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Professor Sudesh Rathilal, Deputy Dean: Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, hosted a virtual inaugural professorial lecture on Wednesday, 14 April 2021 via MS Teams.  

The Programme Director at the lecture was Ms Shoba Rathilal, Academic Development Practitioner: Centre for Excellence in Learning and Training (CELT), who relayed that it was a very proud moment for her as an academic, as a sister and DUT colleague, to speak about Prof Rathilal. She also thanked everyone for availing themselves to this lecture. 

“Such a lecture provides an opportunity for us as academics, students and the greater community as well, to engage with our various esteemed professors as they share their field of expertise.

I would like to acknowledge our executive management at DUT, especially acknowledge Prof Nokuthula Sibiya, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Teaching and Learning, Prof Sibusiso Moyo, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Engagement and Prof Bhekisipho Twala Executive Dean: Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, at this event. Prof Rathilal has such a fantastic area of expertise that we are all keen to listen to his insights into dealing with the crises of water, which is one of the top five global risks at the moment, and innovation in this area is surely going to benefit mankind,” she said. 

Giving the official welcome was Prof Nokuthula Sibiya, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Teaching and Learning who introduced the inaugurand’s presentation topic on an integrated anaerobic photocatalytic system for wastewater treatment. 

“On behalf of the Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Prof Thandwa Mthembu, I would like to extend a warm welcome to all of you. We are gathered here to celebrate the achievement of Prof Rathilal for his achievement as a public intellectual. Inaugural lectures are part of the strategic objective number four which is the innovative curriculum and research. It is indeed an honour to congratulate Prof Rathilal on his inauguration as a full professor,” she said. 

Prof Sibiya relayed that this prestigious achievement of professorship is awarded to academics who demonstrate excellence and scholarship on teaching, research, innovation and engagement. 

“Prof Rathilal, you are being rewarded for your unrelenting dedication and hard work. I am confident that you will inspire emerging academics to succeed in their academic journey,” she said.  

She further added that for the inaugural address, Prof Rathilal shared the body of knowledge that he has conducted on an integrated anaerobic photocatalytic system for wastewater treatment. 

“The research area deals with an integrated system to solve various problems within a small wastewater treatment plant including reduction of organic matter and emerging contaminants using fabricated nanocomposites,” she said. 

Speaking more on Prof Rathilal’s vast impact as an academic at DUT was Prof Bhekisipho Twala, Executive Dean: Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, who also thanked everyone for their attendance and the team who worked tirelessly to put this event together. 

“In the last decade many advances for the degradation of toxic pollutants in water has been investigated, one of this is photocatalytic oxidation, I suppose my Chemistry teacher must had it right when he said to me, chemistry is like cooking, just don’t lick the spoon. It is a culmination of hard work that has brought Prof Rathilal to this level and I congratulate him once again for his achievement,” he said. 

Prof Twala further indicated that Prof Rathilal has had a huge positive impact on promoting diversity on campuses throughout his tenure at DUT. 

“He has played an integral part in creating a faculty environment where diversity thrives since joining the university. Students have learnt to respect one another’s differences and take responsibility for the consequences of their work and actions. Prof Rathilal’s commitment to diversity has made the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment more pleasant. I found him to be exceptionally competent to handle any task assigned to him and I have all the confidence in him representing me and the faculty at internal and external events and committees,” he said. 

Delving into his presentation, Prof Rathilal said: “The topic that was chosen is on current research that he and his team are doing. 

“It’s a water research commission funded project that will end in March next year. It’s in collaboration with my ex-students and my current students,” he said. 

Prof Rathilal acknowledged all his affiliations which is DUT, the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, the Department of Chemical Engineering which is where all his research takes place essentially, and the two research focus areas which is the Green Engineering and Sustainability, a research focus area that he currently leads and the other research focus area which is on water. 

“So as an introduction we know that water is a key player in social economic development and that the current demand for fresh water greatly outweighs the fresh water that is available, i.e. the supply. In fact, from the world’s availability of water, less than 3% is only fresh water. And of that 3% only 30 to 40% is accessible for us. So there is a complexity of emerging contaminants (ECs) in water and wastewater treatment settings. We know that there is a lot of contaminants over the years that our Wastewater Treatment Plants are familiar with, used to removing but there are some emerging ones that are coming out. And when we say emerging, it is either because we did not have the analytical techniques previously to detect them in water, now we do; or they are coming out because of the demand for various components, such as energy, food, etc., within our communities,” he said. 

