Entrepreneur hopes to bring reliable, inexpensive power to southern Africa
By Mike Strathdee
As printed in The Marketplace – July/August 2018
When he was five years old, Siyabulela Xuza saw his first airplane.
That strange sight led him to read about planets. The young boy decided he wanted to visit Jupiter and started trying to mix rocket fuel in his mother’s kitchen.
A few decades later he heads up a company that he says may soon bring cheap, reliable power to a billion Africans.
Xuza, who heads up Galactic Energy Ventures, told his life story and plans for transforming Africa in a keynote speech at the True North technology conference in Kitchener, ON.
The amazing journey of this 29-year-old scientist, who had a minor planet (23182 in Jupiter’s asteroid belt) named after him by the NASA affiliated Lincoln Laboratory, has been far from straightforward or easy.
An early effort to mix rocket fuel blew up the kitchen. He persisted, eventually developing a cheaper, safer rocket fuel, and turned his attention to building rockets.
Those efforts were no less challenging. Model after model exploded on the launch pad. By the time he was 15, friends thought he was a lunatic. His mother thought he was both gifted and disturbed.
When he called a government ministry seeking help to build a rocket, the official phoned his mother asking if her son was a terrorist.
Undeterred, he kept working on new versions. “I’ve not failed,” he recalls telling friends. “I’ve found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Those setbacks gave way to progress. By 2006, he was invited to attend Nobel Prize ceremonies in Sweden, then the biggest science fair in the world, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
He won first prize at the competition, and a scholarship to attend Harvard University to study engineering sciences. Back home, attitudes about his work changed dramatically.
Xuza was noticed by influential people in the US as well. Michelle Obama gave a talk in which she compared his life journey to that of her husband Barack, then President.
Xuza became interested in providing power for mobile phones given their importance in his homeland. He wanted to find a way to extend the battery life and discovered that a combination of butane and micro-fuel cells could deliver up to two weeks power.
As with his rocket fuel efforts, persistence was key. After failing 112 times, on his 113th attempt, he was able to develop scalable fuel cell membranes.
He started Galactic Energy Ventures in South Africa in part to address the problem that more than 600 million Africans aged 18-35 need jobs and don’t have access to electricity.
Xusa envisions a future where affordable and efficient solar panels combined with cheap storage systems will turn homes into personal power plants. He predicts the global energy storage market will double six times between now and 2030.
Key to that revolution is the development of higher capacity, vanadium redox batteries, he says. Vanadium batteries have a higher capacity than lithium, can do 100,000 cycles compared with 5,000 for lithium, and don’t pose the environmental hazards associated with lithium.
The largest vanadium-based energy storage system in the world is currently an 800Mwh operation in Dalian, China, he said. China, Russia and South Africa all have significant vanadium deposits.
Galactic Energy Ventures has raised $50 million US in support of his research. It plans to deliver a state-of-the-art energy storage factory in the next 18 months, employing 330 people directly, and close to another 3,000 indirectly, he said. “It’s an African solution with global appeal.” ◆