SA teen wins at tech awards

12 July 2007

Johannesburg teenager Siyabulela Xuza won two top awards at the 58th Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Albuquerque, New Mexico in May for developing a safe and cheaper form of rocket fuel.

Xuza, a Grade 12 pupil from St John’s College in Johannesburg won the “Best of Category” award and a “First Award” in the energy and transportation sector with his project, “African Space: Fueling Africa’s quest to space”

In addition, the New Mexico Oil and Gas Company gave him US$8000 (about R55 000), while he also received a high performance laptop from Intel and the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I was also part of the South African team, which, second to the US, won most grand awards at the fair,” he says.

According to Intel’s website, the fair is the world’s biggest student science event, drawing more than 1 500 students from 52 countries.

“I felt honoured to represent South Africa at such an event. We can basically compete at the same level or even better than overseas countries, despite the limited resources we have,” he says, sending a strong message to those he says still undermine South Africa’s potential in the field of science.

The category judges were impressed by his insight and thorough knowledge of all aspects of his project. “I can’t speak for the judges, but I think they were impressed by the diligence that led up to the project and the passion I have for [it].”

According to Xuza, a scholarship learner from Umtata in the Eastern Cape, accidents are a major problem for the aerospace industry, which is why he developed a safer rocket fuel.

And, after hearing that governments spend millions on going to space instead of pouring it into initiatives like HIV/Aids prevention, he thought of a cheaper way of going to space.

“What makes the fuel cheaper and safer are the ingredients that go into making it,” he says, noting that he cannot reveal the process or the ingredients for “security reasons”.

Known among his friends as just Siya, Xuza emphasises that he does not want to take all the credit for the project. “I am very grateful for the support I got from my mentors – Aerospace Research based in Veeriniging and Richard Nakka, an amateur rocket scientist.”

Xuza’s journey to the US started last September, when he was awarded a gold medal for his project African Space – Fuelling Africa’s Quest to Space at the Eskom National Science Expo. He also won the Dr Derek Gray Memorial Award for the most prestigious project in South Africa.

These awards resulted in an invitation to the international Youth Science Fair in Sweden in December 2006, where he presented his project to the king and queen of that country and attended a Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm.

Early interest
His interest in aeronautics began at an early age, when he put a theory he had learned in class into practice by building rockets in his mom’s kitchen.

However, it was only when he won a gold medal at the President’s Awards for Youth Empowerment Trust in October last year that he took his hobby to the next level.

“I was always interested in rockets and my award leader, Sean Wilson from St John’s College, suggested that I use my hobby as a part of the skills segment.”

With the award to his name, he was able to canvass organisations to help him get the parts to build a rocket, which took eight months. It was during this process, he noted, that he developed a safer and cheaper rocket fuel.

Xuza has achieved what many of his peers dream of – among others, he has been awarded his academic colours for maintaining an aggregate of 75% in exams for three consecutive terms, and he has broken South Africa’s amateur high-powered altitude record by a teenager for launching a rocket 800 metres into the air at a site in Sasolburg, in Free State.

After completing school, he intends to study chemical engineering and hopes to encourage other youngsters to become more interested in science.

“I want to use science for the betterment of our society, coming up with solutions to the problems we are facing. The greatest reward would be to see other students getting into the science field.”

“Kids like Siya come once in 20 years,” says St John’s College’s marketing director, Toni Williams.

But Xuza refuses to be called a special or extraordinary teenager. “Except being curious, questioning everything, I am just a normal teenager,” he says.

Source: City of Johannesburg