GCRF - START: Synchrotron Techniques for African Research and Technology

Lead Research Organisation: Diamond Light Source
Department Name: Science Division


START is a proposal to utilise Synchrotron Techniques for African Research and Technology. It will build a partnership between world leading scientists in Africa and the UK who specialise in two strands of science; developing and characterising novel energy materials (catalysts and photovoltaics) and structural biology (understanding disease and developing drug targets). In START the research direction will be set by considering the local environment and through engagement with scientists, energy industry representatives and relevant non-governmental organisations (NGO's) across Africa.

Most importantly, START is not only about developing new energy materials or structural biology research; equally important is training the next generation of researchers and research leaders in these important areas of study. We will work together in sample fabrication and advanced characterisation through training visits between African and UK institutes. This will include experimental time at Diamond Light Source (the UK national synchrotron source) through peer reviewed access to many of the experimental facilities and in techniques that are the mainstay of understanding these materials. A major ambition of this partnership is to strengthen and broaden the network of synchrotron researchers in Africa, where there is a burgeoning ambition to exploit such facilities. This talent development will benefit the researchers themselves but also the local communities, society in general and the environment, through the reduction of burning fossil fuels and improved healthcare.

There are unique challenges to developing sustainable energy in Africa; the large fraction of off-grid consumers, the degradation of energy devices in an environment of heat and dust and the high initial capital costs for traditional installations of energy production or storage systems. Similarly challenging is addressing the health needs on the African continent, where diseases like tuberculosis and malaria negatively affect whole societies. The first step to finding and developing cures is to understand the molecular structure. Thus for both strands of research, synchrotron radiation for structure determination is at the core of scientific progress. It is critical that the countries in Africa expand their own capabilities to produce the next generation of appropriate energy materials and development of cures for relevant diseases. START aims to aid those developments through building the capacity and capability of African based scientists in both strands.

The START team is driven by the ambition to work together to solve these two strands of research, addressing some of the most pressing problems that will directly impact on peoples lives. This proposal is directly in line with the development aspirations of the African Nations who have a stated ambition to 'transform Africa from traditional to modern sources of energy and ensure access of all Africans to clean and affordable electricity' and 'Develop/implement strategies for the growth of the pharmaceutical industry in Africa'. Our aspirations are furthermore directly in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of Affordable and Clean Energy (Goal 7) and Climate Action (Goal 13) as well as Goal 3 (Good Health and Well-Being). START will help to contribute in all of these areas, which crucially underpin many of the further Sustainable Development Goals.

Planned Impact

START will be beneficial to the economic development and welfare of many countries across Africa. These countries have the stated ambition to move to economies driven by amongst others; Science, Technology and Innovation; Human Capital Development; and Infrastructural Development. START will have an impact in all of these areas, in particular in the countries involved in this partnership, namely South Africa, Lesotho, Ethiopia and Egypt. The African and UK investigators will work together to develop and characterise new materials of relevance to solar energy conversion and catalysis (strand 1) as well as to characterise proteins of relevance to better understand diseases and develop drugs (strand 2). Both are considered grand global challenges. The most promising materials and drugs will find their way into new products, commercialised by local industries (African and UK) that will directly benefit the national economies and lead to an improved energy infrastructure and healthier continent.

An equally important aspect of START is training the researchers and societal engagement that will lead to an 'inclusive and equitable quality education'; another of the stated aims of the Global Challenge Research Fund. There is a strong element of focused scientific training for the researchers but this will be supplemented by innovation and entrepreneurship training, to help them towards roles in scientific leadership as their careers develop. The unique training opportunity available at Diamond Light Source will expand the capability and numbers of researchers experienced with the characterisation techniques, essential to gain a full understanding of the novel materials and structure determination of proteins. The active outreach programme that we will implement as part of START will be another route to engage with the broader scientific community, the general public and with children. We will work together with Diamond Light Source's highly respected Communications team to present the START research and broader context of the programme at public open days, writing articles for public and general science literature, through schools talks and science fairs, website design and creating an active social media presence.

START will provide a lasting legacy; this project will kick-start lifelong collaborations for research and development of energy materials and research into drugs. The team includes investigators at all stages of their careers to provide a balance of experience, enthusiasm and ambition that will lead to a dynamic programme of research and a team that will drive forward future projects.