Conducting research on one of the most intriguing and fascinating machines that literally drive our world, is not something many of us get to do as a part of their daily job!

Chaitanya Patil, our next pathbreaker, ​works as Engine researcher and Simulation Engineer at the R&D centre of an Automotive company.

Chaitanya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about working on different technologies to improve engine performance and specifically reduce pollutant emission.

For students, technology has given us the opportunity to explore and analyze engines in a way that has never been possible before. Leverage it to shape a greener future through cleaner engines.

For Automobile enthusiasts, check out the section where Chaitanya talks about his work on Hyperloop, a futuristic concept proposed by ElonMusk !

Chaitanya, tell us about your background?

I grew up in the city called Nashik (Maharashtra, India). Both my parents had their masters in science. My father was a professor of physics and my mother studied botany. So naturally I was curious about science in general from my childhood. I did my schooling from marathi medium school called Maratha High School in Nashik. Although Physics was my favorite subject, I studied Biology and Chemistry as well with the same interest. I did not like Mathematics from the start because of those calculations and tables that our education system imposes upon us. However, in the later years the importance of the subject in almost every scientific field made me take interest in math and it revealed so many different possibilities. Actually, unknowingly I spent specific periods of my school life reading and talking about different topics like Astronomy, Biology, Physics etc. My parents also supported me in my quest to gain knowledge. They asked me to take different competitive exams and participate in competitions which helped inculcate a competitive spirit in my life. I also enjoyed reading about different things. Other than scientific penchant, I read Marathi literature in my school time. Moreover, I enjoyed and excelled in other skills like drawing and playing cricket. Doing productive things and seeking appreciation was perhaps my thing.

However, I did not decide anything in particular that I would like to do in my future until the time came, when we actually had to make a decision. I would suggest to always go with the flow until you find something interesting, considering the real-time situation of the world. 

When I think about my school years now, I feel that the most important thing is, everything I did in my childhood, stayed with me forever. No matter what you do or choose as your career, everything that you do and experience, helps your understanding of knowledge.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

Well, after completing my schooling, I chose the closest possible thing that I could do. I went for engineering. I gave different entrance exams for the same. I could not crack the IIT-JEE, however, I managed to secure a seat for industrial engineering at VJTI in Mumbai.

For my post-graduation, I wanted to go outside India and experience education and life in different countries. So I did my masters in Europe. Thereafter, my increasing curiosity in the field of automotives and longing to study more, led me to pursue masters degrees one by one in the topics related to engine research. The first 2 were in automobile engineering for sustainable mobility in France (at Universite de Orleans and ISAT respectively) and the last one was particularly in the field of reciprocating engines in vehicles at Universidad Politecnica de Valencia in Spain.

My inner desire for studying, research and travelling to various places and exploring cultures could not stop me there. I went for a PhD in modern automotive engines at the Universidad Politecnica de Valencia in Spain. I am glad to say that I just finished my PhD thesis successfully this year.

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

I had initially wanted to pursue mechanical because it is a pretty general and flexible field among all the engineering streams. But, due to my scores, I had to settle with industrial engineering which was more about manufacturing. However, I stayed close to the mechanical branch. The funny part is, I ended up studying mechanical subjects all the time.

Unfortunately, I did not have any mentor to guide me on my career path. All I had was my family and myself. I always went with the flow. I did whatever I liked to do. The key was if you feel like doing it then you should do and complete it. 

Of course,I always asked for suggestions from experts before making big decisions at every milestone. For example, before selecting the masters course, I took advice from my boss (Sunil Sahamate) at my first job at TATA motors. Similarly, for selecting my PhD destination I had a word with my teacher of Engines (Dr. Pascal Higelin).

What were all the scholarships you got in your career?

I got 2 scholorships during my masters in France and PhD. The French scholarship was from the the Conseil Régional de la Région Centre-Val de Loire. They offer this scholarship on the basis of the academinc performance during the first semester of the program. It covers all the expenses for the year. During my PhD, I received the full research grant called FPI from the Universidad Politecnica de Valencia, Spain. They give this grant every year to the researchers in the university depending on the previous academic performance and research proposals.​​

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

When i began my engineering education, I already had it in my mind that this would not be my final degree. This was just a  start. During my university years, while learning about different machines and processes, I developed an interest in automobiles and robotics (specifically design). I started reading different books and research papers on the various advances in the respective fields. I also learned designing software like CATIA and ProE which are widely used in automotive design. I also tried getting into technical clubs for these streams in my college. As the final year was approaching, I started looking for various universities in the US and Europe. When my fellow students were preparing for MBA entrance exams, I started preparing for GRE and TOEFL.

