Waste processing is the need of the hour, whether it is proper remediation of hazardous waste to heal the environment or efficient recycling of municipal waste to meet our energy requirements or treatment of industrial effluent (wastewater) for reuse.

Chandrashekhar B, our next pathbreaker, works on solutions related to waste management, especially Wastewater, by using Bio-Remediation methods to dispose off harmful chemicals in a natural and safe way so wastewater can be reused.

Chandrashekhar talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about always being influenced by people who raised concerns related to increasing problems due to pollution and shortage of energy, and those who worked for saving the environment.

For students, our country produces a wide range of waste that require creative means of Bio-Remediation and recycling for our energy and natural resource requirements. Biotechnology is the answer!

Chandrashekhar, tell us about your background?

I belong to Chhattisgarh, India. My parents belong to a middle class Telugu family settled in Chhattisgarh. My schooling was from different small towns of the state as my family kept migrating from one town to another in search of a job. Since my childhood, I was always interested in science and aspired to become a scientist or an engineer right from the beginning. I loved all branches of science, and therefore chose all science subjects (Physics, Biology, Chemistry and Maths) as my major for higher secondary education (12th) rather than leaving behind either maths or biology. Since childhood, I was always philosophical, always thinking a lot about the natural phenomena that I used to see around me. My family always encouraged me and my sister to study hard. I was a very good student, and used to read a lot. During high school days, I became more interested in modern and advanced areas of technology such as biotechnology, nanotechnology and all areas of engineering. Now my family is settled in Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh where my father is practicing as a lawyer. My mother is a housewife and my only sister is married and settled in the US where she did her PhD in Lung Physiology and Asthma. I am married and my wife has also finished her PhD in Biotechnology. I am now living in Delhi currently working in a biotechnology firm as a researcher/scientist, developing technologies for wastewater treatment and in allied areas like environmental engineering, bioremediation and bio-energy.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I completed B.E (Biotechnology) from RIT Raipur in 2009. Then I completed M.Tech (Biotechnology) from VIT University Vellore in 2011. After that I joined National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, Nagpur for pursuing PhD in Biochemical Engineering, which I finished in 2016. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

There was no specific person who influenced me, but during my graduation (B.E), I was always influenced by people who raised concerns related to increasing problems due to pollution and shortage of energy, and worked for saving the environment. This included scientists and engineers who wanted to protect the environment. The turning point of my career was when I got a chance to work with eminent environmental and biotechnology scientists at NEERI, Nagpur as a research fellow, which shaped my career to become a scientist in this area.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path

Right after my high school, I wanted to become a biotechnology engineer and a scientist. As mentioned above, I studied +2 with both maths and biology which prepared me well for an engineering course in biotechnology which requires sound knowledge of both maths and biology. I cleared the engineering entrance exams, and enrolled into the B.E Biotechnology programme offered by RIT Raipur. My ultimate aim, however,  was to become a scientist, for which it was necessary to pursue post graduation. So I cleared GATE and enrolled in the M.Tech Biotechnology programme of VIT Vellore. Based on this and my GATE score I was selected for Junior Research Fellowship at CSIR-NEERI, Nagpur in the Environmental Biotechnology Division where I worked closed with Dr. R.A.PAndey who is a well known scientist working on bioreactors and engineering projects for Bioremediation. I completed my PhD under his mentorship in 2016 and hence became eligible for various scientist/research positions in the industry and academia.

Bio-Remediation or Environmental Biotechnology involves the application of carefully selected microorganisms and plants to degrade or destroy the pollutants in soil, water and air, using a natural or close-to-natural process. My work as Junior Research fellow or JRF (and then SRF) was related to treatment of industrial gaseous emissions containing Nitrogen Oxides (NOx). This gas, just like CO2 is one of the major toxic air pollutants, mostly coming from fertilizer factories, power plants and vehicles running on petrol and diesel. As a research fellow I worked on developing a bioreactor system for treatment of such gases coming from fertilizer industries in which nitric acid and nitrates are manufactured. Currently there are chemical catalyst based processes for destroying NOx, which are very costly. So my idea was to develop a low cost, biological solution to the problem for which I conducted various experiments. This was my PhD thesis topic as well (Development of Chemo-biochemical process for the treatment of industrial gaseous emissions containing NOx using iron-chelates) as I registered for PhD at the Academy of Scientific and Innovative Research, Ghaziabad keeping NEERI as my place of work. 

The research work included use of complicated tools, methods and software from subjects like microbiology, bioprocess technology and chemical engineering. In short, the process includes absorption of NOx into a special chemical solution having various iron chelates which are non hazardous, (hence treating the emission and releasing purified air into the atmosphere) and then regenerating (or reactivating) the chemical solution using a biological treatment process, so that the solution can be recycled back to the absorption. So, it was a closed loop process, and overall there is no wastage of any chemical or water and the pollutant is degraded by natural bacteria. The only main cost-causing consumables are some nutrients for the bacteria to grow and electricity to run the plant. As a student, I also developed a small semi-pilot reactor system and demonstrated it in the industry (RCF, Mumbai) for about 2 months and the results were very good.

