Some careers have strong roots, going all the way back to the “growing up” years, shaped by early interests and built through a solid foundation !

Mehul Raval, our next pathbreaker, is a Process Integration and R&D engineer for solar cell manufacturing companies and consults for clients setting up a solar cell manufacturing line.

Mehul talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about combining his initial interests in home electronics with his mission of pursuing a noble career that drove him towards a career in Industrial Electronics and a PhD in Solar Energy Technology from IIT Mumbai.

For students, there is so much of potential to make the world a better place by tapping energy from the sun and providing clean power, as long as we have more researchers and engineers in the field.

Mehul, tell us about your initial years?

Namaste, I was born and brought up in Mumbai. During my school days, I had an inclination to work with broken home electronics and used to tinker with electronic items at home like TV and music systems. I would like to indicate that I came from a very simple family who had seen difficult times, but was lucky that my mother linked us with our true cultural roots which have now became an integral part of our family’s life.  

I was selected for the ‘India B’ Zone cricket team and represented school, colleges & Wipro on their cricket team. I was an active member of the youth wing of ‘Swadhyay Parivar’, inspired by Rev. Pandurang Shastri Athavale and was involved in participating and organizing weekly activities like debates, character-study, games and many yearly cultural events.

What did you study?

After class 10, I wanted to switch to applied electronics instead of the regular science subjects that we learn in junior college. I was sure that I wanted to pursue electronics as a career, so I thought why not go for a more tailored course in electronics? So I chose to do a Diploma in Industrial Electronics from Bharati Vidyapeeth Institute of Technology, Belapur. This was a 3 year degree which was focused completely on Industrial Electronics and also gave me the option of completing my Bachelors in Engineering (Electronics & Telecommunication) by joining directly in the 2nd year. It took me 3+3 years, 3 years Diploma and 3 years Engineering to complete both degrees. And since most engineering colleges set aside seats for diploma students in the 2nd year it was not a very difficult choice to make.

After 3 years of Diploma course, I got admission into Vivekanand Education Society Institute of Technology (Chembur, Mumbai) for a Bachelors in Electronics & Communication Engineering based on the 3rd year marks of the Diploma course.

I did my Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Solar Energy Technology from Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

I would like to mention the Swadhyay Parivar and friends from there (like my brothers), mother and family’s self-less support as being an important factor in the life’s journey.

My immediate family, my uncles, my dad, my cousins were all civil engineers, so there wasn’t any influence from them. My tinkering experiences gradually led me to a career in electronics.

My journey was based on always pushing for more exciting, challenging work, seeing what is higher and working in a noble field. It was mainly about listening to the inner voice and having faith in God for guiding me through. 

In 2003, when I graduated with an engineering degree, the job scenario was not very good, though some companies did come for campus interviews. I wanted to stick to the technical field, that is, electronics and was not keen on IT companies. When I went for a test & interview at Wipro Technologies in Pune, I indicated the same and luckily got a job in the VLSI domain.

After around 2 years in Wipro, I got an opportunity to pursue M. Sc [Eng] at Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru (IISc) through the GATE entrance exam after being on the waiting list! IISc has three degrees M.E., M. Tech and MSc [Eng] (with thesis work). While M.E. is more theory oriented and M.Tech is more applied, M.Sc [Eng] requires one to complete the degree with a thesis. So I decided to take up M.Sc [Eng] so I could work on a thesis with one of the professors who was working on Gas Sensors in the department of Instrumentation.

After doing my masters, I got a job at L&T in the Oil & Gas Automation division where I worked for little more than a year. After the M. Sc [Eng] course, I had decided to pursue Ph.D and decided to apply to universities abroad. I contacted some professors but didn’t receive a positive response. 

During my Masters, I was exposed to solar energy and that fascination with renewables stayed with me. Moreover, I was keen to work in a noble field when I came across solar PV and its potential in India.

