Chemical Solutions

From helping to preserve fruits and vegetable using the solar energy to making idlis faster, students of Institute of Chemical Technology are doing it all. Sanchayan Bhattacharjee takes a peek into the world of this premiere research institute.

Identifying a problem is often a stepping stone to an idea. Vaibhav Tidke, a PhD student at the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT), Matunga was on the cusp of such an idea while studying the problem of severe crop wastage in India. “Post harvest, we lose around 30 percent of the fruits and vegetables due to rotting, which roughly translates to 60 million tons,” he says. This wastage is not just monetarily disadvantageous to farmers but also detrimental to India’s fight against malnutrition, which shames the country.

Since cold storage is expensive and dependent on power supply, which is erratic in many rural areas, Tidke began to explore the idea of preserving fruits and vegetables using solar energy. “The fundamental concept was that if there’s moisture in a product, there is always a chance of the product getting ruined because of microbial growth. Thus the water had to be absorbed for longer preservation,” he said. While openly drying them was one option, it was time consuming and logistically inconvenient. So Tidke designed the ‘Solar Conduction Dryer’, which used a process of conduction, convection and radiation to make effective use of sunlight.

“Around 12-14kg of tomatoes can be dried in a day without using any electricity. The farmer just needs to pay a onetime cost of Rs.21000 to buy the machine,” says Tidke. Since May 2013, 175 such dryers have been installed in nine Indian states. With funding coming in thick and fast from the government and private organizations including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the solar dryer will soon be used much more extensively in India as well as African countries to preserve food grains.

Tidke is one among 1100 ICT graduate students currently conducting research on various projects related to chemical engineering and technology, as at ICT, even the graduate students get an opportunity to do research over a 6-8 week period in order to develop a research culture. The post graduate students dedicate more time to research and receive a fellowship of Rs.8000 per month from the University Grants Commission, Ministry of Human Resource Development or other government organizations.

AB Pandit, dean, research, ICT says gives information about an undergraduate project that studied how to destroy excess insecticides and pesticides in the soil using advanced oxidation techniques. “Right from the toothpaste to the soap we use and from the clothes we wear to the packaged foods we consume, Chemistry plays a crucial role. Students try to associate their research work with this practical word,” says Pandit.

Brucellosis is a common disease in animals, especially cattle which is often neglected. According to an article in the Indian Journal of Medical Research written by Henk L Smits and S Manzoor Kadri, the disease “results in reduced productivity, abortions and weak offspring” in animals and cause major economic losses. Also in most cases, these animals are killed. Swati Vyas, another PhD student at ICT is working on developing a first of its kind point of contact kit which will enable farmers to easily diagnose the disease. “It is similar to a pregnancy kit, only here milk or saliva samples are used to determine the presence or absence of the disease,” says Vyas. While the alternate options are more complicated and expensive, this nanotechnology based kit is easy to use and has already been used in 100 pilot tests. Vyas is now working on a cure for the disease as nothing specific is available as of now.

Neha Srivastava’s research focuses on developing a ‘microbial culture’ which aims at increasing the fermentation rate of idlis. Although it is still in the research phase, subjective and objective testing shows that the culture lowers the time taken for fermentation to three hours as opposed to the conventional 14 hours. “There is a huge market for idli batter. Once developed further, there can be considerable economic advantages of saving so much time,” says Vandana Patravale, a pharmaceutics professor who is guiding Srivastava.

Shital Giri is trying to perfect chapattis (and other rice and wheat based products) which have low glycemic content to make life easier for diabetic people. “I’m trying to decrease the rate of digestion of food in the body which will ensure that glucose gets absorbed into the body slowly , thus helping diabetic patients,” says Giri who has also presented her work last year at the International Food Conference in Mysore.

Ultimately the one common thread that binds all these student researchers is the will to innovate for a cause. When quizzed about the problems that researchers face in the country, most of them stress the need to show output. “Once stakeholders are convinced that there will be a tangible result from a research, help is easily available,” signs off Tidke.

 

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