Playing the field: Meet the earth warrior who has won a £1 million global prize
Vidyut Mohan has created a machine that can turn crop waste into biofuel, at a lower cost to the operator and the environment. Could this help with India’s annual post-harvest smog crisis? The 30-year-old is betting, and hoping, that it can.
Had it not been for the pandemic, Vidyut Mohan would have been shaking hands with Prince William and Kate Middleton, chatting with naturalist David Attenborough, and attending an ultra-exclusive concert by Ed Sheeran two weeks ago.
Instead, the co-founder and CEO of the social enterprise Takachar had to make do with a virtual broadcast as he sat in his Delhi home.
It’s still a pretty big deal. Mohan, 30, is one of first five winners of the Earthshot Prize, the 1-million-pound ( ₹10.33 crore) award instituted by the Duke of Cambridge to reward solutions to climate change. Its name is a take on US President John F Kennedy’s 1960s Moonshot project to put a man on the moon.
Winners for the Earthshot prize were chosen from about 750 nominations worldwide. Already, the prize is being dubbed the Eco Oscars. And Mohan says his inbox is now flooded with offers from companies and government agencies hoping to partner with him. “Suddenly, there’s a lot of outward-facing attention,” he says, new to the spotlight.
Takachar is new to everything. It was only set up in 2018. The name combines the words for money (taka) and carbon (char) and aims to help farmers find lucrative uses for their crop waste after the harvest, so that they don’t end up burning the waste and smoking out the skies for miles in every direction. Most solutions involve sending the biomass — heaping piles of wet leaves, stalks, rotting husks, coconut shells and grass — to a treatment centre. There, it is incinerated using oxygen-lean torrefaction — “like roasting coffee beans,” Mohan says —producing fertiliser, fuel or low-smoke activated-carbon pellets.
“The process worked. It was just hard to implement and scale,” says Mohan. Setting up such a plant costs about ₹3 crore, much more than small rural communities can afford, and farmers must take on the additional cost of transporting their waste to the site. “Instead of sending the biomass to the plant, what if we modified the equipment so it could come to the fields?” says Mohan.
His solution: a smaller, cheaper, low-maintenance reactor that can be towed by tractors or transported inside a shipping container and processes field waste on site. “At harvest, farmers in a 1- or 2-km radius can take all their waste to one man in the village and dispose of it safely,” says Mohan.
They’re paid for the waste too. Rice straw can fetch ₹1,800 to ₹2,000 per tonne; pine needles go for ₹2,500; coconut shells can command as much as ₹15,000. Takachar also helps the operator of the reactor find a market for the pellets or the fertiliser, creating more wealth in the village, and, crucially, cutting out crop burning.
The reactor has been developed and patented by Takachar’s co-founder, Kevin Kung, an American with a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who is also president and CTO. The company has worked with 150 of the machines and 4,500 farmers across Haryana, Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu and Kenya to process 3,000 tonnes of crop waste since 2018. At Earthshot, it won the award in the Clean Our Air category.
Mohan has had a lifelong interest in technology and the environment. His uncle, an eco-hydrologist, got him interested in the subject as a child. He has designed solar-powered homes for areas with no or low electricity. His 2013 Master’s thesis at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands researched disposal of bio-waste. It showed him how communities in Uttarakhand doubled their monthly incomes by collecting and selling pine needles from the forest floor, unwittingly also preventing forest fires. He lived through what he calls “the great smog of 2016”, when air pollution levels in Delhi hit 16 times the safe limit, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency.
Takachar plans to use the prize money to convince more farmers to adopt the on-site torrefaction model. “No farmer wants to burn crop waste in the open,” Mohan says. “They’re wired to protect the Earth. It’s in their music, their local gods. They’re open to options.”
However, he adds, that technology alone can’t solve the Earth’s many crises. Even tech, for instance, costs energy. “Any long-term solution to the climate crisis will have to focus on how all of us live. We must differentiate between needs and wants. And it’s human wants, going unchecked, that will continue to be the challenge to overcome.”