Two scientists from the Faculty of Science were awarded the prestigious Havenga-prize for Life Sciences and Physical Sciences respectively from the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns.
The Havenga prize is an annual award for original research in the natural sciences and can be awarded only once to an individual. The award ceremony took place on 21 September 2018 in Stellenbosch.
This year's recipients are Professor Emile van Zyl, distinghuished professor in Microbiology, and Professor Ben Herbst, emeritus professor in Applied Mathematics.
The Havenga prize for Life Sciences were awarded to Professor van Zyl for more than ten years of research into finding environmentally-friendly alternatives for fossil fuels. In the 2000s he developed, in collaboration with several international co-workers, stems from brewer's yeast in the laboratory which could produce cellulose-enzymes in sufficient quantities to break down cellulose and ferment ethanol from the associated sugars in one step, a process known as consolidated bioprocessing. At the time it was a world-first.
Prof. Van Zyl says biofuels will remain significant in the search for renewable biofuels for especially heavy motor vehicles, the marine and aviation industry: “The commercial production of biofuels from non-edible plant rests promises to become more sustainable, environmentally-friendly and cost-effective, without competing with food production. In the future cellulose-ethanol will be the better and more affordable alternative, especially if one takes into account that the cost of global warming is not accounted for in the use of fossil fuels".
The Havenga prize for Physical Sciences was awarded to Professor Herbst in recognition of an academic career that spanned over 40 years. During this time he was involved with the South African Mathematics Olympiad for 15 years. In 1998 he became closely involved with the establishment of the annual South African Symposium for Numerical and Applied Mathematics (SANUM). In 2015 the symposium celebrated its 40th anniversary with a list of selected international speakers. Today the SANUM conference is an established conference for numerical mathematicians from all over the world.
In reaction to the award, Professor Herbst said while awards have never been part of his frame of reference, he is thankful for the recognition: “Everything that I have done, I did out of passion and curiosity. And where I could work with enthusiasm, together with colleagues and students who meant so much to me, it was rewarding in itself".
During the event he also gave recognition to his mother, Mrs Lenie Herbst, who attended the event despite her mature age of 91. For that, she received a round of applause.
Another academic from Stellenbosch University, Professor Marlene van Niekerk, received the CL Engelbrecht prize for Afrikaans Literature for Kaar; Professor Lizette Joubert, chief researcher at the Agricultural Research Council's Infruitec-Nietvoorbij research institute and an extraordinary professor in the Department of Food Sciences at SU, received a medal of honour for her research on rooibos and honeybush.
On the photos above, Prof Emile van Zyl (left) and Prof Ben Herbst. Photo: Anton Jordaan