GCRF START funds strategic Energy Materials Workshop

Cape Town, 16-17 December 2019

A warm South African welcome and stunning Cape Town backdrop greeted the 20 participants of the GCRF START Energy Materials Workshop, which was funded by GCRF START. The event took place from the 16-17 December 2019 and was hosted by the Catalysis Institute and c*change (DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Catalysis) at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

The event kicked off with an introductory dinner at the stunning Steenberg Farm. Nationalities from Swaziland and South Africa through to the UK and Germany were represented. The Post-docs (PDRA’s), MSc. and PhD students, University lecturers, Principal Investigators (PI’s) and Co-Investigators (Co-I’s), Communications and grant staff hailed from the University of Cape Town’s Catalysis Institute (SA), University of the Witwatersrand (SA) Diamond Light Source (UK), the ISIS Neutron Source (UK), the University of Oxford (UK), Cardiff Catalysis Institute, Cardiff University (UK), the University of Southampton (UK), University of Sheffield (UK), The African Neutron and Synchrotron Data Analysis Competency (ANSDAC), and the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Catalysis – c*change (SA).

GCRF START December 2019 Energy Materials Workshop participants at the University of Cape Town workshop venue. Front row from left: Dr Daniel Bowron, Sikhumbuzo MasinaDr Sofia Moreno-Diaz, Dr Caren Billing, Chris Mullins, Adam Shnier; Second row from left: Mathias Kiefer, Dr Michael Higham, Dr Peter Wells, Prof. Moritz Riede, Prof. Michael Claeys; third row from left: Dr Wilson Mogodi, Dr Thomas Derrien; back row from left: Dr Mohamed Fadlalla, Dr Nico Fischer, Dr Pascal Kaienburg, Prof. Chris Nicklin, Prof. Dave Billing. Photo Credit Rebekka Stredwick, ©Diamond Light Source 

Tours of the Centre for Catalysis were given by Professor Claeys showcasing the excellent laboratory facilities and equipment available for use. GCRF START project Investigators and PDRA’s presented research covering topics including:     

  • Photo Voltaic’s – PV, batteries, fuel cells, solar cells
  • Organic solar cells and Microstructures
  • Organic semiconductors
  • Global optimisation of Cu clusters
  • Catalysis (controlling nanomaterials and structures)
  • CO2 hydrogenation
  • X-ray Spectroscopy
  • Crystallography

Presentations by Nico Fischer at ANSDAC, Michael Claeys from c*Change, and Daniel Bowron from the ISIS Neutron Source, provided insights into the collaboration opportunities through GCRF START.

Passing the mid-point of the GCRF grant is a good time to reflect on what has been achieved thus far, and is a useful time to plan ahead – both within the time of the remaining grant and how to continue the momentum into the future. With established PI’s, Co-I’s, and Post-docs attending the workshop, there was ample opportunity to share ideas for a potential GCRF START phase II, and to agree a vision and strategy for forging new ways to collaborate on the African continent in keeping with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and Pan-African 50-year mission – AGENDA 2063.

In particular, the discussion considered ways to facilitate beamtime applications within Energy Materials research. Access to Diamond can either be through an individual proposal, or through a ‘Block Allocation Group’ (BAG). GCRF START is an excellent vehicle to bring together a BAG for Energy Materials research, which also increases the networking between scientists.  Indeed, there is already a successful BAG access in Structural Biology. In addition, beamlines with robotic support allow for remote access, meaning scientists can take control of the beamline without having to travel thousands of miles to take part.

Another key point was how to increase the amount of outreach activity we do to further the impact of the grant and help foster an enthusiasm for salient science within the local population.  There are already many examples of excellent practice from individuals and institutions within the grant network such as SciArt with local crafters from the Keiskamma Art Project, as well as outreach to schools and graduates through to government ministers.

Finally, the network has grown for the grant to further increase its scope, expanding to include more researchers, institutions and organisations. There is a great opportunity to be had in teaching more about applying synchrotron science to a wider pool of researchers who may find that using the powerful X-ray beams and laboratory equipment available through GCRF START collaborators can enhance their current work and skills set.

An important aspect of all START events is networking and knowledge sharing, and participants took full advantage of the time available between presentations at coffee breaks and mealtimes to share their experiences and cement collaborations. At the end of the event, a traditional South African ‘Braai’ (Barbeque) in the grounds of the University of Cape Town aptly rounded off a thoroughly enjoyable and fruitful workshop. Interviews, photos and videos captured the buzz of the workshop to be used to share more of START’s ongoing work, achievements and impact with our current and potential stakeholders.

Photo Credit Rebekka Stredwick, ©Diamond Light Source

Across the continent, GCRF START is working with Africa to support the Pan-African 50-year mission: AGENDA 2063 .

Click here for more information about the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal for Energy.

How I became an HIV research scientist – One Zimbabwean’s story

“Being a young woman in science, forging my career, can be challenging at times. However, I want to be an inspiration for young African girls and women to know that it is possible to fulfill your dreams and passions.” – Dr Thandeka Moyo, GCRF START Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases and affiliated to the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.

Witnessing the HIV pandemic

My name is Thandeka Moyo. As a young woman growing up in Zimbabwe, my eyes have been privy to the evolution of HIV/AIDS in our country and region over the past three decades. I have not only witnessed the viral evolution (the way HIV is always changing and mutating), but also people’s perceptions toward this viral infection.  Before I reached my teenage years in the 1990’s, I already knew there was a “terrible disease” that could not be named, and which was claiming the lives of people around me. When someone died and nobody freely offered the cause, everyone knew not to ask.

In the 2000’s, things began to change. Antiretroviral therapy was more widely available, and more and more HIV-positive people were living healthy lives. But still, the stigma continued. This raised my curiosity. What is this disease, what causes it, and why is there a stigma around it?

Dr Thandeka Moyo, GCRF START Postdoctoral Research Fellow. Photo credit: Thandeka Moyo. ©Diamond Light Source

A growing passion – becoming an infectious diseases and HIV research scientist

From the age of 15 years old, I knew I wanted to learn about infectious diseases, what caused them and how we could eradicate them. I had no idea how I was going to achieve this goal of mine except through single-mindedly studying science-related subjects and hoping for the best!

I studied my way through the sciences in high school and successfully applied to Rhodes University in South Africa for an undergraduate degree.  In my fourth year (Honours) I undertook a malaria-related project under the supervision of Prof. Heinrich Hoppe. This was it! This was the first year I felt I was contributing to scientific research, which not only affirmed my love for studying infectious diseases but also my desire to go further and study HIV.

This led me to the University of Cape Town where I obtained both an MSc and PhD in the laboratory of Dr Jeffrey Dorfman researching within an HIV vaccine-related field. Here, I finally got to work on virus I had wished to work on all these years!