Parallely, during college campus placements, I managed to secure a job as a design engineer at TATA technologies. Looking at the job profile, I decided to join the company and gain some practical experience before going for higher studies. So I accepted the job. I was a part of a team responsible for design of exterior body parts of the cars for TATA Motors. However, this role didn’t interest me much. I needed more flexibility and scientific work. So I started talking to people about higher studies and found out that Europe is the best destination for the automotive field. Therefore, I started learning European languages and kept looking for different courses, where I could learn more and could stay close to basic scientific research.

Considering the shift in the transportation industry towards green and environmentally friendly solutions, I wisely chose the course for automotive engineering for sustainable mobility in France. It was a dual degree course in 2 of the best universities in France (at Universite de Orleans and ISAT respectively). I studied various new concepts of modern technology and tools required in the field. I learned advanced coding which is a key aspect for research. I also got a scholarship from the French government based on the score in the university exams. It was an amazing experience for me, to study from where the industrial revolution began. I also enjoyed learning a new language and culture that was very different from the one back in India. I got to work on interesting projects like developing a smart car engine with variable compression ratio at the PRISM labs with my professor Dr. Pascal Higelin. Additionally, I got an opportunity to work as research intern at Peugeot motorcycles, where I did research on small scale motorcycle engines and experimented on different technologies like EGR (Exhaust Gas Recirculation) and Helmholtz resonator to improve their performance and reduce the emissions from the exhaust pipe. It was new for me to learn and interview in a foreign language. I had to learn the technical jargon in French . However, unlike the old job, it was an amazing experience with immense flexibility to work. It increased my interest in internal combustion engines and led me to go for another masters specifically in reciprocating IC engines in Spain.

During that period (2015-16), the PEMS (Portable Emission Measurement System) was newly invented. It can be used to measure emissions from the vehicle exhaust while driving on the road in real time. Moreover, the Volkswagen case was fresh. So, I took the opportunity to do my PhD research on the same topic at a renowned laboratory called CMT Motores Termicos in Spain. I completed my research under prof. Dr. Jose Galindo with the fellowship from the government. Here I worked with different European automobile manufacturers like Renault, Volvo, BMW etc. I studied the real driving behavior of diesel engines and the transient operations. We developed different technologies to improve the engine performance and specially reduce pollutant emission from these engines. To get international exposure for my thesis research I even worked as a visiting research fellow in India for 3 months at the Germany based company called FEV India pvt. Ltd. I worked there with Mr. Devising Rathod and Mr. Ashraf Emran to develop the engine model using the 1 dimensional codes (in GT Power) to optimize the various types of EGR technologies. 

During my masters and Ph.D. research, I have published various research papers and also presented my work at international conferences. I got to meet various pioneers, scientists and expert researchers in the automotive and combustion field. This gives you an amazing feeling and satisfaction of working at the leading edge of the scientific field. Plus, travelling and living in different places and cultures widens your perspective.

How did you get your first break?

Well, as I stated before, the first campus placement from the VJTI was actually my first break into the automotive industry. During campus placements the companies come to your college, take various exams and interviews and offer you a job sometimes even before you graduate and get your degree.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Amongst various challenges I would like to mention some basic challenges, that I feel like sharing for the young students are,

  • Challenge 1: As you move out from your home or your country to pursue your career, there are various times that you feel home sick. Especially, when you are in a European country where people speak different languages and follow a widely different culture from your own. In that case, you have to face new things with an open mindset. Take interest in learning and trying new things.
  • Challenge 2: During my PhD, there were times when I felt that I was approaching a dead end, or sometimes the resources required for my research (a machine or test bench) were not available for a long time. I almost felt like I was losing my motivation. Even at the end, after I finished my thesis writing, everything got delayed due to world pandemic. However, you have to be patient, keep working and thinking from different perspectives to move forward.

Tell us about your current work? 

Recently, during the final phase of my PhD, I joined the research and development center of an Automotive company. I work as a researcher and simulation engineer for them.

What problems do you solve?

I create and improve emission models based on the different machine learning algorithms (like Neural networks and statistical models).

What skills are needed for the job? How did you acquire the skills?

I use my knowledge of Internal combustion engines and coding skills to create and improve machine learning models for NOx and particulates emitted from the exhaust pipe of the car. I use different programing languages like Matlab, Python, C/C++ and tools like GT Power, Simulink, ASCMO etc. to create models, data analysis and testing. The engine and vehicle simulation saves a lot of time and gives you a theoretical estimation which you can validate easily on the actual vehicle. In my opinion, considering the current situation, this kind of skill set will be essential in the near future. For testing the engines and vehicle, we use tools like INCA, PUMA and STARS. For measuring the emissions, we use different emission measurement systems from HORIBA and Cambustion systems. 

Talking about skill development, I have actually learned all the tools by myself. It basically depends on you and your interests. I started using them and learning on the go during various projects. For open source tools, it was easy to get the information on the internet while for the private tools I had to rely on the license and confidential information depending on the organization/institution I worked in.

What is a typical day like?

Well, considering the situation during the Pandemic, we all have to basically work from home. So there is no specific schedule (There was never one even in normal times). I used to get up around 8-9 am and do some yoga to start my day. Before starting my workday, I  jot down the tasks to be done and write them down on a piece of paper. (It’s always handy to go with the traditional paper and pen to note down my ideas). Normally, if I am working on something interesting, I just forget to take breaks, however, it’s not advisable. It is very essential to take various breaks during a day and move around. After all, health is very important. Perhaps, at an early age it may seem boring, but for the long run, our body needs to withstand all the stresses.

What is it you love about this job? 

As a continuation of my research I get to study and improve engine operations using my knowledge. I create my own models and see them estimating the performance and emissions from the cars like they do in reality. I do engine and vehicle testing based on new strategies that we design and implement them on the new vehicles. Moreover, recently I am taking a lot of interest in machine learning and artificial intelligence. I am trying to use those algorithms directly or indirectly, to help make engine subsystem modelling more efficient.

How does your work benefit society? 

The simulations give you power of testing new strategy or technique without real testing on the vehicle. The results from these simulations are used for designing and developing different vehicles. They save a lot of money and time required for testing the actual vehicle. Eventually, this helps improve the process and reduces the adverse impact of pollutants on the environment. It is really satisfying when you can work and keep studying the things you like as well as being productive for yourself and the society at the same time.

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

Honestly, all the work that I did in my career is very close to me. Whether that would be a team project to develop new technology like variable compression ratio on the engine, or experimenting different inventions like Helmholtz resonator to improve the performance of the vehicle. Every work is memorable because of the people involved, the things I learned and the fun that I had while doing it.

Parallel to my research activities, I also participated in various outside projects like the Hyperloop concept (based on the white paper published by Elon Musk) at the Universidad Politecnica de Valencia. I was working as a technical director for the university team which was tasked with developing a fast moving and levitating pod inside a tube with just vacuum. Lack of air and levitation removes all the friction during the movement. So, it can be used to transport people and goods with high speed. 

Moreover, being at the university, you are exposed to various extracurricular activities too. During my graduation, my friends and I started a drama club called Rangvardhan, at my Alma mater in Mumbai. We used the opportunity to develop various social and acting skills in the students. After almost 10 years, it feels nice to see that group growing and imposing creativity in students’ minds to present  and in future too.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

For those students who want to pursue their career in research, the thing is, its not as easy as it looks. It requires a lot of patience. You will not always be able to invent something from scratch or discover it at once. It’s a process. I must say that instead of always looking for a groundbreaking invention, it is better to build incremental scientific knowledge which could lead to something much bigger.

Moreover, in general, I could say that, take your time to decide what you want to do in your career or in your life. Try everything.  It is ok if you don’t find it soon. Sometimes your path may change or you may not get what you want. Always go for something that makes you happy and productive at the end. You may face a lot of difficulties and challenges, but remember that good things never come to you easily.

Future Plans?

As you can see I don’t plan things a lot. I prefer going with the flow. I want to investigate and develop more solutions for the betterment of this world as a whole, for example, looking for sustainable and green solutions for transportation by finding and improving different technologies for automotive vehicles. I picture myself going back to my country and joining an educational institute or research organization to carry out the research or even pass on the knowledge to next generations.