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Just the right chemistry

Tucked away in a small corner in Matunga, a lowbrow Mumbai suburb, is the Institute of Chemical Technology, or ICT, which aspires to stand shoulder to shoulder with the IITs. Ravi Krishnan tells more.

education Updated: Jun 24, 2009 12:34 IST
Ravi Krishnan

The Indian Institutes of Technology. or IITs, are the Holy Grail for hundreds of thousands of students all over India aspiring to become engineers. A seat in these world-famous institutions is seen as a ticket to a lucrative career in India and often abroad, and a path to wealth and fame.

Tucked away in a small corner in Matunga, a lowbrow Mumbai suburb, is the Institute of Chemical Technology, or ICT, which aspires to stand shoulder to shoulder with the IITs.

Compared with the IITs, the institution seems almost parochial, with reservation for Maharashtra and Mumbai students and clinging to old university traditions. But for its faculty and students the ICT, previously a department of the University of Mumbai, is the best in the country when it comes to chemical engineering, its core competency.

“We are a compact institute with focus on chemical and allied industries and our industrial connectivity is better,” said GD Yadav, who took charge as director of the institute recently.

Yadav's assertion is supported by a 2007 study by the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US, which rates ICT as the best chemical engineering school in India.

Things have only got better, said Yadav. For starters, ICT was given the status of a deemed university last year, conferring on it a high degree of autonomy in setting the syllabus, admission rules and fees and enabling better access to funding from the University Grants Commission, the premier body that distributes government funds to higher educational institutions.

Secondly, in the past year, the institute has landed some Rs 150 crore worth of research projects from quasi-government institutions such as the Indira Gandhi Centre of Atomic Research, the Department of Biotechnology and the Department of Science and Technology. That's impressive for an institute that essentially specialises in one branch of engineering -- chemical technology.

To gain some perspective, compare this with the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, another research-focused institute with a vast area of proficiency ranging from electronics to crop science, which in 2007-08 had some Rs 350 crore worth of projects.

Commercial reality
Research is at the heart of the existence of ICT, say professors and students alike. “Science has to be translated to commercial reality,” said Arvind M Lalli, a professor of chemical engineering who heads a new biotech facility that was built this year with funding from the Department of Biotechnology. “The main idea is to generate people and nicely bridge the gap between academia and industry.”

According to Lalli, on an average every professor in his department is working on 10-12 projects at the same time. Typically each project involves two or more students at the Ph.D or Master's level and often they are interdisciplinary in nature.

On a muggy June afternoon in a city desperately waiting for the monsoons, when this reporter visited the campus, one could see scores of researchers peering over notes and sweating over beakers in near 60-year old laboratories that have clearly seen better days. They are mostly Ph.D scholars and students taking a Master's degree, the undergraduates are absent because of summer holidays.

“The institute allows us a lot of freedom in pursuing research,” said Umesh Suryavanshi, a Ph.D scholar. Although the laboratories seem to be a relic of the past to an untrained eye, Suryavanshi insists that they have all the facilities available to the best universities in the world. “Things are only going to get better with the new projects and funding,” adds Suryavanshi, who left IIT Mumbai a month after he joined the Ph.D programme because he felt the approach there was too theoretical.

ICT's main concern these days is lack of space, said director Yadav.

Sprawled over 16 acres, with gardens that have won awards in suburban competitions, is a yellowing building that was built in the early 1940s, with broken windowpanes and grey doors. While short of being declared a heritage building, the institute needs municipal permission even for minor renovations.

And the number of students, especially Ph.D scholars with their need for laboratories, are ever increasing as the university gets into new areas of research and new funds enable it to recruit more. ICT plans to admit some 120 Ph.D students this year compared with 100 a year ago and an average of 60-70 for the previous few years.

Touching lives
“Around 10 per cent of engineering PhDs in the country every year are from our institute,” claimed Lalli. “The industry requirement is still around 1,000 PhDs a year,” he added dryly, and pointed, “We have a long way to go.” Researchers here engage in a variety of projects that touch our lives in ways we don't typically think about. For instance, when Dow Chemicals, a company that has interests in packaging, wanted to increase the shelf life of food products, it approached the food technology department of ICT. Or take the case of chocolate maker Cadbury India Ltd. As consumer companies try to cut costs and reduce wastage in these times of slower economic growth, Cadbury has approached the food technology department to help it find ways to utilise the shells of coco pods used to make chocolates. Previously, these shells were thrown away as waste and now the company wants to find some use to them and cut costs.