One of the biggest problems with HIV is its diversity. We concentrated on broadly neutralising antibodies towards HIV – antibodies which prevent various global strains of the virus from entering human cells and establishing infection. Broadly neutralising antibodies may be the key to an effective HIV vaccine and therefore my research focuses on studying the interactions between these antibodies and the HIV Envelope – which forms the outer coat of the virus. Knowing exactly where and how these antibodies bind to diverse strains of HIV may aid in the design of vaccine components which can trigger these antibody responses upon immunisation.

During my PhD, I had the opportunity to conduct a research visit to the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada, in the laboratory of Prof. Jean-Philippe Julien. I went there to conduct a portion of my research, and that is where my love for structural biology began.

Mentors and synchrotrons – collaboration through GCRF START

“Thandeka is a wonderful example of an emerging African female scientist. She is single-minded, strives to identify important scientific questions, and is generous with her ideas. She is a natural leader who is already, at this early stage in her career, carefully building capacity in structural biology.”

Professor Penny Moore, National Institute for Communicable Diseases, South Africa

For my postdoctoral studies, I have continued in HIV research but with a sole focus on protein biochemistry and structural biology in the laboratory of Prof. Lynn Morris and Prof. Penny Moore at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) in Johannesburg. It is here that I first heard about GCRF START.

As a GCRF START Postdoctoral Research Fellow, START has given me opportunities I could have never imagined. I now have access to a world-class synchrotron, the UK’s national synchrotron – Diamond Light Source, where I can send my HIV-antibody complexes to obtain the vital diffraction data I need for my research – to date I have used beamlines i04, i04-1 and i03. I was given the opportunity to present at the START launch event in Oxford (UK) in March 2019, and subsequently at various START meetings, Institutes and Centres, such as CAPRISA, with whom I collaborate.

One of the greatest benefits of START, however, has been the fruitful collaborations and relationships I have built with South African structural biologists who have significantly aided my career progression, and I extend special thanks to GCRF START Co-Investigators, Prof. Trevor Sewell, Prof. Dirk Oppermann and Prof. Wolf-Dieter Schubert. In addition, Diamond staff have been exceptionally helpful answering my questions and providing me with assistance during beamtime.

Dr Thandeka Moyo, GCRF START Postdoctoral Research Fellow. Photo credit: Thandeka Moyo. ©Diamond Light Source

Mentoring and inspiring young women in science

“Dr Moyo is a great mentor; she provides practical guidance that has been motivating and beneficial to my professional development. She is inspirational, driven and talented; it is a privilege to be mentored by her” – Zanele Makhado, Medical Scientist at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, South Africa.

I have been fortunate to have found extremely supportive mentors in Prof. Penny Moore and Prof. Lynn Morris at the NICD, who have encouraged my independence and supported me throughout my Postdoctoral studies. Finding mentors and supervisors who are aligned with one’s vision is one of the most important decisions to make in this scientific journey!

The aspect of science I enjoy the most is encouraging the next generation of young women to pursue a career in academia and other science-related industries. I have been involved in school outreach initiatives from my university days which has continued throughout my postdoctoral studies with involvement in student ‘shadowing’ and through presentations to school children. Due to the Covid-19 lockdown, we recently undertook outreach to school children remotely via Zoom.

I am currently a mentor to one MSc student and two medical scientists here at the NICD. All three are intelligent women with bright futures in science. It has been a pleasure working with them towards their scientific goals. Mentoring has taught me a great deal about how to support other emerging scientists and has helped me learn to effectively juggle between working on my own project, while being present to ensure I assist them with theirs.

An end to the pandemic – forging ahead with my goal

I continue to hope and advocate for the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS to be eradicated, even before the virus itself is eliminated! Those infected with HIV can live long, healthy lives on treatment and with consistent use, ensuring that with undetectable viral loads they will no longer transmit the virus to others. An HIV vaccine may be the most effective tool to completely eradicate the virus and therefore I continue to work in this field with the aim of contributing towards this important goal.

Dr Thandeka Moyo, GCRF START Postdoctoral Research Fellow. Photo Credit: Thandeka Moyo.©Diamond Light Source

“With more people like Thandeka and more programs like GCRF START, Science in Africa can only go from strength to strength!”  –

Professor Penny Moore, National Institute for Communicable Diseases, South Africa

Related articles and websites


Ending AIDS by 2030 is an integral part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Click here to learn more about the science behind HIV/AIDS.

Investigating Solar Energy – Examining the microstructure of Organic Solar Cells

“It’s been great having Mohamed as part of our team in Oxford. Such exchanges are essential if we want to solve global challenges like climate change. Among other benefits, they foster collaboration, create lasting networks and enrich the perspectives of everyone involved.”

Prof. Dr. Moritz Riede, University of Oxford, UK 
Improving Organic Solar Cell performance for energy production 

My name is Mohamed Emad Barhouma Elsayed Abdelaal and I am an Energy Materials research scientist at the Faculty of Engineering, Ain Shams University in Cairo, Egypt.  My research involves examining the micro-structure of Organic Solar Cells (OSC’s) to monitor how the performance of the cells is affected by their micro-structure under different environmental conditions. The aim is to improve the performance of Solar Cells for energy production by controlling their micro-structure and thereby to improve their benefit for alternative energy supply and pollution reduction measures.  

As the demand on the world’s classical energy resources such as petroleum products and natural gas are increasing, we must find alternative energy resources. In Egypt, for example, the government has set renewable energy targets of 20% of the electricity mix by 2022 and 42% by 20351. Egypt is therefore investing a lot of money in massive solar farms like the Benban project in Aswan and other solar energy projects. If the efficiency of OSC’s is improved through the research being conducted, then countries like Egypt might invest in more new Solar farms. In addition, since the OSC’s can be made semi-transparent and flexible, they can be installed on the glass on buildings in crowded cities like Cairo. 

Organic Solar cells are made of organic chemical materials, while traditional solar cells are made of inorganic materials, mainly silicon. OSC’s can be made semi-transparent, flexible and potentially cheaper than Inorganic Solar Cells (ISC’s), which are opaque and generally not flexible. However, ISC’s currently have a better performance and longer lifetime compared with OSC’s. Therefore, scientists are working on improving OSC’s because of their high potential to offer cheaper and more flexible energy options2.  

Building my scientific network through GCRF START  

“North-South intercultural and interdisciplinary academic exchange between the University of Oxford and Ain Shams University is of particular benefit between these two well-established universities. Mohamed, our mutual student in the GCRF START project, co-supervised by Prof. Riede and I, has benefited from the exposure to a new academic environment and the exchange of ideas and expertise.”

Prof. Dr. Ghada Bassioni, Ain Shams University, Cairo, Egypt 

This research involves international collaboration which has been encouraged and assisted by GCRF START.  One of my research supervisors, Prof. Dr Ghada Bassioni, introduced me to the opportunities offered by START as an Energy Materials researcher. I have not only been able to attend conferences and workshops to further my knowledge and skills, providing great exposure and opportunities to build our scientific network, START has given me with access to world class facilities, equipment and devices to conduct my experiments. I collaborate with Prof. Moritz Riede’s group AFMD group in the Department of Physics at the University of Oxford and some of my experiments have been undertaken there, and at the UK’s national synchrotron – Diamond Light Source.  

