KENYA has recently commenced the construction of the ambitious Konza Techno City at an estimated project cost of $14.5 billion. This project will be an IT business hub and has been dubbed “Africa’s Silicon Savannah”. Konzah Techno City will create 20,000 IT jobs and a further 200,000 jobs by 2030. These are bold ideas which will undoubtedly transform Kenya’s already upward moving economy dramatically in the next 10 to 15 years. Kenya’s ICT sector contributed to 12% of its GDP in 2014, and will undoubtedly grow even further with this development. So where are the bold ideas coming out of Zimbabwe?
In my previous series of articles, written over a year ago, I made a case for industrialization, see the following links:
Part 1: Economy: Radical Proposals for Growth (Part 1)
Part 2: Economy: Radical Proposals for Growth (Part 2)
Part 3: Economy: Radical Proposals for Growth (Part 3)
Part 4: ZimAsset: Industrialisation is key (Part 1)
Part 5: ZimAsset: Industrialisation is key (Part 2)
In Parts 4 and 5 of this series, I implored the GoZ to draft a separate industrialisation policy based on five specific clusters: Iron-Steel & Heavy Machinery; Pharmaceuticals and Biotechnology; Energy and Gas; Ethanol and Biofuels; Mining and Complete Value Addition. I argued that these specific sectors had a high productivity rate, high growth potential and the highest return on investment and, most importantly, would inevitably spur a reindustrialization revolution with double digit economic growth.
Although the message of industrialization seems to finally be filtering through, it may be too little too late, as the Zimbabwean economy is now on a definite downwards spiral towards another recession. The root of our economic problems is the scarcity of financial capital. The secret to success in any human endeavour lies in “the art of bringing the greatest physical force to bear on a single point”, or more correctly, on the strategically most important single point. As capital is strategically the “greatest physical force”, to facilitate double digit economic growth, it needs to be brought to bear on strategic investments in the sectors I’ve specified above.
Innovation and industrialization are the doors we have to pass through for our economic recovery and subsequent growth, but the lack of financial capital inflows means no reindustrialization revolution of any sort will be possible. Our current business and investment environment, laws and policies are toxic and deterring financial capital inflows. No amount of talk-shops, meetings, memorandums of understanding, media soundbites or articles penned in various media outlets will reverse this trend. What is needed is to overhaul the whole bureaucratic system which has resulted in Zimbabwe being at the bottom of all lists for all indicators under the ease of doing business.
Whilst financial capital inflows are non-existent, there is no shortage of intellectual capital among Zimbabweans; a case in point I would like to highlight is SAITH Technologies. The brains and CEO of SAITH Technolgies is one Sangulani Max Chikumbutso. A few weeks ago, SAITH Technologies held a press conference, in which they unveiled their prototypes for a Green Power Machine, an electric car, a hybrid helicopter which uses 6 different fuels, a mobile backpack radio transmitter and a drone (see:https://www.newsday.co.zw/2015/07/22/pictures-saith-unveils-a-helicopter/)
It was quite groundbreaking, and maybe the world should sit up and pay attention. I can understand the general scepticism amongst fellow Zimbabweans who took to social media, given our infamous diesel-from-a-rock saga. But if my own initial assessment is correct, Max Chikumbutso’s inventions may just be the next great leap forward in zero emission energy generation. The only free advice I can give to Max Chikumbutso is not to claim that his inventions are perpetual motion machines, or market them as defying the laws of physics. Not only is this impossible but it will only lead to more scepticism; especially from those with a firm understanding of physics. Once we have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth, or so the saying goes.
Now, whether he knows this or not, Max Chikumbutso could be Zimbabwe’s own Nikola Tesla. One of his most extraordinary inventions is without a doubt the Micro-Sonic Energy Device (MSED), which helps power the electric car and the Green Power Machine. I’m going to hazard a guess and say the MSED works by converting sound or radio waves to electricity. Now, converting sound waves to electricity was first proposed by Nikola Tesla, who claimed to have driven an electric car on wireless power in the 1930’s. He also claimed to have achieved 95% efficiency in transmitting power over radio frequencies, which would have been quite an incredible feat if true. Nikola Tesla also claimed to have invented some kind of metamaterial which made all of this possible. Until now no one has ever been able to reproduce any of Tesla’s claims.
