Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Dew harvesting—an innovative technique of extracting water

Dew is the new magic source of ultra-fresh water, which is a scarce commodity these days. Technologies are being developed in several countries to draw water from dew. A former IIM professor Girija Sharan has also developed an elaborate yet simple system that can be put on roof top in any house in coastal areas. He showed one can collect pristine fresh 30 litres of water each day from 300 sqm roof, enough for drinking purposes for a family of seven.
By  Dr PK Mukherjee
Water day-by-day is becoming a scarce commodity. The problem is getting compounded with gradual shrinkage of the water table. Nonetheless, we have knowingly or unknowingly developed the habit of wasting water rather than caring for its conservation. Seldom do we realise that in our country there are millions of people for whom even drinking water is scarcely available. We also forget the woes of womenfolk in some parched, arid areas of the country where they have to walk several kilometres for procuring drinking water for their families. Sandra Postel, a world expert on water policy and conservation, in her book ‘The Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity’ has hinted in unequivocal terms that if the next world war is to be fought, it would be on issues related to water. In such a scenario, any innovative idea to solve the water crisis is a welcome step.
      In Bujama village of Peru, condensers are being used to generate water from humid air. After filtering, the water is stored in tanks and then dispensed through taps. In just a few months the village has been able to produce over 9,000 litres of drinking water.
Elsewhere too people are experimenting with technology to generate water. Innovative techniques are being evolved. Take, for example, innovation being tried in Alaska that involves extraction of water from air without the use of expensive electricity. And, surprisingly, dew is the magic source of this precious commodity. In parts of Alaska, water is being obtained through dew harvesting. For this, dew is extracted using non-toxic plastic condensers installed on frames. These condensers cool rapidly at night leading to the formation of dew on them. The dew thus formed is collected in bottles and after proper treatment is used for drinking purposes. Girija Sharan, a former IIM, Ahmedabad professor, is incidentally the first Indian to harvest dew. He recalls how he got attracted to the fascinating and innovative idea of dew harvesting. He had read about dew harvesting being done in Alaska, Latin America and Gulf states. Once on a casual visit to Kutch in Gujarat he saw dew formation on plants. It surprised him because it was the month of April and dew formation normally occurs in winter. Coastal areas like Kutch any way face acute problem of water scarcity. It occurred to Sharan that by collecting dew, water could be obtained without the use of electricity. Plastic condensers come in handy for dew collection.
     In major parts of India, dew formation occurs during a few winter months only. But, in some coastal areas like Kutch in Gujarat dew formation takes place over an extended period of eight months, spanning October to May. Particularly, during the summer months frequent and heavy dew formation takes place.
A four-year R & D programme by Girija Sharan led to large dew harvesting systems being erected on roofs. Non-toxic plastic condensers installed on frame are left on the roof top over night. Besides, plastic metallic condensers can also be used.
     The plastic or metallic condensers undergo rapid cooling and the dew thus formed is collected in bottles. Using this technique, Sharan could collect 30 litres of water daily from a 300 sqm roof. The water thus obtained from dew can be filtered and after boiling or sterilisation with ultraviolet light can be used for drinking purposes. An individual, incidentally, needs four litres of water daily.
Dew harvesting seems to be an attractive proposal and an innovative way of extracting water from air without the use of power. It can be tried in other coastal areas as well. Actually, coastal areas are ideal places for collecting. The extraction of water through such innovative technology might seem trivial in the first place as the water yields are comparatively low. However, whatever little water is obtained, it is pristine fresh. And every drop counts, after all!
(Note: The article was first published in the Lokayat magazine: June, 2013)

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

No Money for Gas hydrate Research in India !

By Dr PK Mukherjee

We have thousands of crores to splurge on non-productive entitlements and also to subsidise diesel, kerosene and gas, but none to spend on the research and development necessary to ensure energy security for the country. The latest excitement in the field of energy is extraction of natural gas from gas hydrates. In India, the gas hydrate reserves are tentatively estimated at 1,890 trillion cubic metres, about 1,500 times more than the natural gas present in the known reserves of the country. But we least bother to tap this natural resource to save scarce foreign currency that we spend on import of oil and gas and propel the country into high current account deficit and debt trap....