These are but two examples. Companies such as BP Energy, Reliance Industries Ltd, Biorad Lab, India Glycols Ltd, Novozyme, Pepsico Inc., Mitsubishi Chemicals Corp., Dr Reddys Laboratories Ltd and Merck Ltd also flock to the campus to find solutions to niggling little problems.

For the companies, the solution comes at a relatively low cost. For the institute, the companies are a source of funding that enables it to upgrade facilities and laboratories while supporting more scholars.

In some cases, it reaps more rewards because it patents its findings and is able to license them. Like in the case of Lalli's department which is one of the richer ones within the campus with its air-conditioned laboratories and the most advanced instruments.

On the cutting edge
This department had a breakthrough in a purification process for monoclonal antibodies used to treat cancer. About 10 scholars worked for a year to develop cheaper alternatives for purification. This is expected to sharply bring down the cost of cancer treatment from about Rs 10 lakh per patient per year to Rs 1 lakh, says Lalli. The department has licensed this process to Japan's Mitsubishi Corp., though the professor wouldn't say for how much.

Now, the institute is betting on areas such as Nano technology and Nano sciences, nuclear technology with the help of funding by the Department of Atomic Energy, and climate change and low-cost alternative energy sources. In the area of low-cost energy, a team from the institute has devised a way to convert biomass such as cotton waste, and stalks of wheat and paddy plants, into low-cost alcohol. Now, India Glycols Ltd is using this formula to start a pilot plant, said Lalli.

So when the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research wanted to figure out a way to reduce the cost of purifying metals such as thorium from industrial and nuclear plant effluent, it approached Professor S.R. Shukla. His team of researchers has come out with an alternative the main ingredient of which is dried orange peels. With success at the laboratory stage, the team is now working to scale it up to the factory level.

“Research is the lifeline of our institute,” said Shukla, who is also registrar of the institute. “We are doing better than most university departments because our faculty are all researchers, they bring new knowledge into teaching, and plus there is connectivity to the industry,” he added.

Shukla and other faculty including the director, no matter what their other administrative and research responsibilities might be, compulsorily take a few undergraduate classes. “They change the syllabus frequently usually with the feedback given by industry. There is emphasis on practical and in-plant training,” said Krunal Mehta, who has just finished his Bachelor's programme.

Crazy ideas
The institute now wants to bring research to the undergraduate level, and plans to start a Centre for undergraduate Research in engineering, or Curie.

“Postgraduate students tend to be more careful with their research,” said Yadav. “This centre, where I have got support for 25 students this year, will let them try crazy ideas and do some kite flying,” he added.

The latest buzzword around the campus is intellectual property rights (IPR). Every scholar now wants to translate his Ph.D thesis into something commercial. “Students are more conscious of IPR. They care about it more and want to know more, which is why I have hired a lecturer for just IPR,” said Yadav.

“We have got about 40 patents in the last three years,” he said.

It is this research mentality with a practical focus that seems to bring back old students of the institute as professors and in other functions too. Yadav, Lalli and Shukla are graduates of ICT. So is Sachin Mathpathi, a topper in the Masters programme, who is now a lecturer and a Ph.D scholar.

is something in the institute which brings its students back or doesn't allow them to go out,” he grins as he shows this reporter around the campus pointing out things such as India's first dye factory referring to the institute's department of dyestuff technology and the future of air-conditioning, indicating a giant contraption installed as part of a collaborative project with the NTPC Ltd, the country's biggest power producer.

Famous alumni include Mukesh Ambani, chairman and managing director of Reliance Industries Ltd, and Dr Anji Reddy, chairman of drug maker Dr. Reddy's Laboratories Ltd.

Both are members of the board of governors of ICT and have funded facilities ranging from a new hostel wing to scholarships and projects undertaken by the institute.

Now the institute wants to tap into them to start a career services centre and incubation centres for various scientific fields.

But a faculty shortage, rather than funding, seems to be a bigger problem for ICT, as it is for most elite institutions in the country.

Yadav is trying to get around the problem by hiring tenured professors from the US who are typically free for three months a year.

He is also trying to attract others with the carrot of lucrative industry consultancy projects. “It will take time. I will need to bring in both new faculty and facilities,” he said and pointed out “the research will go on and we will expand.”