Advanced Material Technologies are setting new standards in several engineering applications across manufacturing industries, refineries, power plants, automotives and consumer electronics.

Arijit Chatterjee, our next pathbreaker, Materials Technologist, develops advanced materials and evaluates their performance using various characterization tools to get the desired output according to specifications.

Arijit talks to  Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about developing an interest in chemistry and transitioning to a career in materials science to apply his academic knowledge to address industrial problems.

For students, finding solutions to real problems is never easy. But if you like what you do, you will be motivated to dig deeper into a problem and understand it better which takes you closer to the solution.

Arijit, Your background?

I am from a small town in West Bengal. I studied in a Bengali medium school named “Rampurhat Jitendralal Vidyabhaban” which is believed to be one of the best in the town. I used to play cricket with my friends and neighbours, and as a cultural activity, I used to take part in debates, extempore events etc. I used to enjoy it a lot with my close friends. I always had an interest in science and technology, especially the application part of it. My dad has done LLB and was a Lawyer in the same town where we lived. My mother is a Bengali language graduate. She used to teach me in my childhood.

When I was in 11th standard, I had a chemistry teacher who was mainly responsible for my growing interest in chemistry. I used to travel out of my town to study chemistry with him. I still remember a few lessons explained by him which still help me in solving problems and understanding concepts.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my bachelors in Industrial Chemistry (major) and post-graduation in Applied Chemistry from Ramakrishna Mission Vidyamandira which is affiliated to University of Calcutta. This was a crucial and tough decision to make as I had already got admission in Chemistry in one of the reputed colleges in Kolkata. But, as I and my parents were greatly influenced by the culture and ambience of the residential college of Ramakrishna Mission, I decided to study in my college. I also did M.Tech. in Materials Science from Indian Institute of technology, Bombay. 

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

As I mentioned earlier, my Chemistry Teacher influenced me the most in choosing this career. He made chemistry so simple and interesting that I have never thought of studying anything else even though I scored higher in Mathematics than in Chemistry in my boards. In my college, I used to see our fellow classmates from pure science clearing IIT entrance and going to pursue Masters. I did not know how to get into an IIT for masters for an applied/interdisciplinary course. Later, during my graduation and post-graduation, one of my seniors used to motivate us a lot about getting into an IIT and how it could help us in getting jobs in reputed companies and multinationals or for pursuing research in foreign universities.

My parents have always motivated me to build a good career by inculcating the habit of studying regularly in me.

I used to score highest marks in Physical Sciences followed by Chemistry. After 12th standard, when I found out that there is a subject named Industrial Chemistry where I can learn the aspects of applied chemistry, I was thrilled. I did a project in IACS, Kolkata where I found that properties of materials can be tuned using different preparation conditions & materials, and I was even more thrilled. It was always a dream to get into IIT Bombay to study Materials Science which i eventually fulfilled.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted?

During my bachelors, I did an internship in the R&D department of TRL Krosaki Limited. There I understood how an industry works and how a research and development department drives innovation across the company. It was very interesting to me to apply my academic knowledge for making real physical products. Hence, I decided to build my career in R&D and I focused on the ways and means of getting into one. I always wanted to pursue higher studies after I completed my bachelors. However, as my university did not have a masters degree program suitable to my background, I opted for a job instead of doing masters from any random university. In my first job, while working in a cement industry (ACC Limited) in Odisha, i learned to manage a laboratory and conduct analysis to maintain cement quality. I used to run shifts as QC shift incharge and was solely responsible for maintaining the cement and raw material quality. I used to supervise the inter-grinding of cement and raw materials and the proportions of materials in a ball mill. I was also part of the team which hit record monthly production of 1.8 lakh MT of cement. I have also worked as a team in a workshop named HIRA (Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment) where we were awarded the first prize. I have learned that how small hazards can turn into potential hazards if left unnoticed. We identified many such small, medium and large hazards which helped the safety team to identify and fix those issues and establish safety in the company.  

What prompted you to pursue a masters?

At the same time, I heard about my classmate who went for masters from a university in Gujarat after scoring well in GATE. It made me feel that I am not living my dream. After a year, I received a call from the Principal of Ramakrishna Mission and he shared the good news that my college is starting a masters degree course in Applied Chemistry. Without giving a second thought, I immediately resigned and started pursuing my masters which I always desired to do but couldn’t. During my masters, seniors used to tell us about the career opportunities in materials science from IITs, especially IIT Bombay. At that point, I strongly decided that I wanted to pursue materials science only from IIT Bombay.

