Could you tell us how you realized that pure sciences was your calling? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
After SSC, when I stood first in the entire state of Maharashtra, when the news reporters asked me about my future plans, I told IIT because everyone around told me to say so. I had no specific plans. But when I was in my pre-degree (it used to be called this at that time), I had a circle of few friends who were interested in science and we used to discuss Einstein’s theory of relativity over a cup of tea. We didn’t understand much but we were curious. We were enamored by stories about Einstein, his hairstyle and all. We evolved talking about science and we enjoyed those discussions. All of us skipped the engineering colleges and got into pure sciences, even when we did fine in IIT entrance. So my interest in science developed because of this peer group. The route of pure sciences is ideal if you study at premier institutes because the teachers and labs have to be the absolute best to make the students learn deeper, which unfortunately colleges still lack to a considerable degree. The purpose of education is to ensure that you are rendered mature enough to learn things by yourself because knowledge cannot be taught in the 2-3 years of graduation. It should only teach you how best to learn and educate yourself independently. Real learning begins after you graduate.
What did you study?
I did my M.Sc. in Physics (Pune University)) and Ph.D. (1980, Pune University, India) – Field : Ion Implantation.
You have recently been honored with the prestigious Newton Prize. We are eager to know about the journey.
It is actually a team prize and I was one of the leaders on the Indian side. It was a collaboration of 5 universities each from UK and India, including IISER Pune and CSIR-NCL. This team worked for almost 6 years on a project called APEX-Advancing photovoltaic efficiency of solar cells (Phase-I and II), that mainly focused on solar energy with novel next generation solar devices. We initially worked on the design proposed by Dr. Michael Gräetzel termed as dye sensitized solar cells (DSSC) without any content of silicon that is commonly used in solar cells. It uses the principle of photosynthesis by leaves. In the process, some discoveries were made by different people in the team including one on hybrid peroxide solar cells, especially by the group of Dr. Henry Snaith of Oxford, which reflected a constructive union of inorganic and organic chemistries.
Organic chemistry embodies research on small molecules, polymers and bio materials. On the other hand Inorganic chemistry works with oxides, sulphides and nitrides. Each particular class of material has its strengths and weaknesses. So, if you try to put up a molecule using both organic and inorganic materials, you can expect to generate a new class of physical material systems with diverse properties which could be of broad application interest.
So the idea was to make these materials which are much more novel, effective and unconventional as compared to what individual disciplines can offer. And now the efficiency of these materials has gone above 22% which is even competing with silicon.
The Newton Prize has helped our team to get further recognition, funding and also in promoting student exchange programmes which will continue to lead to creative information exchange. I’d say that this has been a truly vibrant international collaborative program.
Why the urge to eliminate silicon?
There is no urge, but it is important to find out new things which could be much cheaper and easily solution processible for scaling up. Low temperature processes for developing solar cells on flexible substrates is also equally important. For all technologies, we cannot have one wonder material. There are more than 120 elements in the periodic table, many of which, like titanium, iron etc. are earth abundant. But Silicon is the most exploited because people could purify it from sand quite early in the game for the development of integrated circuit technology. There are many novelties in other materials which we are trying to explore and apply for clean energy solutions. We are not only exploring new materials but their Nanosystems as well. Nano science has come off age now and technologies are being built around the interesting quantum phenomena they support. The specialty about nanoparticles is that the optical properties are highly tunable by size. So why not use them for solar technologies?
Your work focuses on providing solutions related to the Energy Problem. This being a burning issue, several efforts must be ongoing on this front. How does it feel to work in such a highly competitive area?
It is highly competitive indeed, but it is equally challenging and exciting as well. I like to work on frontier subjects because constant discoveries and innovations keep unfolding on the scene. In addition to the new brands of solar cell architectures, we also use solar energy for water splitting to generate hydrogen and oxygen for fuel cells. Also this energy is used to reduce CO2 to functional materials like methane and propane to be used as fuel along with keeping the carbon footprint in check. Scientists from all around the world are working at these fronts and therefore it is not easy to publish high impact papers. I enjoy such challenges, at least we are not lonely, working in a corner! Moreover, these fields are directly relevant to the evolving social needs. This brings a sense of belonging and satisfaction.
What is the lab currently working on?