Mohamed Abdelaal inside the beamline I07 experimental cabin at the UK’s national Diamond Light Source synchrotron. 
Photo credit: Mohamed Abdelaal. ©Diamond Light Source 
Shining light on OSC microstructure  

I simulate the way the molecular components of Organic Solar Cell (OSC) organise themselves (the microstructure) in devices using a molecular dynamics simulations program similar to the procedure published by T. Lee et al. ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces 10, 32413 (2018). The simulations can be likened to real OSC materials ‘in situ’ and ‘ex situ’ to compare and validate the results achieved in simulation. We use a technique called X-ray diffraction which enables us to study surfaces and interfaces on an atomic scale and the micro-structure and interface evolution in real-time under vacuum conditions. 

To examine the microstructure of the OSC during evaporation, different tests are done including X-ray diffraction in the MINERVA chamber on the high resolution Beamline I07 at Diamond (Fig. 1&2) This involves evaporating the materials which make up the OSC onto a device surface (substrate) under X-ray illumination, allowing X-ray diffraction images to be collected ‘in situ’ as the materials are deposited. In this way, we can observe how the molecules change in their molecular packing (microstructure) over time as they land on the substrate microstructure. The MINERVA chamber also enables us to study how the microstructure changes in response to different environmental factors, such as temperature, humidity, and various gases. Sometimes, however, we evaporate the OSC’s at the University of Oxford using the Vacuum Evaporator (ECHO1) facility with the AFMD group, after which we examine the samples at Diamond using the X-ray diffraction process. In this case we don’t use MINERVA and the process of examination is called ‘ex situ’.  

FIG. 1. Overview of the design of the MINERVA chamber. It consists of four modules: the deposition chamber houses the low temperature evaporation (LTE) sources and quartz crystal microbalances (QCMs); the scattering chamber with beryllium windows and slits; the sample manipulator using an external hexapod to allow accurate positioning of the sample; the vacuum component chamber with all pumps, gauges, and valves. Review of Scientific Instruments88, 103901 (2017) 
DOI: 10.1063/1.4989761, Copyright © 2017 Author(s) 
FIG. 2. Cut-through of the MINERVA chamber looking from the front (access ports), showing key internal components and the path of the X-ray beam. 
Review of Scientific Instruments88, 103901 (2017) DOI: 10.1063/1.4989761, Copyright © 2017 Author(s) 
Building OSC’s and molecular dynamics simulation of OSC microstructure 

Building the OSC’s themselves is done using ‘ECHO1’, a vacuum deposition chamber at the University of Oxford. The needed materials are supplied in solid state commercially or from collaborators. The organic materials are evaporated onto a glass substrate and the layer thickness of the Solar Cell is subsequently monitored through the evaporation rate and the length of time of evaporation. Co-evaporation is also possible, which allows the evaporation of more than one organic material at the same. After achieving the required thickness, the Solar Cell is cooled down and then encapsulated inside a nitrogen filled box under inert conditions, the solar cell is ready for further examination.   

Mohamed Abdelaal using the glove box in the Vacuum Evaporator (ECHO1) at the University of Oxford  in the UK for sample handling. 
Photo credit: Mohamed Abdelaal. ©Diamond Light Source 

I started conducting my research in September 2018 and before the end of my second year, I hope to publish my first paper. During the course of my research, I personally believe that every step forward is a huge achievement, without which we would never be able to proceed further. One achievement worth mentioning is that, with Prof. Dr. Moritz Riede support, I have learned molecular dynamics simulation of the micro-structure of OSC’s. I also learned how to write scripts and although they are basic and simple, they automate the simulation which reduces the time loss between simulation steps.  Every time the simulation is completed successfully, I feel so happy and proud that I have learned something new. 

GCRF START fostering global partnerships and internationalisation  

Commenting on the importance of international partnerships such as GCRF START for students like Mohamed, Prof. Dr. Ghada Bassioni, Professor of Chemistry and Head of the Chemistry Division at the Faculty of Engineering at Ain Shams University, said, 

“Overall, the openness for African, and especially Egyptian universities to internationalisation is growing rapidly, with unhindered communication channels and inexpensive travel. Global partnerships and fostering relationships with other institutions whether on an individual or institutional basis are the main source for international students and academic exchange. International students increase social and cultural diversity, enrich the research and learning environment and help local students to develop internationally relevant skills. There are a lot of benefits for seeking an international academic environment, whether it is to develop new ideas or tap into new sources of funding or to gain access to specialised equipment. As a result of the expansion of communication methods and the ease of international travel, one in five of the world’s scientific papers are co-authored internationally.” 

Read more here about the openness for African universities to internationalisation 

Learn more about Solar energy here and the differences between Organic and Inorganic Solar Cells here  

Read more here about the UN Sustainable Development Goal 7 for Energy 

Mohamed Abdelaal profile page here


1 IRENA (2018), Renewable Energy Outlook: Egypt, International Renewable Energy Agency, Abu Dhabi 

2 Organic Solar Cell Materials toward CommercializationRongming Xue, Jingwen Zhang, Yaowen Li,* and Yongfang Li  DOI: 10.1002/smll.201801793 

“The bigger the challenge, the bigger the opportunity for growth.” – Mohamed Abdelaal’s story

“Working on renewable energy development is not just a job for us scientists; we are assisting both people and the environment to meet important Sustainable Development Goals in Africa, and globally.”

Mohamed Abdelaal, Ain Shams University, Cairo, Egypt

In 2018, I joined the GCRF START Program with the support of my supervisor, START Co-Investigator, Prof. Ghada Bassioni. This was the beginning of an exciting new research challenge for me, investigating solar energy by examining the micro-structure of Organic Solar Cells (OSC’s) to monitor how the performance of the cells is affected by their micro-structure under different environmental conditions.  I have faced and overcome many challenges on my path to becoming a solar energy researcher.  My story below explains what has motivated me and how I am benefitting from collaborating with people from the GCRF START grant.

Learning challenges and opportunities in Egypt

I was born in Cairo, Egypt where I have lived most of my life and I love traveling, meeting new people and exploring new cultures, especially when the travel is combined with science and research! During my educational and subsequent research journey, I have faced a lot of different challenges but as someone once said, “The bigger the challenge, the bigger the opportunity for growth” (anon).

GCRF START collaborator, Mohamed Abdelaal, in Egypt. Photo Credit: Mohamed Abdelaal. ©Diamond Light Source

Starting with my secondary school education and my first educational challenge! In 2011, during the Revolution in Egypt, all the education in the country was on hold because of the sudden political circumstances, except for those like me, who were enrolled in international education. I was enrolled in British Secondary education (IGCSE) but due to the situation in Egypt, I had to study the complete syllabus alone at home to ensure I was prepared for the exams, which I was not even sure would take place! Unfortunately, online educational platforms and facilities were not possible at that time but despite these obstacles, I passed secondary school with excellent grades and joined the Faculty of Engineering at Ain Shams University, Egypt, to study for my Bachelor’s degree.

