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The science of small things

- Buhle Zuma

Nosipho Moloto hopes to use nanotechnology to solve our energy crisis.

What you think you know is not always the complete truth as things change all the time, especially when you have a deeper look. This change is what excites Dr Nosipho Moloto, a nanotechnology scientist in the Faculty of Science.

“Take, for example, silver. If you ask a layman what silver is, they will tell you that it is a shiny metal, that you can make jewellery and cutlery with. However, if you take it and break it into tiny particles in the nanoscale it is no longer just a shiny material. It becomes powderish and it acquires new properties and has medicinal properties like antibacterial agents,” enthuses Moloto about the extraordinary power of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology, the science of small things (in simple terms), is a relatively new field in South Africa and growing because of its potential to make a significant contribution to a number of fields. It holds the key to the discovery of new materials with extraordinary properties.

Moloto is hoping to use nanotechnology to solve our energy crisis and also make a contribution to the field of biotechnology. One of her main interests, and something that pre-occupies her on a daily basis, is semiconductors used in electronics.

“I am interested in the semiconducting properties of the elements found in the periodic table.”

By synthesising semiconductors through adding different chemicals and heat at various settings, these semiconductors change all the time and have to be tested for their usability and possible applications. 

“My ultimate goal is to come up with something simple that will solve our energy crisis. I am also working on the diagnostic of diseases using nanotechnology that will allow early diagnostic of diseases such as breast cancer and the location of tumours. Remember diseases are curable if you can detect them early,” Moloto.

Moloto who hails from KwaMashu in KwaZulu-Natal is among the new generation of researchers working in this area to support the country to reap the benefits of nanotechnology. South Africa’s nanotechnology strategy, adopted in 2006, identified the areas of health, water and energy as key research areas where social impact will be largest through nanotechnology.

Her dedication to research has been recognised through her promotion as a reader in the Wits School of Chemistry in October 2015. Moloto who marks her fifth year at Wits University in January 2016 attributes her success to hard work and good support.

Her journey has been peppered by encounters that have contributed to her success. A brief talk on the first day of registration by the head of the chemistry department at the University of Zululand saw her change from computer science to chemistry. She was introduced to nanotechnology at honours level and has expanded her knowledge in the area of quantum dots.

She obtained her master cum-laude at Unizulu before taking up a studentship with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.  It was during this time that she enrolled for her PhD at Wits University and joined the Wits chemistry Department in 2011 upon competition.

The five years at Wits have been marked by a rapidly meeting all the criteria set out for academics to move up the rank in minimum time.

She was awarded a Y2-rating by the National Research Founding. This rating is awarded to young researchers (below 35 years of age), “who have held the doctorate or equivalent qualification for less than five years at the time of application, and who are recognised as having the potential to establish themselves as researchers within a five-year period after evaluation, based on their performance and productivity as researchers during their doctoral studies and/or early post-doctoral careers.”

Moloto beams as she talks about her research projects, international collaborations and service to the industry. One of her proudest moments was receiving the Distinguished Young Woman Researcher Award (2014) in the Physical Sciences and Engineering category awarded to her by the South African Women in Science Awards.  

Although she has a demanding work she says she tries to live a balanced life. Moloto is a mother of two boys aged eight and thirteen. She jokes that dinner conversation at home revolves around nanotechnology as both she and her husband are in the same field. The family enjoys playing tennis together.