The extraction of oil and natural gas from the sea beds has been going on the world over for the last many decades. However, over the last few years, a new source of energy, called gas hydrate, has engaged the attention of scientists. India has some of the biggest gas hydrate reserves in the world. But, so far we were short of the technical capabilities for exploitation of this promising new source of energy. However, a global technological breakthrough has recently taken place that can give real impetus to exploration and extraction of gas hydrate in our country. 

When methane gas after getting dissolved in water gets frozen due to low temperature and requisite pressure, it turns into ice. This ice buried under the sea sediments is known as gas hydrate and is seen as the future source of energy. The US, Japan and China have started programmes to tap this, but indolent Manmohan Singh government is showing no interest towards this enormous wealth in coastal areas.
Recently, Japan Oil Gas and Metals National Corporation  announced that it succeeded in extracting gas from the seabed deposits of gas hydrate. If all goes well, the Japanese Corporation has plans of commercial gas production, may be as early as 2016. Besides Japan, the US and China are also in the race as they have major programmes for exploration and experimental extraction of gas hydrate. 

Now, India must also start taking active interest in this area because it has rich reserves of gas hydrate. It would only be prudent to do so as India has to make huge expenditure on the import of oil and gas. India has to spend a whopping 200,000 crores for the import of oil alone. This causes big trade deficit which, in turn, acts as a hurdle to the acceleration of the economic growth of the country.

What is gas hydrate?

Gas hydrate is a mixture of methane gas and water that solidifies in the cold and high pressure conditions prevailing in the deep sea beds. The popular name of gas hydrate is ‘fire ice’ because it is a white crystalline solid that burns. Although chiefly found in deep sea beds, gas hydrate is also found in some of the on-shore deposits like in the permafrost of northern Canada and Russia.

Estimates of the global reserves of gas hydrate are sketchy. However, they range from 2,800 trillion to about 8 billion trillion cubic metres of gas. This is several times higher than the global reserves of 440 trillion cubic metres of natural gas. In India, the gas hydrate reserves are tentatively estimated at 1,890 trillion cubic metres. This is about 1,500 times more than the natural gas present in the known reserves of the country.

How can the gas (methane) be extracted from the deposits of gas hydrate? Heating the deposits or lowering the pressure releases gas from the solid gas hydrate. The latter technique was actually used by JOGMEC. One litre of the solid hydrate releases about 165 litres of the gas.

Lacklustre Indian initiative

In the quest for the gas hydrate deposits in the Indian waters, a Natural Gas Hydrate Programme  was started in our country in the year 1996. An Indo-US scientific joint venture in 2006 explored four areas. The areas in the Indian waters explored for gas hydrate deposits were Kerala-Konkan basin in the western coast of Arabian Sea, Krishna-Godavari basin in the Bay of Bengal, Mahanadi basin in the Bay of Bengal and seas off the Andaman Islands. The deposits in the Krishna-Godavari basin turned out to be among the richest and biggest in the world. 

The Andaman yielded the thickest-ever deposit, 600 metres below the seabed in the volcanic ash sediments. A fully developed gas hydrate deposit was also found in the Mahanadi basin in the Bay of Bengal. Another significant finding of the 2006 joint exploration was that the methane from most of the gas hydrate deposits was, by and large, produced by microorganisms. However, in the Mahanadi basin and the Andaman, part of the methane appeared to have been produced due to the thermal decomposition processes.

We found in collaboration with the US that deposits in the Krishna-Godavari basin are among the richest and biggest in the world. But then what next?
In the field of gas hydrates much research is in progress in the US, Japan and China. But, there is very little progress in India. The research work being done in this field is also very dismal. We have not gone beyond prospecting the areas where it is located. The Directorate General of Hydrocarbons has long pleaded for the establishment of a National Gas Hydrate R & D Centre, but in vain. This is indeed pathetic. A national R & D Centre seems to be a far cry; we do not till date even have a national policy on gas hydrate.

