InnovUS e-news 19th edition

March 2013

Heliostat module grabs attention

A triangular heliostat module designed by researchers of the Solar Thermal Energy Research Group (STERG) at the Faculty of Engineering has grabbed the attention of some global players. Paul Gauché, senior researcher and director of STERG, explains what it is all about …

What is a heliostat?

A heliostat is a mirror that tracks the sun. The name is derived from the Greek words helios (sun) and stat (stationary) and refers to the fact that when we track the sun, we make an image of it that is stationary. This stationary point is called a receiver. Every heliostat in a single field boosts the energy intensity of the image to the point that we can theoretically get temperatures above 1 000 °C, which allows us to generate electricity very efficiently.

Heliostats are typically made of flat or near-flat mirrors and mounted on a pole with two rotating axes. They know the position of the sun using on-board computer chips and a central control computer. As most of the power plants based on this technology are quite large, the tracking accuracy has to be very good. Most heliostats need to be able to cast their image on a receiver to an accuracy of about one meter over a distance of about one kilometre. Due to many factors, including ground movements or lack of precision in the maths or the hardware, heliostats have to adapt their knowledge about their own position, the position of the tower and the position of the sun, so they ”learn”.

What makes the design of the triangular heliostat module so special?

Simplicity. We began this project by first thinking about where these heliostats must go and how we would put them there. We went to look at the vast regions of the Northern Cape, and also at most of the CSP (concentrating solar power) plants in the USA and Spain to see how they did it. Our vision is that heliostats must be simple to deploy. They preferably need to be deployed in any environment without significant site preparation. As such, we devised a heliostat module that requires no major tethering to the ground and no precision when simply ”plonked down”.

Once turned on, our module had to be able to figure out for itself how it was simply dropped at its location. We also needed to be pragmatic and decided very early on that we could not build large heliostats in a university environment due to money and space constraints. We ended up with a module that turns out to be potentially very versatile.

How long did you work on the design and how many people were involved?

Heliostats are a focus theme of our research group but also the newest area of research for us. We started looking at some specific heliostat concepts in 2010 and were able to roughly grow the effort by a factor of 10 (10X is the notation I use) each year. Last year, we successfully demonstrated a field of 18 small heliostats doing everything described above. We call this Helio18. This led to Sasol investing all the money to scale this up to a full-size heliostat system at our labs in 2013 which is a very important step for us.

This new system is called Helio40 referring to the mirror area of this new system and it is 25 times bigger than Helio18. Helio40 is where all the separate activities come together – the result of work by three MSc students, the support of a full-time lab staff of four (engineers and technicians) and the supervision/direction by myself and a colleague in Electrical Engineering. Many other people in the SU environment have given advice.

A UK-based company requested an exclusive global licence to use this technology. Tell us more about this?

SunFish Solar, a start-up company in the UK, approached us late in 2012 while we were developing ambitious plans to build a pilot plant using our heliostat technology at the University’s experimental farm, Mariendahl. This was quite unexpected for us but the timing seems to be quite good. SunFish Solar has developed a solar energy technology requiring heliostats and it has been searching for a heliostat solution. What we learned from SunFish Solar is that there is a gap in the market for heliostats as proven heliostat technology tends to be owned by big vertically integrated technology companies. SunFish Solar also has very specific ideas about how and where to build its own plants and fortuitously our module fits the bill very well.

What are the next steps?

Regardless of the immediate opportunity, we are plugging on with our 10X approach. We are fairly advanced with the design of Helio40, our Sasol-funded scale-up project. Once completed, we will have no more space left for larger heliostats on our           1 000 m2 rooftop laboratory. We have just reached a conditional agreement with the Faculty of AgriSciences to construct Helio400, our pilot plant at Mariendahl.

This was made easy due to that faculty’s foresight in seeing the value of multidisciplinary research and development and the fact that a 100% SU-developed wind turbine is going up at the same location. Helio400 will allow us to improve and demonstrate the technology at full scale. We have a vision beyond this but the focus for now is on accelerating Helio40 in anticipation of its commercialisation.

  • InnovUS is currently looking for an investor for this project.


STERG is a research group housed in the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering and affiliated with the Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies, the national academic hub for renewable and sustainable energy. STERG is the first and presently only university research group in South Africa dedicated to solar thermal energy research. Its primary mission is to train students and deliver research outputs in concentrating solar power (CSP). More at


Golden opportunity for aspiring entrepreneurs

Do you have a bright business idea, operational solution or Android application that is waiting to be developed? Here is your chance! The Stellenbosch Idea Competition (SIC) offers aspiring entrepreneurs a golden opportunity to boost the launch of a business. Also up for grabs is R100 000 in prize money – plus valuable mentorship support!