We have published 4 research articles on this work, in reputed scientific journals which have been cited and reviewed internationally by other researchers who are doing similar work. So this work has been recognized, has created its own impact by helping scientists to improve the technology and come up with better solutions. 

During this period, I also worked on biogas production from municipal waste which is also a very relevant area nowadays. This was in fact my wife’s research work, and we worked together as a team on this project. The work included optimization of the biogas production process keeping in mind the composition of kitchen waste in India and developing ways to improve the technology for higher biogas generation. Biogas is a very good fuel, as an alternative to LPG and CNG, and our work shows that the kitchen waste from Indian houses can be easily processed into biogas, if we operate the biogas plant under the optimum conditions that we discovered. We have published 5 research articles on this work which have been recognized internationally in the form of citations. We presented both these research works in Science conferences in Dubrovnik, Croatia (SDWES 2015) and Sitges, Spain (BioRestec 2016).

How did you get your first break?

After finishing my PhD, I was looking for a job desperately. My first preference was to work in the industry rather than in academia, as I believed industry would give me more chances to apply my skill set in practical scenarios. 

I made contacts through linkedin. With the help of my seniors at NEERI, I learnt the art of making an effective resume, cracking the interview etc. and ultimately found a job vacancy at The Catalysts Group that suited my interests. It was my first interview and I cleared it much easier than I expected. 

I got an offer from Catalysts Biotechnologies Pvt. Ltd. as a Research Manager in their wastewater lab. This was my first break and I currently work here. My projects include developing cost effective wastewater treatment technologies and products for the distillery (alcohol manufacturing) and sugar mill sectors.  

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

My biggest challenge was to find a suitable job which matches my key areas of interest and skill set. Most biotech companies are related to the pharma and food sectors, but there are a very few who work for the environment sector and most of them are not research based. So finding a research based job in this area was a challenge for me, and it took me about 6 months after my PhD to grab a job. 

My second challenge was to carry out research projects and steer them single handedly at Catalysts. I did not have lots of people in my team, neither did I have a separate lab. It was very challenging to work almost like a one man army for the next 1-2 years during which I developed a new lab at a very limited budget and started working on new technologies for water treatment. The lab is now NABL and DST accredited and has all modern facilities needed for a good research project.

Lastly, the biggest challenge in front of me was to market my technologies and products and convince customers about the merits. The area of environmental engineering, especially wastewater treatment, is very cost sensitive and most people do not care about it in India. Therefore, marketing new and better environmental technologies is always challenging because of the issue of high costs. I kept trying, I visited several customers, presented my work in seminars and forums, took the feedback and reworked on cost-optimization to make the products more attractive and effective. It took me more than 4 years of hard work, and now I am on the verge of launching my products commercially and I hope it will yield good revenues to my company as well as save lots of water.

Tell us about your work

I work at Catalysts Biotechnologies Pvt. Ltd, which is basically an enzyme and biochemical manufacturing company based in Delhi. We are one of the largest Indian companies in the industrial enzyme business. We have recently ventured into the wastewater and agriculture segments too, and I am leading the wastewater division as a Research Manager and techno-commercial expert.

I work on solving the problems of wastewater management and reuse in the sugar mill and distilling (alcohol fermentation) industry. These industries generate billions of liters of wastewater per year and hence pose a serious threat to fresh water resources. Many of them are facing challenges in treating and reusing the wastewater. As the government guidelines for wastewater treatment have become more stringent, the industry needs cost effective and quick solutions. So that’s the area where my company offers solutions and I am leading the projects in terms of the technical aspects.

How does your work benefit society? 

My work helps save water, which is extremely important for our future and for the environment. Water is not cheap now and we try to reduce wastage so that our future generations do not face any scarcity of it.

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

One of my memorable works was when I got a chance to co-chair a session at an environmental conference (SDEWES) in Dubrovnik, Croatia. I was very reluctant to accept the role in the beginning, but once I did it, I felt very good. 

Another memorable work of mine was when I made my own small scale bioreactor for treating NOx (an air pollutant) at Rashtria Chemicals and Fertilizers, Mumbai and demonstrated the workings of the bioreactor to everyone. That was my first experience in showing my technology to other people. The technology did not go ahead in terms of commercialization but it was a very good experience for me and gave me lots of confidence.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My simple advice to the students is to work hard and keep your objectives clear. Do all the research, do networking and gather all the necessary information about your career objective or the role that you want to play in society. Try to fill the gaps that you have in yourself to achieve your objective. Always select a good mentor and take advice from the right people. Never get wrongly influenced by your friends and never try to simply follow what your friends are doing, which may not be suitable for you. If you’re a fresher, and do not have many responsibilities, put money as your last preference, and put learning, skill development and social recognition as your first preferences. Getting a good experience and working with a good team is very important.

Future Plans?

After working in the industry for enough time, my future plan is to join academic institutes as a professor or scientist and start my own lab where I will work on futuristic research projects and engage bright students to develop them as future scientists for our country.