I came across Prof. Chetan Solanki at IIT Bombay who was working on Solar Energy research. So I wrote to him explaining my background and interest requesting to work under him. He agreed to hire me on a contract position for 89 days which was the best way to hire research assistants (RA) without too much official paperwork. I left my job at L&T after 3 months into my marriage. My contract got extended multiple times and I ended up working with Prof. Solanki ahead.

During the RA tenure, I was working with other colleagues in the group on R&D work related to silicon (Si) solar solar cell aspects like application of Spin On Dopants (SOD) based diffusion, patterning of front-side Anti-Reflective Coating (ARC) via etch paste for Ni-Cu based metallization and setting up of National Centre of PV Research and Education ( NCPRE ), which is a unique centre for solar PV related R&D in India. During that time, I was also fortunate to get advise from my senior Dr. Vikrant Chaudhari who was going to submit his thesis soon. We are good friends since and am in regular touch with him.

After 9 months of RA post, I cleared the departmental exam to get Ph.D admission in the Department of Energy Science and Engineering, IIT Bombay.

For my Ph.D thesis, I worked on replacing the expensive front-side silver (Ag) based metallization for silicon solar cells by a more cost-effective metal copper (Cu), whose conductivity is similar to Ag. The main challenge for Cu based metallization is that Cu is not stable in ambient environment and oxidizes very fast making it difficult to formulate a stable paste formula which can be used for the screen-printing process. Moreover, Cu degrades the material quality easily by diffusing into the Si bulk, which necessitates having a barrier layer of nickel (Ni) between Si and Cu. 

My thesis work was based on optimizing the properties of the Ni barrier layer and recommending optimum process conditions without degrading the solar cell performance. During the thesis I got an opportunity to attend EU PVSEC which is a well-recognized global conference for solar R&D where I got to meet Dr. Martin Green who is known as the father of Si solar cells! I also did collaborative work with Dr. Stephan Suckow from RWTH, Aachen who had developed a MATLAB based simulation software. Stephan also guided me in aspects related to my R&D research paper and thesis writing. Along with colleague Sandeep S. S. who was also pursuing Ph.D work under NCPRE , we obtained an Indian patent based on mutually collaborative work. It was nice to publish research papers based on the thesis work in reputed journals like Solar Energy Materials and Solar Cells, Elsevier and IEEE Journal of Photovoltaics. I was also lucky to get guidance from Prof. Narsimhan and Prof. Arora who had a simple life style, lot of energy and keen technical aptitude with a background of working at TIFR.      

Being part of NCPRE, I was also responsible for the screen-printing process equipment and characterization equipment like 3D microscope, Quantum Efficiency measurement device, I-V tester and Sinton’s lifetime instruments to train and conduct measurements for other students. In addition, I also worked with another colleague Jim John Joseph to obtain a patent on PV module cleaning based on ambient moisture and setting up a PV module performance monitoring station. The Ph. D tenure was a good exposure to solar cell R&D, doing collaborative work and contributing to a solar R&D centre of national importance.

Tell us about your career path

My first job at Wipro Technologies, Bengaluru in VLSI verification & validation was a memorable experience in terms of team-work and team-spirit. The second job at C&A division of L&T was an average experience in terms of the work culture and this also additionally pushed me to explore options for higher studies.

After Ph. D, my first job was as the R&D manager of a start-up in IIT Bombay, which was a good experience in terms of guiding a group of good engineers in doing good solar product development work after them being under fire before I joined. We are still in touch and had a conference call recently in times of lockdown due to COVID-19! 

Then I got a good opportunity to work on solar cell ramp-up project in India in partnership with a German company (where I’m currently employed) via an Indian company. However, there were no projects after that assignment, so I moved to another start-up with an innovative PV based shading & water collecting canopy and IoT Air Quality Monitoring (AQM) device. However, I realized I was not content with the technical level involved in the work and luckily (really!) got an intimation from the German company I had worked with before, to join as full-time employee and start with a project in Turkey. My first project in Turkey was ramp-up of a 125 MW standard multi-crystalline solar cell line after which I got involved in the current project of 500 MW integrated solar cell line manufacturing line.  

