GCRF-START is a joint UK-Africa project funded by the UK Global Challenge Research Fund through the Science and Technology Facilties Council (STFC). It aims to build the capacity and capability of the investigator team and broader research community in the use of synchrotron radiation to study important areas of science for the African continent with development at its heart. The research focuses on two areas; new energy materials and improved healthcare that are global priorities. The outputs from START will help to address the requirements for increased energy demand from sustainable sources and better medical provision for the wider population. The primary beneficiaries will be African countries and their communities, through improved infrastructure for clean energy delivery, storage and efficiency to drive towards Science, Technology and Innovation based economies as well as providing a strengthened understanding of diseases that will promote health benefits that ultimately could see world-wide improvements.
The research being undertaken in the START project is directly in line with the development aspirations of the African Union Commission who have a stated ambition to 'transform Africa from traditional to modern sources of energy and ensure access of all Africans to clean and affordable electricity' and 'Develop/implement strategies for the growth of the pharmaceutical industry in Africa'. More widely, any improvements (or methodologies) nurtured by START could be extended to other continents, potentially creating a broader network of societal beneficiaries including the energy and healthcare sectors.
Structural determination of particular materials is at the core of scientific progress using synchrotron-based science. The strands of research to be undertaken through START, on energy materials and structural biology, will use synchrotron radiation to examine the structure of materials of vital importance to African populations. It is essential that the countries in Africa expand their own capabilities to produce the next generation of appropriate energy materials and development of cures for relevant diseases.
A key aim for START is to provide education on synchrotron techniques and the results achieved by its research. START will work with the academic and wider scientific communities on research which through publication, presentations and other outreach activities including online communication will disseminate the findings to a world-wide audience.
The need for health improvement on the African continent continues to be a pressing issue, and START’s emphasis will be on diseases such as HIV-AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and African horse sickness that are devastating to human and animal populations. The Structural Biology strand of START research will support scientists in finding and developing cures by researching and understanding the fundamental molecular structure of proteins that cause certain diseases. Prof. Trevor Sewell from the University of Cape Town explains:
“START will allow us to understand drug targets and cure African diseases. We will establish a collaborating network of seven South African institutions (the Universities of Pretoria, Witwatersrand, North West, Free State, Stellenbosch, Cape Town and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases) that will enable young researchers to boost medical and veterinary research.”
Establishing and maintaining a coherent network of structural biology researchers in South Africa is a primary aim of START that will then act as a hub for researchers across the continent as a whole. Training of the post-doctoral researchers that will form the next generation of lead investigators is also key to the success of the START project.
There are unique challenges to developing sustainable energy in Africa. Large swathes of the population live off-grid with little access to conventional energy sources. The degradation of energy devices in an environment of heat and dust and the high initial capital costs of traditional energy production installations or storage systems causes problems for the wider dissemination of conventional energy services. Prof. Dave Billing from the University of Witwatersrand looks forward to developing their use of synchrotron techniques, saying
“Being able to access the unique techniques offered by a synchrotron like Diamond is a step change for us in skills development as well as an opportunity to compete with our science on a world stage.”
Research into new materials to aid, for example, the conversion of energy from sunlight in photovoltaics and catalysts to improve the efficency of industrial processes will potentially help to develop optimised devices or chemical reactions. The long term ambition is to aid the promotion of innovative sources of energy that draw on readily accessible (and sustainable) energy sources that are abundantly available in the local environment.
Training the next generation of research leaders in the use of advanced techniques available at synchrotron sources is a key objective of the START project.
The START partnership between African researchers and the technology and expertise available at Diamond Light Source will build the capacity and knowledge base in Africa of the research techniques available at a world-leading synchrotron. This will enable African researchers to expand their local expertise by training and developing synchrotron users and their research outputs for the benefit of their academic knowledge and wider societal impacts. START seeks to develop African scientific leadership and develop new knowledge communities between existing scientists and those at beginning their scientific careers.
Published results of research developed through START will benefit academic researchers working on Energy Materials or Structural Biology, while the investigators and broader scientific community will gain from valuable networking opportunities.
START’s fundamental research will expand the knowledge base through scientific publications that will drive the focus of development towards devices/treatments for low and middle income countries, while the applied research into disruptive technologies will produce test structures for proof of concept devices or drug targets.
For Principal Investigator Prof. Chris Nicklin, this will be the most important result:
“It is an exciting prospect to work together on these challenging problems and this project will enable us to form very strong links at all levels, in particular helping to train the next generation of researchers in nations including South Africa, Lesotho, Ethiopia and Egypt. The work will focus around the development needs of the African countries, driven by the Africa-based investigators and the NGOs like the African Science Leadership programme which is located at the University of Pretoria and has been co-developed by the Global Young Academy”.
Both the energy and pharmaceutical industries will be able to build on the new insights START will enable. The energy industry can incorporate the most promising materials into future commercial devices, such as new solar cells or more efficient catalysts tailored to a rapidly growing African market, whilst realisation through drug development targets will be of interest to the African pharmaceutical industry.
The investigators on the START project have worked with a variety of industry partners over the years, including global chemical companies, manufacturers of equipment for material production and specific companies involved in photovolatic production or the pharmaceutical industry. Strengthening and expanding these links to new industry partners is a key objective of START.
START will actively develop an outreach programme that will be implemented to engage with the broader scientific community, the general public and children.
The project includes links to African non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as African Network for SOlar Energy (ANSOLE) and the Global Young Academy (GYA), which have been instrumental in setting the agenda for the project. Prof. Moritz Riede from the University of Oxford is current Co-Chair of the GYA, and says
“The GYA promotes international and interdisciplinary dialogue and collaborations to address topics of global importance and we are pleased that this grant includes several GYA members from both Africa and the UK”.
START will provide a lasting legacy. With funding through to 2021, it is hoped that START will have a significant positive impact in Africa. The scientific results that come out of the project will be valuable in themselves, and may also lead to commercial applications, but START will also promote the development of research capabilities (and skills training) within Africa, and international research collaborations.
The START project will kick-start lifelong collaborations for research of energy materials as well as drug development. The team includes investigators at all stages of their careers to provide a balance of experience, enthusiasm and ambition that will lead to a dynamic programme of research and a team that will drive forward future projects.