Last year the SIC attracted great interest and excellent ideas, and some of these have already been converted into successful businesses. There are great expectations for this year’s competition, says JD Labuschagne, junior business developer at InnovUS. The 2013 competition was launched on 20 February when Dr Edwin Hertzog, founder and executive chairman of Mediclinic International, addressed student entrepreneurs.

InnovUS and Nucleus, an organisation operated by students which focuses on the promotion of student entrepreneurship on campus, joined forces to promote the SIC.

“The competition was developed to encourage new ideas and creativity and create a spirit of entrepreneurship. It is open to staff and students at Stellenbosch University (SU), and encourages all aspiring entrepreneurs to submit creative or innovative ideas which they deem to have commercial value,” says JD.

“SIC is the perfect platform to give aspiring entrepreneurs a boost with the start of a business. It provides you with the opportunity of growing your idea into a thriving business. You will also receive valuable feedback about your idea and will be able to learn from your mistakes in a safe, supportive environment.”

Prize money of R100 000 is up for grabs in three categories – for the best business ideas, operational solutions or Android applications – plus extremely valuable mentorship support! “All winners will be encouraged to develop their business ideas in the supportive environment created by InnovUS while studying for their degree or working at the SU.”

Since you do not need a business plan to enter your idea, it is child’s play to submit your entry. Entries for the competition close on 8 April 2013, and must be submitted electronically.

Your idea may be anything creative or innovative and all entries will be handled in confidentiality. Participating teams are allowed a maximum of three members.

From 9 April four workshops will be presented to help participants evaluate the viability of their ideas. The best ideas, operational solutions and Android applications will then be selected and those teams will be invited to a work session on how to submit their ideas to venture capitalists. The winners of each category will be announced after the final submission on 20 August.

A Vodacom Android app workshop was held in February, and an idea genereation workshop in March. Keep an eye on the SIC website or Facebook page for more workshops.

For more information on the SIC, send an e-mail or phone 021 808 9034.


SU research has country abuzz

The finding that South African consumers are being misled at times about exactly what especially processed meat products contain, has the country buzzing. The finding of researchers at Stellenbosch University that donkey, goat and water buffalo have been found in processed meat products such as mince and sausage in particular has caused a great uproar.

The findings follow in the wake of many similar international food product scandals recently.

Two researchers at the SU’s Department of Animal Sciences, Dr Donna-Maréé Cawthorn and Prof Louw Hoffman, revealed this meat fraud with their research on meat products at local butcheries and food outlets. An article on this was published in the international science journal Food Control.

According to Prof Hoffman the study was conducted long before the horse scandal, but they first wanted to publish the results in an international journal before disclosing it locally. “The disclosure in the local press is part of our endeavour to bring science to the public.”

He says that in 68% of the 139 products tested by them, they found ingredients not indicated on the food labels. “Species such as donkey, goat and water buffalo were found in a significant number of products that we tested, inter alia in some of the mince, hamburger meat, sausages and dried meat. Soy and gluten were found in 28% of the meat products, but were not specifically identified as plant material on the labels.”

Several cases were also found where meat was sold as being of a specific kind, when it was actually of another species. He says the meat used most in an unlawful manner is pork (37%) and chicken (23%). “We used various DNA-based techniques to distinguish between meat types. The enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) was used to trace unexplained plant material such as soy and gluten in the products.”

The research was conducted in conjunction with Harris Steinman of the Food & Allergy Consulting & Testing Services (F.A.C.T.S.) in Milnerton.

Prof Hoffman says their study shows considerable fraud occurring in the displaying of information on food labels. “This is not only a contravention of regulations pertaining to the labelling of food, but also hold economic, religious, ethical and health implications.

“Our findings show that there are definitely problems within the local meat distribution network. It does not help to merely have regulations protecting consumers against the selling of ‘false’ products or products of a poor quality: It must also be enforced."

The study forms part of a larger research project in which Dr Cawthorn and Prof Hoffman use DNA-based species verification for commercial fish species and venison sold in local restaurants. Their studies show that in many cases consumers are taken for a ride with regard to the product they are being served. Research is now being conducted on why this is happening.

Prof Hoffman is regarded as the foremost researcher on venison types from Africa. In January he became the first South African to be honoured by the leading American Meat Science Association (AMSA) with an International Lectureship award. He also holds the SARChI chair (South African Research Chairs Initiative) in meat science.

