From Mthatha to Harvard
Siyabulela Xuza fell in love with engineering when he was five years old and he saw a Cessna plane flying low over his home town, Mthatha. Since then he has gone on to create a new rocket fuel, he has presented in front of dignitaries such as Steve Wozniak and Michelle Obama, met the King of Sweden, attended a Nobel Prize ceremony and studied at Harvard University. He also has a planet named after him, 23182 siyaxuza, by the MIT Lincoln Laboratory. All of this and aged just 25, Siya is a remarkable South African now using his talent to address Africa’s energy problems.
Q: We often ask, what does it mean to be an Audi Ambassador? What do you actually have to do?
An Audi Ambassador is an individual who embodies at least one of the following qualities: sportiness, progressiveness and sophistication. My duties of an ambassador range from supporting Audi at major sporting events; like the Le Mans 24hr race; representing Audi at functions; like the Nelson Mandela Foundation Lecture; as well as delivering innovation keynotes across the country.
Q: How are you finding the Audi A4 2.0T quattro? Considering Audi’s historic culture of innovation and creative approach to design, do you feel at home in your car?
I absolutely love my Audi A4 2.0T Quattro and as an innovator, I certainly feel at home.
Q: The Head of Audi South Africa, Ryan Searle, called you a ‘motivating South African role model’. In your work, do you try to be inspirational and act as a role model, or is that a by-product of the type of work you do?
It is definitely a by-product of the work that I do.
Q: Of your many many achievements and accolades, is there a standout moment in your life where you think you were most proud?
I wouldn’t have a particular moment but I feel a deep sense of pride when I am able to inspire others through my work. I am less motivated by achievements and accolades and more motivated by achieving significance in the world.
Q: Tell us more about your first innovation – creating a new rocket fuel. Where did you get your understanding of the chemistry involved? Did you have help from friends or family? Did you know at the time that the idea would have such an important impact on your life?
I surrounded myself with great mentors who assisted me with the chemistry involved. I had no idea where the project would end up. I was ruthlessly curious and deeply passionate about the project.
Q: Do you think it’s difficult for a young person growing up in South Africa today, especially in more rural areas, to access the type of training needed to follow a career like yours?
I think it is difficult but it is certainly not impossible for young people in rural South Africa to follow in my footsteps.
Q: When you hear people talk about South Africa’s ‘skills gap’ do you think that more needs to be done to address the problem?
Absolutely. There isn’t a single solution to such a complex problem but I think we ought to encourage more expatriates to return to South Africa to make a positive contribution.
Q: What do you make of the news that Mandla Maseko will be the first black African launched into space, with dreams of planting the SA flag on the moon?
It is inspiring to hear about Mandla Maseko and I can’t wait for the day he plants the SA flag on the moon.
Q: Do you think that in the future there will be more young South African’s attending Harvard University? How much of a benefit is a foreign education for any young African?
I hope so and I will do my best to assist young South African’s who want to study at Harvard. My studies overseas, exposed me to new ideas and cultures which were immensely beneficial to my development.
Q: While there is a drive around the country towards improving energy efficiency in general, do you think that the improvement will ever be realised enough to make a real difference to overall CO2 emissions?
An improvement will be realised to make a difference to overall C02 emissions by aligning energy technologies with effective policies and finance.
Q: What progress has been made with the efficient storage of energy for domestic use? Do you think that there will be a viable option available for a mass market in the next five years?
Bloom energy is a US based energy start up that has made considerable progress with solid oxide fuel cells for residential and industrial applications. I don’t think that there will be a viable option for mass market within the next five years.
Q: Do you think that storing solar energy for night-time use is going to change lives in Africa? What technology have you researched that could help with this development? Have you received enough support from governments?
It will definitely change lives and as it decentralizes energy supply. I developed solid oxide fuel cells and demonstrated a breakthrough in the field, which was published in the Journal of Electroceramics.
Q: Where is your focus right now? Do you hope to continue working on energy solutions? Do you think you’ll be able to continue developing innovative rocket fuels?
My focus right now is on establishing a diversified energy holding company that will be my primary vehicle for developing and investing in energy projects across Africa. The rocket fuel project ended in 2007 when I won a top award at the Intel ISEF Fair. When I started at Harvard, I shifted my attention to micro fuel cells for portable power strorage.