However, Max Chikumbutso makes a similar claim with his electric car, which has an integrated MSED and apparently does not need charging, refueling, has no visible external source of energy, and in his interview with Evan Mawarire, Max Chikumbutso also claims to have invented some kind of “material” (read metamaterial) which is used by the MSED and other devices. It’s worth noting that in 2011, researches from Nihon Dengyo Kosaku Co., Ltd, (DENGYO) a Japanese communications infrastructure company, developed a device they call a “rectenna”, which can convert radio waves moving in the air to electricity. The only problem with their device is that the electricity generated is proportional to the amount of radio waves within the vicinity, so they were only able to produce up to 6 milliWatts of electricity.
It’s also worth noting that electromagnetic waves have been successfully harvested from thin air and turned into electricity, most recently by a German student (see link:http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/148247-german-student-creates-electromagnetic-harvester-that-gathers-free-electricity-from-thin-air). Interestingly enough, SAITH Technologies’ Green Power Machine claims to generate up to 500kW (half a MW) of electricity from a smaller amperage, by “stepping-up” sound waves using the Micro-Sonic Energy Device (MSED).
How is this possible? Well radio waves (like microwaves) are a type of electromagnetic radiation, and after “harvesting” these from the air, these may then be synchronised in such a manner that you get superposed interference of the radiowaves. A number of these radiowaves may then be focused onto a single point using permanent magnets, coils and some kind of metamaterial. So from a purely theoretical point of view, what Max Chikumbutso is claiming is indeed possible. Having said this, it would take a leap of imagination of genius proportions to have a working prototype which can generate 500kW with the help of a 12V power source.
It has taken some 13 years for Max Chikumbutso to reach this phase of a working prototype, which is a consistent timeline required to develop such a technology. SAITH Technologies have managed to secure funding through leasing of licenses on their inventions and innovations, and this would make an interesting case study for other budding entrepreneurs in the tech field. According to Max Chikumbutso, SAITH Technologies have also held talks with Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla Motors and serial entrepreneur) and will soon be constructing an electric car manufacturing plant (not assembling plant) in Zimbabwe, which will also be a first.
What SAITH Technologies have achieved to date in Zimbabwe is more than extraordinary, and I would like to take this opportunity to encourage all fellow Zimbabweans out there to support them in any way they can, by liking their Facebook page, sharing their website (http://www.saithtech.com/) and videos online, and providing them with free positive publicity. It’s the least we can do to promote and market our own. I will continue to follow SAITH Technologies’ trajectory because we could be witnessing the start of something quite extraordinary, this type of disruptive technology could have a global impact.
Rethinking Infrastructure Development – Solar Roadways
Talking of disruptive technologies, I came across an interesting article a couple of years ago, where a couple in the USA came up with the idea of “Solar Roadways”. Their company managed to raise US$2 million towards this start-up on Indiegogo (crowdsourcing site) which was a record for such projects, and twice their initial fund-raising goal. Now the crux of the solar roadways idea is pretty simple, it’s to replace the asphalt and concrete surfaces on roads with solar panels that could be driven upon.
Would such an idea work as part of our much needed infrastructure development in Zimbabwe? If you think about it, our roads are in a deplorable state and in need of resurfacing. We also have a power deficit, so why not kill two birds with one stone. We have plenty of sunshine and need bankable national projects to unlock financial capital, so why not? A solar roadway network would virtually pay for itself and can also go on to generate further income through electricity sales. But most importantly, would it pass a technical and commercial feasibility analysis?
I decided to do a bit more research on how these solar roadways are designed and manufactured to see if the idea held up until closer scrutiny. The solar cells are actually encased in tempered glass, which is strong enough to support a truck weighing more than 100 tons. The material is also more chip-resistant than conventional pavements, and can be finished in a texture that has more grip on tyres than either concrete or asphalt.
