25 Year South Africa breakthrough Micro fuel cells

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SA-born Harvard engineering graduate Siyabulela Xuza has announced a breakthrough in energy, which could allow Africans to charge mobile devices without using batteries or tapping into national grids.

“I have just finished a year-long project on microfuel cells, which are fuel cells that can be used to power small devices such as cellphones, as well as laptops,” says Xuza (25).

“The platform I was interested in was in microfuel cells, since they have higher energy densities [than batteries], which basically means that you can store energy for a longer period.”

The microfuel cells were developed at the Harvard Center for Nanoscale Systems and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Microsystems Technology Laboratory.

Xuza says that instead of trying to build a better battery, which is what many engineers and scientists are trying to do, he decided to look at other ways of storing energy.

“If you look at cellphones, there is a clear trend that they need to be charged more often [than older models] because of their rising energy requirements.

“What that showed me is that surely there is an opportunity here to innovate and to see if we can develop any solutions for that,” says Xuza.

“Mobile phones are growing in Africa. They are growing at such a fast rate that we have mobile commerce. We are beginning to have all these platforms built on mobile, if you look at things like M-Pesa. But the key requirement driving growth for telecom companies is energy,” says Xuza.

Xuza, who grew up in Mthatha playing football in the township of Northcrest, has not taken the most obvious path in life. Known for designing rocket fuel in his mother’s kitchen, he has a planet known as Siyaxuza, near the Jupiter asteroid belt, named after him.

He is a fluent Mandarin Chinese speaker and has lived in the US for five years.

Xuza says rather than taking up opportunities at Silicon Valley in the US, he has opted to count himself among those brilliant young Africans who are seeking to use their quality education from overseas to develop Africa. “I do have a passion for African innovation and the way I am going to be driving that passion is through my field, as an engineer, by developing energy technologies – particularly energy storage, to harness the power of the sun and to store it so that when there is no sun people can still have power.”

While at MIT, Xuza missed death by about two minutes last year in the Boston shootings which followed the Boston Marathon bombing. He says that moment has driven him to give back more to society.

Since completing his studies he has returned to SA and keeps busy giving motivational talks. He has started a global energy company.

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