My Bachelor’s degree was in Materials Science and Engineering – a double degree program between Ain Shams University in Egypt and the Technical University of Clausthal in Germany. This meant that in addition to the engineering study and research I had to do, I needed to learn German to undertake study and research in Germany. This also meant I had to manage my time wisely to make sure that both the Engineering study and the German language would be completed in time and with high scores – another challenge!  

A further challenge in Germany, was to study the technical subjects in the German language, yet the only technical expressions I knew were in English! In addition, I had to finish my Bachelor studies early to ensure I didn’t miss the submission date for my Military Service once back in Egypt. Unfortunately, due to delays in receiving my Bachelor certificate, I missed the Military Service submission deadline and had to wait for 6 months. Accordingly, I traveled back to Germany and I found work with Mercedes until the next submission date but at least I had an opportunity to learn some new skills at Mercedes.

Mohamed Abdelaal graduating from his Bachelor’s degree at Ain Shams University, Cairo, Egypt. Photo Credit: Mohamed Abdelaal. © Diamond Light Source

I didn’t want to spend my military service away from the research I ultimately wanted to do, so I decided to do to my Military Service and my Master’s degree at the same time, studying Materials Science and Engineering at Ain Shams University’s Department for Mechanical Design and Production. New challenges awaited as I had to spend a lot of time traveling between the different cities to attend the exams, because my military Service was not in Cairo, where the University is located. I had to repeat some exams which I missed due to Military Service, but I finished all the exams in the end with excellent grades!

Motivated by exciting new research challenges! Organic Solar Cells

Solar cells (also called Photovoltaics or PV) are electronic devices that convert sunlight directly into electricity. Today, PV is one of the fastest-growing renewable energy technologies, and is ready to play a big role in the future global electricity generation mix by providing electricity on a commercial scale and/or arranged in smaller configurations for mini-grids or personal use (IRENA 2020). Non-renewable energy is not yet widely available but by conducting this type of research, I hope one day that this will change. Scientists like myself are working on improving OSC’s because of their high potential to offer cheaper and more flexible energy options[1]. I am motivated by the fact that one day, everyone will benefit from this kind of research, either directly by producing more efficient OSC’s to replace both silicon solar cells and non-renewable energy sources, or indirectly by reducing environmental pollution. If the efficiency of Organic Solar Cells is improved, then countries like Egypt might invest more money and implement additional Solar farms such as the Benban project in Aswan and other solar energy projects.

Building new research networks and using specialised equipment through GCRF START

My research takes place in the Department of Design and Production (Mechanical Division), at the Faculty of Engineering at Ain Shams University; the other part of my research I do in collaboration with START Co-Investigator, Prof. Moritz Riede’s and the AFMD group in the Department of Physics at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom (UK). GCRF START has introduced me to new research networks and research equipment and made it possible for me to conduct some of my experiments on Solar Cells at the UK’s National synchrotron Diamond Light Source.

GCRF START collaborator, Mohamed Abdelaal, outside the UK’s national Diamond Light Source synchrotron. Photo credit: Mohamed Abdelaal. © Diamond Light Source

In September 2018, I traveled to South Africa on behalf of Prof. Ghada Bassioni to attend a conference funded by GCRF START in Johannesburg. This was a kick-off meeting to help the different groups in Africa get to know each other. Each group presented their research points, progress and future work and I had the pleasure of meeting Prof. Moritz Riede in person and he guided me on my research planning for the coming months. In addition to the technical information we learned during the conference, I met new people from different universities around the world!

GCRF START enabled me to travel to attend the first main START meeting in the UK which took place in March 2019.  At the meeting, with the support of Prof. Ghada Bassioni, I had the opportunity to present about Energy Resources and Challenges in Egypt on her behalf. Then, in January this year (2020) and with the assistance of the GCRF START grant and Prof. Ghada Bassioni’s and Prof. Moritz Riede’s support, I traveled again to the UK but for a longer period this time, and joined Prof. Riede’s group to conduct experiments at both the University of Oxford Vacuum Evaporator (ECHO1) facility, and on Diamond’s the high resolution Beamline I07.

GCRF START collaborator, Mohamed Abdelaal, inside the beamline I07 experimental cabin at the UK’s national Diamond Light Source synchrotron.
Photo credit: Mohamed Abdelaal. ©Diamond Light Source
Professor Moritz Riede and Professor Ghada Bassioni. Photo credit:  Ghada Bassioni. ©Diamond Light Source

However, opportunities always come with challenges and although the plan was to stay until the middle of April, unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 situation, I had to cut short my visit and travel back to Egypt one month earlier. Now I am facing the next challenge of continuing my research during COVID-19 lockdown! But as I said before, “The bigger the challenge, the bigger the opportunity for growth!”

Without START, I wouldn’t have been able to experience these meetings and conferences, and I have learned something new from each of them. To summarise what the GCRF START grant means to me, I would describe it as great exposure and the opportunity to meet new scientists from all over the world, assisting us in building our scientific network. It means facilitating the engagement with audiences through opportunities to give speeches and present our work. Financial support helps us conduct our experiments, access equipment and travel to attend conferences and meetings.

Mohamed Abdelaal presenting on renewable energy resources in Egypt at the first GCRF START meeting at the University of Oxford in the UK, in March 2019.
©Diamond Light Source

Commenting on the collaboration with Mohamed Abdelaal, Prof. Moritz Riede from the University of Oxford, said:

“It’s been great having Mohamed as part of our team in Oxford. Such exchanges are essential if we want to solve global challenges like climate change. Among other benefits, they foster collaboration, create lasting networks and enrich the perspectives of everyone involved. It’s unfortunate that Mohamed’s visit was cut short due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but we got off to a really good start and we continue remotely. We still hope that Mohamed will be able to visit us again soon, and similarly that we’ll be able to visit his group in Egypt, as these exchanges work best if they go both ways. We are in the fortunate position to be part of the GCRF-START project, which supports such collaborations between the UK and partners on the African continent.” 

Related articles

Read more here about Mohamed’s research

Learn more about Solar energy here and the differences between Organic and Inorganic Solar Cells here

Read more here about the UN Sustainable Development Goal 7 for Energy


[1]Organic Solar Cell Materials toward Commercialization; Rongming Xue, Jingwen Zhang, Yaowen Li,* and Yongfang Li; DOI: 10.1002/smll.201801793

SA women take the lead in structural biology

A team of researchers from the University of Cape Town (UCT) and University of the Free State (UFS) has achieved a remarkable feat in the field of structural biology by determining the structure of an enzyme that could be a key component in producing valuable commodity chemicals in greener, sustainable processes.

Known as cytochrome P450 reductase (CPR), the enzyme has received much attention – not only for its ability to perform difficult chemistry, but also for its role as drug target.

“The task was enormous,” said team member Naadia van der Bergh, a PhD student in UCT’s Centre for Bioprocess Engineering Research (CeBER). “CPR is a massive enzyme. It contains 679 amino acids and there were two molecules in the asymmetric unit. Added to that, our initial structure was determined and solved on the basis of a low-resolution map. Interpreting this structure was a truly gruelling effort.”