Admittedly, I was extremely sceptical at first; it seemed too simple and too good to be true. Yet the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. There were various videos posted on YouTube to try to discredit the solar roadways idea, but none seemed to convincingly disprove the underlying basis of paving a road with solar panels. One such argument centred on the power losses due to LED lights. The inventors of “Solar Roadways” had proposed to incorporate LED lights to provide road markings at night; however these LEDs were in fact add-on features, and not an integral part of the solar roadways. Remove the LEDs, replace them with reflective markings and problem solved – no unnecessary power losses due to LEDs. The main drawbacks that I see with solar roadways are summarized below.
Durability, wear & tear, maintenance: although it is claimed that the solar roadway panels can withstand heavy vehicles of up to 100 tonnes, their durability and service life under heavy traffic on a daily basis has not been tested yet. Having said this, a pilot project for a solar bike path was carried out in the town of Krommenie, just outside Amsterdam, Netherlands. This pilot project has successfully completed its first 6 months trial with flying colours and has actually performed better than expected. (See link: http://mic.com/articles/117948/6-months-later-here-s-what-s-happened-to-the-netherland-s-solar-bike-paths). These solar bike pathways were constructed of cheap, mass-produced solar panels that were protected with multiple layers of glass, silicon rubber and concrete before being covered with a coating that prevents slippage on the smooth upper surface. For a solar roadway for automobiles the design would have to allow for the easy replacement of damaged tiles, compared to resurfacing required by tarmac roads. As with all technologies, it will come down to a simple cost comparative. How much it costs to replace a square meter of solar tiles compared to resurfacing a square meter of tarmac, and other accrued benefits. The alternative to replaceable solar panel tiles for the solar roadway may be to mass manufacture modules of concrete with tempered glass, and replace modules when these are damaged or worn out as is the case with solar bike paths in the Netherlands.
Dirt: – may reduce the effectiveness of the solar roadways, as dirt deposited on the surface of the solar panels would reduce their efficiency. This problem did not seem to be a factor with the pilot project for the bike path in the Netherlands. However, if needs be, the solar roadway will have to be cleaned regularly, probably by specially modified trucks, which may add to the maintenance costs.
Low Efficiency: – one of the major drawbacks to using solar technology is the associated low efficiency. For example, the power output of a simple solar panel (e.g. Sunpower E18/230) is about 185W/m2, with a peak at standard testing condition (STC) 1000 W/m2. The standard test condition is based on the assumption that the sun is shining perpendicular to solar panel surface. Now typically, solar cells experience losses through micro-inverters, cables, (perfect) glass, and also flat angle losses as the sun changes position during daylight hours, but even with all these losses (which amount to about 50%) you can still get a decent 90W/m2. The pilot project for the bike path way in the Netherlands managed to achieve an average of 70W/m2, which was better than expected. With the advent of new materials (e.g. graphene) which may be used to improve the efficiency of solar panels, it may be only a matter of time until we see notable advances in the efficiency of solar panels.
Cost: – Every business case comes down to cost. How soon will the investor get their invested dollar back, and what will be their return on investment? Solar roadways are currently estimated to be anywhere between 50% and 300% more expensive to construct compared to the conventional asphalt roadways. If the solar panels (or modules) specifically designed for roadways are mass produced, then economies of scale would kick in, and as the technology improves, more cost effective ways will inevitably be found to reduce the manufacturing and installation costs of these solar roadways. Whereas 70% of the roads in the USA are covered in snow during the winter, making solar roadways less efficient in colder climates, Zimbabwe’s sunny climate would provide a strong argument for such an initiative. Take Harare or Bulawayo for example, there is an average of 2871 hours of sunlight per year (of a possible 4383), with an average of 7 hours and 51 minutes per day or 7.85 hours, more than enough sunlight to justify such an investment. So a few quick calcs could give us some idea of what to expect; take the average output per day which was achieved in the Netherlands pilot project for the bike pathway, 70 W/m2 x 7.85 hrs of sun per day = 549.5 Wh/ m2 per day. A typical double lane road (i.e. two lanes in opposing directions) will have an average width of 8m. So a 1 km stretch of this road will have an area of 1000m x 8m = 8000m2 and will provide a power output of 550 Wh/m2 per day x 8000m2 = 4,400,000 Wh per day, or 4.4 MWh per day. So a 10km solar roadway could provide 44 MWh per day, and a dual carriageway (double lanes in both directions) would be able to provide 88 MWh per day. The longer and wider the road the more power is generated. Bulawayo has over 2,000km of roads that are in urgent need of resurfacing. I’ll let the reader do the math and see how much electricity can be generated, and if you multiply the KWh by about US9.83c per kWh electricity tariff in Zimbabwe, this will give you some idea of how much revenue could be generated through electricity sales. So is there a business case for such an investment in solar roadways?
