The Automotive sector, inspite of being one of the largest contributors to global emissions, is slowly inching its way towards “Green Energy”, which involves production, storage and usage of energy without any dependence on Fossil Fuels.

Joydev Manna, our next pathbreaker, Senior Scientist at National Institute of Solar Energy, works on Green Hydrogen Production and its use in vehicular applications (4 wheelers and 3 wheelers).

Joydev talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about discovering the potential of Hydrogen as an energy carrier and deciding to work on Hydrogen research (in the area of automobiles) inspite of the numerous issues related to its implementation in the real world.

For students, Research is not only about inventing or discovering new things in a lab but also about systematically addressing the challenges in bringing the concept to the reality in the form of an innovation.

Joydev, tell us about Your background?

I was born and brought up in a small village in Jhargram district of West Bengal. I come from a lower-middle income class family and most of the earnings came from our small farming land. My father used to look after farming and mother worked as an ICDS teacher. My parents were too ambitious about our (me and my brother) studies and we received our basic education at home. I started my schooling at a government primary school in Jhargram town. Thereafter, I moved to a boarding school to do my matriculation studies. 

When I was in class V or VI, I saw a picture of Amartya Sen who had won the Nobel Prize that year, on the front page of a newspaper. From then on, I started reading about many scientists, mainly laureates, and their activities. During that time, I learnt that to be a scientist you have to discover or invent something, which influenced me considerably. The idea of inventing or discovering new things inspired me a lot to become a researcher.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my graduation in Chemistry (with honours) from Midnapore College, Vidyasagar University and then appeared for JAM (Joint Admission Test for M.Sc.) examination. This examination allows one to do M.Sc. from an IIT after their graduation. I cracked the exam and was selected to do my post-graduation in Energy Science and Engineering at IIT Bombay. 

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

We had to do one seminar and one thesis to complete our master’s degree at IIT Bombay. The topic of my seminar was “Hydrogen as a Green Energy Carrier”. During this seminar, I came to know about the three crucial issues of our country and the world:

  1. Energy crisis: Our current energy scenario is completely dependent on fossil fuels (coal, crude oil etc.), which are finite. As India does not have sufficient liquid and gaseous fossil fuel reserve to fulfil its demand, we are forced to import about 80 – 90% of our fossil fuel requirement with expenses of 70 – 80 Lakh crore per annum. 
  1. Global warming: In the last 40 years, average global temperature has increased by 2°C due to manmade greenhouse gas emissions. If the global temperature continues to increase at this rate, it has been estimated that the mean sea level will rise to such a level that many cities in India (such as part of Kolkata, Mumbai, Kochi) and the world will get submerged in sea water. 
  1. Pollution: Recent studies show that 21 out of 30 most polluted cities are in India. Such severe pollution is very dangerous for children, elderly people as well as any living being.  

As I was reading for my seminar, I learnt that these three problems could be solved by opting for renewable energy solutions to meet our energy requirement in the place of fossil fuel based energy options. However, most of the renewable energy resources, such as solar & wind, are time and region specific. To solve that issue, we need an energy storage medium. Hydrogen could be used as an energy carrier where energy could be stored in chemical form for a long or short term basis. This chemical energy could be converted to electricity using fuel cells and heat by burning it in a controlled environment. 

As I came to know about this amazing energy carrier – hydrogen and the issues related to implementation of hydrogen based energy, I became confident that I would like to work in this area only. However, at that time (2008 – 2009), there wasn’t much attention on hydrogen energy in India. But now, many people are working on various aspects (production, storage and use) of hydrogen energy.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

I began my Ph.D. with a particular problem in the area of hydrogen based energy. The theme of my thesis was on hydrogen storage in complex hydride materials. It took me around 5 years to complete my Ph.D.

In general, it is familiar amongst researchers that one has to do postdoctoral research for a few years (at least 3 years) to get a job as a scientist or assistant professor in India. 