During my M.Tech, I used to enjoy the campus life and life outside campus more than studying. We were 15-16 Bengalis in that particular batch and we enjoyed a lot of good times together. I used to like advanced materials science more than anything else. I have taken many courses on semiconducting materials, ceramics, advanced materials etc. I have worked and developed materials which can be used as cells in Lithium Ion Batteries and evaluated those materials using various advanced characterization tools. I have tried to work and fabricate an anode material for a CR- 2032 button cell. It is a small circular shaped battery which is used in portable and tiny devices. These type of batteries find applications in most of the devices e.g., hearing aids, smart watches, and smart spectacles. Many portable devices like the blood-glucose meter and blood-pressure meter also use these batteries extensively. I have also worked on development of a good transition metal oxide-carbon nanotube based anode material for lithium-ion batteries as  they  exhibit high reversible capacities, about 2-3 times more than those made of conventional graphite materials. Cobalt Oxide is one of the best among various types of transition metal oxides, due to its high capacity (about 900 mAh/g) and excellent cycling performance. The practical use of cobalt oxide based electrodes for LIBs is still limited by their poor capacity retention upon cycling and/or low rate capability due to reversible formation and decomposition of Lithium oxide leading to crack generation. Carbon Nanotubes are used to improve the electrochemical performance of cobalt oxide anodes due to its high electrical conductivity, large aspect ratio, and excellent mechanical properties. In this work, we aimed to compare the effect of sol-gel (wet chemical) and ball-milling (physical mixing) processing routes on the electrochemical performance of cobalt oxide-carbon nanotube composite electrodes in Li-ion battery. We have, for the first time, attempted this ultrasonication assisted fast sol gel method. Although we did not get significant results as per expectations, the work is still in progress. 

Tell us about your career path

In my final year of M.Tech. I started preparing for a job. To be honest, I was not particularly inclined to a specific domain. Hence, I was open to work in the Research and Development department of any materials science based industry. 

I got a call from the Industrial Ceramics Division of Carborundum Universal Limited (CUMI). I got selected in the interview and was very happy to start my career there. CUMI is a company under Murugappa Group which is one of the largest conglomerates in India. CUMI has many businesses related to abrasivesceramicsrefractories, aluminium oxide grains, machine toolspolymersadhesives and electro minerals. I got a chance to work with the Industrial ceramics division which is located in the beautiful town, Hosur. Industrial ceramics division comprises wear and corrosion resistant products and grinding media. CUMI has few high value industrial ceramic products e.g., engineered ceramics, metallized ceramics and ceramic lined equipment. These products find applications in critical and demanding environments in thermal power plants, material handling, coal washeries, cement, steel, floor and wall tiles, paints, food processing, mineral processing, electrical and electronic industries. Therefore CUMI has a wide range of materials and products which have diversified industrial applications all across the globe. I got selected in the R&D/Technology department and was mainly responsible for developing products and processes related to the metallized ceramics segment. I was particularly involved in a project where I was responsible for a Technology Transfer (ToT) from a reputed organization under Government of India. I worked there on the development of thin metallic coatings on ceramic substrates. I started working on the project from scratch and tried to build up the lab and pilot plant manufacturing facility in consultation with the government officials. It was my first big project and I learned a lot of engineering aspects. I have also visited Germany to inspect high-end manufacturing equipment for thin film deposition. Unfortunately, I did not continue in CUMI till completion of the project. Parallelly, I also worked on other ceramic substrate based products in collaboration with the Govt. of India. I have developed an understanding of the process of thin film deposition and how the deposition parameters can influence the thin film properties. This helped me to grow as a professional in thin film technology.

With this background I got selected in the Film Capacitor division of TDK India Pvt. Ltd. which is located in the beautiful city Nashik. TDK is the company which is famous for audio cassettes. I think everyone till 90s have used TDK cassettes until CDs were invented. I joined the Film Metallization R&D of TDK India which is a part of TDK Electronics. It is the part of the Film capacitor business of TDK Electronics. TDK Electronics has many products such as Capacitors, other passive components, Sensors and Protection Devices, Ferrites and other businesses as well. Capacitors are a type passive electrical component which are used in a wide variety of circuits. To simplify things, AC capacitors are used to start a motor or run it and are used in fans, refrigerator, washing machines and other home appliances. Other capacitors like DC link capacitors are used in inverter circuits for power conversion and those are used in automotives. It acts as load balancing energy storage device which helps to protect the inverter network from momentary voltage spikes, surges and EMI. Similarly, there are many such applications like power factor correction, EV charging, smoothing (reducing the AC component of a pulsed DC viltage), discharging, coupling etc. My work was to develop the metallized film which is the main component of such a capacitor. Metals are evaporated and deposited on thin polymer films which function as a dielectric with the application of electrical current. It was a totally new role for me as I had to interact a lot with the manufacturing and Quality team for troubleshooting issues. Here I learned how to thermally evaporate metals and deposit them on thin polymer webs. Based on different customer requirements I used to work on different patterns of metallization. I have worked on process improvement projects also wherein I have optimized a few parameters in the machine to get the desired output. 

How did you get your first break? 

