Today’s recycling industries demand eco-friendly and commercially viable recycling processes that can contribute to the development of a circular economy.

Amol Naik (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Vice-President, R&D Division at ACE Green Recycling Inc, works on development of a modular, zero-emissions & zero waste, wet chemistry based technology to recycle scrap Li-ion batteries.

Amol talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the importance of sustainable recycling processes in our modern society and his vision to provide a green recycling solution to all the scraped products which can be revitalized.

For students, innovation is a significant component of the growth, success, and survival of a company. Research is all about discovering, learning, and sharing. Isn’t it amazing to have a job that drives us to constantly learn new things and use that learning to help and improve the world around us.

Amol, what were your initial years like?

I was born in a small village, named “Kalne” with a population of a few thousands, in Sindhudurg District in Maharashtra. I am fortunate enough to spend my early days of life in a village which was enriched with all natural resources and very close to nature. My family was a lower middle-class family; my father was working in Mumbai as a class-IV worker in PWD (retired in 2009) and mother is a homemaker. My brother is 9 years younger than me, and my sister is 13 years younger. Since childhood, I was extremely interested in creative work like drawing, clay modelling, gardening etc. I still remember that after coming back from school I used to spend hours in our neighbourhood where they used to make Lord Ganesha statues for Ganesh Chaturthi and goddess Saraswathi for Sarathwathi Puja in our school. I used to enjoy casting sculptures from clay using moulds, and painting idols when they were ready. I pursued my preliminary education in a small government school in our village and later shifted to Mumbai. Thanks to my father, despite his constrained earning, he enrolled me in a private school with decent scholastic facilities. I still recollect my first day in school. I was struggling to write English alphabets, whereas lots of other students were reading English very fluently. My hard-work and dedication sailed me through this situation, and I cleared my 10th class with distinction.

In Mumbai, we stayed in a minuscule metal sheet house, with cow dung-coated floors in a slum area in Bhandup, Mumbai. The whole roof of the house used to leak during the monsoon. The area was famous for goons and gang-war at that time. While growing up in such situations, I always dreamt of getting my family out of this situation and giving a better life to them. After completing my 12th, I started to teach in coaching classes and supported my father for daily expenses. I continued my teaching while pursuing my graduation, post-graduation, and even doctorate. It was a time when I used to work 16 to 17 hrs a day without taking any holiday. After working with the same efficiency for several years, I purchased a new house in a good residential complex before completing my doctorate. At the same time, I also ensured that my siblings achieve higher education. Both are now well settled and doing well.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

After my XIIth, I graduated with a degree in chemistry. There was no one to guide me for my career path, so I selected chemistry, because it was the most preferable subject by students at that time. Immediately after my final exam I started teaching chemistry to junior college students in coaching classes. While teaching, I deep dived into the subject and started loving the concepts in chemistry and their applications. As I continued teaching chemistry, my interest in the subject kept on growing and I decided to do a post-graduation in physical chemistry. Dr Vijay Dabholkar, who was the vice principal of K. C. College, Churchgate, Mumbai, when I was pursuing post-graduation, mentored me to pursue chemistry as a career and further do a doctorate in the subject. Vijay sir is always a great support to me till date and mentored me throughout the odds.

What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

I joined Prof. S R Dharwadkar sir’s research group to pursue doctorate at The Institute of Science, Mumbai, immediately after completing my post-graduation. My doctoral work was sponsored by the Board of Research in Nuclear Sciences-Department of Atomic Energy. I performed my doctoral work at various esteemed institutes such as Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC), Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, and interacted with scientists from various backgrounds. My PhD Guide Prof. Dharwadkar was retired Chairman of BARC training school at that time and was working as honorary professor at The Institute of Science. He is a globally well-known expert in thermodynamics and thermal analysis techniques. I am very fortunate that I got a chance to work under his supervision. I was fascinated by the way sir used to apply the concept of chemistry to solve critical problems. Under his guidance we developed several thermal equipment for material synthesis and characterization. Simultaneously, I continued my teaching at coaching classes. It was a boon for me that whatever the concepts I was teaching to my students, I was applying them while performing experiments at the institute, which increased my inclination towards the subject. I also got an opportunity to handle sophisticated equipment such as ICP-MS, XRD, SEM, FE-SEM etc, and to understand their working principles.  At BARC, Dr. V. Venugopal, Head, Fuel Chemistry Division was my co-guide, a person with abundant knowledge and a very good human being. He used to interact with every person with the same grace, irrespective of their position and grade. I learned this simplicity from him and try to work with the same elegance when I interact with different people at different levels.  