Friday, February 8, 2013

First ever genome of chickpea

By Dr P K Mukherjee

India is the largest producer of chana
A landmark breakthrough has been achieved by sequencing the genome of Chickpea (चना) by a team of 49 scientists of 10 labs across the world thanks to the dynamic leadership of Dr Rajeev Varshney. The significance of the research is immense as it would be possible in future to develop new varieties of chana which would be able to grow faster with more yields taking care of diseases, global warming and drought conditions. The research has not been patented but has been kept in open domain so that farmers in chickpea growing regions of India and rest of the world can be benefitted.

Dr Rajeev Varshney, Director, Center of Excellence in Genomics (CEG)
A global agricultural research team of 49 scientists successfully mapped the genome sequence of chickpea (चना ) which is the world’s second most widely grown legume crop after soyabean. There are two main types of chickpeas: small-seeded desi and larger-seeded Kabuli.While the consumption of desi is restricted primarily to Middle East and Southeast Asia, Kabuli is a popular and valuable global commodity. The highly nutritious chickpea contributes to income generation and improved livelihoods of smallholder farmers in African countries and is crucial to the food security in India.

Chickpea–a nutritious and agro-ecological legume crop

Domesticated in the ancient Mediterranean region over 700 years ago, chickpea is a major legume crop grown globally on 11.5 million hectares with India being the largest producer (70 percent of global production) and consumer. It is a highly nutritious, rich in protein, energy, vitamins and minerals. Its protein content is between 20-30 percent which is two to three times more than cereals like wheat and rice. Moreover, chickpea is the highest source of dietary fibre, a vital part of healthy diet, as it facilitates digestion.

Chickpea is cooked in many ways including chana dal (desi variety) and curries and its flour (besan) is used in making pakoras and many cuisines. It is also crucial for the nutrition of the poor. In India, roasted chickpea flour, called sattu, is the main meal for the poor, hard-working manual labourers because it is energising, nutritious and affordable. In fact, the World Food Program is currently exploring chickpea paste in a ready-to-use food to address malnutrition.

Genome mapping of chickpea

The global team succeeded in identifying an estimated 28,259 genes of chickpea after sequencing a Canadian Kabuli chickpea variety, called CDC Frontier. The team also carried out resequencing of additional 90 cultivated and wild varieties from ten different countries.

The chickpea genome sequencing project was undertaken by the International Chickpea Genome Sequencing Consortium (ICGSC) led by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics ICRISAT), a member of the CGIAR Consortium. This was made possible, thanks to the collaborative efforts of Rajeev Varshney, who is the coordinator of ICGSC and Director of Centre of Excellence in Genomics at ICRISAT, and his 48 colleagues spread across the world. In all, 23 organisations from 10 countries have been involved in this global research. The collaborating countries are India, USA, Germany, Canada, Australia, China, Czech Republic, Denmark and Mexico. The team could successfully assemble 74 percent of the chickpea genome within record two years. This time span is relatively fast compared to the other grain genome sequencing like maize, rice and wheat attempted earlier.

Also, by analysing the genome, scientists have identified candidate genes for disease resistance, drought and heat tolerance and early maturity. The latter types have the advantage that the plants growing more quickly can be harvested earlier before the dry spells. This research was published in the highly ranked scientific journal, Nature Biotechnology on Jan 27, 2013.
This is the second time (after sequencing the pigeon pea genome in 2011, see December, 2011 issue of Lokayat) that an Indian scientist (Dr Rajeev Varshney, both the times) led genome sequencing of a crop species and published findings in the highest respected scientific journal.

What are the potential benefits of the genome sequencing of chickpea? India, being the largest producer and consumer of chickpea, will directly benefit from this research. The farming of this legume crop in India covers around 8 million hectares of land. It is the most dominating legume crop of India and is widely cultivated in Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. Chickpea is also an important component of the pulse industry in Australia, Canada and USA and so these countries are also expected to reap benefit from the chickpea mapping.
According to scientists, genome sequencing of chickpea would facilitate the development of improved varieties with higher yields. The chickpea genome sequencing is also expected to help development of superior varieties with enhanced drought tolerance and more resistance to damaging pests and diseases, such as the pod borer insects which cause nearly 20-30 percent annual yield losses in India alone.