Prof Rathilal relayed that some of these emerging contaminants, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, nanomaterials, RNA of COVID-19, etc., these emerging contaminants are drivers for antimicrobial resistance. “What do we mean by that, if we take for example antibiotics, which we know is used to treat and destroy certain microorganisms. If we do not remove these antibiotics from the water and start ingesting the antibiotics, even at a small dosage but over a long period of time, what happens is that our body starts to develop resistance to these antibiotics and when that happens, you now develop an infection and want to take an antibiotic to treat an infection; it may not work because the microorganisms would now have developed some sort of resistance to these antibiotics. So wastewater treatment is extremely important,” he said. 

He stressed that the result of ineffective processes with poor water is a threat to human health, food security and aquatic life. So as population increases, the demand for water, food, etc., puts great strain to the Wastewater Treatment Plant.  

“The Wastewater Plant is there to remove these contaminants so that we get clean water and one of the sustainable development goals is clean water and sanitation,” he said. 

Prof Rathilal spoke on emerging contaminants like shampoos, soaps, mouth wash, toothpaste, makeup, cosmetics, hair dyes and cosmetics, that all end up in the wastewater treatment. He further spoke on the threats of emerging contaminants on Wastewater Treatment Plants (WWTPS), focusing on antimicrobial resistance, poor water quality, nanomaterials instability, chemical costs, maintenance costs, health risks and landfills. 

“About 1 million cubic meters of wastewater is generated annually, which ends up at the municipal WWTPs. These wastewaters are characterised to be very complex with toxic compounds. There is a challenge of conventional WWTPs to meet stringent bylaws, the coagulation process, biological process, the advanced process: membrane or photocatalytic process, and the handling of wastewater with complex and toxic compounds which requires a very robust and eco-friendly technology. Integrating a magnetised system becomes an option,” he said. 

Prof Rathilal spoke on bioenergy, saying that green energy is the best option to fossil fuels. He also focused on the coagulation versus a magnetised system, saying that the prospects of magnetised nanomaterials are economically viable, eco-friendly and sustainable. 

He then spoke on the Anaerobic and Photocatalysis system, concentrating on the limitations of both of these systems. He explained further on the Anaerobic digestion (AD) process, which is a biological process which involves breaking down of complex biodegradable matter in the absence of oxygen by different types of microorganisms. He specified more on the limitations of this process, saying that it is kinetically slow with high organic degradation, has poor methane potential and that post-treatment is required. 

Prof Rathilal gave insight into the advanced oxidation process, biogas enhancement using metallic nanoparticles, anaerobic digestion using metallic nanoparticles, to name but a few. 

He also spoke on the new design, the integrated AD-AOP magnetised system, and the three key components of the novel system which are the Biological system, Photocatalytic system and the Magnetic filler. 

“We are hoping by the end of 2021 that we will have a fully operational lab scale system continuous process where we will be able to test different wastewaters from different industries, as well as municipal wastewater and we let that go through the process. The plan for the future, next year, is to upgrade this to a pilot scale unit. If we can do that and it works, well then we will obviously take that to a small industrial Wastewater Plant and see how well it performs there, so this is current research, and not something we have completed in totality as yet,” he said. 

A question and answer session was then held, followed by the vote of thanks given by Prof Moyo, who expressed gratitude to Prof Rathilal for the lecture and sharing his journey from where he had started, and how he managed to become full professor which was really inspiring. 

“We know that water is the critical area for us in terms of research and the impact it has, also on society, directly benefits both locally, nationally and the technological level as well. The link of the university as a research focus area to the sustainable goals and to our strategy which is called ENVSION2030, is an area that we know that we can focus our resources to ensure that we expand that area because we know that within water there are many things we can do,” she said. 

 She also thanked the council members who may be present, the DVCs, executive Deans present, DUT management team, staff, students, external guests and Prof Rathilal’s family for allowing him to spend more time with his research at DUT. She thanked the students and researchers, honoured and retired guests as well as industry partners for their attendance. 

“It’s not a matter of ticking the box, it is really closely linked to our stewardship perspective in our ENVISION2030 strategy  and it also promotes excellence, which is one of our values and we want to ensure our research is excellent, that we do the research with ethics and integrity and this just means that when we pursue research we ensure that it will have potential benefits, not just doing it for the sake of publishing, but also for the benefit of improving the lives and livelihoods of our society as well,” she said. 

Pictured: Professor Sudesh Rathilal, Deputy Dean: Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment.

Waheeda Peters

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