On completion of my doctorate, I started working as Assistant Professor at M. D. College, Parel, Mumbai. Here I got an opportunity to teach industrial chemistry to graduate students; the subject was about applied chemistry and implementation of green chemistry in industries. While teaching these concepts to the students, I got influenced towards the development of environmentally friendly processes and decided to choose it as a career opportunity. At that time, green chemistry was an emerging field and was restricted only to academics, with inadequate opportunities in industries. I decided to take a risk and resigned from my Assistant Professor post. At the same time I got the opportunity to work as a “Foreign expert” at State Key Laboratory of Material Science and Engineering at Wuhan University of Technology, Wuhan, China. At Wuhan University I worked on synthesis of high-grade cathode material for Li-ion batteries. I prepared high grade cathode material, lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) by adopting eco-friendly methods.

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

As such, I did not acquire my current profession intentionally, but I achieved it due to my professional  qualifications and my ardency to dig out the roots of the problem to find a solution. My part-time teaching job which I started at an early age, allowed me to derive a scientific approach to problems due to an exhaustive understanding of the fundamentals of chemistry. I focus more on solutions, rather than concentrating on problems. This is my “Mantra” to emerge from any critical condition.

I graduated with a Chemistry major from Mumbai University; my other subjects were Maths and Physics. I was very good in Mathematics and Physics. At the initial stage of my career in coaching classes, I used to teach Mathematics, Vedic Maths and Physics apart from Chemistry, which fortified my fundamental principles in respective subjects. Now at my workplace, when I work with a technical team or process development group, I grasp the technical information more quickly due to the fundamental understanding of these subjects.

I pursued a Master’s degree in physical chemistry. But at the same time I was equivalently good in other streams of chemistry such as organic, inorganic, and physical chemistry. As we grow and achieve higher education, our domain of expertise becomes limited. But if you opt to excel in recycling industries then versatile knowledge of the subject with a wide area of understanding is very much essential. Fortunately, while performing doctoral work, my supervisor Prof. S. R. Dharwadkar, involved us in fabrication of various equipment, which availed us to upgrade our technical understanding and application of principles of Physics and Chemistry for better understanding of any critical situation while performing experiments and dealing with critical problems.

I worked in various domains of applicative chemistry at different levels of my career. My doctoral work was on development of a ceramic matrix named Sodium Zirconium Phosphate (NZP) for the disposal of high-level nuclear waste such as Cesium (Cs), strontium (Sr), Tellurium (Te), and Ruthenium (Ru). At Wuhan University of Technology, I developed a cathode material Lithium Iron Phosphate (LFP) for Li-ion batteries, which was completely different from my PhD work. Currently, I am working to develop an eco-friendly process for recycling of scrap batteries (lead acid and Li-ion batteries).

How did you get your first break? 

I resigned from my Assistant Professor position in M. D. College, Parel Mumbai, in December 2012 and accepted the offer from Wuhan University of Technology as “Foreign Expert” in State Key Laboratory of Material Science and Engineering, Wuhan, China. I worked there for two years on development of cathode material Lithium Iron Phosphate(LFP) for lithium ion batteries.  I returned to India in January 2015, and started teaching JEE entrance students in a well-known coaching centre, and at the same time I was searching for opportunities in industries. In the beginning of 2016, I received a call from one of the start-up companies “VerdeEn Chemicals Private Limited” from Delhi NCR. They called me after referring to my Linkedin profile. The company was working on development of an eco-friendly process for recycling of scrap lead acid batteries and was searching for scientists to head their chemistry R & D Division. I found this problem very challenging and decided to join their team in March 2016.

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

Life is full of its ups and downs. One day, you may feel like you have figured it out, and at another moment you notice that you’ve been thrown a boomerang. You’re not the only one having these feelings. Everyone has to face their own set of challenges. Learning how to overcome challenges will help you to stay balanced and remain calm under pressure.

