SA Science Inventions

13 of South Africa’s boldest science innovations

By Dominic Skelton

South Africa has been no slouch when it comes to contributing to science and technology.

1. World’s first digital laser

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) announced the development of the world’s first digital laser. The innovation is expected to spur numerous applications to improve the communication and health sectors, said Professor Andrew Forbes of the CSIR National Laser Centre. The experimental work in the laser project was done by doctoral candidate and CSIR researcher Sandile Nqcobo. “This groundbreaking development is further evidence of the great potential we have in scientific innovation. That the world’s first digital laser should come from our country is testimony to the calibre of scientists that South Africa has,” said former minister of science and technology, Derek Hanekom.

2. The Full-body X-ray scanner

The South African company Lodox Systems produced the only system in the world that provides an excellent quality X-ray image up to 1.83m in length in just 13 seconds. Lodox is also safer, emitting up to 10 times less harmful dose than regular X-ray systems. The Lodox Critical Imaging Technology was initially developed for use on diamond mines to prevent the smuggling and theft of diamonds by mineworkers.

3. Cheaper solar power

An innovation in solar power which uses a micro-thin metallic film was created by Professor Vivian Alberts at the University of Johannesburg. The discovery has made solar electricity five times less expensive than solar photovoltaic cells. Alberts’ solar panels consist of a layer of a unique metal alloy, five microns thick. The photo-responsive alloy can operate on most flexible surfaces. In February 2014 a semi-commercial plant for the production of thin-film solar module technology was opened in Stellenbosch.

4. The bollard

The bollard, an implantable expanding rivet, was developed by a group of CSIR scientists in 1982, comprising Peter Mundell, Dr Michael Hunt and Dr Angus Strover. Thirty years later it is still on the market and over 60 000 of the medical devices have been used. The rivet is used in conjunction with a prosthetic ligament for repair of knee ligament injuries. The device is made from carbon fibre and reinforced polysulfone. In 1984 it received the Chairman’s award for Excellence from the SABS Design Institute. It was the first carbon fibre reinforced composite implant to be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for human surgery. The company that now manufactures the product is Fibretek Developments.

5. Biomedical stem cell technology

The CSIR’s Gene Expression and Biophysics group generated the first induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) in Africa. The ability to grow these stem cells has revolutionised the way researchers can investigate and understand disease. The medical possibilities of iPSCs are huge. They could be used for restoring sight by replacing defective tissue, transplanting new cells to treat heart disease or give people with anaemia new healthy blood cells. CSIR collaborated with the University of Cape Town Medical School to develop the models.

6. Dolosse

These large concrete blocks, known as dolosse, were invented by South African Eric Mowbray Merrifield in 1963. They are used around the world to protect harbour walls from the erosive force of ocean waves. Anybody who has visited harbours around the world would have seen large concrete blocks with a complex geometric shape.

7. Speed gun for sports

South African engineer Henri Johnson is credited with the invention of the speed gun and other technologies used to measure the speed and direction of sports balls. The South African-made speed gun was formally released at The Oval during the 1999 cricket World Cup.

8. CoSev

CoSev allows you to report service delivery problems from potholes in Sandton to water shortages in the Eastern Cape using a smartphone app or USSM. It then logs the report on a central server where it’s publicly viewable by all until it gets fixed. Similar ideas overseas have transformed local government services, because they force accountability and transparency onto erstwhile dark and bureaucratic corners of councils. Its creator Tshepo Thlaku won second prize for the app at the SA Innovation Summit in 2013.

9. The CAT Scan

The Computed Axial Tomography Scan, or CAT, was developed by Cape Town physicist Allan Cormack and his associate Godfrey Hounsfield.

Cormack provided the mathematical technique for the CAT scan, in which an X-ray source and electronic detectors are rotated around the subject and the resulting data is analysed by a computer to produce sharp maps of tissues within a cross-section of the body. Cormack won the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (with Hounsfield) for his work on X-ray computed topography.

He was born in Johannesburg and attended Rondebosch Boys’ High School in Cape Town.

10. 3D Underwater imaging system

The world’s first low element-count 3D underwater imaging system was developed at the CSIR. The researchers also built a technology demonstrator that was successfully tested at the underwater test facility of the Institute of Maritime Technology.

The CSIR’s Kiri Nicolaides said: “Our team developed a range of technology building blocks… which can achieve an image using only 96 sensors. This should make the system much cheaper than 3D underwater imaging systems currently available, due to its acoustic properties, of a much higher resolution.”

11. Fingerprint identification classifier

In 2011 the CSIR developed a world-first fingerprint identification technique. The structural fingerprint classifier is able to correctly classify a fingerprint with only partial information.

CSIR Head of Information Security, Professor Fulufhelo Nelwamondo explained the need for the model. “In fingerprint recognition, fingerprint templates normally sit in a databases, so when going through an identification process, the system has to sift through thousands, if not millions of templates making the system slow in yielding results.”

“The extensible fingerprint classifier… will allow the system to be extremely fast and accurate when a database search is conducted. It will increase the overall efficiency of the entire fingerprint recognition system.”

12. Digital Drum

The digital drum is a co-creation of the CSIR and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) was cited in Time magazine as one of the top 50 inventions in 2011.

The drum is a computer system that gives people access to information on issues such as health and education. The design is based on the CSIR’s digital doorway, a stand alone computer system to promote self-learning of computer literacy and information skills.

The CSIR’s Grant Cambridge said: “The Digital Drum design proved to be an innovative way for UNICEF and the CSIR to address a need through a solution developed in the absence of technology.”

13. First ever aero-optic made from flame

Professor Andrew Forbes from the CSIR led the development of the world’s first flame lens. The optic lens uses air to focus and can handle almost unlimited power.

He said: “the beauty of this project is that expertise in two distinctly different fields (aerodynamics and optics), were relied on to develop something that has never been done before.”

“Through this work, we have made a lens that uses just air- no materials- to focus. The flame lens produces a sharp focus with very little stray light. It achieves a fourfold increase in focal power per unit length over previous glass lenses.”

A flame is channeled through a pipe where it spirals along the pipe length, when a laser beam is shot through behind the flame the beam focuses on the respective point.

This article was originally posted on Times Live, 8 July 2014