The results of the research were published on 27 December 2019 in the journal Scientific Reports (9:20088) by the Nature Publishing Group.

International exposure

With support from the Global Challenges Research Fund’s (GCRF) Synchrotron Techniques for African Research and Technology (START) programme, the team was given the opportunity to conduct parts of their research at the Diamond Light Source synchrotron in Oxfordshire in the United Kingdom (UK)

Read more on the University of Cape Town News.

Image: Ana Ebrecht (left) and Naadia van der Bergh are part of a team of researchers from UCT and UFS that achieved a remarkable feat in the field of structural biology.

Inspiring the next generation of African scientists – Sikhumbuzo Masina’s story

 “From an African perspective, I believe it is vital to inspire young, up and coming scientists. If there is inspiration and collaboration, there is learning, and learning can be passed on. There has to be continuity if science and innovation is to flourish across our continent.”

Sikhumbuzo Masina, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

Sikhumbuzo Masina is a PhD student at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, investigating Solid Oxide Fuel Cell (SOFC) electrolytes for alternative energy solutions in Africa and beyond. From humble beginnings as a shepherd in Swaziland, to a PhD student collaborating with the START community, Sikhumbuzo has reached the position he is in today through talent, persistence, and the inspiration of others.

Sikhumbuzo Masina from the University of the Witwatersrand.
Photo credit Rebekka Stredwick. ©Diamond Light Source

One of a group of Master’s, PhD students and post-docs who attended START’s Energy Materials workshop at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in December (2019), Sikhumbuzo is part of START’s ‘extended-family’ through his PhD supervisor and mentor, Professor Dave Billing.

For Sikhumbuzo, possibility is the seedbed for ingenuity and it is this, he explains, which drives his desire to reach out and inspire the next generation of science students. This is Sikhumbuzo Masina’s story in his own words.

Students and post docs at GCRF START’s Energy Materials Workshop (15-17 Dec 2019) at the University of Cape Town. From left to right: Dr Wilson Mgodi, Mathias Kiefer, Sikhumbuzo Masina, Adam Schnier, Chris Mullins.
Photo Credit: Rebekka Stredwick. ©Diamond Light Source

Humble beginnings

I grew up with very few resources and life in Swaziland was very hard. My father passed away before I was born, and my mother couldn’t fund my schooling. From the age of 12 years, I therefore had to work away from home as a shepherd to raise funds for school fees.

I was fortunate enough to work for kind people who took me into their family and encouraged me to go to school. From the money I earned in my spare time herding farm animals and assisting on the farm, I was able to fund my schooling until high school. 

School became too expensive, however, so the Priest at the local Catholic Church took responsibility and paid much of my school fees through a church fund to support youth; the rest was topped up by a government bursary. I am very grateful for this support.

Inspired to think big – my PhD dream!

I did very well in high school and found inspiration through my two ‘brothers’ in the family I was working for who had been to university. They were the people I looked up to and motivated me to work hard and have a vision for my future.

I would say to myself, “They wanted PhDs and I want to have a PhD too at some point in my life”. I did not even know what a PhD was! However, the fact that I saw and liked what they were doing was very important for me.

After I completed school, I took advantage of the Government’s study loan scheme for students because I couldn’t support myself. This paid for my tuition and accommodation and meant I could do my first degree and finish it!

The importance of being a role model

Given that I have benefitted in a life-changing way from the inspiration and opportunities provided to me by others, I have a strong desire to devote time to outreach – it is something I always hunt for wherever I am. For example, before I came to Wits University for my PhD, I was a teacher which enabled me to save up money for my postgraduate studies.  This has given me helpful experience for outreach events and inspiring others.

When I was a teacher, I would also tutor children from the local SOS children’s village where the orphaned and vulnerable children stay, giving them tutorials in maths and science and teaching them life skills– I wanted to be a role model to them like the two brothers I looked up to as a child.

Raising awareness of synchrotron techniques and GCRF START

This experience I bring to the University’s ‘Whizz Bang’ group I am part of.  Whizz Bang involves postgraduate students from the School of Chemistry and promotes science through outreach events and also school visits to underprivileged schools around Johannesburg.

At our university Energy Materials Research group events, we demonstrate a variety of chemical experiments and use the START banners in our displays to raise awareness about the important influence of synchrotron techniques on African research, especially in terms of energy materials. This is also a good way to bring attention to the many opportunities provided by START.

Sikhumbuzo Masina with members of Professor Dave Billing’s research group participating in an Energy Materials outreach event at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. From left to right: Dr Caren Billing, Lesego Gaolatlhe , Adewale Ipadeola, Sikhumbuzo Masina, Adam Shnier.
Photo Credit: Dave Billing © Diamond Light Source

Investing in future African scientists, research and innovation

I believe strongly that you have to invest in science and scientists for the long-haul. If you train people and then stop investing in training and research, people lose trust and hope, and may give up. Continuity and sustainability is also lost in terms of research programmes.

I think it is vital to get people across Africa on board with GCRF START, including from smaller countries like Swaziland, Namibia and others. We need to establish links and collaborations at every level and run workshops and training. Yes, we don’t always have the instruments needed to get the preliminary data for applying for synchrotron beam time at world-class facilities like the UK’s Diamond Light Source but even collaborating with scientists from these places through a network like START can open up exciting avenues to grow, access equipment and develop the expertise to get the necessary data.

“Workshops enable us to interact with world class scientists who give us more insights into the capabilities of Diamond Light Sources and how we can apply for beamtime to probe the structure of our materials further.”

Professor Dave Billing from the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, speaking at the GCRF START’s Energy Materials Workshop at the University of Cape Town (15-17 Dec 2019). Photo Credit Rebekka Stredwick. © Diamond Light Source

A continuous, sustainable learning cycle

My own case demonstrates that if there is inspiration and collaboration, there is learning, and learning can be passed on! Even if students like me move elsewhere, we will stay connected because it is an ongoing collaboration we are part of. When I go back home to Swaziland, I carry on with my tutoring. I know it is time-consuming but I feel a responsibility to share my knowledge to inspire the next wave and the next wave of students, so that it is a continuous, sustainable learning cycle.

Sikhumbuzo Masina at the University of a Witwatersrand energy materials outreach event.
Photo credit Dave Billing © Diamond Light Source

Related articles

Click here to read more about the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

How to join and collaborate with GCRF START

START exerts its influence beyond the students and scientists that it directly funds, inspiring the next cohort of PhD and Postdoctoral students, developing their knowledge and skills, and enabling collaboration that can last a lifetime.

For more information about collaborating with, or joining the START programme contact the START Project Coordinator at: GCRF_START@diamond.ac.uk

My Journey to becoming a START Postdoc Research Fellow – Dr Andani Mulelu’s story

As a young structural biology research scientist, Dr Andani Mulelu has already achieved what many dream of happening in a lifetime.  His journey to becoming a GCRF START Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Cape Town (UCT) is one to inspire a new generation of African scientists, showing how UK and Africa can work together to support talented individuals and excellent research with impact. Here is Dr Mulelu’s story in his own words.