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

  • Challenge 1: Not going with the herd mentality.

I knew that if the job is not from my field and is a routine job, I will not enjoy it for long. So I waited for some time to get a good opportunity, which was my 1st job. I never thought about salary and the primary criteria was job satisfaction, I was pretty sure I would earn sufficient to make a decent living at any stage.

  • Challenge 2: Following your inner voice.

I wanted to pursue Masters after some time into the 1st job. I wrote GATE 3 times before, but did not get a very good score. I gave my best the 4th time and then managed to get an admit in IISc after being in the waiting list!

  • Challenge 3: Having faith in God.

After Ph.D, I wanted to be in a core solar cell manufacturing/R&D profile like in Germany or China. But after the Indian cell line ramp-up project, I did not see a ray of light in that domain and joined a start-up in PV products keeping faith in God. After a few months I got a call from the German partner company and after good discussions with family I decided to join them!

Where do you work now? 

I’m involved in Process Integration and R&D for solar cell manufacturing in a German company called RCT Solutions, GmbH.

We set-up and consult for new companies setting up a solar cell manufacturing line. Our current project is an integrated solar manufacturing line of 500 MW in Turkey. We also manufacture wet-chemistry equipment for solar cell manufacturing. Skills needed are a good understanding of solar cell physics and manufacturing processes which I acquired during the Ph.D course and experience during projects in India and Turkey. I love working on solar cells and setting up factories to manufacture them. I consider it as love of God to be working in such a profile with international exposure. 

The green-field (new) integrated 500 MW solar factory project in Turkey is being developed by a well-known big construction company in Turkey. They got this as a government project to set-up a manufacturing factory for ingots, wafers, cells and modules to finally install the bifacial PV modules in a 1.3 GWp solar PV plant with single-axis tracking. I’m the Project Manager (PM) for the cell line factory and have been actively involved in discussion with a Chinese Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) company to finalize the technical aspects of contracts, orienting & training new colleagues and helping with procurement of various consumables for the cell line. Once the equipment are installed and the ramp-up of the line starts, I would also be involved in improving and stabilizing line performance. The cell line which consists of various wet-chemistry, thermal, printing and automation equipment is like the ‘heart’ of the complete factory. 

How does your work benefit  society? 

Solar PV is a leading Renewable Energy field which reduces carbon emissions and hence global warming. I’m happy to work in such a field to make possible contributions I can.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Few incidents that come to mind are:

1) Spending upto 1 am during ramp-up for an Indian project, where we saw all 3 production shifts in a day!

2) For the Turkey project, we were in China for final contract discussions and we worked till 1-2 am for a few days in a row as the contract had to be finalized in those days.

3) Recently we had to stay in the factory till 4 am to finalize the purchase orders for one of the factory lines. The next day, I was back in office by 9 am as Factory Acceptance Tests (FAT) of equipment were being conducted in China during that time. It was ok if I went late the next day due to late work, but I felt that since I was involved in the work, I should be present for the same. 

The maximum satisfaction is when you give your very best and leave no stone unturned for the work you are doing.    

Your advice to students based on your experience?

There are many inspirational saints, philosophers and people in India and in the world to get inspiration from. It is important we keep feeding our mind with inspirational characters and benefit from the treasure of our Indian culture.

We should NOT look at our careers ‘just’ as a means to making money or fame. This is the capitalist black hole in which we are getting entrapped and forgetting to be good human beings?. 

We should work whole-heartedly in the field we like, to make a positive contribution to society and as a selfless devotion to the omnipresent silent conscious, God. 

We should be humble, realize how lucky we are in life to get so much, try to make genuine contribution to society and not forgot to be a good human being above all!   

Future Plans?

Be humble, Keep the enthusiasm and keenness to learn/improve and keep working in the noble field of solar manufacturing.