That’s why, after submission of my thesis, I applied for a postdoc position with a renowned scientist, Dr. Saim Ozkar of Middle East Technical University, Ankara. I applied for a scholarship and got it just after my Ph.D. defence. Then, I shifted to Ankara and did research on synthesis of magnetically recyclable catalysts for hydrogen generation. This scholarship was for one year. So, I looked for another scholarship before completion of the postdoc at Ankara and applied to Dr. Jacques Huot of University of Quebec, Trois-Rivières to do my second postdoc. There, I worked on synthesis and analysis of hydrogen storage properties of intermetallic compounds. 

As my priority was to work in India, after 2 years of postdoc, I decided to come back to India. This time, I applied for the National Postdoctoral Fellowship (NPDF) which is given by SERB, Govt. of India. I applied for this scholarship with Prof B. S. Murty, Dept. of MME, IIT Madras, to work on a new category of alloys (High Entropy Alloys). This category of alloys was discovered recently and has huge potential in many fields. My aim was to use them for hydrogen storage applications. I have synthesized a few new high entropy alloys and tested their hydrogen storage properties during this fellowship period.

How did you get your first break? 

During my postdoc at IIT Madras, my Ph.D. guide Dr. Pratibha Sharma sent me an email with the link for a “Senior Scientist” job position at National Institute of Solar Energy. I applied for it and they called me for an interview. After two months, I received the letter to join the institute.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

There were a lot of challenges during my Ph.D. As I was one of the first few students of my Ph.D. guide, the first challenge was to arrange all the facilities for my experiments. I had to run from one lab to another to prepare my samples and test their properties.    

Where do you work now? Tell us about your research

I am currently working at the Hydrogen Energy Division of the National Institute of Solar Energy. This institute is an autonomous institute under the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, Govt of India. 

This job requires a highly motivated person with work experience in the field of hydrogen energy. I am working in the field of hydrogen energy which was also my master’s thesis. I have worked in all of the aspects of hydrogen energy i.e. hydrogen generation, storage and use. I have also taken basic training on hydrogen safety from the US Department of Energy (DoE).

In our current project, we are mainly working on green hydrogen production and its use in vehicular applications. Hydrogen is produced by an alkaline electrolyser (5 Nm3/h capacity) using the electricity from a Solar PV plant and then the generated hydrogen is compressed to ~400 bar and dispensed to the vehicles (4 wheeler and 3 wheelers). The 4 wheelers are IC engine based diesel-hydrogen dual fuel vehicles and 3 wheelers are hydrogen IC engine (HICE) vehicles. We are also installing another alkaline electrolyser of 10 Nm3/h capacity in the existing refuelling station.

D:\ANERT\ANERT pre-feasibility report\Hydrogen plant.jpg

Hydrogen refuelling station and Hydrogen-dual fuel vehicles at NISE [Ref: NISE 2017 – 18 annual report]

How does your work benefit society? 

Hydrogen could be used in several energy applications such as the transport sector, the industry and even in electricity generation. As soon as we implement the hydrogen economy in the place of the fossil fuel economy, global emissions will get reduced; energy security of our country will be ensured as we will not have to be dependent on other countries for fossil fuel and many lives (humans and other animals) will be saved from the effects of hazardous emissions and pollutants. 

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

During one of my projects, I was assigned to synthesize a set of catalysts which were to be used for hydrogen generation from a complex hydride. I was stuck for around 3 months and was not able to synthesize the material. I had checked and verified all of the reaction conditions (temperature, pH, solvent, concentration of the reactant etc.) but was still unsuccessful. After 3 months, I successfully prepared the material after a slight change in the pH by 0.5 points. Later on, I published three research papers based on these studies.  

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice to the students will be, to take up research only if they love it. This path of Ph.D., Postdoc, consumes lots of years (5 – 10 years) of your life. So, before starting your research journey, assume that it will take time to get a permanent job and this journey will be very painful and pathetic, if you don’t love research.  

Future Plans?

I would like to establish a lab with world class, sophisticated facilities on hydrogen energy and train students to do research in this field.