Dr Andani Mulelu at the University of Cape Town.
Photo Credit: Rebekka Stredwick. ©Diamond Light Source

Dr Andani’s Mulelu’s story

I was born in the Limpopo region of South Africa to parents who had a rural upbringing under apartheid. One of four children, I soon benefited from a multitude of sacrifices made by my parents to send me to school to get a good education. My parents borrowed heavily to educate us, going without even the basics sometimes so that we might gain from every cent they made.

By the time I went to school, Apartheid had fallen, and I was sent to Zimbabwe to get an education at a boarding high school. Zimbabwe’s education was second to none in Africa and my father, who wasn’t able to pursue a civil engineering career under Apartheid restrictions, gave me the opportunities he and my mother never had.

I had a strong interest in science from an early age – at some point in high school one of my Biology teachers told us about biochemistry and I was instantly hooked! I had great teachers who motivated me and due to changing schools and countries a number of times (South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe), I learnt to study by myself to adapt to different curricula which set a pattern that has benefitted me to this day.  Yet school in a country rocked by economic hardship was not plain sailing. By the time my O-Levels were almost complete, I had to queue for hours to buy food because of shortages at school.

After my A-Levels, my parents had to fund my undergraduate studies at the University of Cape Town, while funding school for my siblings. A creative woman, my mother was not shy of trying new income sources and started a small business selling ‘mopane worms’, a nutritious caterpillar considered a delicacy in Southern Africa. Soon she was earning the same as my father, an engineer!

In terms of my studies, during my honours year I became fascinated by the structure of helical nitrilases, especially those that detoxified cyanide which has all sorts of potential such as cleaning up pollution from mining, and other worthy applications. Nitrilases are helical enzymes that convert nitriles to acids and/or amides (amides are organic compounds containing nitrogen).

I joined Professor Trevor Sewell’s group at UCT for my Master’s degree and my PhD and worked with an international team of scientists located in the United States, UK and Germany. This provided access to ever-improving electron microscopes to visualise our nitrilases at higher and higher resolutions.

Dr Andani Mulelu with scientists (from left to right) Priscillia Masamba,
Dr Jeremy Woodward, Melissa Marx, Philip Venter, Dr Lizelle Lubbe and
Professor Trevor Sewell at the University of Cape Town.
Photo Credit: Rebekka Stredwick. ©Diamond Light Source

The next big milestones took place after my PhD.  I was appointed a START Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the prestigious Global Challenges Research Funded programme at the University of Cape Town’s Division of Medical Biochemistry and Structural Biology (Faculty of Health Sciences). Then, working with Dr Jeremy Woodward and Angela M. Kirykowicz, we were able to visualise the structure of an intact helical filament at close-to-atomic resolution for the first time – the first high resolution visualisation of a Cryo-EM protein structure ever to be produced in Africa!

Dr Mulelu and Dr Woodward next to UCT’s cryo-electron microscope.
Photo Credit: Rebekka Stredwick. ©Diamond Light Source

The findings were published on the 17 July 2019 in Nature Communications Biology 2:260 (2019) and enabled me to finally realise my dream of visualising a nitrilase at atomic resolution and to solve the mystery of substrate selectivity in these enzymes. These results were made possible through our collaboration through GCRF START, access to the state-of-the-art eBIC facilities and expertise at the UK’s world-class synchrotron light source, Diamond.

In years to come, we hope these findings can be used to address some of the main challenges for humanity in terms of health and the environment – solutions which could contribute to meeting the key UN’s Sustainable Development goals through new ways of designing and manufacturing medicines and ‘green’ biotechnology solutions for agriculture and waste treatment here in Africa.

In addition to our successful results, I landed a job as a Research Scientist at H3D Drug Discovery and Development Centre at UCT! H3D is the first integrated drug discovery and development centre on the African continent and I am responsible for providing scientific and technical support in protein expression and purification, structural biology and running biochemical assays to increase the capacity of H3D’s Malaria and Tuberculosis (TB) target based drug discovery programs.

I can truly say that the START program has given me invaluable training and experience in structural biology, particularly in Cryo-Electron microscopy.  Although I am no longer a research scientist with START, working at H3D also brings new opportunities of continued collaboration with START.

On a personal level, the impact on my family and my future ambitions is huge. My parents are very proud of my achievements, and I thank them from my heart for their support. One of my siblings is also pursuing a PhD, and another is similarly inspired to help solve health challenges working for an NGO specialising in water supply and sanitation for disadvantaged schools.

Finally, I am financially independent! I can happily give back to support my deserving parents, and I am much closer to my long-held dream of being a world-class scientist!

Dr Mulelu visiting the UK’s Diamond Light Source synchrotron.
Photo Credit: Dr Mulelu

Related articles:

https://www.news.uct.ac.za/article/-2020-02-28-biochemistry-breakthrough-for-uct-researchers https://www.diamond.ac.uk/Science/Research/Highlights/2019/Designer-enzymes-on-the-way.htm

Double first! First synchrotron user from the University of Zululand solves partial structure of the Schistosomiasis (Bilharzia) G4LZI3 universal stress protein

In a ‘double first’, Dr Priscilla Masamba, has become the first University of Zululand student to use the UK’s National Synchrotron Light Source, Diamond, and solve the partial structure of a protein from Schistosoma mansoni. With access to the synchrotron made possible by GCRF START, Priscilla employed sophisticated robotic instruments and macromolecular X-ray crystallography techniques remotely from South Africa to solve the partial structure of the G4LZI3 universal stress protein – a protein regarded as a target for novel medicines for treating the disease Schistosomiasis. The experiments took place in February 2020, using the Diamond’s I04-1 beamline.

Dr Priscilla Masamba in the laboratory at the University of Cape Town.
Photo credit Rebekka Stredwick. ©Diamond Light Source

Schistosomiasis is an acute and chronic disease caused by parasitic worms (schistosomes) endemic in more than 78 countries with an estimated 4 million people infected in South Africa alone. The disease requires an intermediate host, the freshwater snail Bulinus africanus, and occurs most often in rural areas where people become infected during routine agricultural, domestic, occupational, and recreational activities which expose them to infested water.

Only one drug, Praziquantel, is available to treat Schistosomiasis leaving people vulnerable to schistosome resistance and this treatment is only partially effective in treating adults.  The aim of Priscilla ’s research is therefore to generate insights for the design of alternative treatment regimen targeting specific stages during the developmental cycle of the schistosome.

Describing the experiments at Diamond as “close to a cool sci-fi movie,” Dr Masamba was able to control the sophisticated instruments on I04-1 beamline and collect data in real time from the University of Cape Town’s (UCT’s) Aaron Klug Centre for Imaging and Analysis – established as a GCRF START Centre of Excellence for structural biology research.

