Using education as a key to transforming the circumstances of her life is what motivated PhD graduate in Chemical Engineering Dr Atsile Ocwelwang to work hard.
For her PhD thesis, Ocwelwang investigated the effect of laser and ultrasound radiation pre-treatment techniques on the high crystalline structure cellulose in dissolving wood pulp and the effect of the pre-treatment on the reactivity of this biopolymer. She said dissolving wood pulp (DWP) produced from wood in chemical processing, comprises of more than 90% pure cellulose. This type of pulp is mainly utilised for the production of various cellulose derivatives such as viscose rayon (used in the clothing industry), cellophane and other domestic products. Production of these valuable products is achieved by dissolution of DWP in chemical solvents such as sodium hydroxide (NaOH) and toxic carbon disulphide (CS2).
She said the main goal of her study was to use physical techniques as a pre-treatment in order to reduce the number of toxic chemicals used to dissolve the recalcitrant cellulose polymer.
She joined UKZN – and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s Biorefinery Industry Development Facility (BIDF) under the supervision of Professor Bruce Sithole – as the University has a strong research culture and is ranked one of the best in the country.
Ocwelwang is passionate about environmental remediation and green chemistry projects seeking to develop techniques that can reduce the number of toxic chemicals used in various processing methods; hence her belief that her thesis has a positive impact on society.
Currently working as a Research Associate at the National Nuclear Regulator’s Centre for Nuclear Safety and Security (NNR – CNSS), she plans to couple her scientific competence and passion for research to develop and succeed in her current and future positions.
‘Moreover, I intend to go back to schools in my community to motivate and encourage the youth to pursue education especially in the field of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) as a tool to changing their lives for the better,’ she said.
She is grateful to the DST, NRF and the University for funding her PhD studies.
Words: Manqoba Hadebe
Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal