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The tribe has spoken

- By Buhle Zuma


The South African Institute of Tribology (SAIT) has presented the 2015 Louw Alberts Award for ‘Outstanding Contribution to Tribology’ to Wits’ Natasha Sacks.

Sacks, an Associate Professor in the School of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering, was presented with the award at the banquet hosted by SAIT during the 11th International Tribology Conference.

Wits Communications caught up with Sacks to find out more about tribology and her work. In her office in the Richard Ward Building, not too far from her laboratory, Sacks demystifies the term and explains that tribology is not the study of tribes.

“Simply put, tribology refers to the act of rubbing two surfaces together leading to removal of surface material, and it includes the study and application of the principles of friction, lubrication and wear. As researchers we are interested in how materials interact to cause friction and wear as well as designing materials that can better withstand friction,” says Sacks.

“One of the key things that tribology does is help to reduce maintenance budgets,” she says.

In the industry, a proper understanding of the impact of tribology can reduce inefficiencies, save maintenance and energy costs while extending machine-life.

Tribology of materials also includes positive effects such as grit blasting and polishing of metals to provide high quality surface finishes, and is used to manufacture every day components such as cell phones and glasses.

The award was given in recognition of her contribution to advancing the field of tribology which includes the establishing a Wear Laboratory at Wits; her relentless efforts in promoting SAIT and South African tribology among international wear bodies; and ensuring strengthened links within the industry in respect to the field of wear and tribology. The majority of her research in tribology has been funded by the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Strong Materials.

Sacks says she is very humbled and blessed to have received this award. “If you look at the list of previous recipients they have been pioneers in the field.”

Receiving the award holds sentimental value for Sacks whose mentors were recipients of the award and were pioneers of tribology studies in South Africa.

“It is exactly 30 years since the head of the Materials Engineering Department at the University of Cape Town, Professor A. Ball, received this and here I am, a product of his teaching, receiving it in 2015. They were very excited when I told them about it,” beams Sacks.

Born and bred in Eldorado Park in Johannesburg, her fascination with tribology began in matric when she received a brochure from the University of Cape Town (UCT) with information on the Materials Engineering discipline.  The University was, at the time, the only institution in the country to offer this degree. She consequently pursued it to masters level at the University before reading for her doctorate at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany. The title of her thesis was The wear and corrosive-wear response of tungsten carbide-cobalt hardmetals under woodcutting and three body abrasion conditions which was jointly supervised by the late Professor Silvana Luyckx at Wits, who later served as Natasha’s mentor when she joined Wits as a lecturer in 2004.

After almost three years in Germany she returned to South Africa in 2004 where she took up a position at Wits as a lecturer. She is currently the Focus Area Coordinator of the Carbides and Cermets research group within the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Strong Materials and serves on the editorial board of the International Journal of Refractory Metals and Hard Materials. She is an adjudicator for the annual UNESCO/L’Oreal Women in Science Sub-Saharan Africa fellowships and serves on the Technical Program Committee for the International Conference on Tungsten, Refractory and Hard Materials hosted in the USA every three years. She has established a Wear laboratory at Wits that is capable of testing a range of wear mechanisms.

Although her work has international impact, Sacks says the most rewarding aspect of her job is making a difference in South African owned businesses. One such business is Pilot Tools, a producer of tungsten carbide cutting inserts and tools for the mining and manufacturing industry.  She collaborates closely with the company and conducts training for their employees currently studying towards a masters degree or a PhD on how to improve their manufacturing processes as well as the production of different types of materials so that they can produce better tools. This partnership has also resulted in funding for research projects and employment opportunities for Wits students.

Outside of work, Sacks enjoys spending time with her family and muses that she has often been called a cultural engineer because of her love for the arts.