“Remote data collection at Diamond was so exciting!” Dr Masamba explains, “I could literally control and see a robot that was thousands of miles away on the other side of the world, mount a microscopic crystal (sample) within the firing line of a powerful X-ray beam, and determine the amount of energies released by light emitted from the sample caused by incident X-ray beams, and all of this while working from the laboratory in Cape Town. I didn’t need to get in a plane to achieve the one of the most imperative steps in the crystallography process! The whole experience provided me with rare exposure to the world of X-ray crystallography, impacting my view of science in a spectacular way.”

Proteins are thermodynamically and kinetically responsible for all biochemical processes that occur, and are therefore responsible for coordinating, regulating and dictating numerous metabolic functions. Exposure of the Schistosome parasite to extreme conditions during its developmental stage triggers the expression of heat shock proteins and universal stress proteins, of which the G4LZI3 USP has been identified as a potential druggable target for the development of alternative treatments (schistosomicides). Techniques like X-ray crystallography can provide insight, not only into the composition of these biomolecules, but also into their various interactions with other compounds and their roles in biological mechanisms, an imperative foundation for rational drug design and development.

Before the experiments took place, diffraction of the crystals was first checked at UCT using a diffractometer. Crystals from these conditions were then flash-frozen in liquid nitrogen and shipped to the Diamond synchrotron to be used as samples.

The BART robot and sample holder on beamline I04-1. The drum (Dewar) contains liquid nitrogen, and space for 37 pucks, each containing 16 pins, so 592 samples. These pins and pucks are shipped in a Dewar from South Africa. The robotic arm is grey and is shown ready to pick up the next sample. When it selects the next sample, this is placed onto the goniometer, which holds the sample and rotates it for data collection.
©Diamond Light Source.
The goniometer on beamline I04-1 holds the microscopic crystal on a pin with the sample on the end of it which rotates in the firing line of the powerful X-ray beam.
©Diamond Light Source.

The solved structure of the S. mansoni G4LZI3 is a success story for the University of Zululand, a small resource-constrained university in the rural part of KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa. The University of Zululand lacked the resources required for Dr Masamba to achieve all her objectives for her PhD, which meant the collaboration through START in order to carry out the experiments needed was imperative both professionally and personally.

Priscilla is thankful for the guidance and mentoring from her PhD supervisor, Professor Abidemi Paul Kappo, who heads up the Biotechnology and Structural Biology (BSB) Research Group in the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology at the University of Zululand, and from START Principal Investigator, Professor Trevor Sewell, of UCT’s Aaron Klug Centre for Imaging and Analysis, both of whom helped Priscilla overcome various challenges.

“I have been able to learn and cultivate scarce, critical and sought-after skills here in Africa in the fields of bioinformatics and drug discovery, molecular biology and especially, structural biology,” says Dr Masamba. “These include gene cloning, recombinant protein expression and purification, as well as characterisation of proteins. This has not been an easy task because I am from an underrepresented group in science as a black female and study at a historically-disadvantaged and resource-constrained institution.”

Professor Abidemi Paul Kappo, (left) head of the Biotechnology and Structural Biology (BSB) Research Group in the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology at the University of Zululand, and START Principal Investigator, Professor Trevor Sewell (right), from the University of Cape Town’s Aaron Klug Centre for Imaging and Analysis.
©Diamond Light Source.

An important objective of the START programme is to increase the number of structural biologists in similar less developed universities in South Africa and across the continent. This can present complex challenges, not least because many students are ill-equipped for work in the field of structural biology.

“A key concept behind the creation of the START Centre of Excellence at UCT’s Aaron Klug Centre for Imaging and Analysis, for example, is to provide the necessary infrastructure to enable senior students and staff at South Africa’s historically disadvantaged universities to access both the human and material resources necessary to overcome the difficulties and determine protein structures,” Professor Sewell says. “We count the collaboration with Professor Paul Abidemi Kappo and Dr Masamba as a major success in this respect.”

This collaboration between Prof. Kappo and Prof. Sewell was enabled by GCRF START with Prof. Sewell providing the technological resource for the G4LZI3 structural biology project, as well as the linkage to Diamond.

“Above all, Professor Sewell’s enthusiasm to train and develop a “critical mass” of students in Structural Biology is second to none,” Prof. Kappo says. “This has been a joint effort and a model of national and international collaboration. In addition to the technological resources through UCT and linkage with Diamond in the UK, funding for this project was provided by the National Research Foundation (NRF) of South Africa through a doctoral bursary awarded Dr Masamba. It is expected that structure-guided drug discovery for schistosomiasis will be the concluding part the project.”

Dr Masamba and Prof. Trevor Sewell with colleagues collaborating with GCRF START at the Aaron Klug Centre for Imaging and Analysis at the University of Cape Town. In the picture from left to right: Dr Priscilla Masamba, Dr Jeremy Woodward, Melissa Marx, Dr Mulelu, Dr Philip Venter, Dr Lizelle Lubbe, Professor Trevor Sewell
Photo Credit: Rebekka Stredwick. ©Diamond Light Source.

About Dr Priscilla Masamba

Born to Congolese parents in the DR Congo, Dr Masamba lived in the UK and Zimbabwe as a child, before moving to South Africa where she matriculated and studied for her first degree in Biological Sciences at Walter Sisulu University, Mthatha. Thereafter, Priscilla joined the Biotechnology and Structural Biology (BSB) Research Group in the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology at the University of Zululand headed by Prof Abidemi Paul Kappo and registered under his tutelage for a BSc (Hons) degree, followed by an MSc and later a PhD in Biochemistry. Priscilla’s desire is to continue in the path of macromolecular X-ray crystallography of proteins through the NRF Postdoctoral Fellowship in Structural Biology at the University of Johannesburg.


Dr Priscilla Masamba extends a special thanks to Dr Brandon Weber (UCT), Dr Phillip Venter (UCT), Kaylene Baron (UCT), and Ndibonani Qokoyi (University of Zululand) who were involved in different ways in the production, purification and crystallisation of the G4LZI3 protein, as well as in data collection.

Investigating energy materials for efficient and cost effective conversion of sunlight into electricity

“Focusing on universal access to energy, increased energy efficiency and the increased use of renewable energy through new economic and job opportunities is crucial to creating more sustainable and inclusive communities and resilience to environmental issues like climate change”

UN Sustainable Development Goal 7: Energy

The case for localised energy generation

The rising global demand for energy and the depletion of fossil-based fuels has increased the research focus on new materials which could contribute to efficient localised energy generation, particularly in remote areas with a scarcity of electricity.

Of the nearly 1 billion people globally functioning without electricity, 50% are found in Sub-Saharan Africa alone (UN, 2019), where the focus on finding localised energy generation solutions is a welcome and timely opportunity, especially in schools and clinics located in rural areas far from the existing electricity supply or grid.

Investigating energy materials for efficient conversion of sunlight into electricity

Dr Daniel Wamwangi is a Co-Investigator within the GCRF START programme conducting fundamental research into energy materials for solutions which could one day revolutionise the energy landscape across Africa and beyond. Originally from Kenya and based as Associate Professor in the School of Physics at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, Professor Wamwangi’s research on energy materials focuses on energy conversion with the aim of converting sunlight into electricity in the most efficient and cost effective way.

