized price tag in the region of $30 000. That South Africa is a leader in this area should come as no surprise. The country has a thriving automotive sector which produces top quality cars, including Mercedes and BMW, for global markets. It is perhaps no coincidence that the entrepreneurial and technical genius behind the Tesla electric car is a South African educated at Pretoria Boys High, Paypal cofounder Elon Musk. Visit Optimal Energy’s website – www.optimalenergy.com – or scan the QR code labeled Joule to watch a video about the car’s 2008 launch. Wine that’s easy on the palate and the planet Most of South Africa’s award-winning wines come from vines in the Cape Floral Kingdom, the smallest yet richest of six such kingdoms worldwide and home to some 9600 plant species, more than are found in the whole of the northern hemisphere. South Africa’s winegrowers are determined to preserve their unique natural heritage. Under the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative (BWI), growers are setting aside an acre of land conservation for every acre they put under vine, conserving over 300 000 acres in the past four years alone.
From the 2010 harvest on, a new seal guarantees consumers that the wine in the bottle they are about to open was produced in a sustainable, environmentally friendly manner. You can enter the numbers on the seal -- unique to each bottle -- on a website (www.swsa.co.za) and obtain details of the wine’s production along with independently audited data on what the makers are doing to protect the environment and their workers. Are they limiting use of chemicals? Reintroducing natural predators? Treating waste water? Promoting biodiversity? The seal confirms that they are doing all these things. Visit the Wines of South Africa website (www.wosa.co.za) for more details or use the Sustainable Wine QR code to watch a video on how South Africa’s winemakers are protecting the environment. Lowering the risk of nuclear proliferation The less the world needs weapons grade uranium for any purpose, the lower the risk of the material falling into the wrong hands. South Africa, the only country to have developed and then voluntarily scrapped its own nuclear weapons, leads the world in the “proliferation resistant” production of a radioactive isotope essential for diagnostic imaging. Not only is the Safari-1 research reactor operated by South Africa’s Nuclear Energy Corporation (NECSA ) the world’s top source of molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), but NECSA subsidiary NTP Radioisotopes has developed a process to produce the isotope using low-enriched uranium (LEU). Hitherto, Mo-99 has had to be made using highly enriched, or weapons grade, uranium, civilian demand for which will be significantly reduced as a result of NTP’s work. The US Department of Energy has given NTP a $25 million contract to take its research forward. The US Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of Mo-99 made from LEU for the production of technetium-99m, which is used in more than 30 million medical procedures every year to diagnose and treat patients around the world. Visit www.npt.co.za for more information. For National Public Radio’s report on the first shipment of LEU-derived Mo-99 to the US, scan the QR code labelled Mo-99 on the next page. HIV/AIDS Prevention Breakthrough A two-and-a-half-year study of 889 women by the Durban-based Center for the Aids Program of Research in South Africa (Caprisa) has found that a vaginal gel containing the antiretroviral drug tenofovir was 39% effective in reducing a woman’s HIV risk when used for about threequarters of sex acts. It was 54% effective when used more consistently, and also halved the incidence of genital herpes infections. “Tenofovir gel could fill an important HIV prevention gap by empowering women who are unable to successfully negotiate mutual faithfulness or
condom use with their male partners,” said Quarraisha Abdool Karim, one of the lead investigators of the study and associate director of Caprisa. “This new technology has the potential to alter the course of the HIV epidemic, especially in southern Africa, where young women bear the brunt of this devastating disease.” “We are giving hope to women,” Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS, said following publication of the results in Science magazine last July. “For the first time we have seen results for a woman-initiated and -controlled HIV prevention option.” To watch a video, scan the QR labeled Caprisa. Capturing Carbon As proud as South Africa is to lead the world in technologies to turn coal and gas into liquid fuels, it also seeks to be in the vanguard of efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Given that 90 percent of South Africa’s power is coalgenerated, this presents a challenge. The government’s integrated resource plan calls for 42 percent of all new power that comes on stream over the next 20 years to be from renewable sources such as the $22 billion, 5 000 MW solar park planned for the semidesert Northern Cape. Because current infrastructure cannot be scrapped prematurely without serious economic consequences, government and industry and have come together to launch the South African Center for Carbon Capture. The center has begun mapping sites for injecting CO2 into the ground and has identified four possible storage basins with an estimated capacity of 150 000 million tonnes. Current South African emissions are thought to be in the region of 400 million tonnes a year. The center’s unique atlas can found at www.saccs.org.za. For a short video, scan the QR code labelled Carbon Capture. Magnificent Multihulls As visitors to the annual Miami Boat Show have discovered, South African boatbuilders are starting to dominate the market for luxury catamarans like the Tag 60 pictured on page 3, with a reputation for excellent craftsmanship, state-of-the-art design and durability. South Africa is sole supplier to the largest charter fleet in the world which operates predominantly in US and Caribbean waters. For more details, visit www.sabbex.co.za. Harvesting Diamonds from the Ocean Floor Not all forms of carbon found in and around South Africa make the same contribution to global warmning. Diamonds, for example. South Africa’s highly industrialized economy was built on mining, and South Africans, not suprisingly, are in a league of their own when it comes to the
technology for wresting valuable minerals from the ground. For sophistication and ingenuity, though, it is hard to top the fleet of De Beers ships like Peace in Africa operating off the Atlantic coast of South Africa and Namibia with their robot crawlers scouring the ocean floor for diamonds washed out to sea by ancient rivers. To meet the woman in charge of production when a group of American bloggers went aboard Peace in Africa in 2008, scan the QR code marked Diamond Ship. A Satellite for Africa by Africa Africa is being called the last great investment frontier. The “Lions on the move” McKinsey & Co talks about need to be fully connected -- both to the world and to each other -- if their industries are to generate $2.6 trillion a year in revenue by the end of the decade as the consultancy projects. New Dawn, a $250 million communications satellite being readied for launch by Arianespace in spring 2011, is a joint venture between a South African investor group led by Convergence Partners and Intelsat, the world’s leading provider of fixed satellite services. New Dawn which will be positioned in geostationary orbit 36 000 km above Africa is the first communications satellite Africa can call its own and has been designed specifically to meet Africa’s needs. The satellite will provide ready-made infrastructure for existing and start-up telcom operators, broadcasters and high bandwidth data services. Learn more at www.convergencepartners.co.za. New Light on Our Common Ancestry What’s new out of Africa is often extremely old. Researchers with the Institute of Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand continue to shed remarkable light on humanity’s origins as they explore the area now known as the Cradle of Humankind northwest of Johannesburg. Last year’s announcement of the discovery of the so-called Sediba bones, hominid fossils of a young male and mature female dating back 1.78 to 1.95 million years, promises to turn the palaeontological world upside down, in the words of Professor Lee Berger, leader of the team that made the discovery. Casts of the fossils, including the extraordinarily well preserved skull pictured above, were donated to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in February. South Africa’s deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe captured the poetry of the find: “The discovery opens an unusually panoramic window on our African origins. These time travellers have found their way into the present, and with the assistance of our scientists, they are able to speak to us from the distant past.” Scan the Sediba QR code for a video.
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