College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Mechanical Engineering Research Group Sets its Sights on Green Energy Solutions

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The Green Energy Solutions (GES) research group in UKZN’s Discipline of Mechanical Engineering is making strides in research that advances developments in water security, energy efficiency, biofuels, alternative energy sources and nanomaterials.

Headed by National Research Foundation rated scientist Professor Freddie Inambao, the GES was established in 2003 to provide expert input into these areas through cutting-edge research, building capacity, and developing interventions in energy, water security, buildings physics, biofuels and nanomaterials that consider key issues in the South African context such as development, poverty and alternative energy.

The group is conducting noteworthy research and has already achieved 50 journal publications in 2021, more than meeting its target for the year, with Inambao hoping to increase its publications with the support of the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science.

As the sole academic advisor directing the GES group, Inambao has applied his extensive interests and expertise to advance its research and graduate output – his interests include sustainable energy; combustion science; fuel systems and fuel cells; hydrogen power; refrigeration; physical monitoring; energy demand; building systems and elements; energy efficiency and demand; pollution prevention; and nanotechnology.

The prominent researcher, who topped UKZN’s list of the Top 30 Published Researchers for 2019, has supervised 15 PhD students, 22 MSc students and five postdoctoral researchers to completion, many of whom have studied within the ambit of the GES. He is currently supervising 15 postgraduate students.

Inambao has authored over 170 papers in international journals, delivered more than 120 invited conference presentations and co-authored 20 books or book chapters.

Many of Inambao’s publications have featured the work of the GES, and his view is that scientific research should drive social and economic innovation by producing new knowledge, skills and attitudes that enable economic growth and technological development to provide South Africa with the economic competitive advantage it needs to improve the living conditions of its growing population.

‘The major goal of our research activities is South Africa’s sustainable development and prosperity,’ said Inambao.

Key research underway in the GES includes a project to develop an autonomous water desalination system that operates using sustainable energy sources.

In the field of energy efficiency, the GES has evaluated energy efficiency and identified the drivers and barriers to it to improve energy management practices and ensure that electrical and mechanical systems are energy efficient.

Biofuels are a major area of focus for the GES; in 2020, Inambao co-authored a book on: Biodiesel, Combustion, Performance and Emissions Characteristics. The group has conducted studies on the production of bioethanol from matooke fruit peels in Uganda and on the viability of pyrolyzed plastic municipal solid waste feedstocks oil as energy fuel resources for diesel engines.

In nanotechnology, the GES has investigated the thermophysical properties of coconut fibre based green nanofluid for heat transfer applications.

In alternative energy, it hasexplored using the Mobile Telecommunication Limited communication towers in Namibia for accurate wind measurement, and looked into energy harvesting by vibration using piezo-ceramic materials. The GES investigated the drying of faecal sludge from ventilated-improved pit latrines using solar thermal energy, and systems for the prediction and management of energy flow in photovoltaic systems equipped with fuel cells and battery storage.

Its researchers have looked into approaches to unearth an optimal renewable, biodegradable and environmentally-friendly fatty acid methyl ester candidate (such as waste cooking oil) that improves engine performance and mitigates emissions in combustion engines. The GES has also investigated the viability of a small to medium sized low temperature solar thermal organic Rankine cycle power plant to contribute to South Africa’s power grid.

In its materials work, the GES has explored the development and fabrication of a functionally graded aluminium metal matrix composite through liquid metallurgy for proposed automobile component production as composite materials find more favour than single-element materials.

It has also researched the development and analysis of a water jetpack powered by an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) in order to develop a series of models to optimise the performance, efficiency and functionality of the water jetpack along with the development of an AUV concept as a duel controlled power unit to the water jetpack.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied