Youth Month 2021: Prof Kapil Moothi

Youth Month 2021: Prof Kapil Moothi

June is Youth Month, and this year the NRF is celebrating the Youth of the NRF who are Advancing Knowledge, Transforming Lives and Inspiring a Nation. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us and we hope that you are inspired by the young dreamers and achievers who are affiliated with the NRF through their work or studies.

Prof Kapil Moothi is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment (FEBE) and presently Head of Department (HoD) for the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).

Prof Moothi was awarded an NRF-DAAD In-Country Scholarship in 2011/2012 for PhD (Chemical Engineering) studies at the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS).

In 2017, Prof Moothi received an NRF Y1-rating. An NRF Y-rating is awarded to “Promising Young Researchers who have demonstrated the ability to establish themselves as researchers within a five-year period after evaluation”.

What has been your study/career journey?

Since primary school, I have been inclined towards studying. I did not dread going to school and was not one to be absent – even when sick. I really liked learning and did not want to miss out on anything. I do not remember having had more than a couple of sick days in my entire time at Ladysmith Secondary School and consequently, received a rare ‘outstanding attendance’ award in my matric year.

In 2003, I matriculated from the secondary school in Ladysmith, a small town in KwaZulu-Natal where I was born and raised. My interests were always in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, as well as in English and Afrikaans. I matriculated with higher grade passes in Mathematics, Physical Science, Biology and Computer Studies.

I chose Engineering, and in particular Chemical Engineering, because I wanted to do something challenging at university. I had not really investigated what the field was about before I chose it. I heard from teachers and friends that it was a difficult programme, and I felt, yes, a challenge is what I would like to take on! I believe Chemical Engineering was the only selection on my university application forms.

I moved to Johannesburg in 2004 to study Chemical Engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand. As expected, the undergraduate programme did indeed prove to be quite challenging. The experience, even though quite stressful at times, was good. I placed additional pressure on myself to succeed since I was determined to avoid repeating or writing supplementary exams during those years.

I graduated with a BSc Chemical Engineering (Honours) in December 2007. In the final Honours year, I was introduced to the exciting and emerging field of nanotechnology and, since I did not feel ready to go into the industry yet, this was the direction I chose for my postgraduate studies.

I embarked on an MSc in Chemical Engineering in 2008, still at WITS. My research topic was: ‘Carbon nanotube production from greenhouse gases during syngas synthesis’, which I studied under the supervision of Prof S.E. Lyuke.

I completed my Master’s in 2010 and immediately registered for a PhD, remaining at WITS. From the findings and results of my MSc, I recognised that, in order to realise large-scale applications, CNTs had to be grown in large quantities. This led to the development of the research study for my PhD thesis entitled Production of carbon nanotubes using direct coal-derived hydrocarbon products in a chemical vapour deposition reactor. Under the supervision of Professors Lyuke and R Falcon, and Dr W Augustyn from NECSA and Dr M Meyyappan from NASAa’s Ames Research Centre, I was awarded my PhD in 2014.

From 2013 until the end of 2015, I worked as a chemical (process) engineer at Sasol in Sasolburg involved in the provision of technical plant support, monitoring and optimisation of plant, small project execution etc. Thereafter, in January 2016, I joined the University of Johannesburg as a Senior Lecturer and was subsequently promoted to Associate Professor in 2017 and Head of Department for Chemical Engineering in 2018.

Did you have to overcome any obstacles to be where you are today, and what did you learn from it?

During my undergraduate studies, I set the goal of obtaining my PhD before the age of 30! I set this goal as an objective because it would be challenging to accomplish as not many people have a PhD in Chemical Engineering (let alone receive one before turning 30). The main obstacles I had to overcome were financial resources, delays in the set-up and commissioning of my experimental equipment and my tendency to procrastinate. I overcame the financial obstacle by ensuring that the quality of my research work was of such a high standard that I would be awarded the NRF-DAAD scholarship and the WITS University Postgraduate Merit Awards.

Through the delay in the set-up of my experimental equipment, I learnt the importance of perseverance, resilience and effective communication about expectations and deliverables. As such, I overcame this delay by having a ‘never give up’ attitude and scheduling regular sessions/meetings with all the service providers.

The high standards I set for myself led to some anxiety which tended to result in an increase in procrastination. I overcame this challenge by using good planning and managing my expectations of myself. The planning I implemented helped me to focus on tasks/activities that were important and time-sensitive. In doing so, I started to better cope with my anxiety and reduce the amount of procrastination time. The end result was that I was awarded my PhD in December 2014 at the age of 28. This achievement has truly been an important one in my life (that I am proud of).

What is your area of expertise?

My current research focuses on investigating the role of nanotechnology in environmental engineering for the treatment of water and wastewater. I hope that his research will help in supporting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”.

Water is a critical resource for survival anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, people do not have access to safe, clean water (various reports and statistics about the water problem have been compiled and disseminated by establishments such as the World Health Organization and United Nations). Industries such as oil fields, petrochemical, pharmaceutical and others produce large quantities of oil-containing wastewater which pose environmental as well as water pollution challenges. These industries would be likely to invest in and pay for technologies such as the proposed module since they have the need to solve these wastewater problems in a cost-effective and sustainable manner. Municipal and other government entities overseeing water resources would also be potential customers.

The South African Government’s national policy is one that effectively contextualises the role of ‘Green Chemistry’ in sustainable development, as this developing country seeks to satisfy the needs of its people without compromising the existence of future generations. In 2013, the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs released the 2nd National Water Resource Strategy (NWRS2), which encapsulates the vision and strategic activities for effective water management. As new challenges have emerged and many changes have occurred in the water sector (since the publication of the 1st strategy, NWRS1 in 2004) the need for ‘new thinking’ and innovation has been elucidated. Accordingly, this nanotechnology-centric project of using a carbon nanotube-infused membrane (and its module) for treatment of contaminated water fits into the national government’s agenda of security of water supply and ensuring that management of water resources assists South Africa’s growth, development and socio-economic priorities in an unbiased and viable manner over the next 5 to 10 years.

As legislation in many countries increasingly requires industries to reduce the volume and hazardous nature of their wastewater, the significance of the project in helping to meet such requirements will be showcased. Indeed, the availability of our product will help all stakeholders to comply with existing regulations regarding wastewater, water recovery, environmental management and related issues.

Carbon nanotube-infused membranes allow for very strong and durable modules that could effectively clean oily wastewater. Robustness of the module would make it quite hard-wearing relative to the life cycle of other polymer composite membranes that do not contain carbon nanotubes. Even though other membranes for water treatment are commercially available, the addition of carbon nanotubes in this membrane (and its module) sets it apart from competitors by establishing a new, improved standard in terms of cost, effectiveness, strength, durability and robustness. This is due to the fact that carbon nanotubes make the polymer composite membrane stronger but do not adversely affect filtration efficiency.

How can your research/work advance knowledge, transform lives and inspire a nation?

This research advances ‘Green Chemistry’ since the approach of ‘benign by design’ is applied at the design stage, supporting sustainability of the new product (carbon nanotube-infused membrane and its module) across its full lifecycle. Challenge with membrane separation is the flux through the membrane and the lifetime of the membrane. As fouling and concentration polarisation are key challenges, modifying its properties (by addition of carbon nanotubes) will produce membranes that are easier to physically clean and resistant to fouling, giving them an extended lifetime. In addition, maintenance costs and downtime during the lifetime will be reduced. Hence, the lifecycle approach to environmental performance and sustainability of product necessitates proper consideration of pre-manufacturing.

The need is to purify oil-containing wastewater in an environmentally sustainable manner. Due to the enhanced membrane properties, operating parameters that were previously not possible could be practically attained. Development of the new module to house the membrane leads to membrane flux being higher than it is presently feasible because the initial loss of flux when operation begins will be minimized. As this advancement increases membrane efficiency, the need for a separation option that does not use harmful chemicals is addressed. As the membrane has the potential to be used in current systems (that implement membranes), scale-up of the membrane to pilot-scale testing, resulting in the realization of its industrial potential, exists.

Protection of public health and the conservation of water resources would be greatly improved by the launch of this membrane module. Education levels and skills of personnel will be developed for the effective use of membrane module in various industries. Accordingly, such training and learning interventions will deepen the talent pool of the workforce that exists in the water treatment sector. One of the fundamental human rights is access to clean, safe water and this project is one that significantly advances such an issue for many people across the world.

From a global perspective, South Africa’s water resources are scarce and exceptionally limited (unevenly spread). The situation is also exacerbated since the majority of urban and industrial developments (as well as some dense rural settlements), have been set up in isolated sites away from large watercourses. Most economically obtainable yield from (surface) water resources has been fully developed and used, hence wherever it is practical, management techniques (use of new membrane module) need to be applied to wastewater to improve water quality to appropriate standards in all regions.

The main stakeholders that would be impacted are local communities along with their local/regional governments as well as the industries that produce oil-containing wastewater. Since membrane module is an improved method for water treatment, this will have a positive effect on the profitability of the industries (reduction in capital and annual amount spent on wastewater treatment). As the quality of treated water advances and time spent on treating wastewater diminishes (due to effective use of carbon-nanotube membrane module), the stakeholders would also experience a reduction in pollution levels of their water resources.

The social benefit of industries lessening the use of chemical-related products to treat their wastewater is that there would be a reduction in hazardous incidents and the handling of risky materials. Pollution reduction always brings better community relationships between the public that is affected and industries that are viewed as the source of the problem. This also reduces events that could be flashpoints for social unrest.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

The defining moment in my life was the day I started school. It was from this day that I would spend the next ~20 years learning (resulting in a PhD in Chemical Engineering, no less). From that pivotal day, I set the high academic standards I aimed to achieve. I chose to do so without feeling any pressure from my parents or family to excel scholastically. Accordingly, this led me to have a strong motivation and determination within myself to achieve my PhD. Nonetheless, every day I continue to learn (even if it may not be for a formal qualification).

  • I was recognised in the “Education” category by the Mail & Guardian in their Top 200 Young South Africans list in 2019.
  • I was part of a promotional marketing video for ‘Chemical Engineering’ at UJ in 2019.
  • I was profiled by “MechChem Africa” in a feature article in 2019.
  • In 2015, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research awarded me as a “Green Talent – High Potential in Sustainable Development”.
  • In 2012, I won ‘First Place Prize (Poster Presentation – FEBE)’ 4th WITS Cross-Faculty Postgraduate Symposium
  • In 2011, the NRF-DAAD “In-Country Scholarship” awarded due to the high quality of research work
  • In 2010, I was awarded Golden Key International Honour Society Membership for being in the “top 15% of academic achievers”
  • From 2008, was awarded a ‘Post Graduate Merit Award’ by WITS

Did the COVID-19 pandemic (and national lockdown) change the way you work/study? How did you adapt to the “new normal”?

I have acquired report/research paper writing, communication and presentation skills during my research experience over the past decade. By possessing the ability to manage interpersonal relationships professionally (by knowing the importance of negotiation, problem-solving and conflict resolution) I was adeptly equipped to handle the change in higher education brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. The adjustment to ‘emergency remote teaching’ in 2020 allowed me to lead a better-prepared team of academics into the mode of blended learning in 2021. This approach to teaching and learning has allowed for adequate online engagement with students so that the academic programme is not comprised in terms of quality and integrity.

What is the best advice you have ever received (and from whom)?

Marc Anthony: “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life”.

The aspects of being an academic that I enjoy is being able to conduct research in my field of nanotechnology for water and wastewater treatment. I also enjoy the interactions I have with the Chemical Engineering students undertaking their Bachelor of Engineering Technology (BEngTech) at UJ. It is fulfilling to watch them grow and develop to become 21st-century graduates. As the HoD, I am grappling with new challenges daily such as student issues, staff management and performance, regular Senate, Faculty, School and Departmental meetings, budget planning, leading departmental preparations for professional body accreditation visits by the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) etc.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

I would like to progress in my academic career to the rank of Full Professor as well as regularly improve my NRF rating so that one day I am able to achieve an ‘A’ rating.

This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Please view the terms for republishing here.
Related Posts