Science, innovation ministry to intensify solar research

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
Johannesburg, 24 May 2023
Higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande.
Higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande.

Higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande says the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) is finalising its master plan for the establishment of a national solar research facility.

Nzimande made the comments while delivering the department’s budget address yesterday, indicating a total budget for the DSI of R10.8 billion for 2023/24, up from R9.1 billion in 2022/23.

According to Nzimande, the facility “will support the development, commercialisation and deployment of solar-based technologies for application in both the solar power and fuel sectors, in order to facilitate the movement of technologies from laboratory to market”.

The minister didn’t share any further details on the planned national solar research facility.

As SA’s power outages continue to intensify, businesses and citizens alike have been making concerted efforts to invest in alternative energy sources, such as solar, in a bid to ease the burden of load-shedding.

Government has also been looking at renewable energy as a solution to the crisis, announcing a number of interventions in recent weeks.

The minister revealed that most of his department's R10.8 billion budget goes to transfers to its entities.

Nzimande told members of Parliament that SA has signed an agreement with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), to build a deep-space vehicle tracking and communications ground station in the semi-desert Karoo region of Matjiesfontein, Western Cape.

According to the minister, the new ground station will help to track “history-making” NASA missions to the moon and beyond by 2025.

“The partnership will also see continued skills development in space science and technology, which the DSI has been investing in for years.”

He added that the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) has been developing space capability in operational space weather over the past 10 years.

Through SANSA, Nzimande noted SA is host to one of the designated International Civil Aviation Organisation regional centres − the space weather centre.The space weather facility was officially openedlast year, and described as a first for the African continent.

“As a department, we provided financial support to SANSA for the construction of a 24/7 operational space weather centre in Hermanus,” he stated.

“To date, SANSA has trained eight young, black space weather forecasters who will provide services to various clients, including the aviation sector.”

Local is lekker

During the budget vote speech, Nzimande said the DSI is committed to supporting the procurement of locally-developed technologies through the Technology Acquisition and Deployment Fund.

As a result, the department is prioritising initiatives for inclusive development and intellectual property exploitation in ICT, renewable energy and the circular economy.

“We have developed mechanisms to support entrepreneurs by facilitating the commercialisation of grassroots innovation and access to publicly available intellectual property.”

He revealed that in this current financial year, the Mobile Applications Laboratory (mLab) will be strengthening the Imbali precinct's fourth industrial revolution innovation system, together with Durban University of Technology's Innobiz.

“The Imbali Education and Innovation Precinct pilot will enable the DSI and other players to align skills development and innovation strategies, which will facilitate innovation-led, skills-based, local economic growth and development.

“The mLab will also be establishing a community-centred coding laboratory and start an ecosystem development programme focused on school learners and selected community members.”

Big projects under way

The minister lauded the commencement of construction of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project.

South Africa’s construction of the SKA project, together with that of Australia, forms the biggest-ever radio telescope array, at a cost of $2.2 billion, he explained. SA and Australia are joint hosts of the project.

“It is estimated that these two sites will together create 710 petabytes of science data when fully operational in 2029. It is therefore expected that astronomers can get 50 years or more of transformational science through the SKA.”

In SA, 133 dish antennas will be added to the existing 64-dish MeerKAT precursor telescope, totalling 200 dishes, to form the SKA's mid-frequency telescope array, noted the minister.

“A total of 1 400 students have been supported through the SKA bursary programme to date.

“South African companies and the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory will benefit immensely from the rolling out of this infrastructure, which includes the building of the SKA Exploratorium in Carnarvon in the Northern Cape.

“The initiative is expected to boost science awareness and outreach, stimulate science tourism in the region and create employment.

“The MeerKAT telescope, built by South Africans, does world-class scientific work and will continue to do so until it is fully integrated into the SKA in the next five to seven years.

“To date, more than 180 scientific articles based on MeerKAT observations have been published in leading scientific journals.”