For more information click here.


Meet two new interns

Two interns – Dr Tony Chang and Dirk van Dyk – recently joined InnovUS and are looking forward to their internship. Here’s who they are and what their roles at InnovUS will entail …

From which company are you?

Tony: I am from the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), a public enterprise under the Department of Science and Technology, which is mandated to help boost the development of the South African knowledge economy by closing the funding gaps in early-stage innovation commercialisation.

Dirk: I am from Von Seidels Intellectual Property Attorneys.

What have you studied?

Tony: I come from a life science background and spent most of my postgraduate study in the field of molecular biology and biochemistry. I have a PhD in medical biochemistry from UCT.

Dirk: I studied mechatronic engineering at Stellenbosch University, and am currently studying towards a law degree at UNISA.

When were you appointed at InnovUS and how long is the internship?

Tony: I joined InnovUS at the beginning of February for three blocks of three months. I am hosted by InnovUS as part of the Chuma Innovation Commercialisation Practitioner Training Programme which is managed by the TIA.

Dirk: I started my internship at InnovUS in January, and will be here until the end of May.

What does your work at InnovUS entail?

Tony: My principal responsibilities include commercial viability assessment of innovations, business case development, secondary market research and providing support to the InnovUS Innovation Associate Programme.

Dirk: At the moment, I do a lot of research into the patentability of inventions that researchers at Stellenbosch University would like to protect. I will typically identify existing technology and try to advise on the aspects of the new research that is protectable.

What are you looking forward to?

Tony: My expectations from this internship are to learn the methods for assessment of early-stage technologies and the different approaches to the commercialisation of innovations developed in an academic environment.

Dirk: I am looking forward to seeing aspects of the commercialisation process which I have not yet been exposed to, whilst hopefully assisting researchers at my alma mater. As candidate attorney at Von Seidels, I am mostly involved in protecting intellectual property (IP). My internship at InnovUS will be an excellent learning opportunity.


Come Rap(Man) at InnovUS!

Heard of RapMan? This is InnovUS’s brand new three-dimensional printer that researchers can use for projects with a view to commercialisation. The RapMan 3.2 3D printer now in operation will provide in researchers’ need for cheap and rapid internal development of prototypes. Test models have been printed which have received a lot of positive reaction.

The printer has been designed to construct 3D models of plastic rapidly. A role of coloured plastic is fed into a tube which melts and positions it in small quantities based on the 3D CAD drawings, building a model layer by layer.

Axon software is used which is user friendly, but does not lose any advanced functionality whatsoever. Another plus is the design that is as transparent as possible, enabling users to see their creation while it is being constructed.

According to Anita Nel, InnovUS’s CEO, a great advantage of the printer is that researchers will be able to design and have more than one prototype printed. ”They can repeat the process until they are satisfied with the end product. These early prototypes can then be sent to the Rapid Product Development Laboratory, a division of the Faculty of Engineering, where it can be printed in steel, titanium and various other metals.”

She says the RapMan 3D printer enhances the diversity of services that InnovUS offers researchers. “We are hoping that this will inspire researchers to come up with exciting projects and ideas!”


Entrepreneurship should be developed 

The biggest challenge for entrepreneurs is to find funding for their ideas, says Christina Harvett, newly appointed programme coordinator of entrepreneurship workshops and competitions at InnovUS.

"Their everyday challenges are the need to think creatively, to be willing to take risks and see failure as a learning experience, and to surround themselves with the right people."

Christina has more than 12 years’ international experience in business administration and can share her valuable knowledge with students at the Stellenbosch University. “Having lived in Silicon Valley, California, I believe the ability to find and pitch solutions to problems is a life skill and entrepreneurship should be developed and supported in all walks of life.”

She obtained a B Com degree from the University of South Africa and at the same time completed a Diploma in Food & Beverage Management at the University of Johannesburg.

She was involved in the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP), the entrepreneurship centre within the School of Engineering at Stanford University. “The STVP was a great place to work at, as I could work with all the entrepreneurship-related campus organisations in hosting Stanford Entrepreneurship Week. I could attend talks by the thought leaders in Silicon Valley, organise conferences on entrepreneurship education ... and experience the total ‘can do’ attitude of the students at Stanford. I am thankful that I still have ties with Stanford even after I relocated back to South Africa.”

Christina is excited to be at InnovUS. “I love working on campus and being part of the culture of entrepreneurship and innovation. I am surrounded by smart people, working on amazing projects.”