When I shifted from a small village to a big city like Mumbai, I faced several challenges right from school to residing in a slum area, where everyday me and my parents were fighting for even basic needs such as water, toilet etc. I accepted the challenge and started to earn at an early age by teaching at coaching classes and acquired a good education for myself and for my siblings and emerged from those critical situations. Accepting responsibility enables us to grow as individuals and develop strong relationships. If we don’t then we will never upgrade. Today it is part of my personality, and I am fearlessly accepting challenges at personal as well as at professional levels.

After completing my doctorate, I accepted a job as assistant professor at M. D. College, Mumbai. I worked there for three and a half years; it was a stable, state government job. But at one point I resigned from there and decided to change my career. It was not easy to make that decision, particularly when the people around you celebrated it as an imbecile decision. I started my research profession as a “Foreign Expert” at Wuhan University of Technology, Wuhan, China. My initial days were quite tough. I encountered difficulties such as differences in language, challenges on the research front and in personal life. But at the end of my tenure, I emerged with excellent results and published five papers in peer-reviewed international journals. When a challenge arises, be it a big test in school or an upcoming running race, don’t give it up! Perseverance is a perfect key to overcoming any challenge. Giving up means you will neither overcome the challenge nor will you learn from it. Power through challenges by positive thinking, hard work and making a plan to work through it.

I always set my goals very high and work tirelessly to achieve the same. To accomplish great things in life, you have to be open to taking risks. Whatever the challenges may arise, always think and dream big ; adhere to your decision. That’s the way, you will achieve more than you could have ever imagined. Try not to let your thoughts get in your own way.

Where do you work now? 

Currently I am Vice-President, Research and Development Division at ACE Green Recycling Inc., which is a USA based company. Our team is engaged in the development of an eco-friendly green recycling process. At present we are on the verge of installing a pilot scale facility in India.

What problems do you solve?

Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are utilized in many products such as electronics, handheld power tools, appliances, electric vehicles, and energy storage systems. Spent Li-ion batteries are not a waste product and can be recycled an infinite number of times to extract valuable materials without any change in their property. Recycling of spent Li-ion batteries also helps alleviate supply chain challenges, which exist both due to logistical and geo-political reasons.

Technical constraints, economic barriers, logistical issues, and regulatory gaps are few of the many reasons why Li-ion battery recycling is not yet a universally well-established practice. Currently, the super majority of the Li-ion batteries that do get recycled undergo a high-temperature melting-and-extraction (or smelting) process like the ones used in the mining industry. Those operations, which are carried out in large commercial facilities are extremely energy intensive and polluting. In addition, these facilities require expensive machinery and civil building infrastructure to operate and treat harmful emissions generated by the smelting process. Even after incurring high capital and operating expenses, these smelting facilities are only able to recover about 90% of valuable battery materials leading to the generation of a significant quantity of highly toxic solid waste (called Slag) which needs to be disposed off in landfills.

We at Ace Green Recycling, Inc. have developed a modular, zero-emissions & zero waste hydrometallurgical technology to recycle scrap Li-ion batteries. The technology utilizes wet chemistry at low temperatures and does not require any fossil fuels or harsh chemicals which are traditionally utilized in smelting or currently proposed hydrometallurgical processes. The key features of our process are zero utilization of fossil fuels, zero emissions and a flexible recycling process to handle all Li-ion chemistries.

Today’s recycling industries demand an eco-friendly commercially viable recycling process to develop a circular economy. For the development of such a process, we require experts from various fields. Scientists with PhD in chemistry/material science/metallurgy /Biochemistry/polymer/industrial chemistry are essential to understand the chemical composition of the waste materials and to develop recycling processes with minimum impact on the environment. Graduates and postgraduates (Chemistry/industrial chemistry/chemical engineering) are required to perform experiments at laboratory scale and at commercial level.

What’s your typical day like?

Starting with my daily schedule, I reach the office at around 8.30 in the morning, and then go through my office emails. After replying to important emails, I go through my calendar to check my meeting schedule for the day. At around 9.30am we discuss the status of the research work with scientists and the process engineering team. If there is a technical glitch, we discuss it within team members and strive to resolve the issue, and if there is an administrative delay, I directly speak to the concerned person to resolve the matter. It could be our engineering team, the project management team, or the R & D team, to know the status of the pilot plant. If necessary, I visit the pilot plant facility in person before heading home. After reaching home, I do yoga, meditation to relax. After dinner, I attend online meetings to share the status of projects with management & go to bed at around 11.00-11.30pm. Sometimes I do work remotely from my abode in Mumbai.

