College of Science, Engineering & Technology

Unisa scholar secures seed fund to design pilot production plant

Prof Alex Kuvarega

Research requires ongoing funding, and Unisa academics are encouraged to source funding from external funders and benefactors to supplement institutional funding.

Prof Alex Kuvarega secured seed funding of R650 000 from the Technology Innovation Agency to enable him to evaluate, demonstrate and advance the value proposition and commercial potential of his research output.

The seed fund earned him membership of Unisa’s Half Million Rand Club and the accompanying award given to Unisans who have received R500 000 to R1 million in research funding from external benefactors.

"I am honoured to be a member of this club. This external grant funding will go a long way towards designing a pilot plant to prepare catalysts for the conversion of furfural-to-furfural alcohol," said Kuvarega.

The design of the pilot plant will allow the synthesis of other catalysts that require a combination of up to three precursors that need low to medium temperature and pressure for production. In addition, postgraduate students will have access to this plant for research and training purposes.

Kuvarega is a full professor in the Institute of Nanotechnology and Water Sustainability, College of Science, Engineering and Technology (CSET). His research interest is in the field of advanced oxidation processes, including homogenous and heterogeneous catalysis.

"One of the research themes at CSET is innovation and capacity building in science and technology. This can only be realised by leveraging external funding in addition to the research resources that are already available," he said.

A call to action for sustainable development

The funded project speaks to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 9, namely to build resilient infrastructure that promotes inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and fosters innovation; and Goal 12, to ensure responsible consumption and production patterns.

"Furfural alcohol is a raw material used to produce a wide range of chemical products that are applied extensively to the food, polymer, energy, medicine and chemical industries," said Kuvarega.

He added that using corn cobs, an agricultural waste, as a feedstock to produce furfural alcohol augurs well with the concepts of a circular economy and sustainable development.

The development of novel catalysts for the conversion of furfural-to-furfural alcohol would be of economic benefit to farmers. Industrial development of the technology will result in human capacity development through training on catalyst synthesis and reactor operations. Income generated from the sale of final products will contribute to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth, employment creation, and increased technological innovation.

Innovation for responsible production

The research news desk asked Kuvarega what the pilot scale catalyst preparation for selective hydrogenation of furfural-to-furfural alcohol would entail. This is what he said:

Industrial furfural alcohol production involves the compression of hydrogen to 7 megapascals (MPa) in a reaction chamber containing furfural at about 200 ℃ and a catalyst to obtain crude furfural alcohol, and then fractionating and refining it to obtain furfural alcohol.

This batch process has the advantages of low reaction pressure, safety and lower equipment investment costs. However, it also has disadvantages, such as low production efficiency and a high catalyst cost, which have economic implications.

Currently, the most efficient catalysts for the industrial production of furfural alcohol using the liquid-phase hydrogenation of furfural are based on copper–chromium oxides that are prepared using traditional methods.

These kinds of catalysts raise concerns about environmental pollution. However, with the increasingly stringent requirements for environmental protection, such catalysts are being phased out of the market.

This has opened avenues for developing new environmentally friendly catalysts for the selective hydrogenation of furfural-to-furfural alcohol. Therefore, this project involves designing and developing a pilot-scale plant to produce new environmentally friendly furfural-to-furfural alcohol catalysts.

This grant will enable Kuvarega to set up a pilot-scale batch catalyst production plant capable of producing about 20 kg of pure catalyst per single batch run.

* Compiled by Mpho Moloele, PR and Communications, Department of Research, Innovation and Commercialisation

Publish date: 2022/07/19

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