One important project for next 4 years is SUNRISE- Strategic University Network to Revolutionize Indian Solar Energy, which is aiming to take the solutions developed in the lab to rural areas. The idea is to see how our lab research can be translated, actually as a demonstration on the rural scale. For example, trying to make a small sustainable hut with solar based supply of basic electricity and clean water supply, solutions for agriculture which are less energy intensive, developing low-cost materials to make sustainable walls of the rural dwellings. In another effort, we are collaborating with KPIT technology company to develop low cost robust batteries for electric buses. There is another interesting project sponsored by DST Nanomission program of Govt. of India on “Nanoscience for Clean Energy” wherein a number of young physics and chemistry faculty are participating along with me. We are also contemplating several start-up ideas involving students.
Your lab lives by the motto, “Cleaner Energy for a Better Future”. Could you emphasize on its significance?
Both India and China are developing very rapidly with programs for rural upliftment. The power supply in villages still works on the old system of power grids (from a particular hydroelectric project to the neighboring villages). The far away villages are still left out. In this model, the required level of power for real development may not reach the villages even in another 50 years. We need smart low-cost distributed energy solutions. Therefore, we need to rapidly develop mechanisms for enhanced usage of alternative resources of energy because the pace of progress cannot be stopped. Rural sector has to develop if our nation is to be strong. The construction of a certain bridge for connectivity cannot be stopped because of non-availability of good fuels which will not pollute. So the only option left is to harness cleaner energy sources. Even the government has announced that the sale of petrol/diesel cars will be stopped by 2030, which is a great initiative as it is so sad to see kids in metropolis cities such as Delhi having to wear masks while playing and we would not like to live like that. So we strive to do good quality research in the field of cleaner energy and while we are at it, we try to come up with simple products which can be carried to the rural sector to satisfy their small power needs. I had brought a nice hat from Guwahati which has a lot of real estate to mount things, on which we mounted the solar cells made in our lab to make a mobile charger. While farmers work in the field, their mobile phones can get charged. These are easy solutions and industries should take them up.
Where does India stand in terms of indigenous development?
In India, there aren’t any manufacturers of batteries. All the batteries are imported. To reduce such dependency, we are trying to make things within India with the materials that we have in abundance. For example, we are exploring alternate alkali-ion batteries instead of lithium batteries as lithium is only found in 2-3 countries and that too in limited quantities. Also, industry-academia interactions should be promoted. There has to be confidence building efforts at all levels so that such interactions are effective. They can definitely deliver in the national interest.
It is seen that more number of students opt for engineering rather than pure sciences in our country. What are your views?
The reasons could be purely based on the options and opportunities available to engineers over scientists. People feel that job opportunities are meager in science. Even we were criticized for taking up this science career earlier. We also didn’t know if our aptitude was high enough to do well in a science career. But these risks have to be taken when you are absolutely passionate about something. And now people are looking at science differently. They have reason to believe that even knowledge can bring in opportunities and money. So the situation is evolving. Even good engineers are getting back to research careers.
Thanks to your long teaching career span of over 30 years, you have had the chance to interact with students from different decades. How, in your perception, has the youth progressed over the years?
Because of the Internet age, they are very well informed than we were. They are ahead of their age in terms of maturity and understanding about their circumstances. They are much more aware. Unfortunately, more information can be distracting and thought-polluting. We were somewhat naive as compared to the current generation because nowadays students are very well connected in society and thus could get good advice if they desire. But people now are much more stressed because the competition is tougher. Whether the evolved maturity at an early age compounded with increased stress is a good situation to be in, and whether it can translate into career success, is questionable. Being naive made our progress slow but it helped us determine the pace of our life and allow our generation to learn at our pace, which was manageable. Youngsters should try to be knowledgeable, more than being informed. They must recognize that information is not knowledge or understanding of a subject. Being creative and innovative is critical for good progress.
Although I’m very proud of the choice I made, I now think if I would’ve done engineering and then come to scientific research, I may have been even more effective because unlike scientists, who are romantic about concepts, engineers are more pragmatic
How do you relax after a hard day at work?
I try to avoid unnecessary stress build-up as far as possible. A creative research environment with several good students around is already a happy stress relieving therapy. After a hectic day, I love to eat good food along with good music. I have four grand-children. Two of them are here in Pune and two in the US. Playing with the two who are in Pune gets me fresh in no time. I am also blessed with a huge friend circle and keeping in touch with them makes me happy. I also watch movies, both Hindi and English, which is quite refreshing.