In 2003, Kapil Moothi matriculated from the secondary school in Ladysmith, a small town in KwaZulu-Natal where he was born and raised. “My interests were always in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields and, as well as English and Afrikaans, I matriculated with higher grade passes in mathematics, physical science, biology and computer studies,” Moothi tells MechChem Africa.
“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 by not being there.
“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,” he recalls.
“I chose engineering, and in particular chemical engineering, because I wanted to do something challenging at University, he says. “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,” he continues.
Kapil Moothi moved to Johannesburg in 2004 to begin studying 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.”
He graduated with a BSc Chemical Engineering with 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 to industry yet, this was the direction I chose for my postgraduate studies,” he says.
He embarked on an MSc in Chemical Engineering in 2008, still at the University of the Witwatersrand. “My research topic was: ‘Carbon nanotube production from greenhouse gases during syngas synthesis’, which I studied under the supervision of professor Sunny Iyuke,” he informs MechChem Africa.
The project, he explains, involved the conversion of two major greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4), into carbon nanotubes (CNTs) and synthesis gases, a mixture of carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen (H2).
The experimental studies involved passing CO2/CH4 mixtures through a vertically orientated chemical vapour deposition (CVD) reactor at temperatures ranging from 650 °C to 950 °C. “CNTs have arisen as a dynamic field of research owing to their properties: high thermal conductivity (6 000 W/mK) in comparison to copper (401 W/mK); electrical conductivity six times higher than copper; as well as extraordinary mechanical properties – a Young’s modulus over 1.0 TPa and an estimated tensile strength of 150 GPa. As a result of these unique and very useful properties, CNTs have found potential application in the fields of hydrogen storage, field emitters, fuel cells, polymer composites, catalyst support structures and water purification membranes,” Moothi informs MechChem Africa.
He completed his Masters in 2010 and immediately registered for a PhD, remaining at the University of the Witwatersrand. “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.’
The research led to a new coal-to-CNT technique being developed and proven. “The ‘proof of concept’ consisted of the pyrolysis of coal, separating the light organic gases from other products and transforming the light carbon-containing gases into CNTs using the CVD technique,” Moothi explains.
“Successful utilisation of CNTs in various applications is strongly dependent on the development of a simple, efficient and inexpensive technology for mass production. During this research, coal was shown to have the potential to be the inexpensive source of carbon for this technology,” he adds.
Under the supervision of Professors Iyuke and R Falcon, and Dr W Augustyn from NECSA and Dr M Meyyappan from NASAa’s Ames Research Centre, Kapil Moothi was awarded his PhD in 2014.
“In January 2013 while finalising my PhD thesis, I joined Sasol’s Polymers Business Unit in Sasolburg. This was a stressful time as I was embarking on a new, full time, job while having to write-up a thesis.
“I felt it was time to get the ‘work experience’ I had heard people talking about and, while I was prepared technically, mentally I was not ready for the adjustment from university life to being at work. By the time I went to Sasol in 2013, I had been at Wits since 2004 – about nine years!” he says.
“While work was as I expected it to be, I became disillusioned by the whole experience. I had spent a decade of my life studying new materials and developing groundbreaking processes, only to end up doing relatively routine work as another ‘cog-in-a-wheel’. It just wasn’t for me so, towards the latter part of 2015, I started searching for opportunities in other areas and received an offer of employment at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) in January 2016,” he says.
Kapil Moothi has been awarded several national and international scholarships, prizes and awards for his academic successes and research projects over the years: the ‘Post Graduate Merit Award’ from the University of the Witwatersrand in 2008; the Golden Key International Honour Society Membership for being in the top 15% of academic achievers in 2010; DAAD-NRF’s ‘In-Country Scholarship’ in 2011, awarded for high quality of research work; and a First Place Prize (Poster Presentation – FEBE) in 2012 at the 4th Wits Cross-Faculty Postgraduate Symposium.
“In 2015, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research named me a ‘Green Talent’ with high potential in sustainable development, and in that year I was also a Brightest Young Minds (BYM) recipient,” adds Moothi.
Published research in prestigious, international peer-reviewed journals includes:
Langmuir: Synthesis of carbon nanotubes using direct coal-derived hydrocarbons; “an article detailing the key experimental findings of my PhD thesis”.
RSC Advances: An article proposing a novel kinetic model of carbon nanotube production from carbon dioxide.
Nature Scientific Reports: With an article showcasing the application of carbon nanotubes in membrane composites for water treatment.
Carbon: Which published a review article that discussed the status of carbon nanotube production from coal.
Trends in Applied Sciences Research: With an article that examined the production of carbon nanotubes using ferrocene as a catalyst as well as a carbon source.
Science of the Total Environment: “Which published my review article looking at multifunctional nanocomposites for water treatment”.
Then in January 2017, a Y1 rating from the National Research Foundation (NRF) was bestowed on Kapil Moothi, which recognises young researchers within five years of their PhD who, by all or the overriding majority of reviewers, have the potential to establish themselves as ‘a researcher of considerable international standing on the basis of the quality and impact of their recent research outputs’.
His academic achievements are not limited to research, however. “Because of my penchant for learning, in 2017 I completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Higher Education (PGDipHE) at UJ, which was passed with distinction. While not strictly a pre-requisite for an academic lecturer, I did this to improve my skills and knowledge in teaching, learning and assessment practices,” Moothi reveals to MechChem Africa.
“Chemical engineering is a great career because of the critical thinking and problem solving skills that it develops. Graduates can take these skills into any vocational field to add value to companies such as Sasol or Engen, in management consulting firms like McKinsey or Bain and Co, the banking and financial services sector such as RMB, Investec or Nedbank; fast moving consumer goods companies such as Unilever, Massmart or Nestle and into posts in academia too,” he says.
The future of the profession? “The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the arrival of cyber-physical systems will open up completely novel capabilities for people and machines,” he responds. “The future role that chemical and other engineers will play in this is crucial. The fusion of technologies is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological domains, and emergent technology advances, including cybernetics, artificial intelligence (AI), nanotechnology/nanoscience, quantum computing, biotechnology, the Internet of Things (IIoT), fifth-generation wireless technologies (5G), additive manufacturing/3D printing and self-driving vehicles will have increasing importance in the kind of work we do, where we work, and how we work as engineers and developers of technology,” Moothi predicts.
“This offers great opportunities for graduates to thrive and succeed in this new digital communication era. But all of us need to be prepared, so that it does not pass us by or happen around us,” he concludes.