Most climate scenarios foresee a 2 degrees warmer world. Against this backdrop of climate change, the genome mapping will help chickpea breeders developing more resilient varieties that are essential to adapt to a drier and warmer climate. An important prerequisite for crop improvement is genetic diversity. However, chickpea has a narrow genetic diversity which means that the cultivated varieties have very similar genes. This has basically resulted from domestication of the crop because, over the years, breeders and growers have continually chosen only a handful of chickpea varieties for breeding and cultivation. According to Rajeev Varshney, genome sequencing of 90 chickpea lines will help bringing lost genetic diversity from wild species to the varieties being cultivated. Thus, the new study can prove valuable for enhancing the genetic diversity of cultivated chickpea gene pool.
‘It may take 4-8 years to breed a new chickpea variety. Armed with genome sequencing this time could be almost halved’, said Rajeev Varshney.

The chickpea genome sequencing is publicly accessible with no intellectual property rights (IPR) involved. Thus, with open access to the chickpea genome, the breeders can develop improved crop varieties with market-preferred traits.

What are genome and genome sequencing?

Dr Rajeev Varshney
Genome represents the entire genetic information of an organism which, for plants and animals, is encoded in their deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). Through genome sequencing, the scientists identify the genes responsible for various functions within the body of the organism. However, the genome sequence doesn’t immediately lay open the genetic secrets of an organism. Even when a draft of the genome sequence is in hand, much work still remains to be done. The scientists have to figure out how a genome works; what genes, making up the genome, are responsible for a characteristic trait; how different genes are related; and how various parts of the genome are coordinated

Sunday, January 27, 2013

No scientist to lead centenary celebrations!

Manmohan Singh (Left) inaugurating the Indian Science Congress, 2013

By Vinod Varshney

Since no one who has not studied science up to the graduate level can aspire to get even the primary membership of the Indian Science Congress Association, nomination of  prime minister Manmohan Singh, a non-science person,  as its general president in its centenary year is inexplicable.

Does it mean that India has not even one scientist worth his lab-coat to head the Association in its landmark year? This looks even more odd in the context of the official publicity that Manmohan Singh is the only prime minister other than Nehru to hold this august office. 

True, Nehru was nominated as its general president in 1947 and he continued even after he became prime minister. But he was an uncanny visionary who had made seminal contributions to the growth of India’s basic science infrastructure. It was his far-sight in establishing the series of national labs that took us where we are in nuclear science, space technology, food security, healthcare and industrial advances.

In comparison Manmohan Singh’s record is dismal. Year after year he repeats from the podium of  Science Congress  that we should  spend 2 percent of GDP on S&T research, but in eight years of his rule this goal has move up to 1 percent from 0.8!  
While he splurged several lakh crores on subsidies and subventions which can at best be labelled as dole-oriented, or cash for votes, they add next to nothing to the nation’s assets. But when it comes to science he has no money. 

Science administrators assure that there is no dearth of money; only, our system is unable to utilise it. One fails to understand whose responsibility is it to see that enough money is allocated for science and properly spent. Putting any Johnny in charge of S&T ministry will not help.  

The bureaucrats quote figures to show that the government is meeting 73 percent of the overall R&D expenditure; it is for the private sector to do the rest.  But the private sector looks for short term profits rather than long-term benefits. It is unfortunate that both the government and the private sector do not see much role for S&T in India’s future.   
Look at China. Its new ruling caucus has none without a management or technology PG. It is the secret of their phenomenal rally in all fields. They are now poised to overtake the USA in many S&T fields. Two years ago China built the fastest super computer. Today it has mastered virtually all frontier technologies --it  builds stealth aircraft, submarines, missiles and spacecraft for manned flight.  

With the world galloping away fast India stands little chance of catching up unless its higher science education and research bases are overhauled and fortified. The new S&T policy unveiled at the Science Congress is a fine document but without commitment to implement, it would remain an academic paper!  

The next budget, coming on the 2014 Lok Sabha election-eve, will be populist. So, no point in anticipating any big deal for S&T. Then how will the government implement the imperatives listed in the new S&T policy?

Indian Science Congress Association perhaps daydreams that by making Manmohan Singh the general president, his mind could be re-engineered to give more money to Indian science!