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[RU120] Rhodes University to become one of few with advanced electromagnetics research lab

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Dean of Science, Professor Jo Dames, cuts the ribbon to signify the launch of the new EMI lab. With her are Dr Kuja and Professors Smirnov and Jonas.
Dean of Science, Professor Jo Dames, cuts the ribbon to signify the launch of the new EMI lab. With her are Dr Kuja and Professors Smirnov and Jonas.

A new research laboratory, the Electromagnetics Innovation (EMI) lab, was opened last week at the Centre for Radio Astronomy Techniques and Technologies (RATT), Department of Physics and Electronics at Rhodes University by Rhodes University’s Dean of Science, Professor Joanna Dames.

Its launch coincided with the week-long South African Institute of Physics Conference and Rhodes University’s 120th anniversary celebrations.

The lab hosts some of the most advanced equipment and computational electromagnetics simulation tools for electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) research. It is also equipped with commercial-off-the-shelf portable laboratory science kits and simple EMC projects developed in the Physics Department to support EMC education and community engagement in the form of STEM projects at Rhodes University.

The establishment of the EMI lab at Rhodes University is an initiative driven by Dr Stanley Kuja, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Physics and an active member of RATT. Dr Kuja joined Rhodes University in 2020 and is currently the only Rhodes University academic with EMC expertise.

The number of EMC researchers in South Africa and worldwide is small, and only a few universities offer EMC courses. “EMC is an industry-oriented field, but there are not enough graduates to work as EMC engineers,” explained Dr Kuja.

EMC research at Rhodes University is already underway but will be enhanced with the acquisition of other key facilities, such as the anechoic chamber. Once the EMI lab is fully equipped, Rhodes University will be one of the few research institutions in the world to have a university-based EMC lab.

Relevance of EMC as a discipline

The African continent is embracing new emerging technologies, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), automobiles, mobile internet, drones, 5G, and artificial intelligence, which increasingly rely on very robust and efficient electronic components for critical operations.

In the recent past, for example, there has been a growing interest in space science and technology in the southern hemisphere, particularly in South Africa. The focus has been on terrestrial observations, remote sensing, and satellite telecommunications. This trend is expected to continue as many African universities will be involved in space science programmes. Therefore, the use of these advanced electronics and technologies is inevitable in the near future.

However, with the rise in operating frequencies for emerging technologies, along with the growing complexity of electronic circuits/electromagnetic environment, EMC problems can reduce reliability, increase cost, and inhibit development schedules of modern electronic systems. Thus, EMC is critical to minimising interference (conducted and radiated) – maximising spectrum efficiency and enabling the full benefits of wireless technology in various scientific fields such as radio astronomy, automotive industry, aerospace, and the medical field.

Some aspects of EMC-related issues are highlighted below:

  • Spectrum pollution: There are a number of broadband and oscillator-type emitters in our homes, considering that we are surrounded by all sorts of electronic devices, such as radios, electric ovens, thermostats, motors and their controls, TVs, heating elements, fluorescent tubes, wireless transmitters, and SCR light dimmers. The total radio frequency (RF) energy we are exposed to and its effects would surprise many, especially in urban/metropolitan areas.
  • Electronics in the medical field: The use of state-of-the-art medical electronic equipment is increasingly becoming popular and the proper use of these electronic devices, fully compatible with each other, is critical. The biggest concern is the use-environment of the equipment, which limits the effectiveness of the equipment and can also lead to incorrect information about the patient. Some examples of equipment in the biomedical field that can be affected by typical RF sources in the hospital include Electroencephalograph (EEG), Electrocardiograph (EKG) and Electromyograph (EMG). EEG is used in neurophysiological work where electrodes are placed on the patient’s scalp to record voltages of the order of ?200 μV between 0.25-50 Hz frequency range. For the measurement with such a device to be accurate, an extremely ‘low-noise’ environment is required.
  • Radio astronomy: The radio astronomy community is well aware of the unwelcome effects of radio frequency interference (RFI). Advancements in technology have led to a new generation of radio telescopes: the MeerKAT and the planned SKA telescope. Given the sensitivity of the telescope receivers, RFI could prevent many radio telescopes, including MeerKAT, from fully performing their intended scientific work. Therefore, there will always be EMC-related concerns in radio astronomy.

The need to establish EMC research at Rhodes University prompted Dr Kuja to seek advice and funding from various sources. As a result, the EMI lab is funded/supported by the Rhodes University’s research office, the NRF, RATT (namely, Distinguished Professor Oleg Smirnov and SKA Chief Technologist Professor Justin Jonas), HoD Physics Professor Makaiko Chithambo, the EMC society of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and Stellenbosch University.

“It can take many years to set up a research lab and equip it with modern facilities, but it only took about two years to set up the EMI lab after the pandemic. It is an asset to the research infrastructure in the Department of Physics,” said Prof Chithambo.