The solar roadways will need solar batteries, lots of solar batteries, and Lithium-Ion batteries seem to be the best available technology at the moment. In one of my previous articles I proposed a Lithium-Ion (Li-ion) battery manufacturing plant being constructed on location at the Bikita Lithium mine. Unfortunately, the Lithium mined at Bikita is the Petalite type which is used in the production of glass and ceramics. Spodumene is the lithium used to make batteries, and as there are other lithium deposits in Zimbabwe, the exploration of these other known deposits should be prioritized to see if Spodumene can be found in sufficient quantities, and of sufficient quality, to allow a Lithium Carbonate plant and subsequent Li-ion battery plant to be built. It’s also worth noting that the cost of electric cars is heavily influenced by the cost of Li-Ion battery.
Self-Driving and Networked Cars
Another idea touted for these solar roadways was to incorporate a system of wireless charging of electric cars, the same way that some electric shavers are charged. I thought to myself, well why stop there with the solar roadway only having the ability to charge electric cars. Google are in the final stages of testing their “Self-Driving Car” technology for electric cars. The technology revolves around LiDAR (fancy name for remote sensing technology or range finder) and a laser beam. The laser allows the vehicle to generate a detailed 3D map of its environment. The car then takes these generated maps and combines them with high-resolution maps of the world, producing different types of data models that allow it to drive itself. The current system works with a very high definition inch-precision map of the area the vehicle is expected to use, including how high the traffic lights are; in addition to on-board systems, some computation is performed on remote computer farms.
Google has invested unknown billions into this new technology. Their main focus has been to adapt the car to suit the road and surrounding environment, which inevitably involves some heavy computing algorithms. Taking nothing away from what they’ve achieved, I would have expected some out of the box thinking from Google engineers. My question is why not adapt the road to the car, so that the road and the car can interact and achieve the “Self-Driving” objective through mutual interaction? By employing a solar roadway, which not only charges but also drives the electric cars, you can achieve this.
Again, this is just an idea. Better still, networking of cars could also be integrated. Networking of cars is slowly becoming a reality, for the last two years, automakers and the U.S. Department of Transportation have been investigating the idea of cars talking to one another, putting thousands of Wi-Fi connected smart vehicles on a track in at the University of Michigan to see if they could cooperate with another and avoid accidents. It would be interesting to see if SAITH Technologies could further develop their electric car prototype into a self-driving networked electric car which also interacts with a solar roadway.
Connecting the dots – an integrated road network transport system:
Admittedly, most of what I’ve written above seems quite disjointed, but if you are able to connect the dots you will see that I’m proposing an integrated solar road network with a closed loop traffic system, with self-driving networked electric cars (including the Li-Ion batteries) completely manufactured and assembled here in Zimbabwe. SAITH Technologies already have a head start and have proven beyond a doubt that such ideas need not be confined to the fringes of fanciful daydreaming.
If such a system were implemented in Zimbabwe, it would be a first globally and we would have the First Mover Advantage with an endless list of benefits from such a system. It would require careful planning, design, testing, implementation, construction and financing. Small pilot projects could be conducted, and if successful could be gradually expanded countrywide and eventually globally.
Dreams are today’s answers to tomorrow’s questions. There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why … whereas I am one of those who dreams of things that never were or look impossible, and ask why not?
Whilst Zimbabwe currently has more pressing issues that need our urgent attention, such as jobs, basic provision of clean drinking water, electricity and food security in the rural areas, these issues should not let us lose sight of the future. I have already provided possible solutions to these pressing issues in my previous articles, and the objective of this particular article is to rethink infrastructure development in the near or distant future.
Written by Clive Samvura who can be contacted at the following e-mail address: email@example.com