Moving Towards Green Products: Innovation from UCT and Sasol

A welcome move away from fossil crude oil: how UCT is partnering with Sasol in a journey towards making sustainable fuel as climate change concerns rise. 

by Tanyaradzwa Gwenhure (Features Editor)

The University of Cape Town’s Catalyst Institute is making leaps in the world of generating green chemicals and jet fuels. They have partnered with the energy and chemical company Sasol to make use of Sasol’s cost-effectively produced iron catalyst in converting carbon dioxide and hydrogen into green fuels. First, this mouthful will be explained to uncover some of the complex processes behind dealing with climate change.

This advancement is one most welcome due to the adverse effects of fossil fuels such as crude oil. Fossil fuels are generated from the millions of years’ worth of decay of ancient plant and animal matter. The burning of fossil fuels emits greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere. The direct negative effects include extreme weather conditions such as extremely dry regions prone to fires on one side of the planet, and floods that threaten livelihoods and agriculture on the other. It is important to note that this is not a Western phenomenon. Since the early 1980s, South Africa has lost R95 billion in economic costs associated with weather related disasters. Many informal settlements are vulnerable to extreme heat waves and floods. However, South Africa has developed a National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy to explain how we can build resilience in the face of climate change. 

So, what is the significance of this iron catalyst? Firstly, a catalyst is any substance that increases the rate of chemical reaction without itself being consumed. In this case, iron is a catalyst that is commercially produced at Sasol’s plant on a large scale. The iron catalyst converts the abundant atmospheric “carbon dioxide and green hydrogen into a range of green chemicals and jet fuel”. This process is called carbon dioxide hydrogenation — an innovation that is now being implemented in South Africa. The products are favourable since they reduce the carbon footprint of the world and the products can be repurposed elsewhere. UCT has significantly contributed its in-situ characterisation capabilities and modelling in its partnership with Sasol. In-situ characterisation can be described as a range of experiments that applies a stimulus to a sample then observes the reactions. Furthering the partnership, UCT provides extensive and valuable knowledge of carbon dioxide conversion from recent research projects.

UCT and Sasol’s lead in innovation marks a positive way forward in curbing the adverse effects of climate change. This is a welcome move especially for the African continent, as we face these effects more severely than those in the Global North.

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