Her school, JM Ntsime High School, also won the Eskom Best Rural High School award, receiving a mobile science kit valued at over R25 000.
Masuku won a Dell Inspiron 1018 netbook for herself and will also be jetting off to the United Kingdom in August next year for the 2012 London International Youth Science Forum (LIYSF), which is attended annually by some of the world’s best young achievers in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and innovation.
The LIYSF is a unique event for top young science students, aged 17 to 21 years old, from around the world. Since 1959, LIYSF has welcomed young scientists to come together to learn, exchange views and opinions, and share knowledge. Students also get the chance to visit some of the world’s leading university departments and industrial sites. A key aspect of the programme is the plenary and specialist lectures hosted by some of the world’s most renowned scientists who speak on a broad range of pertinent and inspiring topics. In recent years, LIYSF has welcomed Professor Lord Winston of Imperial College, Professor John Ellis of CERN, Sir Roy Anderson (past rector of Imperial College), Professor John Shepherd of NOCS, and Sir Colin Terry, to name a few.
Masuku, who has never been overseas, is overwhelmed with excitement at the prospect of travelling to London.
"I am so surprised. I never imagined that I could actually win. Travelling overseas for the international science expo is certain to be one of the highlights of my life. I have never been to another country before, and I am excited about all I will see and learn while I am there," she says.
Masuku, a Grade 11 learner from a rural community near Rustenburg, stumbled quite by chance on her discovery that marula nuts, widely available around the rural community in which she lives, could be used as an alternative energy source.
Unsuccessfully trying to extract oil from marula nuts by heating them in a saucer, she put a few in a tin, sealed it, and placed it in a burning fire. After 30 minutes, she noticed that the marula nuts had turned into a coal-like form.
Inspired, she began experimenting with her marula coal as an alternative energy source to wood and paraffin for water heating and cooking in the home. The results are impressive. Marula coal burns longer and more efficiently than traditional coal, with 250 g burning for 3.5 hours, while 1 kg of coal burns for about two hours.
Believing strongly in the relevance of her discovery to become a widely-used energy alternative for rural and disadvantaged communities, she entered the Eskom Expo for Young Scientists. Her mind spins at the opportunities.
"Wood, coal, and paraffin, which are the primary fuel sources used in my community for heating and cooking, are expensive for people," says Masuku, adding that many of the people in her village are unemployed.
"In our area, marula trees are abundant, giving people access to a free supply of nuts, which they can easily turn into coal for burning at home. So, this has the potential to save people money and even provide the poorest of the poor, who cannot always afford to buy wood or paraffin, with a sustainable energy source. I believe that the marula coal could even be used to generate heat energy for geysers.
"As the marula fruit can be simply picked from the trees, rather than chopping down trees as is required for gathering wood, we can also make a contribution to preventing deforestation."
On a grander, national scale, Masuku thinks plantations of marula trees for the mass production of fruit could provide coal for electricity generation.
"The supply of coal is not unlimited. Perhaps marula coal could be the solution," she says.
Dr Steve Lennon, Divisional Executive at Eskom International, says the company is delighted by Masuku’s enthusiasm.
"It is reassuring to see a young person demonstrating such consciousness of the challenges faced by the people in her community, as well as the motivation to find creative solutions to those problems.
"We are thrilled with her accomplishments and the maturity she has shown throughout the competition. We are proud to have her representing South Africa in London next year. She is an excellent ambassador."