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Remarkable new nuclear magnetic resonance instruments make SU a leader in science research
Author: E Els
Published: 16/08/2022

​The Central Analytical Facilities (CAF) Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) facility at Stellenbosch University (SU) was relaunched on 13 April. Two remarkable, unique new NMR instruments, manufactured by Bruker, to the value of almost R30 million were added to the facility and are a reason for great excitement in chemistry and science in general.

Left: Prof Wim de Villiers cutting the ribbon with Dr Jaco Brand at the relaunch of the CAF NMR facility.

"Each one of these instruments has no equal in the Western Cape or nationally and puts SU on the cutting edge of chemistry and science research," Dr Jaco Brand (Manager of the NMR facility) said.

Several applications for large equipment to the National Equipment Fund (NEP) were unsuccessful. Fortunately, with the support of Prof Gary Stevens (CAF Director), Prof Louise Warnich (Dean, Faculty of Science), Prof Eugene Cloete (SU Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies) and, spearheading the applications since 2019 as well as the application to the Strategic Fund, Prof Bert Klumperman together with Dr Brand, the money was put together to make SU the best NMR facility in the Western Cape and South Africa.

Prof Peter Mallon (SU Head of the Department of Chemistry) said that from a chemistry perspective it is great to have the new NMR instruments. "The new NMR instruments can do things that we were not even able to dream of ten years ago," Prof Mallon said. “There are all sorts of interesting experimental approaches that are now possible and it will contribute to the Department of Chemistry and will benefit anybody who does research in molecular sciences."

Prof Stevens agreed that it was difficult to obtain the funding for this equipment. He said that it was a great relief to get the funding because the old equipment was not supported anymore for several years. He thanked Prof Wanich for the Faculty of Science's contribution to the equipment and for having the vision to support research at the faculty.

Prof Wim de Villiers (SU Rector and Vice-Chancellor) said that the relaunched NMR facility will certainly contribute to SU's vision to be the leading research university in Africa. "We invest a lot of our resources to attract the best people, but the best people can't do the work if we do not also have the resources and infrastructure to support them," Prof de Villiers said.

Guests at the relaunch ceremony had the opportunity to see demonstrations of the new equipment. Under guidance from Dr Brand, Prof de Villiers recorded his first 1H NMR spectra on the 400MHz instrument.​

The new Bruker 400MHz and the triple resonance 600MHz Avance NEO instruments will enable new national NMR capabilities in the fields of reaction monitoring, protein structure, fluorinated pharmaceuticals and commercial food authenticity to name a few.

In 1968 the first South African 60 MHz NMR spectrometer was acquired and in 1998, again, the first 600MHz. Mr Hendrik Spies operated the facility at SU in the early 60MHz days as a showcase of what NMR spectroscopy can do. SU had the best NMR unit in South Africa around 2002 and Prof Claus Koch joined SU because of this facility. Under him and unit managers Spies, McKenzie and now Brand, NMR research flourished for many years until Koch's untimely passing in January 2022. During this period, however, in 2010, Agilent announced the acquisition of Varian, and soon after, in 2014 that they are closing their NMR business and rapidly phasing out support. At that stage, the instruments were about 18-20 years old and the news from Agilent/Varian was a major concern for the facility in terms of operational support. Many applications for large equipment under Koch and Klumperman with Brand, to the NRF National Equipment Fund, were unsuccessful. What followed was a team effort by Stevens, Warnich, Cloete, Klumperman, Prof Willem van Otterlo (SU Organic Chemistry​) and Brand to secure funding directly from SU which lead to the acquisition of the two state-of-the-art NMR instruments in 2022. This placed SU at the top of national NMR research capabilities again.

Prof de Villiers, Prof Warnich and Prof Mallon with one of the new instruments, the Bruker Ascend 600.

Prof de Villiers inserts a sample in one of the new instruments.

​Menthol 1H NMR spectra recorded by Prof de Villiers.

Photos by Stefan Els