Run on Numbers: The race to the Top of Nations via Technology research

COVID-19, geopolitics, and changes in global supply chains swept away a world where nations could focus on research and resource extraction. Picture: Reuters.

COVID-19, geopolitics, and changes in global supply chains swept away a world where nations could focus on research and resource extraction. Picture: Reuters.

Published Feb 17, 2024


A few years ago, a nation could focus its research, resource extraction, and manufacturing energies toward its strengths with the assurance that international supply chains would provide the balance of required goods. That world has gone, swept away by Covid-19, geopolitics, and changes in global supply chains.

1. Countries have also shown a willingness to withhold supplies of critical materials as a weapon of economic coercion, and an energy crisis is gripping much of the world because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In addition, there are recent attacks on Houthi forces in Iran, where there have been ongoing military operations and airstrikes against the Houthis in Yemen. The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, is a rebel group that controls large parts of Yemen, including the capital, Sana'a. These airstrikes are often conducted by the Saudi-led coalition, which supports the internationally recognised government of Yemen in its fight against the Houthis. To top it all, the Hamas attack on Israel and their subsequent outrageous retaliation killed more than 28,000 Palestinians. There are security concerns regarding the China and Taiwan issue, with the USA threatening to get involved. A re-election of Trump will lead to further de-globalisation pressure.

2. South Africa, for instance, being a major mining producer, did substantial research relating to extracting minerals from raw materials. Since the 20th century, gold has been principally extracted in a cyanide process by leaching the ore with a cyanide solution. The gold may then be further refined by gold parting, which removes other metals (principally silver) by blowing chlorine gas through the molten metal.

Another recent major technology breakthrough, proudly South African, was announced by Hydrox (Pty) Ltd. They have an international patented process, which is described by them as follows: “The Divergent-Electrode-Flow-Through (DEFTTM) solution incorporates some key advantages from both alkaline and PEM systems. DEFTTM manipulates the flow of electrolytes through porous electrodes to obtain the separation of produced hydrogen and oxygen gases. Hydrox Holding’s modular AAE solution makes use of conventional alkaline electrolysis principles, coupled with Hydrox’s vast knowledge base and supplier and industrial network to provide an electrolysis unit tailor-made to address both the local and African hydrogen market. Hydrox Holdings will be established as the first OEM of liquid alkaline electrolysers in Africa with the ability to provide “GREEN” electrolytic hydrogen solutions and fully exploit the fast-growing hydrogen economy.” The company has achieved international recognition Hydrox Holdings won the Best Emerging Technology Award at the prestigious 2022 Monaco Hydrogen Alliance awards for innovation in renewable hydrogen.

The Sasol success story is a technological success story that has never been matched anywhere in the world, and their technology was essential for its time. It would be foolish to now write the company off against the surge for a reduction in CO2 emissions. They have plans and are acting on them. Sasol produces approximately 28% of South Africa’s fuel. That makes them a significant contributor to the ordinary citizen. This saves the country R29 billion per annum in foreign reserves and thereby helps to contain the value of the rand against other currencies which is to the benefit of all the people of the country.

Approximately 90% of South Africa’s current natural gas demand is met by Sasol Gas. The company imports natural gas from the Temane and Pande gas fields in Mozambique via an 865 km pipeline, with an annual capacity of 240 million GJ2. In a major announcement, despite increased industrial demand, the gas energy sector is in decline and will see a significant decline in 2024/25 due to resource depletion at Pande/Temane. The local market will see a shift in the allocation of synthetic gas, with the current supply to KZN stopping in 2026.

Another world-class research and commercial entity has placed our country on the world map. Although NTP was formally incorporated as a state-owned company in October 2003, their story goes back several decades – starting in the late 1950s, with the inception of South Africa’s nuclear research and technology program and the construction of the SAFARI-1 nuclear reactor. SAFARI-1 was built primarily as a research reactor, but its high flux operation meant it was also suitable for the generation of nuclear technology products, including fission isotopes used in medical diagnostic and treatment procedures. The first medical radioisotopes, iodine-131 capsules, were produced in 1973, and an isotope processing facility was built at Pelindaba in 1977. By the 1990s, this facility was supplying more than 90% of all South African radiopharmaceuticals and had begun to export its products internationally. The same period, however, also saw a significant shift in the structure and operations of what would later become the NTP Group. This entity is one of which all South Africans can be proud.

3. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), Policy Brief 69 of 2023, provided a report titled “ASPI’s Critical Technology Tracker, the Global Race for Future Power”.

Critical technologies already underpin the global economy and our society. From the energy-efficient microprocessors in smartphones to the security that enables online banking and shopping, these technologies are ubiquitous and essential. They are unlocking green energy production and supporting medical breakthroughs. They are also the basis for military capability on the battlefield, underpinning new hybrid warfare techniques, and can give intelligence agencies a major edge over adversaries.

4. The outcome of the study reveals some shocking statistics. The research made use of 10% most highly cited research publications from the past five years on each of the forty-four technologies that were analysed. The research unit collected and analysed data on the flow of researchers between countries at various career stages — undergraduate, postgraduate, and employment. They were able to identify brain drains and brain gains in each technology area. (South Africa is all too familiar with this situation, and with the signing of the National Health Insurance (NHI) bill, fears are growing that we will lose medical skills as doctors become uncertain of their future income. The table below shows a talent flow graphic that illustrates the global competition for research talent across these forty-four technologies.

Source: Policy brief: ASPI’s Critical Technology Tracker: the global race for future power.

5. In all this turmoil in geopolitics, trade wars, and efforts to dominate and obtain South Africa may do well to be strict about what is important to us locally. Our research and technology advances must embrace technologies of the same kind, and we must partner and collaborate as widely as possible. There is a lot of freeware available on the net these days, especially in the IT sector, and we must make it work for us. AI is a game changer, such as none before, and each person on the individual level must ensure that they are informed and upskilled. It is well within anyone’s reach. Do not miss the best opportunity in the last century to equip yourself with sought-after skills, there are numerous applications available to ensure that a person becomes as efficient as possible and to become a great enabler to get things done. Many moons ago, I was taught at university the phrase “management is getting things done through people”. This is a popular quote often attributed to Mary Parker Follett, a pioneer in the field of organisational theory and management studies. Make sure that management can call on you as the one to get things done.

* Kruger is an independent analyst.