My first break was through a campus interview for ACC limited. Every year, a few companies used to recruit B.Sc. graduates of Industrial Chemistry from my college. I got the opportunity to work as a chemist in the Quality Control laboratory of the company. I was responsible for the quality control of cement and raw materials. I used to perform chemical analysis using an X-Ray Fluorescence instrument and also a few other analyses of physical properties. I understood how quality can play a crucial role in any industry.       

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

Challenge 1: 

After my graduation, even though I had wished to pursue higher studies I could not do it due to lack of suitable options. The scope of initiation of a masters degree course in my college was under discussion and I decided to work until it happens. Fortunately the masters degree programme started the very next year and I got admission there, though with a mixed feeling of fear and happiness as I was in the first batch and decided to do masters even if my department did not have all the required resources.

Challenge 2: 

Clearing GATE with a good AIR was always a challenge as the first masters’ batch did not have the knowledge and guidance of how to do it. However my seniors and teachers helped and guided me a lot that helped me get a good AIR. 

Challenge 3

I had an idea of an ideal Research and Development function which turned out to be quite different when I started working after my I realised that the industry works thinking primarily about the financial impact of any development. Although my first company was very innovative, I found it a great challenge to work on things which were not related to my background. Soon I started enjoying the nature of this work and realised that it actually makes sense to have a holistic understanding about product development. 

Where do you work now? 

I have recently joined as Chemist-II in the R&D department of Quaker Houghton. 

What problems do you solve?

I am responsible for supporting the execution of multi-disciplinary research activities related to the product segment, Surface Treatment group. I am also responsible for supporting regular sample testing, product troubleshooting, customer queries, and new product development of Surface Treatment Products. I need to provide assistance and support to the sales team for Metal Surface Treatment Product applications and technology implementation at the customer end.

My work is related to Surface Treatment treatment of metals, especially steels, to help solve the problem of corrosion.

In my last job, I was responsible for product development of metallized polypropylene films for capacitor applications. I used to work on process improvements in metallizers where vacuum deposition of metals are being carried out. I have also worked on problems of humidity attack on capacitors and developed products which have shown better moisture barrier under application.

What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills?

First, a relevant degree from a reputed college/university is required more than any skills. Skills are something that can be acquired while doing a job. I got my first job after M.Tech. as a fresher. I was selected based on my academics and the projects I did in my Later on, I worked on Thin Film Deposition where I acquired skills of optimizing process parameters based on design of experiments and analyzed coatings using few advanced characterization tools. Based on the projects I did in CUMI and TDK, I was selected in my present company. 

What is a typical day like?

My typical day starts with waking up around 7 am and then having breakfast before I start for the office. In the office I try to first reply to the emails in the first hour. Then I check my to-do list where I usually maintain the list of short term activities of high priority. After completing those, I usually focus on my key projects and their immediate action points. I also monitor the sample production process and check quality as and when required. In my new role, most of the work is focused on laboratory experimentation and characterization. So I am going to spend my entire day in a typical chemical laboratory.

What is it you love about this job? 

I love the variation in my work. I do not like to do a repetitive job where I have to do the same thing everyday. In R&D, we usually get to address different kinds of customer problems which are very interesting and challenging to work on. To solve those problems, studying is an important part. Finding solutions by studying several research articles, patents is very important. Experimenting with different processing conditions and formulations/designs is also very interesting. Many times, though I do not get the results as expected, that motivates me to dig deeper into a problem and understand it better which takes me closer to the solution.

How does your work benefit society? 

I have earlier worked in a Make-in-India project where I helped my company to supply products to the Govt. of India as an import substitute which has directly benefited India. In my next job, I have developed components of a capacitor which goes directly into many consumer and industrial electronics products which are necessary for life. So indirectly, my work has benefitted the lives of many people. In my present job, I will be working to solve problems related to surface treatment of metals, especially steels. It will help to solve the problem of corrosion. Cost of corrosion as reported by NACE is USD 2.5 trillion which is equivalent to 3.4 % of global GDP. I feel fortunate to work on such a global problem. 

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

I remember going to Germany for the Factory Acceptance Test (FAT) of a high-end and sophisticated thin film deposition equipment which has a value of more than a crore. I along with my colleague did the FAT and returned to India. That work was memorable.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice would be to study what you like. Students must choose a subject they like instead of something that is very popular and/or prospective. I feel if you love what you study, you will definitely do well in life. Another important thing is trying to understand the probable prospects of your stream. In case one door closes, another should remain open. Last but not the least, always try to develop a habit of studying daily since this will help you to crack competitive exams in future.

Future Plans?

My future plan is to develop myself as a subject matter expert in the field I work in. Parallelly, I wish to develop a few skills which are related to business and strategy. I want to pursue higher studies also, especially in research (PhD) which I feel is very necessary to grow in my domain of work. However I do not know how much it will be possible because roles and responsibilities change with time and so do our interests. Hence I have not yet decided anything on that and kept it on hold for another 3-5 years.