Innovation is a significant component in the growth, success, and survival of a company. Research is all about discovering, learning, and sharing. It’s amazing to have a job where we are paid to constantly learn new things and use that learning to help and improve the world around us. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. 

How does your work benefit society?

Recycling used Lead-Acid batteries is of public health concern because this industry is associated with a high level of occupational exposure and environmental emissions. Furthermore, there is no known safe level of exposure to lead, and the health impacts of lead exposure are significant. Based on 2016 data, it is estimated that lead exposure accounted for 4,95,550 deaths and 9.3 million disability-adjusted life years lost due to long term impacts on health, with the highest burden in low- and middle-income countries. Young children and women of childbearing age are particularly vulnerable to exposure to, and the toxic effects of, lead. The main pathways of exposure to lead from recycling-used lead-acid batteries arise from environmental emissions. These occur at various stages in the recycling process. Lead particles and fumes emitted into the air can be inhaled and are also deposited onto soil, water bodies and other surfaces, including in gardens and homes. Waste materials from lead processing can, if not treated and correctly disposed off, contaminate land and water bodies. Used acid with high concentrations of lead is often dumped on land or released into waterways. Lead can enter the food chain through crops growing on contaminated land, from direct deposition onto crops, through food that animals forage in contaminated areas and by consuming lead particles, and from fish and shellfish living in lead-contaminated water.

Ace Green Recycling, Inc. (Ace), is the only company, globally which has developed a proprietary commercial lead recycling technology which operates at room temperature and has zero emissions (both carbon and heavy metals) and effluent. The technology’s main value proposition is the electrification of lead recycling by replacing the smelting furnace with an oxygen producing pH-basic electrochemical process. The technology is fully automated which allows plant operations with minimal human involvement, which helps with occupational health and safety regulations. Further, the modular nature of the technology allows it to be extremely scalable as per desired production capacities. Our technology was considered among the twenty-five inventions for society in Asia in the year 2019. It is also approved by Technology Development Board (TDB), Government of India.

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

The zero-emission technology which I developed to recycle scrap lead acid batteries is highly significant for society. When we began to work on development of the technology, few competitors claimed to provide commercially viable solutions, but now they are nowhere in the market, and we are the only company which is providing an economically sustainable solution. When we were working for the development of the technology, there were only two chemists in my team (Mr Rakesh Kumar and Mr Mohit Tomar). We worked consistently for two years, we failed multiple times, but we did not stop, and the result is incredible. The beauty of the technology is the entire process is performed at room temperature and it does not release toxic gases or effluent to the surrounding, in fact it releases stoichiometric quantities of oxygen to the surroundings and engenders a positive impact. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Recycling is good for the environment; in a sense, we are using old and waste products that are of no use and then converting them back to similar new products. Since we are saving resources and are sending less trash to the landfills, it helps in reducing air and water pollution. With each passing day, the population is increasing. With that, the quantity of waste so produced is also increasing manifolds. The more the waste production, the more is the amount of space required to dump these wastes. Now, it must be remembered that the space available on earth is very limited, and it is obviously up to us to use it judiciously. The ever-growing population needs space to live and also to grow what they eat by means of agriculture. If all this space were to be taken up by dumpsters and landfills, the survival of humankind on this planet would be difficult. Recycling solves this problem. Due to recycling, lesser amount of wastes is dumped, and some valuable space is saved. Hence recycling industries will play a key role in not only lowering the air, water, and soil pollution but it will develop a circular economy. 

Recycling will create numerous new job opportunities in future. In order to run a recycling unit, it is necessary that there must be at least a few workers, technicians, engineers for every step of the recycling process. This way, many people would get employed. Thus, recycling not only helps nature, but it also helps people by providing them with a viable means of livelihood.

Future Plans?

Our vision is to become a global leader in recycling industries and to provide a green recycling solution to all the scraped products, such as electronic wastes, solar panels, domestic wastes, biomedical wastes, slags from smelting industries etc, which can then be revitalized.