“The availability of alternative energy at increased efficiencies with lower costs and improved environmental footprints has domino effects on the social economic landscape,” explains Dr Wamwangi. “Benefits such as pumped water supply and purification through local solar power generators, solar based lamps and solar powered electronic devices such as cell phones could radically improve the living standards of populations in these areas.”

Dr Daniel Wamwangi performing the electronic characterisation of energy conversion materials at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, using the physical property measurement system. Photo credit: Daniel Wamwangi

Finding the right energy conversion parameters

First the right parameters must be established and tested; only then can prototyping begin. There are two prongs of energy conversion that are of prime interest and focus, namely photovoltaic and thermoelectric conversion. The former involves harnessing sunlight to produce electricity, while the latter entails the conversion of heat into electricity.

The conversion of sunlight into electricity is popularly known as photovoltaics and the devices that enable the conversion are known as solar cells.

“The performance parameters that determine the commercial viability for sustainable renewable energy especially in photovoltaics include efficiency of conversion, lifetime and costs,” explains Dr Wamwangi. “In the current materials-science landscape, Silicon (Si), an element in the periodic table, has exhibited the highest efficiency of light to electricity conversion at 28%. However, the costs of processing are prohibitive and thus alternative materials and technologies are crucial to replace Si.”

This is the crux of Professor Wamwangi’s research in which cost-effective materials such as Organic materials (organic polymer based solar cell) and Inorganic materials (halide perovskites – a hybrid between inorganic and organic materials, which can be solution-based), and control of solar energy in materials (supplementary light management schemes) are investigated and developed. 1

“Hybrids are found in most cases in powder form and retain their properties even when in solution,” Professor Wamwangi explains. “They can be combined from a composite solution that is photo-responsive, which means they can take light and produce electrons and positive charges (holes) leading to voltage and electrical current.”

Supplementary light management schemes

“Supplementary light management schemes are one way to improve efficiency and this is where a lot of solar research these days is focusing. If we look at the energy budget not all the light from the sun is useful to solar devices because every material has a unique energy value,” says Dr Wamwangi. “This means that some of the light that is not used would be wasted. Therefore, we combine the energy of the light particles from the wasted light in order to increase the energy of the wasted light so it can be used by the solar cell. This increases the useful light that can be absorbed by the materials in the device.”

Light management uses nanostructures to modify the emission of light within the visible spectrum with a select number of atoms in a patterned manner to capture light (plasmonics), increasing (up conversion) and decreasing (down conversion) the energy from the sun, as Professor Wamwangi explains,

“When the energy from the sun is very large it produces hot electrons and energy is lost in the form of heat; when the temperature increases, the efficiency of the solar cell decreases, so this energy has to be decreased through the down conversion as part of a light management process.”

Organic-based solar cell devices operate on an entirely different conversion mechanism involving a combination of two interconnected materials (donor and acceptor of electrons) with entirely different electrical properties2. More recently, a hybrid of organic and inorganic materials also popularly known as Halide perovskites is intensively studied due to its associated high photo conversion efficiency.

These low-cost energy materials are predicted to replace Si-based photovoltaics through the addition of a third component to form a ternary system (three interconnected networks of materials) in consumer electronics. However, the production of current in these materials is dependent on the structure at the micro level (as previously investigated by Professor Wamwangi’s PhD student Dr. F. Otieno et al 3).

Access to state-of-the-art synchrotron techniques, collaboration and upskilling

This is where GCRF START makes a significant difference, providing researchers like Professor Wamwangi and his colleagues with access to the UK’s Diamond Light Source synchrotron and sophisticated techniques known as GIWAXS and GISAXS (Glancing incidence Wide/Small Angle X-ray Scattering). These techniques are used to study the arrangement of molecules or atoms in a solid to nanometer length scales in order to probe the type of microstructure of these materials to elucidate the electron (negative charge) and hole transport (positive) charge within the network.

© Diamond Light Source

“The factors that determine the microstructure of interconnected networks include temperature and time during processing,” says Professor Wamwangi, “Using the facilities available at Diamond through START, as well as expertise within the START family, we can correlate the microstructure with the production of current (photocurrent) and with the absorption of light on a dynamic basis.”

Besides the research fundamentals, Dr Wamwangi speaks highly of the fact that START provides a collaborative forum for scientists in Africa working in this field of Energy Materials,

“As seen in the recent publication on perovskite solar cells with START collaborators from both Africa and the UK, START increases the impact, quality and sustainability of our research publications and outputs, as well as the overall visibility and influence of African scientists and innovators globally.”


1) F.Otieno, B. Mutuma, M. Airo, K. Ranganathan, R. Erasmus, N. Coville D. Wamwangi 2018, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0040609017300573

2) F.Otieno, B. Mutuma, M. Airo, K. Ranganathan, R. Erasmus, N. Coville D. Wamwangi 2018

3) F.Otieno, B. Mutuma, M. Airo, K. Ranganathan, R. Erasmus, N. Coville D. Wamwangi 2018

4) Collaborators in the microstructure project of organic photovoltaics: Prof. D. Billing the principal Investigator in the START project, Wits University; Dr. Moritz Riede, Department of Physics, Oxford University, Dr. Thomas Derrien, Dr. Francis Otieno, School of Physics/Chemistry, Wits University (Professor Wamwangi’s former PhD student).

Structural biology – Improvements in health

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 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”.

Prof. Trevor Sewell, University of Cape Town

A START project at University of Cape Town led by co-investigator Prof Edward D Sturrock

ACE in complex with the clinically used antihypertensive drug, lisinopril (black sticks; PDB ID: 1O86)

Structural biology of angiotensin converting enzyme and related metalloproteases

Enzymes play important roles in a variety of biological processes in the human body. Angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) for example, is a metalloprotease which regulates blood pressure and is also involved in scar tissue development (fibrosis). Conditions such as diabetes and tuberculosis can lead to excessive scar tissue formation, which ultimately stops proper organ function. Currently, there is no specific treatment for fibrosis and affected individuals have an average survival period of 2-4 years. Hypertension, on the other hand, is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease and stroke, which accounted for 15.2 million global deaths in 2016. Our research group, led by Prof Edward Sturrock, is based in the Department of Integrative Biomedical Sciences at the University of Cape Town and has a long-standing interest in ACE and related zinc metalloproteases.

Although ACE inhibitors reduce fibrosis and are widely used for treating hypertension, certain patients experience the life-threatening side-effect of severe swelling below the skin surface of the throat and tongue. With the resources provided by START, we aim to design compounds devoid of this side-effect. Detailed structures of ACE will be solved using X-ray crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy to improve our understanding of how ACE functions and enable the design of antifibrotic and antihypertensive drugs.

START Collaborators – research projects

For information on projects please click on the names below

Stellenbosch University: Professor Erick Strauss and Anton Hamann, post-doc 

Cape Town University, Lauren Arendse